No Joke: Mak­ing Jew­ish Humor

  • Review
By – May 13, 2013

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.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions