Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Lions and lambs.

This 1896 reaction to a suggestion to merge Christmas and Hanukkah into one big, happy American July 4th holiday comes courtesy of a periodical called The Freethinker.

So I got to thinking about lions and lambs.

I remember the first time I heard the following joke, in the pages of the Jerusalem Post, I think, perhaps 10 years ago:
The Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem arranges an exhibit displaying Messianic times, the centerpiece being a cage with a lion and lamb peacefully co-existing. Visitors are amazed, and one in particular decides he simply must find out who is responsible for this miracle. With some inquiries he learns that, of all people, the talented zoo keeper is none other than Henry Kissinger. He seeks out Kissinger and asks, "By God, how do you do it? I've never seen anything like it." And Kissinger answers, in his trademark monotone deadpan: "Every day - a new lamb."
And hilarity ensues.

Since then I saw it written a little differently in Cold War-era memoirs and policy books from the 1970s. This time, instead of a fable about Kissinger and realpolitik, it was presented as an old Russian joke/ parable. Of course it was.

Knowing how these things work, I decided to trace it a little further. It's really quite extraordinary how today a great deal can be accomplished in searching online for the history of aphorisms and jokes in only a few minutes. Of course I wouldn't write a book about it with only a preliminary research, but in no time at all I learned that the joke appears in several stages. In the early 1930s it was used in certain American sources, warning that the United States needs to be militarily ready and alert to the dangers of the world. In the 1950s it is already a parable about the Cold War, by the 60s it is said to be Russian in origin (although in one version, an Israeli visits a zoo in Moscow), and by the early 1970s (pre-Yom Kipper War) it seems to have become a Kissinger joke in Israel, which probably no one found funny. By the late 1970s an American policy insider is using it in his memoir. In a book of humor from 1992, it is about China.

But I found an 1918 telling of the joke in which the zoo keeper is none other than P.T. Barnum. An Irishman is quoted telling the story and then he clarifies that it "'Twas not in a Sunday School lesson, but in Barnum's circus, years ago. Th' trouble was, howiver, that ole man Barnum had t' put in a new lamb ivery marnin'. They laid down togither, all right, but th' lamb was on th' inside."

And then a more genteel telling of the tale, from a 1922 lecture on education by a president of Purdue University:
It is related that, during the heyday of his prosperity and prominence, P. T. Barnum, of lamented circus memory, had under his tents a very wonderful collection of animals. They had been assembled from all climes and all countries. There was the lion, the leopard, the tiger, the bear, the wolf, the fox and many others. This unique animal family also numbered among its members a fine, woolly lamb. One day a group of distinguished visitors came to the circus. It was an important group and Barnum himself acted as an escort through the menagerie. Naturally, the particular animal family was exhibited with high pride. This family represented the finest of the animal kingdom and the results of the highest animal education. Here was proof of what human skill and kindness could accomplish with even the most belligerent of beasts. Concord and peace was the rule of the family. As in every gathering of humans there was one doubter among the distinguished visitors. He inquired of Mr. Barnum how long the animals had lived together in amity. He was informed that the family had been on exhibit for nearly three years. "Do you mean to tell me that that lamb has been a member of this family all this time?" said he to the greatest show man on earth. Mr. Barnum, hesitating for a moment, said with a smile, "Of course, you realize that we are obliged to renew the lamb from time to time." (Laughter).

If you will pardon the impudence, I would suggest that the junior college is the new lamb which has been brought into our happy family of education. Just how long the junior college is going to last before it is benevolently absorbed by other institutions, may be considered a fair and open question.
Perhaps in other languages the joke is older - maybe even Russian.

Incidentally, as far as I can tell the aforementioned Rabbi Dr. Krauskopff of Philadelphia didn't really suggest a merger of Judaism and Christianity based on Americanism, with July 4th as the national religious holiday. But he was a big fan of Christmas. You can read his ma'amar on Christmas, delivered on Sunday, Dec. 27, 1891 here. This became sufficiently well known that nearly 20 years later, when New York Jews were accused of waging a war against Christmas in the public schools, several Christian periodicals approvingly cited some of his remarks, omitting, of course all the stuff he said about its pagan origin.

PS I already know that the lion does not lay down with the lamb in the Bible, or in Moscow, or in Jerusalem.


  1. Is Kraus a cognate of Gross?

  2. "Krauskopf" means "curly head," not unlike the little "woolly lamb" of the story.

    The lion may not lie down directly with the lamb in Isaiah 11:6, but the two of them are included in the same general configuration of animals. Probably "lion" and "lamb" came to be specifically paired in popular speech because of the pleasing alliterative effect, at least in English.

  3. And the philosof hagadol u'mefursam, Woody Allen, once noted that in the future, the lion and the lamb may lie down together, but the lamb won't get much sleep!



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