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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2015
Number 82
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Have You Heard This One?

A review essay by Matthew Schwartz

Ruth R. Wisse. No Joke: Making Jewish Humor.
Princeton University Press, 2013

The ancient Greeks could express their humor through their theater, but perhaps the earliest mention of laughter in Greek literature comes in Hesiod when Zeus laughed in sinister joy at the nasty trick he has played on mankind and on Prometheus by giving Pandora to Epimetheus. Ancient Israel had no Biblical theater, and its humor begins as a way of interpreting events, not as entertainment.

The occasional op-ed penned by Professor Ruth Wisse seems to support an amendation of the Mishnaic passage: If all the sages of academia stood on one side of a scale and Professor Wisse on the other, she would outweigh them all. No Joke is a brief, readable study of Jewish humor. The reader need only glance at the cover to see the caricature of Groucho Marx, a blurb from Cynthia Ozick, the great novelist and literary critic, and Professor Wisse as the author, to raise expectations of a good read. The reader will not be disappointed. There are a number of well-told really funny stories but, more important, Professor Wisse has a gift for presenting insights clearly and precisely.

Several surveys of a generation ago reported that well over 70% of leading American comedians were Jews. Can we account for this dominance? Professor Wisse avoids any facile general theory or any quick answer and instead maps out a series of centers where Jewish humor thrived, beginning with two centuries ago. The book recounts some wonderful jokes and stories, but it is more a serious study of Jewish humor, starting with Heinrich Heine, a classical German writer of mordant wit, brilliant in his essays as well as his poems. Literally hundreds of Heine’s poems were set to music by leading composers — Schubert, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Schumann and even the anti-Semitic Wagner. In fact, Wagner apparently borrowed both his Flying Dutchman and Tannhauser from Heine. He actually credited Heine for the former, but then retracted in a later writing. Theodore Herzl, a budding playwright and journalist in Vienna before devoting himself to Zionism, also used wit in his Alt Neu Land, portraying his dream of settlement in Israel. Another German speaker, Sigmund Freud, was very interested in humor, especially Jewish. He said that he knew of no other nation making such fun of its own character. Jewish jokes were an expressive venting of a Jewish people who lived under collective responsibility to behave well among the nations. The Jews of Central Europe were, for the first time, entering into society, but one which still mistrusted them, and the Jews also mistrusted the society. Heine, and later Kafka as well, sensed the limits of comedy that emerge from comedy itself.

Eastern Europe presented several types of humor. Sholom Aleichem profoundly revolutionized Jewish culture, inventing Jewish people who laughed their way through crises, so that Tevye the dairyman and the fictional town of Kasrilevke became existential prototypes. A Haskala humor had already developed in which modern German speaking university students outwitted hassidic charlatans, both sides on occasion denouncing each other to czarist authorities. Hassidic humor employed paradox, contradiction, and incongruity in the nature of the Talmudic Adraba –ipkha mistavra — ideas may be turned over and over and completely reconsidered. The parables of Rabbi Nachman or the wit of Hershele Ostropoler are within this genre. Hershele is a trickster somewhat in the style of Till Eulenspiegel. However, unlike Till, Hershele is also a man with a family to support, as well as being a pious and somewhat learned Jew who could use a good quotation to put the finishing touch on a story. The yeshivas of Eastern Europe were seedbeds of a third form of wit, the Misnagdic, featuring the verbal ingenuity and the many-sided subtlety of Talmudic study. Yiddish humor continued even in the United States with new writers like Itzik Manger, Moshe Nadir, and Moshe Kulbak. Isaac Bashevis Singer became the most successful, winning the Nobel Prize in 1978.

America’s Jewish comedy emerged in a society where Jews were not separated from their neighbors by legal barriers, but where there was also no automatic trust. Jewish comedians combined mockery with self-mockery. Yet writers like the British Israel Zangwill presented on the stage Jews who have not lost their regal bearing despite poverty and hardship, unlike Heine’s Jews, who could seem fully human only on the Sabbath.

The Borscht Belt was the starting point for many Jewish comedians and an incubator for a style of comedy that emerged into the American mainstream. The list of comedians includes, only under the letter “B” for example, Milton Berle (Berlinger), Joey Bishop (Gottlieb), Mel Brooks (Kaminsky), Lenny Bruce (Shneider), George Burns (Nathan Birnbaum), and Red Buttons (Aaron Chwart). These began as tummlers who mastered timing and delivery just as radio was opening wide new opportunities. It was a form of comedy that appealed to non-Jews but was not overtly eager for their approval. A few years later, the fiction of Bellow, Malamud, Roth and others signaled a shift to more Freudian themes — overbearing mothers and sexual conflicts as well profanity and overt insults to non-Jews. Roth’s character Portnoy says, “You stupid goyim! Reeking of beer and empty of ammunition, home you head, a dead animal (formerly alive) strapped to each fender so that all the motorists along the way can see how strong and manly you are.” Portnoy says too, “What kind of base and brainless schmucks are these people to worship somebody who, number one, never existed and, number two, if he did, looking as he does in that picture, was without a doubt the Pansy of Palestine.”

Jewish humor played its role even in the murderous times of Hitler and Stalin. Jokes circulated in the Warsaw ghetto, their dark humor and euphemism reflecting the times: “God forbid that this war should last as long as we are able to endure it.” Modern Israeli humor similarly reflects the mood of a nation constantly at war.

Professor Wisse does not seek a grand theory of the roots of humor. Instead, she explores Jewish humor and comedy in a very specific manner. The reader is treated to close up looks at figures from Heinrich Heine through Shalom Aleichem to Isaac Babel to Howard Jacobson, who received England’s Man Booker Prize in 2010 for The Finkler Question, a humorous study of that nation’s growing Judeophobia.

Professor Wisse ends the book creating a remarkable perspective with the wish that others might also learn to spoof themselves; imagine Muslim terrorists satirizing jihad.

Matthew Schwartz is a professor in the history department of Wayne State University and a contributing editor.

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