No Joke: Making Jewish Humor by Ruth Wisse (REVIEW)

September 11, 2013 10:35 am 5 comments
"No Joke: Making Jewish Humor," by Ruth R. Wisse, Published by Princeton University Press. Photo: Princeton University Press.

"No Joke: Making Jewish Humor," by Ruth R. Wisse, Published by Princeton University Press. Photo: Princeton University Press.

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 laughable circumstances in which the distinctly unfunny story of the akedah (binding) was rooted are recalled in the name of its mortally endangered figure, Isaac,  the root of which is tzachak—to laugh.

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.’”

On the one hand, Jews are “the ever-dying people;” but, on the other, a nation dying for thousands of years is a living nation. On the one hand, comedy drives off sadness and fear, and enabled European Jewry to deal with its endemic powerlessness; on the other, it could be that “the cure, laughter, may be worse than the disease” because it has induced many Jews to believe that their powerlessness was a sign of virtue. (Recall that another of Wisse’s previous books is entitled Jews and Power [Schocken, 2007]).

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?”

A continuing, never finally resolved question of Wisse’s internal dialogue is this: to what extent should the passage of years be allowed to  overcome moral inhibitions about Holocaust jokes and—note her choice of words—“reduce, if not eliminate, considerations of decency and truth.”

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.”

Readers should be forewarned that Wisse explains and interprets nearly all of the jokes she tells. She is not one for what Keats called “negative capability,” or merely resting content with a joke’s ability to unsettle people, to shake them out of customary ways of seeing and thinking.

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.

“Oh, Anat,” says her mother, reassuringly, “Anat’s fine. She’s at Auschwitz.”

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.

Edward Alexander’s most recent book is The State of the Jews: A Critical Appraisal (Transaction Publishers).

5 Comments

  • Try ‘THE JEWOLIC’ if you wnat to read a really funny book.
    Polish/Jewish mom; Italian/Catholic dad. I was a religious mutt — a matzo brie pizza; a blintz marinara; a bagel and lox trapped inside a spaghetti and meatballs body. I needed an identity.
    I could have become:
    a) A Jew, invoking the very popular, and all-inclusive, ‘if your mother is a Jew’ rule;
    b) A Catholic, ignoring the above-mentioned rule; or,
    c) A half Jew/half Cath, Jewolic, straddling both religions, favoring the one that was most advantageous at the time.
    That was my conundrum. This is my story.

    http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00FP236HC

  • Try ‘THE JEWOLIC’ if you wnat to read a really funny book.
    Polish/Jewish mom; Italian/Catholic dad. I was a religious mutt — a matzo brie pizza; a blintz marinara; a bagel and lox trapped inside a spaghetti and meatballs body. I needed an identity.
    I could have become:
    a) A Jew, invoking the very popular, and all-inclusive, ‘if your mother is a Jew’ rule;
    b) A Catholic, ignoring the above-mentioned rule; or,
    c) A half Jew/half Cath, Jewolic, straddling both religions, favoring the one that was most advantageous at the time.
    That was my conundrum. This is my story.

    http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00FP236HC

  • It is possible that the marriage of Abraham and Sarah was never consummated, since they were brother and sister and couldn’t bring themselves to do it. Isaac was probably the son of Abimelech.
    http://www.jochnowitz.net/Essays/Abraham.html

    • Rashi's representative

      May I draw Mr Jochnowitz’ attention to the classic commentary on the text, which attributes the strong resemblance between Avraham and Yitzhak to the Almighty’s anticipation of your erroneous comment.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Education Why We Should Invest in Jewish Children

    Why We Should Invest in Jewish Children

    JNS.org – My wife Suzy and I will never forget our wedding day. It was not just the uplifting ceremony and beautiful party that left an indelible mark. Some life-altering advice that we received from one of our guests informed and shaped our lives from that day forward. My high school teacher, Rabbi Moshe Yagid, pulled us aside just before the chuppah and challenged us to choose one mitzvah that would be the foundation of our marriage and our lives. He explained [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports LeBron James’ New Coach Shaped by Summer on Kibbutz and Jewish ‘Life Lessons’

    LeBron James’ New Coach Shaped by Summer on Kibbutz and Jewish ‘Life Lessons’

    JNS.org – Influenced by his Jewish upbringing and a summer on a kibbutz, basketball coach David Blatt is embarking on his highest-profile challenge yet: coaching LeBron James, the four-time National Basketball Association (NBA) Most Valuable Player who has made waves for returning to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. After guiding Israel’s storied Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball franchise to its 51st Israeli league championship and 6th Euroleague title this past season, Blatt landed the Cavaliers head-coaching job in June. Just weeks later, [...]

    Read more →
  • Food Jewish Identity Young Syrian Jewish Restauranteur Continues a Family Legacy

    Young Syrian Jewish Restauranteur Continues a Family Legacy

    JNS.org – At the turn of the century, a young Jewish immigrant arrived in New York. So begins the history of many American Jewish families. It is 27-year-old Albert Allaham’s story, too, with a few unusual twists. Albert’s “century” is the 21st—he arrived almost 100 years after the massive waves of European Jewish immigration. Rather than coming from a small town along the Danube river, his shtetl was Damascus. His first American business was not a pushcart on the Lower East [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity A Holistic Look at the Rebbe’s Life and Career (REVIEW)

    A Holistic Look at the Rebbe’s Life and Career (REVIEW)

    Did you know that in the entire Bible, only one birthday is mentioned and it is that of Pharaoh? And did you know that according to some scientists, by accepting Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, it is impossible to prove or disprove that the sun is the gravitational center of our solar system? In his new book, REBBE, best-selling author Joseph Telushkin reveals many surprising and sometimes shocking details as he chronicles the life and teachings of the charismatic Rabbi [...]

    Read more →
  • Food Mitzvos New Jerusalem Eatery’s Uniform Pricing Seeks to ‘Help People Make It’

    New Jerusalem Eatery’s Uniform Pricing Seeks to ‘Help People Make It’

    JNS.org – Omelet sandwich: 5 shekels. Iced coffee: 5 shekels. Tuna sandwich: 5 shekels. Fresh-squeezed orange juice: 5 shekels. Cheese bureka: 5 shekels. There’s plenty more on the Cofizz menu, but you get the idea. Dani Mizrahi and Amir Amshalm, two Israeli men in their early 30s, asked themselves: Why not launch a take-out food joint in busy neighborhoods around Jerusalem where everything—and that means everything—goes for five shekels, or about $1.50. They’d seen the concept take off in Tel Aviv, where [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israel New Primetime Drama ‘Tyrant’ Filmed Entirely in Israel (VIDEO)

    New Primetime Drama ‘Tyrant’ Filmed Entirely in Israel (VIDEO)

    The new FX Network drama Tyrant was shot entirely in Israel, just 10 miles north of Tel Aviv, Bloomberg News reported last Tuesday. Tyrant follows the life of an Arab dictator’s second son Barry, played by Adam Rayner, who reluctantly returns home to the Middle Eastern nation of his birth to join the family business away from his suburban life in America. The elaborate set production for the primetime drama included a crew of 300 and a reported cost of over $3 million [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Supermodel: Jewish Mothers Are Constantly Trying to Set Me Up With Their Sons

    Supermodel: Jewish Mothers Are Constantly Trying to Set Me Up With Their Sons

    Skokie, Il-born 25-year-old Erin Heatherton (Erin Heather Bubley) is rocking the modeling world. And in a new interview accompanying a cover spread for Miami’s Ocean Drive magazine, she says Jewish moms are “constantly trying to set her up with their sons.” Imagine that – who would have thought? “The moms, they’re doing what they do. It doesn’t matter what country they live in, what city – grandmothers, too,” she admitted. “But I’m probably going to do that too one day.” Heatherton was [...]

    Read more →
  • Education Israel First Ever: Turkish Academics to Visit Israel Holocaust Museum for Seminar

    First Ever: Turkish Academics to Visit Israel Holocaust Museum for Seminar

    Some 15 Turkish university professors and lecturers will take part in a first of its kind seminar at Holocaust museum Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies starting next week. The trip is especially significant as Holocaust denial is rampant in the Arab world. A Palestinian professor was recently forced to resign after he led a trip to the Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz. Participants in the week-long program at Yad Vashem will experience in-depth tours of the museum’s archives and [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.