No Joke is an apt title for Ruth Wisse’s examination of Jewish humor. Wisse, Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and professor of comparative literature at Harvard, surveys Jewish humor from Heinrich Heine and Franz Kafka to Larry David and Howard Jacobson, displaying its wit and comic genius at the same time that she looks behind its surface at the often painful and dangerous experiences it reflects.
Wisse does not find unifying themes in Jewish humor. Instead she analyzes how time and place have shaped the responses — German, East European, English-speaking, under Hitler and Stalin, in Israel — of Jewish humor. The humor of Heine and Kafka, often directed against Jewish converts or Jews attempting to fit into gentile society, differs from the humor of poor Jews suffering brutal hardships under czarist, Nazi, and Communist regimes, which, in turn, differs from the humor of successful American Jews or battle-hardened Israelis. “The paradox of a chosen people repeatedly devastated by history” produces a humor that hardly fits the self-criticism and ironic anti-Semitism of a Philip Roth or Sacha Baron Cohen.
A scholar of Yiddish literature, Wisse presents a brief but helpful overview of the work of Sholem Aleichem, S. Y. Agnon, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Isaac Babel, and other eminent Jewish writers, as well as an appreciative and enjoyable look at such comics as Danny Kaye and the Marx brothers — a nice reminder of the gentler and purely entertaining side of Jewish humor. In fact, through movies, radio, and television, Jewish humor, once the unique province of Jews, is now familiar to a far broader audience; at the same time totalitarian regimes have created repressive and sometimes dangerous circumstances to which Jewish humor can be adapted, lending it a degree of universalism.
A serious study, No Joke is also a rich collection of Jewish humor both comfortably familiar and freshly minted. It offers many opportunities to laugh even as it exposes the difficulties, anxieties, absurdities, and dangers that Jewish humor attempts to spear or deflect. The future, however, is less clear. Relying as it frequently did on Yiddish and a knowledge of Jewish tradition and ritual, Jewish humor has lost some of its edge as knowledge of both has declined. Given that so few other ethnic groups are willing to laugh at themselves, Wisse also suggests that Jewish humor, with its streak of self-criticism, may ultimately harm Jews, a point some readers may question. Illustrations, index, notes.