Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Motke Chabad


Motke was born in Oshmine, in Vilna province in Poland-Lithuania at the start of the nineties in the eighteenth century to very poor parents. His father was a night watchman. His mother was a house servant. As far as learning goes, Motke according to Kuper, had no great appetite. He was not interested in the laws and the difficult Gemara. He preferred enjoying life, sticking his nose into other people’s business, and making people jolly. He drove his teachers in the Talmud Torah crazy. He played all kinds of whimsical tricks, such as pouring milk onto the rabbi’s beard while he was napping. He would bring a male goat into the classroom and other such pranks. Understandably there was little hesitation to toss him out of school. His father sent him away to Vilna as a result. He hoped that his son would learn a trade. Work did not appeal to M., so he made up a fitting job for himself. He became a helper to waiters at weddings. That was the kind of life that appealed to him. Always happy, lively, serving delicious food, he was happy to be snacking on leftovers. The klezmorim (musicians) accompanied all of his activities with joyous music and joke telling. He especially loved the jesters (badchens) who made up rhymes for the bride and groom, bearing good pronouncements on the couple and watching the girls and women dancing. Pretty soon Motke was able to show off what he could do. His jokes were better than the best jesters. He touched everyone to the quick, brought them up to the seventh heaven, especially the rich and important Jews. He was nicknamed Chabad, the initials of which are three Hebrew words Chochma (wisdom), Bina (understanding) and Da’as (knowledge). But since

he loved hard liquor too much, he lost his position as a jester’s aide. Instead he took to living from his talents as a humorist and joke teller. Motke started to frequent the home of a wealthy man in Vilna, Optoff. He would joke with him constantly, and at the same time he was supported by him.

G. Kupper published a few of Motke’s jokes in the "Forward" (9 February 1930). Zalmen Reisen wrote: In Vilna older people still remember the old popular folk jokes told by Motke Chabad. The old Vilna chapel foreman Mr. Marcus Stupel, who is now in the Polish army, told me that Motke was most probably born at the start of the 19th century. He lived in Mayerke’s court (Toybe Zavulek St. no. 3). He earned his money by appearing at large weddings, where he told jokes and performed several comic acts, for example—pretending to be a Russian army officer. He was clean shaven with trimmed hair. He spoke Russian and Polish very well, l but when it came to knowledge of Judaism (yiddishkayt), apparently, he was ignorant. The Hebrew-Yiddish author Zvi-Nisson Golomb also remembered Motke Chabad. He too told us that Motke made his living by working at weddings and other happy occasions. Often he would be in charge of the cloakroom. At other times he might earn a coin or two by telling a joke. He died in the last quarter of the 19th century. He had no children.

Ab. Cahan tells us in his memoirs: … He lived in the same courtyard that the author Isaac Mayer Dik, who lived on Klaynstephen St. (The building belonged to a Mister Nissenson). On several occasions I saw the famous jokester Motke Chabad. He was a middle-aged Jew, a bit taller than average and possessing a good figure. He had a short beard and big bulging eyes. He always wore a long, two button, brown jacket.  He walked with a thick walking stick. From Yishaya Baltamantz’s Hebrew school I heard a story about him. He once made fun of his Rebbe with an improper joke. So the Rebbe locked him out in order for him to have to earn his living as a "Chabad". … in other words, as a joke teller. Once as I was coming home from the Hebrew school on Klaynstehpen St. I found myself walking behind him. I chased after him and screamed out: "Motke Chabad!" He started to chase after me with his walking stick -- perhaps only in jest. I ran faster than him and escaped.”

G. Kupper described him in this manner: “The difference between Motke and the other famous Yiddish jokester, Hershele Ostropolier, was that Hershel was a Chasid among Chasidim. That’s why he was not so bitter about his lot in life. Chasidim don’t hold their noses up in the air. They love a good joke and are not uncomfortable meeting a poor person. Motke lived in Vilna among Litvaks for whom the most important qualities of a man were his learnedness in Jewish texts and orderliness. That’s why they didn’t understand him. In that depressing Litvak atmosphere, Motke could not find his place. This explains why, at the end of his life, he suffered much more than Hershele. The end of Hershele’s life was full of joy and recognition. Yes, he was poor but not a lonely man among his own Chasidim. Motke had a terrible old age. He was ill and paralyzed. He spent his final years in a Vilna Hekdesh (poor house) among other crippled and bitter poor people.

Sh.E. from Lazar Ran.

  • Z. Reisen -- "Lexicon of YIddish Literature," Vol. II, pp. 294-95.

  • G. Cooper [I.J. Singer] --Yidishe vitsler, kibetser un ltsim un zayer role in amolign yidishn lebn, "Forward," N.Y., 9 Feb. 1930.

  • Y. Lifshitz -- Badkhanim un ltsim bay yidn, "Archive," Vilna, 1930, pp. 58-59.







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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 2, page 1213.

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