Every month in this space, Joseph Epstein relates a Jewish joke and invites you, the COMMENTARY reader,
to offer an exegesis in 250 words or less. First off, this month’s new joke.
The Mice in the Synagogue Joke
Three rabbis, meeting over lunch, are discussing problems in their respective synagogues: gossip, fundraising, the fees for guest speakers.
“Excuse me, gentlemen,” one of the rabbis interjects, “I hope you won’t think this too trivial, but our synagogue has of late had an infestation of mice, which has been very disturbing, especially for our female congregants.”
The eyes of the other two rabbis light up, and each admits that his own synagogue has had the same problem. One asks the first rabbi what he has done about it.
“I arranged through our shammes to set more than 75 mouse traps throughout the synagogue. But it didn’t work out. The traps would sometimes go off during services, which was most distracting. The net result was that we caught four mice and still have the problem.”
“I called in Orkin, the exterminators,” says the second rabbi. “They caught a dozen or so mice and charged us $1,100. But we, too, still have mice in the synagogue. Most unpleasant.”
“Gentlemen,” announces the third rabbi, “I don’t mean to brag, but I was able completely to solve the mice problem in our synagogue, and at minimal cost.”
The first two rabbis eagerly ask how.
“Very simple,” the third rabbi says. “What I did was buy a 25-pound wheel of Chilton cheese, which I set on the bima. Lo, in no time at all, 243 mice appeared. I bar–mitzvahed them all, and, gentlemen, they never returned.”
Now here’s the joke that ran in our April issue.
The Thirsty Joke
A tall man, 6’3”, somewhat overweight, is attempting to get comfortable in the small space of an upper-birth Pullman Sleeper on a train between Chicago and New York. He turns on his right side, then on his left, then on his stomach, then on his back. He plumps his pillow. Finally, the clackety-clack of the tracks begins to put him to sleep when from the other end of the sleeper car he hears a female voice: “Oy, am I thirsty! Oy, am I thirsty!” Over and over, at regular but all-too-short intervals, the voice calls out, “Oy, am I thirsty! Oy, am I thirsty!”
The man, realizing that sleep will be impossible if this woman’s thirst isn’t slaked, climbs out of his sleeper, puts on his bathrobe, and walks to the end of the car, where there is a water cooler and paper cups, one of which he fills. Following the sound of the voice—“Oy, am I thirsty! Oy, am I thirsty!”—he walks to the other end of the car and knocks gently. An older woman pulls back the drape that encloses her sleeper.
“Excuse me, Madam,” the man says, “I couldn’t help overhear that you were thirsty, and I thought perhaps this cup of water might help.”
“You, sir,” the woman says, “are a real gentleman. Thank you so much.” She takes the cup and closes the drape.
The man climbs back into his own sleeper. Once again he struggles to find a comfortable position, turning and twisting every which way. Once again he plumps his pillow. Once again the rhythmic clacking of the tracks works its hypnotic spell and he is about to fall asleep when he hears the same voice call out: “Oy, was I thirsty! Oy, was I thirsty!”
The Winning Explication of “The Thirsty Joke”…
…comes from Mannie Sherberg of St. Louis, Missouri: The “Oy” lady exemplifies an abiding Jewish trait: Jews (who were, after all, enjoined long ago to “Remember Amalek”) do not easily forget the wrongs they’ve suffered, even after the wrongs have long been overcome. To this day, Jews around the world observe the holiday of Tisha b’Av, lamenting the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, which occurred respectively in 586 b.c.e. and 70 c.e., and their subsequent expulsion from Jerusalem. All of that happened long ago—but, to this day, Jews spend the ninth day of the month of Av fasting and mourning, despite the fact that the Jewish people have now returned to Jerusalem and, indeed, restored it as their national capital. Over the centuries, as Jewish disasters piled up, the remembrance of grievances became an ingrained Jewish trait. Large grievances and small grievances merged. Whether the grievance was occasioned by an external enemy like the Roman Titus or an internal enemy like the “Oy” lady’s hydration system, the memory remained and the memory hurt. “Oy” became the outcry of choice for a people who knew they could never escape their history. For Jews, as Leo Rosten put it, “Oy is not a word; it is a vocabulary.”
Congratulations, Mannie Sherberg. For your winning entry you will receive a signed copy of
Joseph Epstein’s latest story collection, The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff.
The rest of you have until July 15 to send in your analysis of “The Mice in the Synagogue Joke”
to [email protected] And as always, you should only enjoy.