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Defining Mennonite: Puns and Riddles


Chapter 1


The quest for authentic Mennonite narratives will actually begin with names, puns and riddle-jokes. Most riddle jokes do embody highly condensed narratives. But my thesis is that these elementary, gnomic forms of folklore are inherently more fixed—and least subject to alterations, variants and The Gordon Factor—than are other kinds of folklore. Consequently, they constitute more distinctively Mennonite ethnic lore than do most narratives.

By common consent, puns are the lowest form of humor. We groan first, and then laugh. Puns are so easy to create—usually spontaneously—that they enter everyday conversation as interruptive non sequiturs. We are subject to the good and the bad—to too many too often. Usually they are nonce words, recognized and enjoyed in a moment and then forgotten and not passed on.

One folklore genre that preserves puns, and even capitalizes on them, is the riddle-joke, which is probably the most widespread folk expressive form circulating in American culture today. Like the true riddle found in "primitive" cultures, a riddle-joke consists of a question that the interrogated can answer only if he or she has heard the answer before. In successful riddling, questioners must answer their own questions. Riddles are "traditional questions with traditional answers," that is, they are not created on the spot, but are memorized from prior transmission. Although true riddles exploit metaphors, riddle-jokes usually exploit puns, or double meanings, of individual words or phrases--whether in the question or the answer, but usually in the answer.

For instance, the query, "Why don't they hire Mennonites at the Kennedy Space Center?" requires the answer, "Every time they announce 'Launch,' the Mennonites run for their lunch pails" (Rhubarb Summer 00, p. 6). The question is rather absurd, the answer cannot be figured out, and the answer exploits the pun of launch/lunch.

In the range of ethnic humor, riddle-jokes play an important role because they tend to be the form that reveals the most about a group's identity and obsessions. Longer, more complex, joking ethnic narratives can often be transferred to other ethnic groups by changing minor details—sometimes, as with moron stories, just the name of the group. Although riddle-jokes are not as "fixed" in their form as are proverbs, the questions and answers of riddle-jokes are so brief and focused as to be virtually unchangeable. And the answers tend to depend on the punning use of words whose special, in-group meanings cannot be fathomed by outsiders to the group.

The lunch/launch joke above, of course, is merely a moron joke from American mainstream culture applied, in this case, to Mennonites, who are probably no more or less concerned about eating lunch than are other people. For this chapter I have excluded jokes like the launch/lunch riddle,because they reveal little that is distinctive about Mennonites. Instead, I have chosen riddle-jokes that are based on in-group humor—usually the specialized use of words in puns—or riddle-jokes whose points seem very closely related to the self-perceptions held by Mennonites or to the perceptions that non-Mennonites have of them.

Mennonite readers should "get" all the jokes without difficulty. They may want to skip the comments on individual items. But for non-Mennonites I add culturally esoteric information that will explain what is funny to Mennonites. The comments should enhance, not ruin, the humor. The sequence of the riddle-jokes presented here moves from the sublime to the ridiculous, that is, from jokes based on deeply held religious beliefs to jokes dealing with more frivolous aspects of Mennonite culture.

Nonresistance

Historically and still today, descendants of the Swiss and Dutch Anabaptists have usually taken a pacifist stance in regard to war and human relations. They are conscientious objectors –reviled as "C.O.'s" during national crises.Mennonites in early America referred to themselvesd as verlosen, or defenseless, Christians. In fact, a small group of Mennonites once named themselves the "Defenseless Mennonite Church." Until after World War 2 Mennonites tended to refer to themselves as nonresistant Christians. They tended to avoid the term pacifist because it was associated with secular politics, although today that term is an unselfconscious part of Mennonite discourse.

Mennonite groups vary in the way they apply their pacifism to public affairs. The most conservative groups refrain from political involvement, do not comment on public affairs and quietly accept alternatives to military service. The most liberal groups resist Selective Service and practice nonviolent resistance in public affairs. The most evangelical groups are more likely to accept noncombatant service, or even military service.

The first riddle-joke implies that Christian pacifism is the single most important identifying characteristic of Mennonites as a religious ethnic group:

*What are the four shortest books ever written?
The Polish book on How to Improve Your I.Q.
The Jewish book on Work Ethics.
The Black book on Real Estate Management.
The Mennonite book of War Heroes.

Like much ethnic humor that comments on other ethnic groups, the joke exploits stereotypes and seems discriminatory and even racist. The joke has an obviously positive Mennonite bias, since the first three titles have negative implications, but the Mennonite title is based on a positive Mennonite self-perception. The joke must have been created, or adapted, by a Mennonite and it circulates widely in variant forms in Mennonite circles. For instance, one variant concludes with the title, My Life as an Amish Electrician, which is a slur against a rival Anabaptist group.

*Have you heard of the most extreme Mennonite pacifist?
He even refused to wrestle with his own conscience.
(Rhubarb Summer 2000, p. 6)

*Why did the Mennonite pacifist move to the city?
Because he heard the country was at war.
(Katie Funk Wiebe, With July-Aug. 1985, p. 17)

*What do you call a Mennonite nurse who faithfully follows the doctor's order while giving shots to patients?
A conscientious injector.
(Wiebe, 17)

*Why aren't American Mennonite women allowed to wear sleeveless dresses?
They aren't supposed to bear arms.

Several generations ago, rather strict clothing regulations affected women in many Swiss-Alsatian churches, but less so in Dutch-Russian groups. Today dress regulations are enforced only by the Amish and the most conservative Mennonite groups. "Liberated" Mennonites tell this joke as a way of ridiculing those outmoded restrictions.

Some Cultural Traits

*What is the only time when Mennonites raise their hands?
When they hang out the warsh.

This joke assumes the tendency today in some charismatic churches to raise hands toward heaven while singing or praying. Mennonites, who have historically been very restrained in emotional expression during worship services, have tended to resist these charismatic practices. The joke stresses the practical concern for cleanliness among Mennonites and ridicules some Mennonites' peculiar pronunciation of wash with an intrusive r sound—which is actually a Midland regional dialect pronunciation unrelated to being Mennonite. Except for the most conservative Mennonite and Amish groups, most Mennonites use clothes dryers today.

Mennonites' obsession with cleanliness and frugality dominates the following riddle-jokes:

*Why did it take four months for the Mennonite woman motorist to arrive in Florida?
She kept seeing signs reading "Clean Restrooms" at the gas stations.

*How was copper wire invented?
Two Mennonites found a penny.
(Rhubarb Summer 2000, p. 6)

Although this joke probably circulates in Jewish and other groups with a reputation for parsimony, it also fits very well the reputation and self-understanding of Mennonites, who have mixed feelings about the stereotype it implies.

The principle of restraint and discipline in worship services has its counterpart in Mennonites' traditionally puritan attitudes toward sex.

*How do we know that Adam was a Mennonite?
Who else, living in a garden with a naked woman, would be tempted by an apple instead?

*What do you call a Mennonite coffee break?
Menno pause.

*Why don't Mennonites have sex standing up?
It might lead to dancing.

This bawdy riddle-joke circulates widely in the Mennonite community, and has even made its way into the novel My Lovely Enemy (1983) by the distinguished Canadian Mennonite writer Rudy Wiebe.

The Last Veiled Feminist
Image: Don Swartzentruber

The Last Veiled Feminist

The next two riddle-jokes take for granted that Mennonite women have historically covered their heads in worship services and even sometimes in all daily activities, following the admonition in I Corinthians 11:3-6: "Any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head [i.e., Christ and her husband]." Dutch-Russian Mennonite women earlier wore the kaube, a European peasant-derived black head covering. Swiss-Alsatian women wore the "devotional veiling," or "devotional covering," a black or white net head covering, also derived from European peasant caps. Today only the most conservative Amish and Mennonite groups continue the custom, but it is well recalled by more liberal groups, who associate it with the oppression of Mennonite women by Mennonite men.

*How do we know that Eve was not a Mennonite?
Because she wore no covering.

*What do the Mennonite missionaries in Zaire do with extra mosquito netting?
They make coverings for Mennonite elephants.

This riddle-joke may be a variant of:

*What do American Catholics do with used bowling balls?
They send them to Africa to make rosaries for elephants.

Alcohol Use

As European immigrants, Mennonites condemned drunkenness, but not drinking alcoholic beverages as such. Mennonites made wine in their homes, used it in communion services, and distilled whiskey—Old Overholt, the favorite of John Foster Dulles, being one famous example. However, with the temperance movement most Swiss-Alsatian Mennonites, especially in the U.S., became teetotalers, unlike their Dutch-Russian counterparts, who had less of a conscience against drinking. Although abstinence is still the dominant position among a majority of Mennonites, the prohibition is breaking down today, as suggested by these riddle-jokes:

*What happens if you take one Mennonite fishing?
He drinks all your beer.
(Rhubarb Summer 2000, p. 6.)

*What happens if you take two Mennonites fishing?
They don't drink any of your beer.
(Rhubarb Summer 2000, p. 6.)

*What is the difference between Lutherans and Mennonites?
A Lutheran will say "hello" to you in a liquor store.
(Mennonot Spring 1997, p. 19)

*What's a significant ethical Mennonite dilemma?
Free beer.
(Rhubarb Summer 2000, p. 6)

Light Bulbs

Of the many lightbulb jokes circulating about Mennonites, I have chosen only three that seem to express distinctive Mennonite traits:

*How many Mennonites does it take to change a light bulb?
Seven—one to actually change the bulb and six to complain that they liked the old one better.
(Mennonot Spring 1997, p. 19.)

*How many Mennonites does it take to change a light bulb?
Who said anything about change?
(Rhubarb Summer 2000, p. 6.)

*How many Mennonite Brethren [of Russian descent] does it take to change a light bulb?
Fifty. Two to change the light bulb and 48 to buy the zwiebach [bread] and borscht.
(Christian Leader, Nov. 16, 1982)

Amish

Swiss-Alsatian Mennonites who live near Old Order Amish communities usually have a sizeable repertoire of joking stories about the Amish, as shown in Chapter 4. Although many riddle-jokes are at the expense of the Amish, the first one is merely clever and the second one may be a near-compliment:

*What do you call Amish children?
Am-lets.

*What is an Amishman?
A fur-bearing Christian.

The "fur" apparently refers to the beard that is obligatory for any Amish man when he joins the church. If the riddle-joke casts the Amish as animal-like, then it is derogatory. But fur-bearing also is a pun on forbearing, which means "to do without" or "to hold oneself back from esp. with an effort of self-restraint" or "to control oneself when provoked" (Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary). The Amish certainly "do without" many of the worldly goods that mainstream Americans covet. They practice moral and cultural "self-restraint." And as defenseless Christians they "control" themselves when provoked.

Vivid sounds and sights dominate two riddle-jokes. The first is based on the Amish use of the horse and buggy instead of the automobile. The second evokes the clothing regulations of the most conservative group of Mennonites:

*What goes "Clop! Clop! Bang! Clop! Clop! Bang! Clop! Clop! Bang!"?
A drive-by shooting in Amish country.

*What goes black and white, black and white, black and white?
An Old Order Mennonite somersaulting down a hill.
(Rhubarb Summer 00 p. 6)

Names

The jokes in this section are based on the name Mennonite and on institutional names created by and well known to Mennonites. Mennonite self-loathing includes embarrassment over the odd name of their religious denomination. Strangers to the tradition often need to hear the word pronounced again, and then they ask about its meaning and origin. Of course, it comes from the Dutch Protestant reformer, Menno Simons (1496-1559). Some Mennonites' embarrassment by it comes from their church being named after a very human being, Menno, which doesn't seem very Christ-like. Evangelically inclined Mennonites especially advocate changing the name of their church, so that the name itself will not impede evangelism. The decline in status of the name Menno is further illustrated by the fact that, except in very conservative groups, Mennonites no longer name their sons Menno, despite their revival of old-fashioned names like Noah and Eli. Ambivalence toward the name pervades the riddle-jokes that follow.

*What's better than one Mennonite?
Two men a night.

*How do you keep an Amish woman happy?
Two men a night.

Both of these riddle-jokes were told to me by a non-Mennonite. The second joke has such currency that Garrison Keillor used it on "The Prairie Home Companion" in 2005. These jokes trivialize the name Mennonite by giving it a highly sexualized meaning. Many non-Mennonite tellers of the second joke probably regard the Amish and the Mennonites as the same people. But, to a Mennonite, a sexual liaison between an Amish woman and a Mennonite man evokes a kind of taboo miscegenation.

*What do Mennonite gay men give to each other?
Mennonite Mutual AIDS.

The teller of this joke apologized for the offense it might give. It assumes knowledge of the Mennonite Mutual Aid Association, an ecumenical Mennonite agency that provides financial services—insurance, mutual funds, estate-planning—to most Mennonite groups in the U.S. and Canada. Although the idea of mutuality applies to both levels of this pun, the shocker comes when the ameliorative work of MMAA clashes with the devastation of AIDS.

Two other AIDS-related jokes come from the Winnipeg, Manitoba, Mennonite community where Abe is a common given name and Dyck is a common family name.

*Why did they build a wall around Steinbach?
To stop the spread of Abe's.
(Rhubarb Summer 2000, p. 6.)

*How is Abe's spread?
By Dycks.
(Rhubarb Summer 2000, p. 6.)

Mennonites have excelled in relief work more so than in missions. An ecumenical Mennonite institution, the Mennonite Relief Sale, is the basis of the first of two riddle-jokes that play with the meaning of "relief." Over 50 Mennonite communities in the U.S. and Canada now sponsor annual auctions and sales, at which time items donated by congregations free of charge are auctioned or sold—especially beautiful quilts--with all proceeds going to the worldwide relief efforts of the Mennonite Central Committee. In recent years the sales have raised an average of $5,000,000 per year for international charity and development. I have written about the relief sales as folk festivals in Chapter 9 of MennoFolk.

The first joke is based on a TV advertisement that asked, "How do you spell 'relief?'" i.e., from pain. The second joke adds scatology to the otherwise noble meaning of "relief" in Mennonite circles.

*How do Mennonites spell "relief"?
S-a-l-e.
(Wiebe, 17)

*What's another name for a restroom at a Mennonite conference?
Mennonite Relief Center
(Wiebe, 17)

Yoders

Because of shared national, linguistic and historical origins, both the Swiss-Alsatian and Dutch-Russian Mennonite communities, especially in rural areas, bear a predictable set of family names. The Amish, who have always been separatists, represent this tendency best, since there are only about 100 different family names in their total membership of about 150,000 in the U.S. and Canada. Among Swiss-Alsatian Mennonites and Amish, the family names of Miller and Yoder predominate—Yoder being more distinctive, perhaps, since Miller is also a common name in mainstream English culture. Folklorist Don Yoder (a Lutheran) has made a detailed study of the origin of the patronym Yoder. Many Mennonite jokes exploit it to suggest the inbred nature of the Swiss-Alsatian Mennonite community. One joke below also acknowledges the many Swiss-Alsatian Mennonite families named Beachy and Bontrager.

*Why are there no Negro Amishmen?
Because Kunte Yoder fell overboard.

*Have you heard of the new Mennonite college at Shipshewana, Indiana?
It's called Yoder Dame and their nickname is "The Fighting Amish."

*What would happen to the Mennonite Church if all the Yoders left it?
It would be deYoderized.

*Have you heard about the confused boy whose father was Amish and mother was Japanese?
Every December 7 he attacks Pearl Bontrager.

*And also these variant responses:
He started a car company called ToYoder.
Which went so well that he started another one, MitsuBeachy.

Titles

Comic titles of books, films and musical compositions are frequently set up in the form of riddle-jokes, as indicated by the one about Polish, Jews and Blacks that opened this chapter. Of the many comic titles circulating among Mennonites, a selection appears below. They come from an e-mail group mailing, "A Mennonite List of Musts," of unknown origin, but clearly originating in the Mennonite culture of the western U.S. and Canada. The humor of most of them comes from puns on common Dutch-Russian Mennonite family names, which makes them resemble the "Yoder" jokes above. One comes from a Russian and Kansas place name.

*A Mennonite Reading List
Moby Dueck [doo-ek]
Of Mice and Mennos
The Old Man and the Siemens [See-mens]
Reimer of the Ancient Mariner
The Koehn [keen] Mutiny
The Hairy Epp
The Midnight Ride of Paul Regier [Re-geer]

*Books for Children
Rempelstiltskin
Krahn-Tiki

Little Known Mennonite Historical Figures
Santa Claassen
Alexanderwohl [place name] the Great
Genghis Krahn
Woody Woodbecker

*Miscellaneous Musical Masterpieces for Mennonites
The NutKroeker [croaker] Suite
Who Let the Schrags Out?
Hey, Hey, We're the Juhnkes [young-keys]!

In the Old Testament, Samson posed the true riddle of the honeycomb to his wife's family (Judges 14:5-20). In Greek mythology, Oedipus solved the true riddle of the Sphinx. In mainstream American culture, the riddle joke and the pun are probably the most widely circulating types of folklore. Mennonite culture, too, nurtures these universally expressive forms, exploiting different linguistic and cultural resources.

About the Author

Ervin Beck

Ervin Beck, Emeritus Professor of English at Goshen College, is co-editor of The Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing, author of many publications on Mennonite literature and folk culture, including MennoFolk and MennoFolk2, published by Herald Press, and compiler of the three Mennonite bibliographies linked on the CMW homepage. From 2006-07 he taught English and dramatic literature at LCC International University in Klaipeda, Lithuania. He was on the planning committee for the two Mennonite/s Writing conferences held at Goshen College in 1997 and 2002. He lives in Goshen, Indiana.