Off the Shelf: Jokes, stories and poetry

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Most books are relatively easy to define. Even those that straddle genres or categories can usually be described in simple terms. That’s not true for “JEWels: Teasing out the Poetry in Jewish Humor and Storytelling” edited by Steve Zeitlin with lead commentary by Peninnah Schram (The Jewish Publication Society). This is not a poetry book in the traditional sense because, while the works are formatted into prose poems, many either originally appeared in paragraph form or could easily be converted to that form. Not that I’m complaining: the poetic line breaks make the works very easy to read. To add to the fun, the commentaries not only offer thoughts about the poems, but feature jokes and stories of their own. 

For those thinking that I’ve mistyped the title, the capital letters in “JEWels” are deliberate. The editor sees each piece as a polished jewel created by Jews. Zeitlin notes that his purpose is “to transform the living tradition of Jewish stories and jokes into short, accessible poems, recording and reflecting on Jewish experiences from the past through the present day, with original commentary as well... The pieces are in the tradition of found poems – in this case, found within jokes and stories. Some might call them prose poems; others, miniature stories in which the compressed narrative teases out the poetry within.” 

The work is divided into sections with similar themes, something that makes sense so readers don’t find silly jokes next to Holocaust memories. Yes, the offerings cover that great a range, from the humorous to the extremely serious. The underlying idea is that Jews love to tell stories and those stories beget more stories that need to be shared with the current generation and written down for the next. These poems made me laugh, cry or nod with acknowledgment to the wisdom offered. It helps that each offering is short and easy to absorb.

There are almost 180 poems so it’s difficult to talk about them in any depth. One of my favorite folktales is the basis for “The Rooster Prince,” which Zeitlin adapted into a poetic form. In this version, which is attributed to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a prince decides he was a rooster. The tale when shows how a clever sage convinces him to rejoin the human world. The short verses read like straight prose – “A young prince decided he was a rooster / He sat naked under the table, / flapped his arms” – words that could easily be used to illustrate a picture book. In her commentary on the tale, Schram notes a conversation she had with a psychiatrist who recalled a similar instance that occurred when a woman in a psychiatric hospital refused to get up from the floor.

Not every story/joke comes with commentary. Some of the jokes are traditional ones with which many older readers will be familiar. There’s “The Plotkin Diamond” that will make many readers groan: “Mrs. Cohen sees her friend at the mall / with a gorgeous diamond on her finger. // Oh, my, she says, / that is the most beautiful diamond I have ever seen. // It is a beautiful diamond, her friend says. In fact, it is the world-famous Plotkin diamond. // Really? // But it comes with a curse. // A curse? says Mrs. Cohen. What curse? // Plotkin.” 

Some very short selections are great fun. Barbara Kirshblatt-Gimblett notes in her two-line poem “The Rabbi”: “If you have to ask the Rabbi, / the answer is no.” Publicist Carol Klenfner tells a “True Story”: “Grandpa, a child asks, / is the glass half-empty or half-full? // What does it matter? he answers. / It’s such a beautiful glass.” Zev Shanken notes another way to look at this question in his commentary: “The kvetch says, ‘My glass is only half full.’ The tzadik says, ‘Thank God my glass is only half empty.” 

“JEWels: Teasing out the Poetry in Jewish Humor and Storytelling” concludes with questions for discussion, which would be helpful if the book is used in a class or a discussion group. It can be easily read straight through, although readers may be tempted to read small sections over a long period of time in order to better appreciate each work. In his conclusion, Zeitlin notes that he hopes to give readers a chance to experience a wide range of Jewish perspectives on the world. In that, he has definitely succeeded.