I went to Israel to talk, and I talked a lot, but I did my best to listen, too. On my first day, I sat in a Jerusalem café with Z, a comparative literature student, who told me that just a couple of weeks before, in this same café, a girl had walked in who reminded her of herself, except that she was very bundled up, in a down jacket, on an unseasonably hot day. The girl was breathing heavily, and Z asked her if there was anything wrong. She stood up and said, quite loudly, “Yes, something’s wrong.” In the next few seconds, Z’s whole life passed before her. Then the girl said, “I’m wearing too many clothes!” She shed layer after layer of clothes, then sat down to read the paper and eat a normal meal-oblivious to everyone else in the café, who spent the next hour unable to stop laughing.
A few days later, A, an architect in Tel Aviv, mentioned Jerusalem, and I asked him if he got up there much. He replied, “Why should I go to Jerusalem? I know what a bomb sounds like. I can get bombed on the Dizengoff, right in my own neighborhood.” I felt that, perhaps unconsciously, he was telling me some very old primal Jewish joke. When I got back to New York, I told it to my kids’ Hebrew teacher, Jerry Raik, and he said that indeed, the joke went a long way back, to the Book of Exodus (14:12), where the Jews ask Moses, “Are there no graves in Egypt? Why did you bring us here to die in the wilderness?”
Classical Zionism of the Herzl period disparaged Jewish humor as a symptom of diaspora slavery. It promised to liberate Jews from their ancestral ironies and to embed them in a “normal” life that would be direct, straightforward, and humorless-or else would allow only “normal” laughter. A century later, the promise to end Jewish jokes sounds like one of the biggest Jewish jokes, staggering in its chutzpah. Today’s Israelis are surely more “normal.” They now “know what a bomb sounds like,” not only because bombs are blowing them up, but because in the Israeli Defense Forces, the world’s most democratic army (where nearly everybody serves), they have learned how to blow other people up. After half a century of state power, they are still victims, only now they have become sophisticated perpetrators as well. In Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, every café is required to have a security guard with a scanner. Most of the guards are freshly discharged soldiers. It’s like El-Al Airlines: Everyone knows everyone has been electronically scanned and swept. No security system is foolproof, but this one is pretty good, and public spaces look alive. There are thousands of vibrant cafés where you can sit with Israeli leftists, who will ask you riddles:
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