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Poking fun at totalitarianism: A scene from the 1968 film “The Producers”, whose director Mel Brooks was the son of a German Jew

Mr Roubitschek is doing so well in the Ministry of Commerce that he is sent to Budapest to negotiate a new contract for the exchange of goods. Next day a telegraph arrives in Prague: "Contract successfully negotiated, stop, Long Live Free Hungary!"

Highly pleased with this, the Minister sends him to Warsaw. On the third day a telegram arrives: "Contract successfully negotiated, stop, Long Live Free Poland!'

"Comrade Roubitschek," his impressed superiors declare on his return, "you speak many languages and will therefore be given the important mission of negotiating a treaty for us in the West."

Roubitschek packs his bags and sets out. A week later a telegram arrives at the Ministry. "Am in Paris, stop, business going well, stop, Long Live Free Roubitschek." 

- a joke from pre-Velvet Revolution Prague

That Roubitschek is a Jew we would not, I think, know for sure if Ruth R. Wisse (in her new book No Joke: The Making of Jewish Humor, Princeton, £16.95) hadn't told us she found the joke in Vladimir Karbusicky's Jewish Anecdotes from Prague, though the cheek and the shapeliness, the apparently obedient servant of the state having the last laugh on the system, the joy in the lingustic triumph, and of course the relief of getting the hell out, all have a colouration of Jewish comedy. "Long Live Free Roubitschek" satisfies because it cleverly mocks a sham freedom with a real one. Roubitschek "can finally release truth from the lies that he has been compelled to repeat", Wisse notes, but he can finally release himself into the freedom to have fun too. Roubitschek off the leash in Paris. You name them — Bellow, Heller, Malamud, Woody Allen — you can detect a hint of many a Jewish writer in that joke's relish of Roubitschek's victory.

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