Date: Wed, 21 Jan 1998 23:49:21 -0500

From: Alan Baragona baragonasa[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]VAX.VMI.EDU

Subject: Re: folk tale, "1, 2, 3"

Gregory {Greg} Downing wrote:

At 07:00 PM 1/21/98 -0500, you (baragonasa[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE] wrote:

I was told this story as a joke, not a traditional folktale, but the

setting was the medieval Rome during the Plague, and the disputants were

the Pope and the head Rabbi. The punchline, however, is decidedly modern

and, as told to me, very unfolklorish. Now I actually use the joke in

my Intro to Linguistics class when we discuss semiotics.

I'm not sure of the sense in which Beth Simon used "folklore" in her

original post, but I meant it in the sense of modern/urban folklore, without

necessarily making any claims about antiquity. Where's the US dialect facet,


Greg Downing/NYU, at greg.downing[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE] or downingg[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]

I heard this joke before the Internet existed (I think), back in 1984 or

85, and it tells even better than it reads because the gestures and

intonation, especially as it was told to me by a Jewish law student, who

knew something about comic timing as well as disputation, are part of

the humor.

In "my" version, the Rabbi suggests a sign language debate, not to make

it more interesting, but to "level the playing field"--the Pope is used

to disputation in Latin and the Chief Rabbi is used to disputation in

Hebrew, so neither has a linguistic advantage with signing. The

progression of signs is different in this version. First comes the Pope

making a rainbow motion and the Rabbi pointing to the ground. Then the

three fingers answered by one. Finally, of course, the chalice and Host

answered with the apple. The "US dialect facet" comes in the Rabbi's

speech and intonations (as he and the joke teller repeat the all the


"Well, first he said [rainbow motion] 'All you Jews, get outta town.'

And I said [pointing downward] 'Ve're staying right here.' Then he said

[three fingers] 'You got three days,' and I said [one finger pointed

upward] 'Ve're not moving one inch,' and then ve broke for lunch."

It's the final phrase that is urban US and funny, partly because it's

incongruous in the medieval setting and makes the medieval Chief Rabbi

sound like Myron Cohen or Jackie Mason. Also, it must be said with

shrugging of shoulders. There are still some things that e-mail isn't

good for.