Saturday, 14 September 2013

Yom Kippur: It's ok to laugh you know, in fact I command it. Part 1

I command it
Gut Yontiff on this the most holy of all days in Judaism. Yom Kippur unlike certain holy days  is a deeply dour and incredibly introspective day. It is thinking about what you have done with your life and how you can be  less of a shmuck. Even the least observant try to make an effort for this one. What G-d wants you to do is fix yourself and mean it. Having had to sit through a few sessions of self examination and watched a few others going at it over the last two weeks, I can see something that does need to change, we need to laugh, we need to be less easily offended and shocked and appalled at things , so much so that we miss the point the humorist is trying to make. We miss the target of the mirth, the not so hapless victim of the larger or smaller needle aimed squarely at the deeply offending attitude, act or person or personages. This form of humour serves to shame and belittle the offender, it satirizes and soothes the victims, it frees the sufferer in the telling by showing that there is a moment however brief and private where they to have a bit of freedom and can fight back and never forget. By denying them and those who pass on the stories the right to tell them or feel ok about telling them, you say that laughter, humour, even gallows humour is not allowed and serves no purpose in dealing with pain, suffering or hardship.

By the way before I forget.... To those of you reading this or anything else I have written, to those who know me personally, I apologize with deep sincerity and great regret for anything I may have said, not said or allegedly said to offend you. How was I supposed to know you were the self appointed arbiter of taste and protector of infirm East Namibian honey badger farmers? How could I guess that my personal choice of food or faith or clothing was going make the humourless radar go off and make me the unwanted centre of attention of the tut tut brigade in the middle of an otherwise enjoyable occasion. Oh and sorry Jerry, I will even pay the fine for that book you took out for me, so sorry, just didn't have time to finish it.

Gallows humour, ironic humour, self deprecating humour, biting scathing cutting humour, like sarcasm, is wielded as a weapon and protects the teller from the very people and institutions that would quietly and effectively subjugate and isolate them all the while hoping the victims/targets don't grow a spine or fight back. Righteous indignation is like war, the last resort because all else fails. Talking failed, shaming failed, satirizing failed, politeness failed, turning the other cheek failed, being tolerant failed, so you turn to anger, indignation and petitions followed by the age old .... you can't say that, that's a biased opinion, you're generalising  and how can you assume and the classic, even it it's true you can't say that as it might make them feel bad. Awww didummms, so pointing out to a nasty piece of work that they are nasty is something we ought not do, we should wait for them to feel bad about it themselves and change , say sorry and do an act of contrition unbidden. I would point you in the direction of many martyrs over the millennia who even today inspire but prove that ultimately nothing is ever changed until it is either shamed or ridiculed into non existence.

 What's off limits?  Death? atrocities? mass murder? ethnic cleansing or demonization through laws? Well let me tell you something, survivors of the concentration camps and the gulags of Stalin laughed, they laughed in the camps, they laughed in the line to trains, in the trains, off the trains, digging holes, putting bodies of dead relatives and friends into said holes, they laughed to remind themselves they were human. Whatever it is they suffered on the inside even years after, the humour in our homes was always dark, always sharp and served to remind us, the children and the children's children , to never forget ,  to never let it happen it again, to never do it again ourselves. And those who went on to live through or observe the depravities of other later dictators, other modern day demagogues who would save nations; used the same wit , humour and fatalism to stick a pin into the pompous and the stupid before they could get to anything as bad as Hitler or Stalin. That many would not listen till it was too late is not important, what is important is that these people knew when to spot BULLSHIT, when to point it out and when to feel like they themselves suffered for nothing when they see their own who have forgotten the lessons of even the most recent history and go on to commit the same crimes. Step by step washing away the universal justification against evil for their own narrow purposes. They and their children tell these stories to keep us, and the generations who follow  but will not read the histories, from repeating the mistakes so often visited on ourselves. These cautionary tales are designed to make us see in others, blacks, gays, the poor, people of all nations, even Palestinians as fellow sufferers.

The jokes. the stories of the survivors, if you just go quiet and let them talk as if you're not there, would make your hair curl if you are of a deeply sensetive nature. They first of all think the alleged shocking material is tame and will tell you far funnier and starker stories , sharper and wittier things that would make Oscar Wilde ( also someone who was oppressed in his own way ) smile knowingly. Which brings me to the nub of the matter.... We remember Oscar Wilde, we remember his stories and we laugh at his victims and in so doing insure we never again do those things with full intent and malice. But do we remember the countless angry denunciatory speeches? the reams of indignant pamphlets on any subject be it voting, health care, tolerance of other people? Oh some can point to dust covered collections of political philosophy  seldom read but highly prized omnibus of editorials, but most of us will still recall with fresh and vivid attention Gilbert & Sulivan's "I've got a little list" or the self deprecating Chelmo stories. Most recently Russell Brand .These stories serve to hit us quickly , sharply and with effect to remind us that we are ourselves on the verge of doing unto others what we ourselves would not like, especially when it's been done to us.

So next time somebody tells you a story that is funny and yet sends up bad behavior or points out suffering in a sarcastic or self deprecating manner.... do us a favour..... laugh for G-d's sake...... the teller wanted you to, the now dead or incredibly old relative of the teller who told it first wanted you to. They told much worse to survive... show some respect...laugh. The ones who suffered laughed, the survivors laughed to survive, the survivors remembered so we could remember and keep the reality the pathos, the humanity amid the inhumanity alive. By being so damned serious, we deny their experiences and deny humour as a tool we can use to fight every kind of societal ill and evil. Please please please buy yourself a sense of humour and take that stick you've got up your backside out. Smile man....smell the flowers and laugh at the jokes. If you do, the bad guys won't win, the bad guys won't find it so easy to pull the wool over your eyes. Humour is the shorthand, the Index at the back of the book of civilization. Humour is like early science fiction , it serves to do what others cannot , will not or fear to do. When enough people have understood the shorthand, the real awful, nasty unpleasant things can be rolled back or stopped in their tracks.

So what am I asking you today regardless of your faith or lack thereof? Take this one aspect of your life, give it a shake, learn to laugh. Be comfortable with your desire to laugh, it's not going to kill you and it will more often than not, bridge otherwise unbridgeable diferences.

It's at this point I need to remind some of you that I'm not Jewish, I'm a Catholic. My wife is Jewish and like me, Polish. We both have families that suffered in the concentration camps, we both have family and friends that were sent to Siberia or the killing fields of Katyn and countless other killing fields in Poland and Russia. My wife's maternal grandfather was the only survivor of the mass extermination of his village by playing dead , my father and grandfather avoided death at Katyn by being arrested two weeks later than the rest, then along with almost every Pole, Jewish or Catholic in then Eastern Poland that wasn't killed on the spot, sent to Siberia followed by the long deadly march to freedom and Persia. My father's 2nd wife, as a 12 year old, was held in Ravensbruck concentration camp and saw most of her friend's and family murdered. All this to say that while we are both engaged politically and take life incredibly seriously when we need to, we are still first and foremost humorists. We are humorists because our relatives are, because the people who raised us and went through  Hell were humorists.  And it is for them we prefer to laugh than to cry.

Tomorrow in part 2 my wife will tell in uncensored detail, the anecdotes and attitudes of survivors who settled in New York, Brooklyn, Midwood. The same place and people who created Mel Brooks and moulded Woody Allen to name but a few.

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