My grammar, ‘tis of thee,

Sweet incongruity,

Of thee I sing.

I love each mood and tense,

Each freak of accidence,

Protect me from common sense,

Grammar, my king!

“The Wonder of Words” by Isaac Goldberg, 1938.

Lesson in Jewish Humor

There once was a powerful Japanese emperor who needed a new chief samurai. So he sent out a declaration throughout the entire known world that he was searching for a chief.

A year passed, and only three people applied for the very demanding position: a Japanese samurai, a Chinese samurai, and a Jewish samurai.

The emperor asked the Japanese samurai to come in and demonstrate why he should be the chief samurai. The Japanese samurai opened a matchbox, and out popped a bumblebee. Whoosh! went his sword. The bumblebee dropped dead, chopped in half. The emperor exclaimed, “That is very impressive! “The emperor then issued the same challenge to the Chinese samurai, to come in and demonstrate why he should be chosen. The Chinese samurai also opened a matchbox and out buzzed a fly. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh! The fly dropped dead, chopped into four small pieces. The emperor exclaimed, “That is very impressive!” Now the emperor turned to the Jewish samurai, and asked him to demonstrate why he should be the chief samurai. The Jewish Samurai opened a matchbox, and out flew a gnat. His flashing sword went Whoosh! But the gnat was still alive and flying around.

The emperor, obviously disappointed, said, “Very ambitious, but why is that gnat not dead?” The Jewish Samurai just smiled and said, “Circumcision is not meant to kill.”


Point #1 – No other group, including the emperor, was denigrated in order to generate the humor. Historically, Jewish humor has been sensitive to the inferior position of Jews in a given culture and has striven to be uplifting rather than degrading of others. However, Jewish humor is often self-denigrating.

Point #2 – There is a wonderful ambiguity between taking the joke at its plain meaning or as an act of unbridled chutzpah. When in doubt, the holy grail (ahem) of the Jewish comedian is chutzpah. It is true Jewish mothers feed their children chutzpah in their breast milk.

Point #3 – There never was nor is such a thing as Jewish samurai, at least as of today.

The Favorite Book

When authors are interviewed, inevitably one of the questions will be a variation of “Who is your favorite author?” or “What is the title of your favorite book?” because curious readers want to know. If the interview is published in the New York Times Book Review, the reader can guess the typical answer before reading it, choosing from the top twenty required-reading authors from English 101 and 301 at university. Modest or immodest, the author wants to inform competing authors that they are well versed in the English canon of good literature. Choosing from the canon is an intelligent and forward-thinking decision; knowledge of the canon is a prerequisite for author-in-residence and other excellent appointments. For the rest of us, however, we are less than impressed.

My own choices for a favorite book, if someone were to ask, are based on a long examination of my reading history. There are favorites from my teenage years that stick with me as well as college and graduate years. Between my office study and my house, I count over a thousand titles of which a number were brought in by the rest of the family. These past decades have been full of great titles and exciting reads. None of them qualify as my favorite.

The only criterion for my favorite book is the continual sparking of the imagination. When I crack open the same book again and again, I want to see new possibilities, new understandings and relationships. I want to be reminded how much there is still to learn. My favorite book, my only favorite that meets this high standard, is Roget’s Thesaurus.

The deadline is looming and the pile of tasks is thick but if I open this text to find a word, I can be derailed from my work in an instant. I may be looking for another noun for “gambler” but look, they have a list of all of the gambling games and another list of dice points and rolls. How does one play chuck-a-luck? Unrelated but on the same page is “bare naked fact” and it is listed under the rubric Existence. Someone decided that facts are the foundation of existence. Uh Huh.

Yep, Roget’s Thesaurus. Buried in the pages of the text is the genesis of a million novels and the opening nouns of every piece of non-fiction. Advertising taglines and poetic metaphors are lurking on any given page. For those who dream of writing a book or just hope to turn in a paper for a decent grade, there is no other text that can offer as hope, example or proof.

Carry on. (see entries 328.8, 330.15 and 360.2)