I am a lover of Jewish humour.
I am also a (frequently jilted) lover of Tottenham Hotspur, the Spurs, a football team with abundant historic and geographic Jewish associations. Both of these loves entail a sense of the ridiculous, as has been apparent this past week or so.
This is not to say that each replicates the other.
Any attempt on my part to tell a Jewish joke or anecdote in my wife’s company causes her to lift her eyes to heaven. And she will answer the rhetorical enquiry, “oh, so you’ve heard it,” in the spirit of James Joyce’s: “Yes, three times a day after meals”. Yet she is totally at ease with my attachment to Spurs, although that is much more bothersome.
This is evident in the return to the headlines of the decades-old “Yid army”, and with it, the most spurious of controversies, stoked by various establishment figures, virtually all of them Jewish, virtually none of them Spurs supporters, expressing outrage at the adoption, by mainly young, non-Jewish Spurs fans, of the terms, “yiddo”, “yids” — and “Yid army”.
The latest bout of self-righteous criticism of this misunderstood phenomenon follows an outbreak of antisemitic behaviour among a section of fans of Chelsea football club (another recurrent event), who recently played Spurs at Wembley Stadium.
Last week, an anonymous representative of the Community Security Trust called upon Spurs supporters to “grow up”. Grow up? No true football fan is grown-up. Sadly, we are all in the permanent grip of a severely immature addiction.
Admittedly, if we could grow up, we might break the absurdly powerful hold exerted over us by transient young men who earn a fortune chasing a ball across grass. Let’s face it, football is pointless, tribal, a watered-down version of war. But then, better the waters of Wembley than the flames of Flodden Field.
And though we devotees are often disastrously let down, at other times the mood our heroes bring upon us can be exultant.
In his football-focused memoir, Fever Pitch, the writer Nick Hornby relates how the only thing that lifted him out of depression was the success of his beloved football team, Arsenal (whereas Arsenal success can cause depression among Spurs fans). And I certainly wouldn’t want to have missed the highs afforded me by Greaves, Hoddle, Bale, Kane…
In my other fanatical field, while it is impossible to say which is my favourite Jewish joke, it is easy to nominate my least favourite. It is the one about the two Jews facing a firing squad. One decides to make a last request of his executioners and asks for a cigarette, whereupon his fellow victim says: “Shh, Morry! Don’t make trouble.”
I think this goes beyond the legendary self-deprecating nature of Jewish humour. Yet some people find it funny, and I suspect they include those communal leaders who condemn the Tottenham fans self-identification as “yids”. For these machers will recognise, in the firing-squad caricature, their own view that Jews should always follow the conventional path and not rock the boat. They assume any new deviation of the old word “yid” can only be derogatory and so they make the appropriate noises of disapproval. The reality is, however, that the Tottenham yids’ usage is totally approbatory, the very opposite of derogatory. Some even talk of having “reclaimed” the word from the antisemitic enemy.
In my own, fortunately very limited, experience of witnessing overt antisemitism, the offender’s word of choice has always been “Jew” or “Jewish”, rather than “Yid” or “Yiddish”. And these terms are far from being exclusively pejorative. Quite apart from the fact that Yiddish is the everyday language of many Charedim, and that in mainstream Jewish life its currency is mostly confined to senior circles, do we really want to ban, say, klezmer musicians from playing Yidl Mit’n Fidl, or when your bubbe talks about a “nice Yiddishe” boy or girl, are you going to tell her not to?
In the mouths of Spurs fans, it is all positive. Once the crowd greets a player with the cry of “yiddo”, he knows he has made the grade and/or had hero status conferred upon him. (In the past, young supporters have been known to issue similar greetings to Strictly Orthodox Jews encountered in Tottenham streets.)
The phrase forever linked to one of Tottenham’s most brilliant strikers — Jermain Defoe/He’s a yiddo — is deeply imprinted in the collective Spurs consciousness.
Whatever identity Spurs fans chose (and all clubs’ fans have one) any opposing, antisemitic fans would still taunt followers of the “Jewish club”. But if they do so by shouting “yids”, they will merely bolster the chorus of Tottenham Hotspur’s probably least Jewish but most spirited supporters.