Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Clearing the Air on Jewish Witticism

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Clearing the Air on Jewish Witticism

Article excerpt

"No Joke" recounts the long history of Jewish humor and makes it clear that Jews still need jokes.

No Joke. Making Jewish Humor. Ruth R. Wisse. Illustrated. 279 pages. Princeton University Press. $24.95.

From the praise heaped on it by some analysts of Jewish humor, one might almost think the chosen people were chosen for the quality of their jokes. Freud's "Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious," which was published in 1905, drew almost exclusively on Jewish stories, because, he maintained, they were the funniest and the most interesting. Salcia Landmann, a scholar of Yiddish who died in 2002, argued that Jewish humor is "more acute, more profound and richer in expression than that of any other people."

Yet not so long ago, some European historians said one of the many shortcomings of the Jews is that they have no trace of humor. In 1893, Britain's chief rabbi gave a lecture in London, gently defending his people against the oft-repeated charge of dullness. He compared a biblical episode involving the prophet Elijah to a scene from Moliere. He cited many instances of rabbinical repartee, quoted cracks by the 18th-century Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (who had such a sweet tooth that he wished his sugar could be sugar- coated) and likened the Jewish-born poet Heinrich Heine to two famous Anglophone wits, Laurence Sterne and Jonathan Swift.

"No Joke," a subtle and provocative new book by Ruth R. Wisse, who teaches Yiddish literature at Harvard, recounts the long history of Jewish humor and brings it up to date. She includes the effects of the Holocaust and Stalin on Jewish storytelling; she discusses American humorists from the borscht belt stand-ups of the 1940s to Larry David, and novels from Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" to Howard Jacobson's "The Finkler Question," which won the Man Booker Prize in 2010. And she reviews the lively state of humor in Israel today.

This last item is a corrective to the view, defended by Landmann and others, that humor barely exists in Israel, as if Jews no longer need jokes once they have guns. For Ms. Wisse, humor is present in all phases of Jewish history, though in varying forms, and remains in every corner of Jewish life. Indeed, she has a nagging suspicion that there may now be too much of it: Her concluding chapter is entitled "When Can I Stop Laughing?" Humor, Ms. Wisse appears to suggest, is sometimes bad for the Jews.

But are the jokes different, or are there just more of them? In one sense, as Ms. Wisse argues, there is no such thing as specifically Jewish humor. Consider the diversity of humor among American Jewish comedians alone. What does Danny Kaye -- whose shtick, as Ms. Wisse writes, was "exaggerated innocence" -- have in common with Lenny Bruce? Or Groucho Marx with Larry David? Woody Allen's persona oozes self-dissatisfaction; Jon Stewart's does the opposite.

A compendious college textbook on the topic by Rod A. Martin, of the University of Western Ontario ("The Psychology of Humor," published in 2006), has no treatment of Jewish jokes. Jewish humor is, instead, studied in courses on Jewish history and culture. This past semester, the Jewish studies department at Rutgers University offered such a course.

The association between Jews and joking has become so powerful that Jewish humor is now all too easy to detect even where it doesn't really exist. This phenomenon should perhaps be named the Mrs. Morgenbesser Effect. Once, when asked how she was faring, the mother of Sidney Morgenbesser, a New York philosopher, is reported to have replied, "Not so good -- thank God." At first, this sounds like glumness mocking itself. But once you know that religious Jews of a certain vintage are apt to thank God more or less as a matter of punctuation, it is not so clear any sort of humor was intended. The potential for accidental comedy in Jewish speech is of course enhanced by the fact that Jews have often had to stumble in someone else's language. …

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