The badkhn was a staple in East European Jewish life for three centuries, mocking brides and grooms at their weddings. He also was in charge of Purim spiels in shtetl society.His humor was biting, even vicious. He would tell a bride she was ugly, make jokes about the groom’s dead mother and round things off by belittling the guests for giving such worthless gifts. Much of the badkhn’s humor was grotesque, even scatological.“They would talk about drooping breasts, big butts, small penises,” Gordon said. “We know a lot about them because they were always suing each other about who could tell which fart joke on which side of Grodno.”
Curious as to why semites are such a funny group of people? Turns out that according to a Berkeley professor, it can be pinpointed to an exact date: July 3, 1661. On that date, leading rabbis from Poland and Ukraine (the “Elders of the Four Councils,” natch) met to figure out why so many awful things had been happening to the Jewish people. They decided that God was punishing them, so they outlawed all forms of merrymakers and entertainers. All except the badkhn, a sort of proto-insult comic who they decided was more abusive than funny and therefore A-OK. Who was this badkhn?Whether or not it makes sense to decide that an entire group of people’s senses of humor stem from one event, or if you could really categorize “Jewish humor” as mean and vicious as opposed to self-deprecating, the history here is pretty fascinating.