Theodor Herzl: Comedy and Politics Mix

Gentleman (Karl Kraus?) and lady with feathered hat in Vienna, c. 1910. (Emily Mayer/Imagno/Austrian Archives/Getty Images).Comic Figures in Theodor Herzl’s Zionist Literary Writing

By Alex Marshall


Known first and foremost as the founder of the Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl (1860–1904) was also author of the pamphlet The Jewish State and, subsequently, a national hero in Israel. However, before his Zionism, he was a well-known literary figure in Vienna. Herzl is generally seen as a serious-minded writer and political leader, whose jokes were limited to either stage comedies with no bearing on Jewish politics, or to small, ice-breaking pleasantries with various diplomats. But, in fact, Herzl wrote several literary works that mixed political content and jokes. Recent discussion of offensive jokes and the Charlie Hebdo shootings have reminded us that jokes are very rarely just jokes, devoid of sociopolitical content or effect. Similarly Herzl’s humor often conceals multilayered understandings of very weighty issues.

Despite the attention that has been focused on Herzl’s literary output, very little has been written on the complex role of humor in his work. His Zionist movement attempted to adapt Jewish identity from something fractured, ambiguous, and contradictory to fit the homogeneous and neatly delineated framework of the nation-state. Herzl, therefore, demonstrates the function of humor within the politics of personal identity and the contentiousness and implications of self-deprecating humor. He also shows how humor can be deployed to comment on and reshape humor itself and, in doing so, reveals what aspects of humor were or were not acceptable to the mindset of what was, essentially, a nationalist movement.

A Jewish state in Palestine seemed a laughably ambitious and implausible project and was mocked by Jews and gentiles alike.

Not making up a majority of the population in any single territory, but widely perceived as a nation, whether they saw themselves as such or not, Jews at the turn of the twentieth century were a diasporic people, in a world that was increasingly composed of territorially bounded nation-states, or movements demanding states of their own. Zionism was a means of escaping the problems of assimilation and of life in this diaspora.[1] For example, Jewish efforts to assimilate into the German nation often met with attempts of non-Jewish Germans to stigmatize, or occasionally romanticize, Jewish Germans as outsiders. Zionism offered a less problematic way of being Jewish in a world of nation-states.

For three reasons, Herzl was drawn to the use of humor. First, Jews had long been figures of fun on the stage.[2] Second, a Jewish state in Palestine seemed at the time to be a laughably ambitious and implausible project and was mocked by Jews and gentiles alike. Finally, the absurdities and contradictions of assimilation were more easily addressed through humor and irony. Although Herzl’s writing is seldom particularly funny, humor is often present, and it is worth looking a little more closely at his jokes and comic figures. His jokes can be dense with references to the complexities of Jewish life at the time, and his figures reflect the ideas and assumptions that drove Zionism, including the two main difficulties faced by Herzl: the seemingly ludicrous enormity of his plan and the widespread, potentially embarrassing Jewish opposition to it.

This article analyzes the absurdities, incongruities, and contradictions Herzl created and relied on for humor, and it elucidates the assumptions underpinning them. His targets included the bourgeoisie of the diaspora, problems of self-awareness, Jewish use of humor itself, and the role of self-deprecation in this humor.

Cartoon from the Austrian magazine Die Muskete, depicting the composer-conductor Gustav Mahler with a variety of musical and pseudo-musical devices. Four ideas about humor are, to varying extents, applicable here. These ideas (and notable proponents) are that laughter:

  • expresses feelings of superiority (Hobbes);
  • arises from a sudden realization of incongruities (Kant);
  • is a mechanism of psychic relief (Freud); and
  • developed as part of the instinct of play.

As regards Herzl’s work, it is the incongruity theory that I have found most useful. Henri Bergson observes that this incongruity is often the result of mistakes caused by “mechanical inelasticity.”[3] Certainly many of the jokes to be examined hinge on a seemingly reasonable logical progression directly contradicting another progression, an established fact, or human lived experience. Bergson refers to “something mechanical in something living,” which is thus at odds with the real or desirable. He also argues that humor “corrects men’s manners” and, by identifying irrational or undesirable behavior, “makes us at once endeavor to appear what we ought to be, what some day we shall perhaps end in being.”[4] The jokes in Herzl’s Zionist fiction frequently target Jews whose unexamined qualities and actions not only provoke a sense of superiority in the reader or audience, but are detrimental to the collective interests and reputation of Jews.

I will look at two of Herzl’s literary works: his four-act dueling tragedy Das neue Ghetto (“The New Ghetto,” 1893), written between the arrest of Alfred Dreyfus and his trial, and Herzl’s novel Altneuland (“Old-New Land,” 1902), which envisions a utopian Jewish society in Palestine in 1923 and opens with a pessimistic portrayal of contemporary Viennese Jews.[5] Humor is not the focus of either work, but both contain passages satirizing the life and culture of Eastern European Jews. In Old-New Land in particular, humor frequently serves important narrative functions. Later in life Herzl himself was capable of wryly self-deprecating humor. Himself frequently lampooned and occasionally praised as a messianic figure, in Old-New Land Herzl wryly depicts an opera about Sabbatai Zevi, the famous seventeenth-century false messiah.

Alongside colonization and emigration, Herzlian Zionism frequently saw itself as a movement for Jewish national regeneration, to remedy the flawed culture of diaspora in preparation for life in Palestine.[6] Herzl disdained assimilated Jews and looked down on the shtetls of Eastern Europe, though he also romanticized their supposed authenticity. Although this might reasonably be called “Jewish self-hatred,” I have chosen not to use this contentious and often vague term, but to examine Herzl’s satires of other Jews for their own specific implications.


Theodor Herzl, "Das Neue Ghetto" (The New Ghetto) - play

The New Ghetto and Dynamics of Self-Awareness

The New Ghetto was Herzl’s first literary work dealing explicitly with Jewish issues. Like Old-New Land, it seems to have been aimed at assimilated German Jews dissatisfied with their own situation and culture, though lacking a specific solution. The play was written in 1893, two years before Herzl’s embrace of Zionism. His use of unpleasant Jewish stereotypes initially made it hard for him to get the play staged, but it finally premiered after the First Zionist Congress, where Herzl had made a name for himself as an advocate for Jews. Largely Jewish audiences applauded, whooped, and stamped their feet at key lines.[7]

In harmony with its title, the play proposes that the old, walled Jewish ghetto of the Middle Ages had been replaced by a modern, social one, where the bourgeois and seemingly assimilated Jews of Western Europe now found themselves isolated in largely Jewish circles. The play concerns Jacob Samuel, a doctor of law like Herzl himself, newly married to the daughter of a successful businessman named Rheinberg. After taking a job at his father-in-law’s firm, Samuel stands up for striking mine-workers and thus finds himself in conflict with the mine’s owner, and his own client, Captain von Schramm. Samuel’s response to anti-Semitic abuse leads to a duel, which, characteristically for a tragic hero, Samuel loses. His last words are “I want to get out . . . out of the ghetto.”

Herzl’s use of Jewish stereotypes initially made it hard for him to get “The New Ghetto” staged.

The humor in both The New Ghetto and Old-New Land tends to come at the expense of Vienna’s middle-class Jews, who are portrayed, as Jews with money frequently were at the time, as uncouth, shallow, materialistic—essentially as classic nouveau riche figures. Although The New Ghetto is structured as a tragedy, it provides comic relief in the form of Rheinberg and his put-upon business partner, Wasserstein. Comically uneducated, Wasserstein is given to malapropisms, as is typical of both social climbers and non-native speakers and particularly relevant to those German Jews for whom Yiddish was a first language. In Herzl’s time, these usually were the Jews who had arrived as impoverished refugees from the Russian Empire. Wasserstein is often baffled by anything related to high culture. He needs the phrase “you’re waxing lyrical” explained to him (TNG, 11), and he is introduced with the following passage:

Wasserstein (looks around): Fine (Sighs): Lovely!… (Walks around, taking everything in as if carrying out an official appraisal): Elegant!… Even if it’s not new. I’d pay a good eight hundred gilders for these trimmings—let’s say: seven fifty. They’re worth about that much… (Sighs) My goodness!… (Examines curtains): Excellent quality! [of wedding presents] . . . Oh look! Silverware—pfft only for twenty-four! And these candelabras! Enormous! Silver is beautiful—even if it’s cheap! (Picks up a candlestick) (TNG, 9)

With the exception of the hero and one rabbi, Herzl typically presents the majority of his diasporic characters as such parvenu figures. Herzl is not reluctant to poke fun at the flaws he identifies in Viennese Jewish society and does not see this kind of humor as at odds with the major theme of Jewish pride. Rather, Herzl gives his Jewish audiences and readers the opportunity to laugh at flawed Jewish characters from a position of superiority, and he gives his more serious-minded Jewish protagonists the chance to rise above their surroundings.

Self-awareness is a consistent theme in Herzl’s drama. Bernhard Greiner observes:

At the center of each of Herzl’s comedies stands the figure of the deceived deceiver . . . a pretender who either stumbles over his own intrigues, opening himself to devastating ridicule, or he finds a way, through unforeseen developments in the game, back to his true self, and abandons his performance.[8]

Hypocrites in Herzl’s fiction and drama—characters who hide their true (in this case Jewish) selves or berate others for qualities they, too, share—are frequently the butt of his jokes. As is common in comic pairings, Wasserstein is the overtly comical “funny-man” (equivalent to Stan Laurel, Lou Costello, or Manuel in Fawlty Towers), and Rheinberg is the serious-minded “straight-man” (Oliver Hardy, Bud Abbott, Basil Fawlty). Rheinberg uses a recurrent catchphrase: “Wasserstein, Sie sind ein Esel” (“Wasserstein, you’re a fool”). There are three particularly notable uses of this. In one, Rheinberg calls Wasserstein a fool specifically for his sensitivity to anti-Semitism, and Rheinberg charges that his partner’s unpleasantness generates anti-Semitism:

Rheinberg: Are you leaving already, captain?

Schramm: Yes, old chap (handshake): There are too many—people here for me. . . . Goodbye (Exit)

Wasserstein (overhearing the two, to Rheinberg): He meant to say, too many Jews!

Rheinberg (sternly): Wasserstein, you’re a fool! Anyway—when people look at you, they become anti-Semites. (TNG, 33)

Another exchange displays the vague, but consistent, anti-capitalism of the play. Wasserstein (and his partner Rheinberg, who has been hiding his massive losses) has at this point already been shown to be a victim of the finance industry.

Wasserstein: I’m on the verge of going under!

Bichler: Gambled it all away on the stock market?

Wasserstein: I kept paying out until I had nothing left. Then . . .

Bichler: You stopped gambling with it.

Wasserstein: What are you talking about? I was still in debt. In the end I had to stay away from the stock exchange.

Bichler: You poor dear! And what are you doing now?

Wasserstein: I’m going to the stock exchange. (TNG, 11)

Though the subject is played far more for comedy than tragedy, finance in the play is portrayed as a trap for Jews. They are imprisoned in finance by crippling debt. Satire of high finance is at the center of this comic exchange:

Wasserstein: A lot of coal being sold in Berlin. Someone here is buying tons. They reckon it’s Schlesinger.

Rheinberg (laughs): Wasserstein, you’re a fool.

Wasserstein (meekly): Why, Herr von Rheinberg?

Rheinberg: That someone that’s selling in Berlin and buying here—is me. (TNG, 26)

Two things are notable. First, this mysterious selling and buying is caused by the huge, impersonal, international nature of modern trade. The irrationalities of capitalist modernity are played for laughs, but working from the assumption that Jews are the victims, not the perpetrators of the absurdities of high finance. Additionally, although both partners have been blindly buying and selling from each other and thus they made the same mistake together, Wasserstein is blamed. It is always Hardy gotten into another fine mess by Laurel, although both are equally affected and equally at fault. Wasserstein and Rheinberg simply trade commodities ineptly, rather than move a piano upstairs.

The conversation continues, revealing the main quality of this type of comic pairing:

Rheinberg: If I’d seen you in temple—I would have let you know.

Wasserstein (chews dejectedly): My goodness! . . . I just left. Who thinks about business in temple?

Rheinberg: Wasserstein, you’re . . .

Wasserstein: A fool, I know, Herr von Rheinberg. (TNG, 26)

The scene also begins with a comparable exchange between Rheinberg’s daughters:

Charlotte (to Hermine): Did you see Schlesinger in temple? A dress all the way from Paris.

Hermine: Am I supposed to be looking out for that sort of thing in temple?

Charlotte: Oh, you’re just being sentimental.

Hermine: Charlotte!

Charlotte: You should have seen Schlesinger—those sleeves! Marvelous . . . (TNG, 24)

Correspondingly, Herzl almost invariably portrays women in diaspora as superficial. Just as Rheinberg upbraids his business partner, Wasserstein, for not discussing business in temple, Hermine, Rheinberg’s daughter and the hero’s wife, is treated dismissively for not cooing over dresses. Profane bourgeois interests are brought into the temple, but separated into the strictly gendered spheres of men’s business and women’s fashion.

Assimilation generates situations of absurd incongruity. The resulting anxiety may be relieved through laughter.

Both Laurel/Wasserstein and Hardy/Rheinberg are incompetent. Yet only the funny-man is aware of his own stupidity while the straight-man expects the funny-man to look up to him. Wasserstein announces his dire financial situation while Rheinberg confesses his to Wasserstein in strictest secrecy. With Rheinberg and Wasserstein, however, we see this dynamic mirrored in their Jewish identities. Both are Jewish, both attend synagogue, and both work in a profession stereotyped as Jewish: international trade. Yet Wasserstein notices and criticizes anti-Semitism, making Rheinberg embarrassed and confrontational in response. Rheinberg talks business in the synagogue; Wasserstein finds it unthinkable until called a fool. In crisis, too, Wasserstein’s sense of his own Jewish identity comes to the fore. He celebrates when Samuel hits von Schramm, and, when Samuel dies, he starts reciting (in German) the Shema Yisrael, an affirmation of faith and, traditionally, a pious Jew’s last words.

The comic dynamic—a funny-man with some self-awareness degraded by a straight-man with delusions of superiority—is extended to consciousness and denial of Jewishness. Despite Wasserstein fulfilling the crassest stereotypes of Jews, awareness of his identity gives him more sensitivity and courage than his business partner, and he is a virtuous Jew in spite of his superficial flaws. The comedy of the two characters comes from the anxiety their dynamic provokes among Jews, who must navigate between failure to become proper members of German bourgeois culture and failure to acknowledge or accept their own identity. As with any double-bind or mutually contradictory circumstances, assimilation necessarily generates these situations of absurd incongruity. The resulting anxiety is relieved through laughter and, with it comes a sense of superiority to Wasserstein and Rheinberg, who embody two extremes of how not to be Jewish.


Theodor Herzl (Altneuland) Old-New Land, WLC

Old-New Land: Jokes as the Butt of Jokes

Old-New Land’s title itself is a play on words, and the novel was specifically aimed at Zionist emigrants and intended to raise their spirits.[9] The play begins with a portrait of Friedrich Loewenberg, an underemployed and overqualified doctor of law (as was Herzl), who is sitting at the same table in the same coffee-house where he has sat for years. He then attends a dinner party with some of Vienna’s bourgeois Jews, hoping to meet his secret, unrequited love, Ernestine Loeffler. After the hosts announce her engagement to someone else, Loewenberg answers an advertisement seeking “an educated and desperate young man” to leave Europe behind forever. Traveling to the South Sea Island where they will spend the next twenty years, he and his misanthropic companion Kingscourt pass briefly through a dusty, desolate Palestine, and returning in 1923, they discover Jewish colonists have turned the country into a blooming, hi-tech, tolerant, and democratic utopia, called simply “the New Society.” After being shown around the country and its many marvels by a rich shipping magnate, David Littwak, whose family Loewenberg helped out of poverty, the pair decide to stay.

Old-New Land follows the basic patterns of many utopian romances: a traveler, in this case Loewenberg, is displaced in either space or time and finds himself (and it is usually a he) in a perfect society. Its achievements are shown to him, and its rules and systems are explained by a local resident. He falls deeply in love with the society and, as usual in such tales, with a local woman as well.

The reader is encouraged to laugh at the teller’s expense—at the act of telling a bad joke.

Old-New Land differs from the standard plot in that it features two travelers, rather than one. One is Jewish, Loewenberg, and the other is the gentile Kingscourt, formerly Adalbert von Königshoff, a member of the Prussian Junker nobility and a self-made American entrepreneur. Much of the humor in Old-New Land comes from Kingscourt’s prickly, joking temperament. The comedy, and indeed its contribution to the utopian narrative of the novel, tends to come not from the jokes themselves, but from the way in which the act of joke-telling reveals the character of the teller. In a consistently flippant and playfully hostile tone, far more brashly American than Prussian or aristocratic, Kingscourt comments on the New Society with a mixture of cynical misanthropy, bad puns, and flippant but gentle mockery. The futuristic motor vehicle, essentially a minibus, with which they travel Palestine, is referred to as “a veritable Noah’s Ark, with room for every sinful man and beast” (ONL, 90), and the seat of government is a “monkey cage” (ONL, 208).

As is often the case with bad jokes, the reader is encouraged to laugh, not at the content of the jokes but at the teller’s expense—at the act of telling a bad joke. Kingscourt’s affectionately derisive nicknames are then adopted by Herzl’s narration. The car comes to be consistently referred to as “the motor-ark,” and soon after Kingscourt’s quip, the narration also adopts “monkey-cage.”[10] The reader is permitted to laugh at Kingscourt even while the narration gladly entertains his playful cynicism.

Theodor Herzl on a voyage to Egypt, 1903. Photo: Walter Anton / WikimediaKingscourt’s role is an important one. He is a highly unlikely mix of old world, new world, old money, new money, and a little proletarian affectation. He is both a disillusioned misanthrope and a casual anti-Semite. Indeed, trying to reassure Loewenberg, he unites both of these positions with the cliché that he hates all people of all faiths equally (ONL, 29-30). Despite being the hardest possible person to win over to any utopia, let alone a Jewish one, he and Loewenberg choose to stay in the New Society. His use of humor is central to this function as the cynic to be won over. It not only demonstrates hostility, as he refuses to engage sincerely with this wonderful new country, but also mitigates the hostility. Since, through gentle teasing of his new and old Jewish friends, Kingscourt can, and does, express his negative assumptions about Jews, he is essentially a defanged anti-Semite, rather than an outright villain like Captain von Schramm.

Kingscourt’s humor is frequently used as a platform to address anti-Semitic stereotypes. When the characters visit the theater, Loewenberg is astounded that there are “Jewish plays.” Kingscourt replies: “Haven’t you been hearing all your life that the Jews have monopolized the entire theater world?” (ONL, 73) This reply is notable for two reasons. Kingscourt addresses the stereotype, not with his own opinions, but in the far more empathetic terms of Loewenberg’s experience of anti-Semitism. Furthermore, the joke hinges on an incongruity between Jews monopolizing other nations’ theaters and creating their own. The absurd idea, which amuses Kingscourt, Loewenberg, and the intended Zionist reader, is that the old, dubious model of Jewish theater might be in any way comparable to the new, healthy model. Rather, for Jews to monopolize their own national theater is simply a positive image of what nation-building institutions should look like.

Other characters occasionally mimic Kingscourt’s manner to explain things to him. Shopping for gloves to wear to the opera with their guide, David Littwak, Kingscourt asks why this utopia (unlike Thomas More’s or Edward Bellamy’s) has not abolished money.[11]

David, who knew by this time how to take the old man’s teasing, answered in much the same style: “No sir, we just couldn’t bear to be parted from our money. First, because we are damned greedy Jews. And secondly, because money is an excellent thing indeed—we should have had to invent it, if it hadn’t been done before.” (ONL, 79-80)

The conservatism of the utopia—a classic Austro-Liberal like Herzl would never think of abolishing such a sensible institution as money—throws up discomfiting associations with Jewish stereotypes, which Herzl can address and dismiss through a character’s jokes. In a later exchange, we see why Littwak’s ironic adoption of anti-Semitic attitudes is significant.

“Why, here they are at last, the Jewesses with the jewels!” he says. “I was feeling quite nostalgic for them! I thought: my dear Adalbert, perhaps we were not in the land of the Jews at all, but the whole thing was a hoax! And now I see it’s true. Here are the ostrich-feather hats, the gaudy silks, the jeweled Israelite women. — No offence meant, Mrs. Gothland; you’re in a different category.”

Mrs. Gothland takes this in good humor while another character laughs loudly. “Of course we don’t mind, Mr. Kingscourt,” she says.

There was a time when we should have been offended, but not today. You understand? Once upon a time people thought the idlers, the moneyed snobs, the bejeweled Jewesses were representative of our people. Today everybody knows there are other Jews too. Go ahead and jeer at this mob as much as you like. I’ll join you when it gets dark, my noble stranger. (ONL, 131)

As well as producing virtuous, self-aware women, the transformation the New Society has caused in Jewish life sabotages Kingscourt’s anti-Semitic joke. What would have come across in pre-utopian Vienna as a joke about the Jews, now only makes sense as a joke about the nouveau riche. The personal flaws lampooned in Jews in The New Ghetto can now, in utopia, be lampooned as commonplace human failings that exist across all nations. Herzl has one character repeat the obvious anti-Semitic jokes that may come to a reader’s mind, so that he or another character can explain why it did not apply, or no longer does so.

Kingscourt’s cynicism about both humanity and the Jews sets him up as a foil to the New Society’s inhabitants. His piercing, but pleasantly jocular, questions are based on old ideas of the Jews and provoke explanations of how things have changed. As the reader laughs affectionately along with Kingscourt, we see that behind his confrontational humor, he reciprocates this affection. During a Passover dinner he “ate hugely of the matzo while all the time complaining that he, a Christian German nobleman, was being made into a Jew.”[12]

What would have come across in pre-utopian Vienna as a joke about the Jews, now only makes sense as a joke about the nouveau riche.

Although the reader is encouraged to laugh with Kingscourt, as well as at him, this is less true of two other key comic characters: Gruen and Blau (Mr. Green and Mr. Blue). We first encounter them at the Viennese dinner party to which Loewenberg had gone in search of his love. Gruen and Blau are supposedly Vienna’s wittiest men and most sought-after party guests, as well as bitter rivals. Much of the chapter’s comedy comes not from, but at the expense of, these two wags. Indeed, Gruen, a character explains, tends more toward wordplay, while Blau tends to make fun of people. The first joke we hear is that Blau has the right face for this, as his cheeks do not go red when slapped (ONL, 14).

Twenty years later, in the New Society, Gruen and Blau are still making the same terrible jokes (and, inexplicably, still spending time together, despite supposedly hating each other).

“Gruen is quite capable of making anti-Semites even of people here.”

“Your jokes are getting stale, Mr. Blau,” Dr. Walter interposed. “Thank goodness there’s no such thing as anti-Semitism in the world any longer.”

“If I knew that for certain,” Blau replied, “I should go into the business myself.” (ONL, 132)

Repeating the particularly unpleasant joke from The New Ghetto where a Jew is accused of being so objectionable as to generate anti-Semitism, as a springboard to elaborate on the nature of this new world, Dr. Walter explains why, with far fewer Jews competing with gentiles, anti-Semitism has all but vanished. Anti-Semitism is also comically implied to be a business. Gruen and Blau retort:

“Nobody knows more about this matter,” said Blau, grinning impudently, “than Dr. Veigelstock. He acted like the captain of a ship—he was the last man to leave.” . . .

“True blue—true Jew,” bleated Gruen daringly. (ONL, 133)

“Veigelstock” refers to Dr. Walter, who changed his name to something less Yiddish-sounding. Both here and at the dinner party, Blau persistently whips him into a rage by using the name he was born with. (Gruen turns it into “Ohrfeiglstock”—“Clip-Round-The-Ear-Stock,” or perhaps “Veigel-Sock-in-the-Chops”—implying Blau will get one if he’s not careful.) However, in this utopia, both this mocking name and the comparison to a ship’s captain have a more respectful quality. Blau’s analogy presupposes bravery on Walter’s part, while in German, Gruen’s pun is completely different: “Ende Jud’, alles Jud’” plays on “Ende gut, alles gut” (“all’s well that ends well”) to reclaim a derogatory epithet for a Jew. Indeed, in a utopia founded after millennia of hardship, a Jewish-themed pun on “all’s well that end’s well” could even serve as the national motto.

“It’s a mosaic—A Mosaic mosaic. Splendid pun that, isn’t it?”

Kingscourt, too, makes a pun that could double as a national motto and that also reveals the comic function that his jokes serve, as do Blau’s to a certain extent and Gruen’s especially. It is a comment on the diversity of the New Society, which is not only tolerant of outsiders and populated by Jews from cultures all over the world, but has been able to pick and choose its institutions from a variety of countries. “It’s a mosaic—A Mosaic mosaic. Splendid pun that, isn’t it?”[13] Loewenberg’s weary reply, one of his few comic lines, is a backhanded compliment: “No better and no worse than all your puns” (ONL, 201-2). Again, we do not laugh at such lines, but rather at the telling of them. Kingscourt, whose gentle reminder to Loewenberg to acknowledge his joke seems as self-deprecating as his statements and seems to understand and intend this aspect of humor.

Gruen and Blau, however, are characterized as taking their roles as jokers very seriously. Kingscourt’s humor is self-ironizing, that is, it asserts an identity (here, that of lighthearted joker) through irony and primarily for comic purposes, making it ambiguous how sincere his investment in that identity is. Unlike Kingscourt, Gruen and Blau take themselves as individuals very seriously; they are ironic only when they assert their Jewish identity. Yet Gruen and Blau’s humor is also an act of self-ironization on Herzl’s part. Writing as a Jew, he makes Jewish use of humor a source of humor.


Moriz Jung, The Vienna Secession, triptych

Ironic Hypocrisy

Joking hypocrisy is an important part of this self-ironization process, and during the course of the dinner party in Vienna at the start of Old-New Land we see a shift in tone and focus and also a change of function for Gruen and Blau’s humor. After a few brief exchanges of wit, we are introduced to an old man, Rabbi Dr. Weiss. He describes the dire situation of Jews back home in Moravia (now the southern Czech Republic):

In my home town things are looking bad, very bad. All over Moravia in the country towns it is the same. When the Germans are angry, they throw stones at Jewish windows. When the Czechs are enraged they break into Jewish houses. The poorer people are already beginning to emigrate. But the trouble is—where can they go?”

“Moritz,” shouted Mrs. Laschner, “I want to go to the Burgtheater the day after tomorrow.” (ONL, 15)

Following this interruption and a pun (“Weiss [White] always sees the blackest side of things”), which falls flat, Weiss brings up emigration. The guests engage seriously, though they have no idea where they could actually go. Weiss, however, then mentions the nascent Zionist movement, saying it will solve the Jewish question through colonization, so those who can no longer stand life in diaspora can return to their old homeland. At the word “Palestine,” uproarious laughter breaks out. The various guests make a string of jokes, beginning with the following:

Gruen bellowed: “I know what I shall be—ambassador to Vienna!”

More laughter and shouts of “So shall I, so shall I!” (ONL, 16)

Perhaps because it may read as a Viennese in-joke, and thus be difficult to comprehend, Blau’s comment is omitted from the English translation. With deadpan delivery he expresses doubts that the Austrian government would accept so many Jewish ambassadors. “You’ll have to look for employment elsewhere,” he commiserates.[14] After this exchange we see Gruen and Blau, between them, imagining life in this future Jewish state. The stock exchange will be closed on the Sabbath. The king will present those men who perform a great service to their country—or the stock market—the Order of King David—or of the “Kosher Sword.”[15] It is far less likely that Herzl is the original author of these jokes than the original butt. To a contemporaneous Zionist reader, especially one who had had similar conversations, the humor would perhaps have come, not from the content of the jokes, but from their tedious predictability. Herzl parodies what was probably a common and tiresome experience for his fellow Zionists, mocking those who mock Zionism. This kind of counter-humor hinges on the incongruity between the act of telling jokes and the fact that the jokes being told are not funny. These wags react mechanically to the bright future of Jewish life in the only way they know how, to the amusement of a reader who is above these jokes and able to lampoon them with better ones.

Herzl parodies what was probably a common and tiresome experience for his fellow Zionists, mocking those who mock Zionism.

Blau’s humor often plays with both anti-Semitism, or stereotypes of Jews, and self-conscious hypocrisy. For example, his first exchange with his rival: “Gruen, don’t eat so loudly. We can barely hear our own fish.”[16] Playing on a widespread Jewish stereotype of the time—noisy eating and poor table manners—Blau attributes this flaw to both his rival and to himself. The joke characterizes Gruen as the loudest eater (that is, the most Jewish) at the table, while acknowledging Blau’s own Jewishness. The flaw he sends up is not that of being Jewish, but of being slightly too Jewish. Finally, when an exasperated Rabbi Weiss asks, “Whom are you laughing at, gentlemen? At yourselves?,” Blau replies “Nein, uns werden wir ernst nehmen”—“No, we’ll take ourselves seriously.”[17] The hypocrisy is intentional and, therefore, funny and acknowledges self-hatred as an attempt to externalize unwanted personal or collective traits. The Jews they laugh at are not themselves. The hypocrite skewers his own hypocrisy; but, at least, unlike the others, he acknowledges hypocrisy instead of being a hypocrite about it. Blau displays not only the supposed hypocrisy of the self-hating Jew, but also enough self-awareness to satirize self-hatred while displaying it. However, lack of self-awareness is among the Jewish traits being mocked, and Blau is competing with his rival to be the least Jewish.

Another guest, Laschner answers the Rabbi’s question by saying, “I’m proud to be a Jew. Even if I wasn’t proud, I’d still be a Jew. So better be proud of it.” Similarly, Blau and the hostess engage in the following exchange:

The maids went out to the kitchen, and Mrs. Loeffler said: “I really think we shouldn’t speak about Jewish matters while the servants are in the room.”

Blau answered promptly, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know that your servants didn’t know that you were Jewish.”

A few people laughed. (ONL, 17)

Herzl tackles Jews’ self-awareness, or lack of it. But although Blau is happy to joke about his own Jewishness, he still attacks those who attempt to hide or deny it. As shown earlier, he torments Dr. Walter (Veigelstock) in the same way for twenty years. Laschner’s humor, however, shows sympathy with, rather than hostility toward, the Rabbi. Though indirectly and with the same conscious absurdity we see in Blau, Laschner acknowledges the fact of being a Jew, even if his pride is a product of resignation. Even after twenty years in the utopian New Society, Laschner also speaks German with more Yiddish elements than many of the others, and he is one of the first to take Weiss’s reports of anti-Semitic violence seriously, hushing his wife’s interruption. With his hybrid, slightly Yiddish diction, Laschner represents a mid-point between the genuinely worried Rabbi Weiss and the callously self-ironizing Gruen and Blau, who are committed to being conspicuously Jewish in diaspora. As in the cases of Rheinberg and Wasserstein in The New Ghetto, qualities stereotyped as Jewish—invariably flaws—go hand in hand with a stronger sense of Jewishness, pride in this Jewishness, and solidarity with other Jews, whether those flawed characters are able to joke about these flaws or are blithely unaware of them. But in Old-New Land we see more shades of grey, with mid-point characters between the two extremes.


A putatively idealized "Jewish face," drawing by fin-de-siècle Viennese Jewish artist Ephraim Moses Lilien. From Maurice Fishberg, The Jews: A Study of Race and Environment. Photo courtesy Wellcome Institute Library, London.

Conclusion: Reflexive Humor as Separation, Meta-Humor as Simplification

Though in The New Ghetto and Old-New Land the teller of the joke is usually more laughable than the content and although Herzl mocks Jews who rely on self-deprecation in particular, the exceptions to this are large in number and significance. Kingscourt’s bad jokes are treated with more affection than ridicule. Littwak, the most upstanding and successful figure in Old-New Land, jokes about “damn greedy Jews.” Herzl would rather lampoon superficiality, lack of self-awareness, and inability to be serious or express self-awareness seriously. Unpleasant and hostile portrayals of Jewish women in particular demonstrate bourgeois diasporic Jews’ superficiality, as does the idea of Gruen and Blau as the pinnacle of stimulating conversation. Conversely however, the jokes counter-lampooned by Herzl are often complex, ironic, and densely layered, whereas those from sympathetic characters tend to be simple and lighthearted. The dynamic between Rheinberg and Wasserstein, and Rabbi Weiss’s line that forms this article’s title—whom are you laughing at, gentlemen? At yourselves?—expose a lack of self-awareness.

Finally, it is their seriousness, particularly the seriousness of their actions, that allows Littwak, Kingscourt, and Herzl himself to use humor, even when it is directly based on crass and hostile stereotypes of Jews. All three, even Kingscourt, express through their actions a deep commitment to Jewish identity and a healthy, regenerated, national culture. Herzl’s humor serves not just to satirize diaspora, but to separate Zionists from those who are committed or attached to the diasporic life. For this reason, even the casually anti-Semitic Kingscourt is mocked more gently and with greater respect than the shallow, self-deprecating Gruen and Blau. Herzl most attacks humorists who play on the complexities and ambivalences of Jewish identity. Where the premise of the joke is an unambiguous understanding of Jewishness—be that Littwak’s pride or Kingscourt’s friendly disdain—Herzl is far more forgiving.

Herzl will not accept humor that relies on denying or concealing Jewishness.

Herzl’s humor allows for a lighthearted discussion of Jewish issues, even if those issues are prompted by gentiles, touch on sensitive topics, or are based on joking adoption of anti-Semitic ideas—or, on occasion, all three. What Herzl will not accept, and actively ridicules, is humor in the absence of seriousness, and humor that relies on denying or concealing Jewishness, usually behind ironic identification. Herzl’s counter-humor prescribes not just a serious attitude toward Judaism, but sincerity and simplicity. His humor reveals anxieties about understandings of Jewishness, however playful, which hinge on the ambiguities of life in the diaspora.

The jokes by a character such as Blau avoid addressing the fractured, ambiguous, and contradictory nature of his Jewishness directly, but they nonetheless acknowledge and accept it. Herzl, however, like most leaders of national movements, seeks to establish a confident and uncomplicated collective identity. Thus, he describes characters as suspicious and even hostile who express more precarious, pluralistic, or playful forms of that identity, even if through humor. Herzl values not seriousness or pride around Jewishness, but sincerity and simplicity.


Bio: Alex Marshall studied French and German at the University of Edinburgh and Modern Languages at Exeter College, Oxford. He is currently finishing a DPhil in German at Brasenose College, Oxford on early Zionism and concepts of nationhood.

Theodor Herzl's funeral photograph


[1] From here on in, “diaspora” will refer to Jewish life outside or before a real or imagined Jewish state.

[2] The actor Albert Wurm, for example, specialized in comic parodies of Jews, in anti-Semitic plays such as the farce Unser Verkehr [Sander L. Gilman, Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews (Baltimore; London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 158-59.]

[3] Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (London: Macmillan, 1911), 10.

[4] Ibid., 77, 17.

[5] Theodor Herzl, Gesammelte Zionistische Werke, 5 volumes (Berlin: Jüdischer Verlag, 1934), vol. 5, 1-124, translations mine. Henceforth “TNG.” Ibid., vol. 5, 125-420. Theodor Herzl, Altneuland = Old-New Land: Novel, translated by Paula Arnold (Haifa, Israel: Haifa Pub. Co, 1960). Henceforth “ONL.

[6] See especially, “Muscle-Judaism,” Max Nordau, Zionistische Schriften (Berlin: Jüdischer Verlag, 1923), 424-26.

[7] Jacques Kornberg, Theodor Herzl: From Assimilation to Zionism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 157.

[8] “’What Will People Say?’ Herzl as Author of Comedies,” Mark H. Gelber and Vivian Liska, eds., Theodor Herzl: From Europe to Zion (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2007), 151.

[9] A story he “tells around the campfire,” as he writes to the Grand Duke of Baden. Theodor Herzl, Briefe Und Tagebücher, ed. Alex Bein, 7 volumes (Frankfurt am Main: Propyläen, 1996), 461.

[10] Both in Old-New Land and in Herzl’s diaries and political writings, state office is presented as something given, as a rule, only to those who have no interest in holding it.

[11] Thomas More, “Utopia,” in Three Early Modern Utopias: Utopia, New Atlantis, the Isle of Pines, ed. Susan Bruce (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 1-148; Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward: 2000-1887, ed. Cecelia Tichi (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982).

[12] ONL, 172. The German word “verjudet,” used here as well as in Kingscourt’s comment on the theater, tended to refer to surreptitious transformation and infiltration of Christian society by Jews. Kingscourt’s quip is a lot more hostile, and a much stranger thing to say through mouthfuls of seder dinner, than the English translation implies.

[13] The original German, “mosaische Mosaik,” works almost as neatly as in English.

[14] Herzl, Gesammelte Zionistische Werke, vol. 5, 141.

[15] ONL, 16. Herzl’s German uses the uncharacteristically vulgar “fleshy sword.”

[16] “Grün—essen Sie nicht so laut! Man hört seinen eigenen Fisch nicht.” (Herzl, Gesammelte Zionistische Werke, vol. 5, 139. Paula Arnold’s translation changes the joke substantially to set up Gruen’s retort.)

[17] Ibid., vol. 5, 141.



Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward: 2000-1887, edited by Cecelia Tichi. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982).

Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (London: Macmillan, 1911).

Gelber, Mark H. and Vivian Liska, eds. Theodor Herzl: From Europe to Zion. (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2007).

Gilman, Sander L. Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews. (Baltimore; London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).

Herzl, Theodor. Altneuland = Old-New Land: Novel. Translated by Paula Arnold (Haifa, Israel: Haifa Pub. Co, 1960).

——. Briefe Und Tagebücher, edited by Alex Bein, 7 volumes (Frankfurt am Main: Propyläen, 1996).

——. Gesammelte Zionistische Werke, 5 volumes (Berlin: Jüdischer Verlag, 1934).

Kornberg, Jacques. Theodor Herzl: From Assimilation to Zionism. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993).

More, Thomas. “Utopia.” In Three Early Modern Utopias: Utopia, New Atlantis, the Isle of Pines, edited by Susan Bruce, 1-148. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Nordau, Max. Zionistische Schriften. (Berlin: Jüdischer Verlag, 1923).

Reitter, Paul. “The Jewish Self-Hatred Octopus.” The German Quarterly 82, no. 3 (2009): 356-72.



In addition to book covers:

Homepage image: Photograph (retouched) of Herzl.

Gentleman and lady with feathered hat in Vienna, c. 1910. (Emily Mayer/Imagno/Austrian Archives/Getty Images).

Cartoon from the Austrian magazine Die Muskete, depicting the composer-conductor Gustav Mahler with a variety of musical and pseudo-musical devices. A caption in German, which was along the bottom, has been deleted. A translation of the caption: “My God, I’ve forgotten the motor-horn! Now I shall have to write another symphony.”

On ship: Herzl on a voyage to Egypt, 1903. Photo: Walter Anton / Wikimedia.

A putatively idealized “Jewish face,” in a drawing by fin-de-siècle Viennese Jewish artist Ephraim Moses Lilien. From Maurice Fishberg, The Jews: A Study of Race and Environment (London: Walter Scott Publishing Co., 1911), p. 95. Photo courtesy Wellcome Institute Library, London.

Final image: Herzl’s funeral, Vienna, 1904.


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Theodor Herzl: Comedy and Politics Mix


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