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The Jewish Side of The Three Stooges

December 6, 2012 5:24 pm 2 comments

The Three Stooges are ubiquitous at "The Stoogeum" memorabilia museum in Ambler, Pa. Photo: Gary Lassin.

To the average fan, The Three Stooges’ shenanigans may obscure how their Jewish backgrounds shaped their lives and work. But not for Gary Lassin—president of The Three Stooges Fan Club, editor of The Three Stooges Journal and curator of The Stoogeum (a museum of Three Stooges memorabilia).

“As a Jewish fan of The Three Stooges, I’ve always been fascinated with the boys’ use of Yiddish in their films,” Lassin told JNS.org. “Non-Jewish fans are intrigued by this as well.”

The Stooges were back in the news in 2012 with the Farelly Brothers’ “The Three Stooges: The Movie.”

That feature film is based on the Stooges’ early to mid-20th century short films. Regarding the Stooges’ legendary shorts, Lassin’s research has revealed that no fewer than 38 shorts utilized a Yiddish term or expression. The Stooges made 190 shorts during their careers, and forty percent of them included either Hebrew or Yiddish, according to Lassin.

Moe, Larry, Curly and Shemp were born Jewish. Moses Horwitz was born on June 19, 1897, in Brooklyn to Solomon Horwitz and Jennie Gorovitz, the fourth of five brothers of Lithuanian Jewish ancestry. Although his parents were not involved in show business, Moe, his older brother Samuel (Shemp) and younger brother Jerome (Curly) all eventually became world-famous as members of The Three Stooges. Larry was born to a Jewish family as Louis Feinberg in Philadelphia. His father, Joseph Feinberg, was a Russian Jew and his mother, Fanny Lieberman, owned a watch repair and jewelry shop.

Lassin said, “There’s little doubt that Yiddish was the language spoken in the Horwitz and Feinberg homes during Moe, Larry, Curly and Shemp’s formative years.”

For example, the map of “Jerkola” from the 1955 short “Stone Age Romeos” shows five locations that have their origins in Yiddish: Shmow Lake, The Schnozzle Mountains, Borscht Island, Mish Mosh and Ferblongent.

Originally known as “Ted Healy and His Southern Gentlemen,” The Three Stooges were an American vaudeville and comedy act of the early to mid-20th century best known for their numerous short subject films. Using physical farce and extreme slapstick, the Stooges were commonly known by their first names: “Moe, Larry, and Curly” or “Moe, Larry, and Shemp,” among other lineups. The original trio did one feature film entitled “Soup to Nuts,” after which Shemp left the group to pursue a solo career and was replaced by his brother Curly. This incarnation of the team was the first to be known on film as The Three Stooges.

The 2012 movie—starring Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes and Will Sasso—recreates the characters played by Moe, Larry and Curly. The film’s story places the Stooges in a modern setting.

Although most fans rank Curly as their favorite stooge—mostly because of his sound effects and child-like demeanor—the Farrellys enjoy Larry the most.

“The Farrelly brothers have always categorized Larry as the great reactor and that’s what made him their favorite,” Larry Fine’s grandson Eric Lamond told JNS.org. “He was also quite an accomplished violinist and an amateur boxer.”

Lamond is the marketing director of C3 Entertainment, the company originally founded by The Three Stooges. Today, C3 is a diversified entertainment company involved in television and motion picture productions, retail and product development and sales, and the licensing, merchandising and promotion of brands worldwide.

In Ambler, Pa., Lassin runs the 10,000-square-foot, three-story Stoogeum—which contains 100,000 artifacts dubbed “Stoogeabilia” from 1918 to the present. The museum includes several interactive displays, a research library, a 16mm film storage vault, and an 85-seat theater used for film screenings, lectures and special presentations.

The Stoogeum is also the headquarters of The Three Stooges Fan Club, one of the nation’s oldest and largest clubs with 2,000 members worldwide. An annual meeting of the fan club brings together Stooges relatives, supporting actors, impersonators and fans.

So, what exactly makes the Stooges funny?

“There are plenty of theories,” Lassin said. “They dealt with a lot of themes of the boss versus the worker and the lower class versus society folks. Those are universal themes.”

Lassin said the boys did a lot of fundraisers for synagogues and donated their time for the less fortunate.

With the onset of World War II, the Stooges also released several entries that poked fun at the rising Axis powers. “You Nazty Spy!” and its sequel “I’ll Never Heil Again” burlesqued Hitler and the Nazis at a time when America was still neutral and resolutely isolationist. Moe is cast as “Moe Hailstone,” an Adolf Hitler-like character, with Curly playing a Hermann Goering character (replete with medals), and Larry a von Ribbentrop-type ambassador.

Though revered by Stooges fans, as well as the Stooges themselves (Moe, Larry and director Jules White considered “You Nazty Spy!” their best film), the efforts indulged in a deliberately formless, non-sequitur style of verbal humor that was not the Stooges’ forte, according to Ted Okuda and Edward Watz, authors of The Columbia Comedy Shorts.

Lon Davis, author of Stooges Among Us, said the subject of Judaism never came up in conversations he had with Moe Howard and Larry Fine.

“Still, I know that each man identified himself as being of the Jewish faith,” Davis told JNS.org. “The impact of that faith on their lives was their style of humor. Yiddish comedy was highly prevalent in vaudeville.”

Davis said Larry spoke Yiddish at times and sprinkled various expressions into his observations.

“Larry loved to tell jokes. One had to do with a mink that had died and was greeted at the gates of Heaven by St. Peter. ‘For being such a fine mink, and for siring hundreds of offspring, the Almighty will grant you anything your heart desires,'” Davis said, recalling Fine’s joke. “‘Delighted,’ the mink responded. ‘Well, I’ve always wanted a full-length Jewish lady.'”

With shopping season for Hanukkah and Christmas gifts in full swing, the Stooges’ still-high DVD sales trigger the question: Why has their comedy stood the test of time?

“I’ve been asked this a lot,” Lamond said. “People tend to overthink it. They lasted because what they did was funny. They did it incredibly well, and they were able to do it incredibly well because they worked so hard at it.”

2 Comments

  • There is a particular instance of the use of Yiddish by the Three Stooges that, ever since I first saw it as a child many, many years ago, has always struck me as a truly magnificent statement by them, and not merely a vehicle for laughs.

    This specific use of Yiddish was in the episode entitled “You Nazty Spy.” This episode was referred to in the above article, but no mention was made of the particular use of Yiddish I describe below.

    Near the beginning of the episode, as the Three Stooges are propositioned to serve as dictator of “Moronica” by the three corrupt businessmen, the Stooges greet the businessmen, all loudly saying in unison “Sholom Aleichem!” (They also all make a small hop as they say it!) They use the Yiddish, and not the Hebrew, pronunciation.

    Given the subject matter of the film, i.e., the Nazi threat, I have always thought of this scene as their proud assertion to the world, and to the anti-semites in particular, that they were Jews, and proud of it.

    For each of Moe, Larry Curly and Shemp, I say:

    זיכרונו לברכה

  • The headstone of Curly or Jerome is the only one of the Stooge that clearly identifies him being Jewish. His headstone refers to him as HaLevi.

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