Two Jews and an Englishman are crossing the ocean on a ship. The Jews, who can’t swim, start arguing with each other about what they should do if it sinks. As they argue, they gesticulate with such vigor that the Englishman backs away to avoid injury. Suddenly, the boat begins to sink. All the passengers except for the Jews, who are too wrapped up in their argument to notice, jump overboard. After a long, exhausting swim, the Englishman finally reaches the shore. He is amazed to find the two Jews there, happily waving him in. Astonished, he asks them how they got there. “We have no idea,” says one of them. “We just kept on talking in the water.” A version of this joke appears in a 1941 dissertation on “the gestural behavior of eastern Jews and southern Italians in New York City, living under similar as well as different environmental conditions.” The study was written by David Efron, who grew up in an orthodox Jewish home in Argentina and arrived in New York for graduate study in the 1930s. By his own account, when he spoke Spanish, he gestured with “the effervescence and fluidity of those of a good many Argentinians.” When he spoke Yiddish, his gestures were more “tense, jerky, and confined.” He sometimes combined the two styles, as when “discussing a Jewish matter in Spanish, and vice versa.” After living in the United States for a few years, he found his gestures becoming “in general less expansive, even when speaking in his native tongue.”
more from Arika Okrent at Lapham’s Quarterly here.