WSJ; Notable & Quotable: Harvard Professor Of Yid Lit Follows Good Hugh-More


We are told that Stalin himself enjoyed jokes, like the one about a delegation from his native Georgia that conducts an interview with him and then takes its leave.

Stalin starts looking for his pipe and can't find it. He call his Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria, the dreaded head of the secret police, and instructs him to go after the delegation and uncover the thief. Beria rushes off down the corridor. Five minutes later Stalin finds his pipe under a pile of papers. He calls Beria: "Look, I've found my pipe." Beria says, "It's too late." He adds, "Half the delegation admitted they took the pipe, and the other half died during questioning."

A (later) phase of Soviet Jewish humor was ushered in by Israel's defeat of the Soviet-backed Arabs in 1967. Jews who had traditionally cast themselves as comic foils now emerged as the improbably "victors" in a society increasingly frustrated by its authorities' incompetence and repression.

For instance: The instructor in the Russian War College was discussing how the Soviet Union might win a war against China. Perplexed, a student asked how their military could stack up against China's inexhaustible manpower. "It is possible for the smaller army to win," the instructor said, citing the example of the recent Six-Day War. "Israel can field a maximum of two or three million against the Arabs' hundred million and yet it won that war."

"Yes," the student objected, "but where can we find three million Jews?"