A generation of American Jews mourned the closure of the satirical ‘Mad’ magazine this week, with its heavily Yiddish-influenced humour.
The magazine’s founders grew up in Yiddish-speaking New York homes, and some even spent part of their childhoods living in shtetls in Europe.
Mad was at its height in the 1970s when a circulation of two million made it one of America’s most popular magazines. It influenced generations of American comic writers, artists and comedians, but the magazine has now called time after 70 years of publication.
Mad was known for – and proud of – its irreverence, taking aim at the great and the good of society, particularly the wealthy, targeting politicians, celebrities and prominent communal figures, including rabbis.
Interviewed by Forward magazine in 2016, legendary contributor and co-founder Al Jaffee – then aged 94 – said the magazine was infused with Yiddish humour in part because “Yiddish conveys humour better than English”.
Jaffee recalled how one of his co-founders grew up with Yiddish-speaking parents but who didn’t know any Yiddish. “His parents would be arguing and all he’d hear was a stream of funny words, and he would pick up the curse words his parents were throwing at each other in anger.”
As a result, the Yiddish used during Mad’s first decade was based on what the founders found to be the funniest-sounding words to evoke their parents’ humorous put-downs, including as ‘bveebleftzer’ and ‘farshimmelt.’
One example is the word ‘furshlugginer,’ derived from the Yiddish word shlogan (to hit). When finally asked by a reader what ‘furshlugginer’ meant, the editorial team replied: “It means the same as ‘potzrebie’ – ed.”
This cued another long-running debate as to the meaning of ‘potzrebie,’ only answered by Jaffee in 2016. “It was an expression in Lithuania when I was a kid. Putz is genitals and is applied as an insult to the rebbe. It’s like saying, ‘Oh that stupid teacher’.”
Fans have been recalling their favourite Mad magazine memories, including the invention of a cigarette to help you stop smoking, the Jewish Batman who would ask ‘why is this Dark Knight different to all the other Dark Knights,’ and the Superman-equivalent ‘Superduperman’ who would say: “Shazoom? Vas ist das Shazoom?”
Yet for its first decade the magazine never mentioned the word ‘Jewish,’ in common with other Jewish American comedians like the Marx Brothers and Sid Caesar. Jaffee said this was in part because its founders “lived through a period when Jewish people were very nervous about flaunting their Jewishness.”
More recently it has lampooned Donald Trump’s Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner and Trump’s convert daughter Ivanka, showing her in the Oval Office under the caption ‘Take Your Kids to Work Every Day’.