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Staff Picks Category: Jewish humor

Motl the Cantor’s Son by Sholem Aleichem []



Motl the Cantor’s Son was the last novel by Sholem Aleichem. It tells the story of Motl and his family, first in Kasrilevke, a fiction shtetl where the family is increasingly destitute after the death of Motl’s father Peysi, then on their journey as refugees across Europe and eventually by boat to America, and finally as they try to assimilate and make a living in New York.

Although the story is full of hardships, Motl sees the changes in his circumstances in an entirely positive light. When his father dies, Motl enjoys the attention he receives and hardly seems aware of the death as a loss, and when family must sell all their furniture, Motl delights in how much space they now have. Motl generally sees the world around him as a great source of humor and amusement—he certainly isn’t bothered by the worries—mostly about money and social status—that preoccupy the adults around him. And Motl and his family, in fact, are lucky compared to many of their neighbors—his family leaves because of economic hardship, but those that stay are soon forced out by a pogrom.

Sholem Aleichem never finished the novel. We don’t know what eventually becomes of Motl and his family in New York. But we do know that Motl loves his new home, and his family, after a difficult start, is doing well for themselves. More importantly, Aleichem’s storytelling is wonderfully engaging—I enjoyed every moment of them immensely.

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Old Jews Telling Jokes by Sam Hoffman ; with Eric Spiegelman []



This project started as a website, still going strong at A couple of guys and their dads started rounding up all their “aunts and uncles, wise-cracking attorneys and periodontists,” as the web site says. Each clip is a couple of minutes of one person telling a joke. These are not professional comedians, they are ordinary people from the culture that created the Marx Brothers, the Catskill circuit, and Mel Brooks. Some of the stories have been around a long time, but nearly all of them land between amusing and hilarious on the laugh-o-meter. You’ll find ironic, raunchy, and self-deprecating bits as well as some marvelous timing and delivery. The narrator I could do without. Still, it beats therapy.

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