Why has Judaism spawned such a rich and varied body of humor? What makes Jewish humor — humor by and about Jews — different from, say, British humor or French humor (if French humor even actually exists)? Is there something distinctly “Jewish” — in style, tone, or narrative technique — about Jewish humor?
These are all tantalizing questions that are, unfortunately, largely evaded in Michael Krasny’s Let There Be Laughter. While it is hard to resist a book subtitled A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What It All Means, and whose dust jacket promises “more than 100 of the funniest Jewish jokes of all time,” many readers will wish that the author had done more with the rich material he has gathered.
A few caveats are in order from the start. First, Krasny focuses almost exclusively on Jewish-American humor of the twentieth century. Fair enough. As he makes clear in his introduction, during the Golden Age of Television in particular, virtually all American humor was, at least by pedigree, Jewish humor, and the Jews’ use of wit to cope with the dilemmas posed by immigration and assimilation was particularly telling.
Secondly, Krasny seems to pitch his book toward a dual audience — Jews looking for a compendium of Jewish humor, and goyim looking for a key to understanding much of that humor. Again, this is fair enough. It is easy for Jews to forget that their culture is not an open book to the rest of the world, and that “getting” a joke almost always requires a certain amount of context that is not necessarily shared universally.
That said, Krasny could certainly have delved deeper, and adopted a defter tone, throughout. One example will have to suffice: “A boy on the day of his bar mitzvah… is told that he is now a man and will be connected from that day forward, for the rest of his life, to all previous generations. The kid responds, ‘Today I am a man. Tomorrow I return to the seventh grade.’” Krasny glosses this classic joke as follows: “Many young Jewish boys … scurry off from religious involvement once they have a bar mitzvah.”
A couple of points: First, Krasny’s retelling of the joke is a bit off-kilter. Being “connected … to all previous generations” is not something that suddenly occurs upon turning thirteen, and no thirteen-year-old worth his salt would ever say “tomorrow I return to the seventh grade”; the more idiomatic “go back to” both rings truer and captures more effectively thebar mitzvah boy’s underlying resentment. For the point of the joke has always been that while the bar mitzvah ceremony is founded on the assumption, deeply rooted in Judaic custom, that upon reaching age thirteen, a boy is permitted (and obligated) to participate in the religious life of the community as if he were a man, this is usually of cold comfort to the typical thirteen-year-old American boy, whose vision of adulthood typically has more to do with Maxim than with minyans.