August 2nd, 2021
Karin and I were watching a movie on Netflix. I had to get up to make Asher, our baby grandson, a bottle. As I was warming it, Karin called to me and said,
“Hey! When you come back here, you have to see this scene in the movie! This is really funny!”
Karin and I (and Asher) were viewing “The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch”, a Swiss film about an young Orthodox Jew who, well, expands his horizons. In the movie Motti gets a schickse, a non-Jewish girlfriend. This leads to awkward moments with his overprotective mother.
The story takes place in Zürich, and the dialogue is mostly in German, with some Yiddish and Hebrew mixed into it. Karin and I watched the show in German, since we both speak the language (Karin is from Germany). Yiddish is similar to German, so we could understand most of that. The Hebrew was too much for me, even though I know a few words of it. It helps me to watch a film in the original language. Too many small things get lost in translation.
The part of the movie that Karin mentioned to me really was quite funny. In that scene, Motti imagines bringing his schickse to meet his mother. His mom is cooking in the kitchen when Motti introduces his gentile Liebling. Motti visualizes his mother flying into a rage and threatening to kill them both with a carving knife. Motti reacts by telling his mother,
“Mama! No! Don’t use that knife! It’s for cutting cheese! Use the knife for cutting meat!”
Motti’s mother pauses in shock. She puts down the cheese knife, grabs a meat carving blade, and proceeds with her attempt to murder her son and his main squeeze.
If a person is Jewish, or has been hanging around with Jewish friends for a while, they will know that many Orthodox Jews essentially have two separate kitchens; one for meat and one for dairy. Each section of the kitchen has its own cooking utensils, dishes, pots and pans. These things are never, EVER, mixed or used together. That is strictly verboten under the rules of kashrut.
So, on one level the movie scene is funny for pretty much everybody, but it is hilarious to somebody who knows even a little about Jewish culture. It is an inside joke.
I have been an unofficial member of an Orthodox synagogue for about a dozen years. Does that mean I understand Jewish culture? No, not really. I do have a vague sense of it, but I would be lying to say that I completely comprehend all the subtleties. I understand enough that I can get the jokes.
I think that a person has a good feel for a particular culture if they can understand the humor. Some people watch shows from the BBC, and say that they can’t understand British humor. The implication is that they don’t understand the British culture overall.
This reminds me of when I was wandering around the United States three years ago with some Native Americans from AIM. I traveled with a ragtag group for a couple months, going from reservation to reservation. For me it was like a very intensive immersion program. Two of the younger members of the group, Tony and Suzi, turned me on to YouTube videos from a Native American comedy team, the “1491s”. The videos were hysterical (I especially liked the video entitled “The Slapping Medicine Man”). What struck me was that they were funny to me partly because I had been hanging out with the Indians, and I could recognize some of the inside jokes. I don’t pretend to understand the Native Americans. I only got a brief taste of their culture, but I got enough that I could get their humor. That felt good.
There was time, many years ago, when I was first learning about Buddhism, that I attended a dharma talk. A dharma talk is a lecture about Buddhist meditation practice. Andy, one of the teachers, gave a short presentation. He was remarkably serious during his talk, and he made it clear to everyone present in the Zen Center that meditation was extremely important. At the end of his monologue he paused and said,
“I want you all to know that everything I just said was meaningless bullshit.”
Then he placed his palms together in gassho and bowed to us.
I laughed, and I was completely sold on Zen at that moment. At one level, Zen is an extremely earnest effort to find enlightenment. On another level, it is theatre of the absurd. Zen has an underlying foundation of paradox, and somebody is always trying to fuck with your mind. If a person takes Zen too seriously, then they don’t get the joke.
I am by ancestry a Slav (a Slovenian to be exact). Slavs have a decidedly dry (and occasionally morbid) sense of humor. It is, like anchovies, an acquired taste. Years ago, my brother bought me a t-shirt with a picture of Joseph Stalin on it. The shirt had the following quote from the Soviet dictator:
“Dark humor is like food. Not everyone gets it.”
That’s totally twisted, but funny in Slavic sort of way.
I have found these sorts of peculiar humor to be true with other people I have encountered. I have a friend from Tunisia, Mohamed. He is a devout Muslim. I was helping him to deliver some furniture to some Rohingya refugees when he made a comment to me about how Muslims often qualify future actions by saying “insha’allah” (if God wills).
Mohamed laughed and told me, “When we say ‘insha’allah’, it means we will never get around to it.”
Do you get the joke?