Humor and Identity in the Contemporary Hungarian Jewish Culture by Richard Papp

On 21 September, the Centre for Comparative History and Political Studies hosted a workshop by Doctor Richard Papp, titled “Humor and Identity in the Contemporary Hungarian Jewish Culture”.

In his research, Richard Papp explains how humor fits into the set of cultural concepts and practices of Jews living in Hungary. Dr Papp tries to figure out what humor is in relation to the “cultural-traditional canon” of communal values and norms. Do those who laugh at it, and those who find it inappropriate, or reprehensible, perceive humor at the same time as a “cultural apocrypha” and norm? When, with whom, how, and why it is possible to joke around?

According to the lecturer, humor and self-irony towards the anthropological reality are the defining motif of traditional Jewish folklore, which simplifies the patterns of Torah and the “permanent” anthropological reality. Self-ironic humor is inseparable from the old Eastern-European Jewish folklore. Furthermore, it is possible to hear humorous comments and witty remarks even on the most somber day for Jews, such as the fasting day of Tisha B’Av in August. Without recognizing the aspects of self-irony, it is possible to label these comments and remarks made on “sacred days” as “blasphemy”. The most remarkable aspect about these jokes is that in the center of them, in all cases, is an imperfect man. Sacred patterns and religious rituals themselves never—in any joke—get criticized or attacked. Thus, the jokes of Hungarian Jews and the jokes of Jews more generally may be interpreted as a stereotypical self-deprecation. However, at the philosophical level the personal shortcomings could be attributed to God. In jokes, Hungarian Jews choose to complain and shift the responsibility onto God, claiming “this-is-who-we-are”.

According to Dr Papp, his respondents claimed that the essence of Jewish humor is the freedom to make jokes about subjects connected with sacred rites or observances that would be considered “blasphemous” in other religions. The “freedom” of humor, therefore deepens the special characteristics of Jewish religion in the community. Thus, humor as a “canon” and “apocrypha”, becomes the representative characteristic of Jewish identity.

Richard Papp’s research is based on the huge collection of interviews made with members of Budapest’s Jewish community. All the interviews were divided into two blocks: neologs and orthodox. Neologs and orthodox are two segments of the Hungarian Jewry; neologs are more inclined toward emancipation that took place during the Era of Reforms in the 19th century, orthodox are a more conservative group.

The discussion that followed the seminar raised the issue of humor’s role as a source for adaptation and the way to overcome the estrangement of Jews living in different cultures. For instance, people from the audience mentioned that in some societies Jews were perceived as “oriental people”. Accepting this image, Jews started to use oriental trappings to demonstrate the wishful image about them.