One of the many links that help to bind Jews together throughout the world is the number of Anecdotes dealing with Jewish life and appealing to Jewish sentiment, and known in one form or another throughout Jewry. For the most part they are transmitted by word of mouth, and thus they form part of Jewish folk-lore. Few have been written down, though several of the best known have been utilized by Jewish novelists like Franzos and Zangwill, and others are adaptations or traditional renderings of Talmudic or midrashic legends. Still others give a Jewish turn to the mass of medieval folk-lore that spread throughout Europe (see Bidpai and Sindibad). These longer stories are generally known as Ma'asiyot, and have been collected in the various "Ma'asebücher." The more modern form of Jewish anecdote rarely extends to any great length or pretends to deal with romantic or legendary events. It is usually short and witty, with "a sting in its tail."
Most Jewish Anecdotes are steeped in expressions that render the stories pointless to all but those acquainted with Jewish technical terms. Addressed to a special audience, these Anecdotes embody terms known only in that particular sphere. Their subject-matter is mainly the foibles of the Jewish character, in much the same way that the weaknesses of common friends form so frequently a topic of conversation.
Jewish Anecdotes, when they deal with the Jew in his social aspect, naturally treat him almost exclusively in his mercantile dealings, and often give proof of the self-criticism exercised by the Jew in regard to his faults and foibles. Some of these stories give rise to proverbial sayings, the origin of which is often unknown to those using them.
Many Jewish Anecdotes, however, refer to certain typical figures of the Ghetto, most of whom are described at greater length in these pages. There is the Schnorrer, the professional beggar, whose differentia it is that he considers he is doing you a favor in allowing you to lend to the Lord through his personality. Another frequent hero in Ghetto anecdotage is the
The above examples from the various subjects of Jewish Anecdotes will perhaps sufficiently indicate the typical scope and intimate character that render them comprehensible only to hearers fully acquainted with Jewish life and customs. Other forms, because turning upon an application of some Biblical or Talmudic phrase in the original, would require an elaborate commentary to convey their point to an unlearned hearer. It is remarkable how wide-spread these stories are. The same anecdote, with merely local variations, may be heard in Wilna, Berlin, London, and New York. Jews, when meeting for the first time, often find one of these stories the readiest means of starting a conversation. Even if it be well known, it will lead to other Anecdotes perhaps not so familiar; and a friendliness toward both the anecdote and its narrator is at once aroused. It is clear, from the works of Al-Ḥarizi and Immanuel Romi, that similar Anecdotes were current among Jews in the Middle Ages; and the early Yiddish literature evinces that the custom was prevalent in the German "Judengassen." At family gatherings it became usual for a certain licensed jester, known as the badḥan or marshallik, to enliven the proceedings by narrating Anecdotes. See Schnorrer, Shadḥan, and Shamash.
- Zangwill's Children of the Ghetto and King of Schnorrers are full of Anecdotes current in the London Ghetto;
- Tendlau's Sagen und Legenden der Jüdischen Vorzeit contains some of the best-known Talmudic stories;
- while others given in Sippurim, and the medieval Ma'asiyot are contained in the Ma'asebuch. Collections of Anecdotes exist in M. Kukilstein, Anekdoten-Buch, 200 Sheine Witzen (Yiddish), Wilna, 1893;
- Benzion Schles, Siḥat Ḥullin shel Talmide Ḥakamim, 2d ed., Warsaw, 1880.