On Mennonites and Humour: Musings on Jake Jokes, Pantyhose & Plautdeitsch

[A piece I wrote for a Mennonite periodical called the M.B. Herald. They didn’t publish it because they said it was “too ethnic”. For a Mennonite periodical. Go figure.]

How many Mennonites does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

I can’t quite remember the punchline but I’m pretty sure it has something to do with committees.

Does God have a sense of humour? This is an obvious question to a person who believes that life is a big cosmic  joke… and they are the punchline. But the people who believe that wouldn’t be readng the Herald. They’d be reading that other Mennonite publication. And they’d probably be smoking while they were reading it! You know which publication I’m talking about. No, not the Rundschau. The one the other guys read.

Einstein said God doesn’t play dice with the universe. But does He play Rook? If God didn’t want us to tell jokes, why did He give us Plautdeitsch? Maybe a better question would be: is there a distinctly Mennonite sense of humour? Or is “Mennonite humor” an oxymoron… like “the MB Herald swimsuit issue” or “Amish heavy metal”?

When I Googled “Mennonite humor” I got the response, “What? Are you joking?”. My mother, though in possession of a fine sense of humour, has only laughed out loud three times in her life, and one of those times was after hearing me tell a Mennonite joke. Something about pantyhose if I recall correctly. So that’s a good thing isn’t it? (Making someone laugh out loud, I mean. Not pantyhose.)

I well remember when I was just a young man at Bridal College, working on my MrS. degree, spending many an idle evening sitting around the dorm room spitting knackzotes, sipping yerbatae and swapping Mennonite jokes. Just sitting, sipping and spitting. As one does. We’d sometimes play the Mennonite version of the Kevin Bacon game. As you probably already know, there are six degrees of separation between any Mennonite and Jake Friesen. Although in many cases, it’s less than that, depending on which Jake Friesen we’re talking about. The farmer Jake Friesen or that other one. The one that’s not a farmer.

My Opa, a man of the earth and an earthy man, was known to say that the only vegetables he’d eat were the ones which had been through a pig first. That’s sort of funny, when you really think about it. As long as you don’t think about it too hard. Then it’s stops being funny and starts being sort of disgusting. It seemed natural for me then, given my non-vegetable-eating Opa and all, that I would come to formulate a theological position that vegetables are a result of the Fall of man. After all, how could a loving God possibly create broccoli? Exactly. But I digress.

Where were we? Oh right, Mennonites and humour. Why is there no Mennonite Humour Committee? We have committees for everything else. There’s even a Mennonite Jazz Committee. Talk about your oxymorons! If God didn’t want us to make jokes why did He give us such funny names? Friesen, Toews, Hamm, Reimer, Haak, Funk, Froese, Harder, Fast, Boldt, Dick, Gerbrandt, Blickensdorfer, Stroink. Are you kidding me? The comedic potential is enormous, especially once you throw in some common Mennonite first names like Cornie, Harry, Peter, John, Wally, and, of course, Frieda. The jokes practically write themselves!

Some words and names are just inherently funnier than others. Like Minsk. It doesn’t even sound like the name of a city. It sounds more like something you’d eat. “This Minsk schmeckt gut, Oma. What did you put in it?” I can totally imagine someone saying that. Omsk is funny too, but not as funny as Minsk and not as well-known. I’ve never heard any jokes about Omsk. Harold is actually sort of a funny name too. Do you think if a guy is named Harold and he goes to an M.B. church that everyone then calls him M.B. Harold? I bet that would get tiring after a while. I actually have a friend named Harold. He’s writing what he hopes will be the ultimate Christian bestseller. It’s called “Piercing the Shack in the Darkness”. The original title was going to be “Left Behind in the Shack in the Darkness” but I told him that would be ridiculous. But I digress.

In Japan there’s a car called the Opa. The Toyota Opa. Can you imagine being a teenage boy and trying to pick up girls while driving an Opa? I don’t know what the Opa is called in North America. Jake would be a good name for a car. I’d drive a Jake. It would be sort of funny if your name was Jake and you drove a Jake. People would say things like, “Hey, there goes Jake in his Jake.” or “Did you see Jake’s new Jake? Sweet ride! He traded in his Opa for it.”

Jake is sort of a funny name too when you think about it. I guess I should have added it to the list earlier. And the word Jake sounds a lot like joke. Maybe we could call jokes about Mennonites Jake Jokes. Like elephant jokes or waiter jokes. “Hey, I’ve got a great Jake Joke for you?” I could totally imagine hearing someone saying something like that too. How many of you have ever told a Mennonite joke? Be honest now.  Surely when our forefathers and foremothers and their forechildren came over from the Old Country (perhaps somewhere near Minsk), they brought humour with them. Of course, it was much stricter back then. Jokes could only be told in Low German and only in four-part harmony. But even that was a vast improvement on earlier times. As every Mennonite schoolboy… er… schoolperson… well knows, the seven articles of the Schleitheim Confession of 1527 include  renunciation of the sword, renunciation of the oath and, of course, renunciation of the humour. Today only the more old-fashioned Mennonite churches- the ones that don’t allow broadband but only dial-up Internet connections- still go in for all that.

By way of confession, Schleitheim itself is sort of a funny word. Maybe it’s near Minsk. Or, better yet, Waldheim. That would be hilarious! I could just see Jake driving to Schleitheim in his new Opa  to tell his girlfriend a Mennonite joke in Plaudeitsch. But again with the digressions.

One of the shortest books I’ve ever readen was “The History of Mennonite Humour”. Back in the turbulent ‘60’s, when the M.L.O. (Mennonite Liberation Organization) was carrying out it’s peaceful bombings and agitating for a Mennonite homeland in the Steinbach area, Mennonite humour was much more subversive than it is today. “Make buns, not war!” and all that. The 80’s brought us the Mennonite rapper/relief worker, M.C.C. Hammer, with his stirring calls for political activism and baggy pants. That’s all I remember. Like I said, it was a really short book.

Hey, here’s an idea. Maybe having a good sense of humour is a gift from God? Maybe not one of the spiritual gifts but one of those other gifts, the next tier down. Like the gift of philanthropy. A friend of mine believes he has the gift of philanthropy, preferably financed by lottery winnings. Unfortunately, he has yet to win and so has no philan to throp with but if he had the philan I’m sure that he’d be throping like you’d never seen anyone throp before! But I, of course, digress.

The writer of Ecclesiastes, who was much smarter than I’ll ever be (AND had a lot more wives!), said that there is a time to weep and a time to laugh. I figure life already gives most of us enough opportunities to weep so I’m going to take every chance I can get to laugh as well. If that includes a good Mennonite joke now and then, so be it. So… have you heard the one about the Mennonite guy who went into a bar?….

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