Taking Ourselves Seriously

No Joke: Making Jewish Humor, the latest volume in the Library of Ideas series launched by Princeton University Press and the Tikvah Fund, includes dozens of jokes, classics and rarities.  Yet it is, by design, a grim read, and its examples of humor are little lights that flicker in the darkness.  For the real subject of the book is the Jewish political condition in the modern period.  Ruth Wisse’s scholarly yet conversational overview of Jewish humor during the last two hundred years shows how Jews have used humor to contend with the hostility of their enemies and the abnormality of their social and political existence.  No Joke is very well titled.

Following a meaty and wide-ranging introduction that lays out her premises and approach—and which opens with a genuine thigh-slapper—Wisse in successive chapters discusses the leaping off point of modern Jewish humor in Heinrich Heine and subsequent German-language developments, Yiddish humor, Jewish humor in the U.S. and Britain, Jewish humor under Hitler and Stalin, and Israeli humor, before winding up with a provocative set of meditations on political correctness and humor in our own day.

Those looking for a compendium of Jewish jokes will come away disappointed, if still richer by some dozens of them.  Wisse has not taken comedy as her subject here, but humor: not the funniest and most popular gags, but the creations of irony, deflection, and surprise that tell us most about the modern Jewish condition and the way Jews have responded to it.  Thus, for instance, this joke from the Soviet Union, which, as Wisse notes, became not only a Jewish joke but a Soviet joke:

Passing KGB headquarters, Abram sighs.
“Abram,” whispers his wife, “how many times have I told you not to make political pronouncements in public.”

Wisse’s choices and assessments are often unexpected.  With odd fastidiousness, she declares she will not discuss Ignatz Bernstein’s collection of Yiddish erotic and scatalogical sayings—perhaps she feels that Yiddish culture has already been reduced enough to its gutter vocabulary in America—while she delivers an admiring encomium to Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat and Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, praising their over-the-top humor and puncturing of suffocating political correctness.

Wisse, who is a professor of Yiddish and Comparative Literature at Harvard, focuses more attention on serious modernist literature than one would expect from such a topic.  There are discussions of Kafka, Agnon, and Babel—writers who offer irony and absurdity in spades, but not a lot of actual laughs.  Bigger pay-offs come in chapters dealing with comedians less familiar to American readers, such as Poland’s (and later Israel’s) Shimen Dzigan and Israel’s Hagashash Hahiver.  Wisse includes a profound and personally moving meditation on Borscht Belt humor, without entering into details of or providing many examples from the material of the major American stand-up comedians.

To do otherwise would be to lose the book’s animating concern.  No Joke complements Wisse’s previous book, Jews and Power, a similarly engaging little volume that ranges widely over Jewish history in a manner both scholarly and polemical.  In Jews and Power, Wisse explains that Jewish survival skills worked out during many centuries of powerlessness made Jews “exceptionally well prepared” for intellectual and cultural success in modernity.  Yet the modern world—more volatile, more decentered, more extreme—has posed even greater threats to Jews, who have meanwhile proved singularly inept at matching their other types of success with political success.

Traditional Jewish adaptation to defeat, powerlessness, and exile inculcated a turning inward, away from external political reality, to a private drama in which Jews claimed moral responsibility for their own political condition.  Yet in the modern period, Wisse argues, “the toleration of political weakness could cross the moral line into veneration of political weakness.”  The prophetic and rabbinic transformation of politics into an internal moral trial often metamorphoses, among modern Jews, into a “moral solipsism” in which Jews fail to take the measure of external threats.  Indeed, past Jewish patterns of political behavior—this moral solipsism coupled with long practice in accomodation and, in the modern period, a “glorification of powerlessness”—have made Jews easy targets for the modern enemies of the liberal democracies in which Jews thrive.

No Joke shows how modern Jewish humor is produced along these political fault-lines.  The modern Jewish political condition is itself a kind of slapstick routine in which the Jew repeatedly tries to sit down at a bounteous table only to have the chair yanked out from under him.  Wisse’s chapter on Israeli humor in particular analyzes the disappointed expectation that the creation of the Jewish state would spell the end of humor, as Jews would presumably not need humor as a psychological defense when they had their own secure country.   However, “national self-emancipation tragically failed to produce the predicted political normalcy,” she writes, as “Israel became the target of the most lopsided war in history.”  The hope that Zionism would bring the end of Jewish powerlessness has been another shaggy dog story.

And so Wisse, in explicating humor politically, points repeatedly beyond it.  She asks, for instance, in her discussion of the rise of American Jewish comedy in the 1930s, what produces “the fantastic spurt of Jewish laughter in the very years when American Jews, ought, perhaps, to have been laughing less and doing more.” She is especially attentive to writers such as Kafka and Phillip Roth who press humor to the point where it stops being funny, who show how a “strategy for creative survival may have become a recipe for defeat.”  And she concludes her book with these darkly cautionary comments about Jewish universalism, Jewish utopianism, and Jewish laughter:

If Jews truly consider humor to have restorative powers, they ought to encourage others to laugh at themselves as well.  Let Muslims take up joking about Muhammad, Arabs satirize jihad, British elites mock their glib liberalism, and anti-Semites spoof their politics of blame.
If the Jewish kind of laughter is truly wholesome, it ought to become universal fare.  Until such time, Jews would do well to reexamine their brand and appreciate what it portends.  One side laughing is not as harmless as one hand clapping.

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