There’s an old joke about a Jewish telegram back in the old days when we still communicated with telegrams instead of these new-fangled things call Tweets and Instagrams. It read “Start Worrying. Letter to Follow.” Classic Jewish humor, perhaps from Europe originally, or from the Borscht Belt comics in the summer Catskills resorts, but whatever its actual origins, it mirrors Jewish anxiety over how things in the future — any future — could go wrong.
Well, first we had climate change angst, with dozens of cli-fi novels and movies about runaway global warming and all the nightmares that issue evokes.
Now, cli-fi, of course, is on the back burner, replaced by the current coronavirus global pandemic which is really something to start worrying about.
I learned about this old telegram joke the other day from a column in a Canadian newspaper (The Globe and Mail) by a Jewish professor named Arthur Schafer in Winnipeg. He was writing an essay about the COVID-19 pandemic and when I asked him about the old telegram joke he wrote back by email and explained that he had recently heard about it on a BBC radio program from London featuring four Jewish writers there chatting about Jewish identity in the 21st century during which novelist Howard Jacobson mentioned the Jewish telegram joke.
I asked Dr Schafer in Winnipeg how he first heard of the Jewish Telegram joke. He replied:
”To answer your question: I heard it on a BBC 3 programme about “Jewish identity in 2020”. One of the participants is the Jewish-British novelist Howard Jacobson. He told the joke. I loved it and, a mere three weeks later, found a way of incorporating it into my Op Ed piece for the Globe and Mail here in Canada. Now, where Howard Jacobson got the joke I cannot tell you. Ask him. ”
“By the way,” he added: “The BBC show was a good discussion of Jewish identity, and in case you might be interested in listening to the podcast, here is the BBC link.”
Now back to my oped: We are all already worrying about the virus and we all got letter, too. It’s not the end of the world but it’s certainly not a pretty picture. Who knew when 2020 started off in January we’d find ourselves in a very scary situation just a few months later.
Forget climate change worries for now. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we are at war with an invisible enemy lurking at every corner.
Surely a new literary genre, perhaps dubbed “corona-lit,” will surface soon with novelists and short story writers creating a 21st genre that might not end well.
I’m worried. Very worried. You?