On our cover this issue, we are honored to feature the work of Pierrick Juin of Charlie Hebdo, here offering the great French satirical magazine’s signature take on our own country’s contemporary mess. But we also gave Juin a second tradition from which to draw inspiration—that of the satirical Yiddish yontef-bletlekh, or holiday pages, which appeared before each Jewish holiday and provided some of the most popular reading matter for the Yiddish-speaking masses in America and Poland in the early twentieth century. Before Shavuot, for example, the holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people, the yontef-bletlekh often featured parody caricatures of “new” (and not improved) Ten Commandments.
And these grew out of still a broader, and older, history. As my friend Eddy Portnoy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research taught me, parody of traditional Jewish texts has been going on since the fourteenth century, though they really took off during the Enlightenment of the nineteenth century. During the 1890s, the Russian government issued a general ban on Yiddish periodical publishing, with the only exception being “one-time” publications. Into this keyhole flew the writer I.L. Peretz, who published “single” publications pegged to the Jewish holidays; given how frequent Jewish holidays were, it became virtually a monthly magazine. A decade later, Yiddish humorists followed Peretz’s lead, printing satire magazines for every holiday that typically featured parodies of traditional Jewish texts. “It was like a Yiddish version of ‘The Daily Show,’ with Jewish traditional texts as the comic foil,” Eddy explained. By the interwar period, using Jewish liturgical structures to create biting commentary on contemporary political and cultural matters had become a holiday tradition that reached deep into Jewish history.
But you can’t use something as a foil if you aren’t familiar with it—or rather, what you produce won’t be any good. True transgression and true originality is hard-earned (ask Jonathan Swift), and in at least one recent case, deadly serious. Charlie Hebdo honed its uniquely French vision of provocative satire over forty-five years, with the full understanding of what it means to be offensive—and offensively relevant—in France. The same goes for Jewish life: You don’t have to be first. Just be serious, even—or maybe especially—when you’re joking.
There’s a lot of this play between the fun and the grave in the latest issue of our print magazine. For starters, we sent our friend and longtime contributor Joshua Cohen to Quba, the tiny enclave of Mountain Jews that’s (mysteriously?) produced some of the region’s richest men. (The New York Times once said that Joshua’s writing “reads as if Philip Roth’s work were fired into David Foster Wallace’s inside the Hadron particle collider”; if you want to see how that machine works in post-Soviet dystopia, this piece is for you.) We also have David Samuels, who attended the same performance of the Broadway megahit Hamilton as Barack Obama and wondered, aside from the distance between the theater’s front rows and its balcony, about the unexpectedly jarring gap between two countries, both of which have meaning to him: Obama's America and Lin-Manuel Miranda's America.
Beyond the city limits, Alice Gregory visits with the Jewish surfing icon who inspired Gigdet, and we have a story of loss, longing, and lap swimming by Anne Roiphe, with art by the great Leanne Shapton. Plus we have Periel Aschenbrand on Zoë Buckman, the Jewish artist from London marrying hip-hop and lingerie; Rich Cohen on Elvis’s Chai necklace, Howard Jacobson on the Not-Jewish-ness of flat-front pants, and more.
Altogether, it is an issue at once fun and deadly serious—which, as summer begins to brighten the immediate horizon, seems like the best way to approach this moment in time.