John Atkinson has illustrated and summarized the books you don’t want to read but nevertheless feel you should.
“You want to hear a joke? I’ll tell you a joke. What’s green, is nailed to the wall, and whistles?”
“ … I give up.”
“A herring’s not green!”
“Nu, you can paint it green.”
“But it’s not nailed to the wall!”
“You could nail it to the wall. If you wanted to.”
“ … But a herring doesn’t whistle!”
“All right, fine, so it doesn’t whistle.”
Or: “I just threw in that part to confuse you.”
Or: “All right, all right, so it’s not a herring.”
Or: “What am I, some kind of herring expert?” And on and on.
Is this joke, with its multiplicity of potential punch lines, a Jewish joke? And if so, why? Is it the syntax, with its faint Yiddish overtones? The slightly smart-ass sensibility? The comfort with its meta-jokiness, or, put another way, the subversive, near-parodic jab at the joke’s very form? Is it the particular refusal to provide the closure of a punch line, which could be taken, by an overzealous interpreter, as a metaphor for a Jewish historical consciousness ever in wait for messianic redemption? Or is it just a joke about herring? While you think about that, here’s a story about telling Jewish jokes. It’s an old story, a tale of the Preacher of Dubno, an eighteenth-century Hasidic rabbi famous for his apt and witty parables. Asked by an admirer how he always managed to find such an appropriate parable for each and every sermon, he answered, not uncharacteristically, with another parable. He told the story of a general visiting his troops who was struck by the results of their target practice: while most of the chalk circles drawn as makeshift targets on the wall revealed your regular variety of hit-or-miss results, one showed nothing but bullseyes—dead center, every shot. Gasping, the general demanded to see this marksman; he was even more surprised to discover the shooter was a Jew, a conscript forced to serve in the tsar’s army. He asked the Jew the secret of his success at arms. The Jew looked at the general as if he were cockeyed and responded: “Well, it’s very easy. First you fire the gun, and then, once you see where the bullet hole is, you draw a circle around it.” This had always been his technique, the maggid concluded: find a good joke or story, then figure out the larger point to draw from it.