Count on Ruth Wisse, an interpreter of genius, a Daniel come to judgment, a moral voice such as the parsimonious invisible powers bestow on us once in a generation, to write the most serious book about Jewish joking that we are ever likely to read.
Seriousness does not require pince-nez glasses and a long face; but perhaps the Jews, as “the ever-dying people,” know better than most nations that there is “A time to weep, and a time to laugh.” Or, in Wisse’s slight revision of Ecclesiastes (to take account, not always sympathetically, of Holocaust jokes), “a time to laugh, and a time to refrain from laughing.”
That seriousness and laughter are inextricably intertwined in Jewish tradition is already evident in Chapter 18 of Genesis. Sarah, informed that she, though well stricken in years, would produce a child, “laughed within herself, saying ‘After I have grown old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?’”
There it is: erectile dysfunction, long before Philip Roth had taken up the subject, and probably no laughing matter for Abraham.
The enduring paradox of Jewish joking is the contrast between divine election—a covenanted people, a Chosen People—and worldly misery: in Wisse’s words, “a chosen people repeatedly devastated by history.” As a well-known joke among East European Jews put it, “Thou hast chosen us from among all the peoples; why did you have to pick on us?” The affirmative clause, as Wisse long ago pointed out in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero (Chicago, 1971, p. 47), was in the holy tongue, Hebrew; the skepticism in mame-loshen, Yiddish.
It hardly needs to be added that “the comedy of a people overdetermined for tragedy” has supplied plenty of material for anti-Semites inclined to ridicule the Jews for pretending that defeat is preferable to victory.
What Wisse offers is not a general, unifying theory of Jewish humor, but “a descriptive map of some of the centers where Jewish humor thrived and where it still prospers.” These are: German Lebensraum, in which Heinrich Heine is the central (and seminal) figure; Yiddish Heartland, in which Sholem Aleichem is the major voice; the “Anglosphere” (England and America, with detailed attention to the storm of controversy ignited by Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint); Hitler-and Stalin-dominated Europe; and the Hebrew Homeland, where S. Y. Agnon (“faithful scribe, passionate Zionist, and dignified Jew”—which is to say, very like Wisse herself), Israeli popular culture, and the relatively new subject of the Jews’ relation to power (instead of powerlessness) come to the fore.
Wisse’s book has a more complex unity than any theory could provide. It is a dialogue of Wisse’s powerful and agile mind with itself, frequently expressed in balanced, antithetical sentences that have the epigrammatic power of couplets by Alexander Pope.
On the one hand, she believes that “Jewish comedy must go where the Jews go.” This includes—for example—the destruction, during the Holocaust, of 92 percent of Polish Jewry, the biological and cultural center of the Jewish world of that time. Nevertheless, the “witticism that stands at the heart of this book was recorded in Yiddish in the Warsaw Ghetto: ‘God forbid that this war should last as long as we are able to endure it.’”
The book celebrates Jewish humor, but it also ”exposes the threat of a hilarity that impedes effective communal self-protection.” Should Jews be proud of the fact that they were well on their way to making up 75 percent of American comedy professionals at a time when the Jews of Europe were being murdered en masse? The narrator of I. B. Singer’s novel, Enemies, acerbically remarks, about its hero Herman Broder, whose family has recently been murdered in Poland: “Here he was on his way to a [Coney Island] party. Half of his people had been tortured and murdered, and the other half were giving parties”—and enjoying jokes.
Wisse has often excoriated the New York (Jewish) Intellectuals for ignoring the Jews of Hitler’s Europe and of Palestine, while worrying about the twists and turns of modernism or the ways in which humanity was being recreated in the Great Soviet Experiment. Should she be less severe with America’s wartime Jewish comedians? “What,” she asks, “are we to make of the fantastic spurt of Jewish laughter in the very years when American Jews ought, perhaps, to have been laughing less and doing more?”
The question is easily answered when dealing with “the reductive kitsch” of Benigni’s movie Life Is Beautiful or the degeneracy of Sarah Silverman’s mockery. But what about Chaplin’s The Great Dictator or Mel Brooks’ The Producers, or—yet again—Portnoy’s Complaint? That book’s formidable detractors—Irving Howe, Gershom Scholem, Marie Syrkin—now strike Wisse as “anachronistic” in calling the book antisemitic, but far from wrong in their sense that Roth’s “strategy for Jewish survival” was really “a recipe for defeat.”
Here’s an example:
Sara in Jerusalem hears on the news about a bombing at a popular café near the home of relatives in Tel Aviv. She calls in a panic and reaches her cousin, who assures her that the family is all safe.
“And Anat?” Sara asks about the teenager whose hangout it had been.
Wisse then provides the information about the trips to Poland’s death camps that are part of Israeli education, explains the joke’s forced recognition that today’s burden of Jewish peril in Israel may be on a par with that of Europe, if not greater, and even suggests the way the joke offends both liberals who refuse to see the ferocity of Arab aggression and nationalistic patriots who can’t admit that Zionism does not fully safeguard the Jews. Can one ask for more from an author?
This article is reprinted with the permission of the Chicago Jewish Star.