Ear­li­er this week, Judith Claire Mitchell wrote about her thoughts on auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nov­els and her two decades liv­ing in the Mid­west as a pass­ing” Jew. The author of A Reunion of Ghosts and The Last Day of the War, Judith is an Eng­lish pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son where she directs the MFA Pro­gram in Cre­ative Writ­ing. She has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

Q: How can you tell if a man is Aryan?
A: He’s Aryan if he has the tow­er­ing height of Goebbels, the slim physique of Goer­ing, and the blond good looks of Hitler. 

Okay, okay, it’s not the fun­ni­est joke you’ve ever heard. But it killed in 1944, and in more ways than one: If you lived in Nazi Ger­many, telling it could have cost you your life. Polit­i­cal jokes were essen­tial­ly ille­gal in the Third Reich, and you could actu­al­ly be hauled in to a so-called joke court for telling one. Pun­ish­ment ranged from impris­on­ment to death. 

Need­less to say, this atti­tude toward jokes wasn’t unique to that ran­cid régime. Remem­ber Seth Rogan and James Franco’s run-in with North Korea? Very few dic­ta­tors, it turns out, are fans of skew­er­ing wit. That’s why Elie Wiesel says, The best answer to fanati­cism is a sense of humor.” 

It’s true that humor is a for­mi­da­ble weapon. It’s also the only weapon I can think of that simul­ta­ne­ous­ly flays the oppres­sor and pro­vides sus­te­nance to the oppressed. The per­se­cut­ed, the den­i­grat­ed, the out­cast, those whose human­i­ty is sys­tem­i­cal­ly dis­missed, denied, or snuffed out, have always told these kinds of jokes even in the face of prison or worse, just as the starv­ing have always stolen bread. The lat­ter pro­vides essen­tial nour­ish­ment for the body; the for­mer, it seems, pro­vides essen­tial nour­ish­ment for the spir­it. Both food and humor turn out to be human necessities.

The food and the humor also hap­pen to be two of my favorite things about being Jew­ish. We’re much more than those things, of course. But still…nova on bagels and Grou­cho Marx, Sein­feld and kasha knish­es. What’s not to love?

When my agent was pitch­ing A Reunion of Ghosts to edi­tors, he described it as a fun­ny book about sui­cide. Me, I’d have tweaked that descrip­tion a lit­tle. I see Reunion as a very seri­ous book about the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry as embod­ied in the sto­ries of four gen­er­a­tions of a sin­gle fam­i­ly, some mem­bers based on his­tor­i­cal per­sons and oth­ers of my own inven­tion. The book is about sui­cide, yes, but it’s just as much about war and ran­dom gun vio­lence and can­cer and AIDS and geno­cide and dias­po­ra and alco­holism and iso­la­tion and men­tal ill­ness and sex­ism and assas­si­na­tion and big­otry and the human capac­i­ty for cru­el­ty and pret­ty much every­thing else that can go wrong as we make our way through this Vale of Tears. 

But I also knew that the nar­ra­tors of this sto­ry would be sis­ters for whom humor was simul­ta­ne­ous­ly weapon and com­fort. They’d love puns and word play. They’d make jokes in the midst of grief and defeat. They’d invent rid­dles like this one:

Q: Where can you run into all the suf­fer­ing souls of this sor­row­ful world?
A: At a Job’s fair

We are all, even the most blessed of us, ver­sions of Job. Even the luck­i­est of us suf­fer unfath­omable loss. There’s not a one of us who doesn’t die in the end. 

Yet despite every­thing, most of us find oppor­tu­ni­ties to laugh. Bad jokes. Puns. Cat videos.

A gen­er­ous review­er has said that A Reunion of Ghost may sound unut­ter­ably bleak…but the nov­el is not, and it’s filled with…humor.” When I first read those words, I couldn’t help notice that they don’t only describe my nov­el. They also describe life. 

Praise to life,” writes the poet Adri­enne Rich, though its win­dows blew shut on the breath­ing-room of ones we knew and loved.” Soon­er or lat­er the win­dows will blow shut on our own breath­ing-rooms, too. We know this. And yet, despite that death sen­tence, we form friend­ships and fall in love and raise chil­dren and are drawn to art and movies and lit­er­a­ture, and we tell jokes and we laugh. With full knowl­edge of how all this will end, we are sil­ly and irrev­er­ent. In the face of anni­hi­la­tion we are comedians. 

Praise to life! And pass the knishes.

A grad­u­ate of the Iowa Writ­ers Work­shop, Judith Claire Mitchell has received fel­low­ships from the James Michener/​Copernicus Soci­ety, the Wis­con­sin Insti­tute for Cre­ative Writ­ing, the Arts Insti­tute of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin, and else­where. She cur­rent­ly lives in Madi­son with her hus­band, the artist Don Friedlich.

Relat­ed Content:

Judith Claire Mitchell is an Eng­lish pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son, where she directs the MFA Pro­gram in Cre­ative Writ­ing. A grad­u­ate of the Iowa Writ­ers Work­shop, Mitchell has received fel­low­ships from the James Michener/​Copernicus Soci­ety, the Wis­con­sin Insti­tute for Cre­ative Writ­ing, the Arts Insti­tute of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin, and else­where. She cur­rent­ly lives in Madi­son with her hus­band, artist Don Friedlich.