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Ghosts of Purim Past

At the tender age of four, the Commentator published its first Purim issue on March 1, 1939.  The initial Purim edition was also the Commentator’s first foray into the use of color.  The red ink may have referred to the Commentator’s nickname, the “Commie,” and was presumably chosen to match the article “Dies Committee Exposes Rabbis’ Activities in U.S.: Red Control of Agudath Harabonim to be Investigated.”


The editors offered a disclaimer for the Purim mirth in an editorial entitled “Our Apologies First.” “With this issue Commentator has decided to stage a little Chagiga of its own. We sincerely hope that our attempts at humor will be met in the same spirit in which they are intended – in the spirit of good, clean fun and in keeping with the gayety of the traditional Purim atmosphere. If there be such who feel that their dignity has been offended, we hereby offer our heartfelt sympathy to them.”

There is no contemporaneous evidence to tell us how the inaugural Purim Commentator was received.  One can conjecture that it created some uproar. The students showed little restraint; the venerable rabbinical organization the Agudath Harabonim is pilloried in the issue.  Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel, in the guise of Dr. Bee Hevel, is reported to have used the first inter-planetary communication to greet Martians by asking, “’Ut How-is-your---Yiras---Sham[a]yim --- up there?’”

How has the sensibility of 1939 fared in the ensuing years? Some of the articles are, naturally, written in the context of their time and the humor is not readily accessible to a reader in 2017. From a contemporary vantage point, it is difficult to comprehend how Nazi Germany could have served as fodder for laughter.  Nonetheless, humor endured even during World War II; the study of the Holocaust and humor is currently a robust field of inquiry. Perhaps this Purim Commentator, published on the cusp of World War II, can contribute to the conversation.

Posted by Shulamith Z. Berger