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No Joke

No Joke: Making Jewish Humor

Ruth R. Wisse
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    No Joke
    Book Description:

    Humor is the most celebrated of all Jewish responses to modernity. In this book, Ruth Wisse evokes and applauds the genius of spontaneous Jewish joking--as well as the brilliance of comic masterworks by writers like Heinrich Heine, Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Babel, S. Y. Agnon, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Philip Roth. At the same time, Wisse draws attention to the precarious conditions that call Jewish humor into being--and the price it may exact from its practitioners and audience.

    Wisse broadly traces modern Jewish humor around the world, teasing out its implications as she explores memorable and telling examples from German, Yiddish, English, Russian, and Hebrew. Among other topics, the book looks at how Jewish humor channeled Jewish learning and wordsmanship into new avenues of creativity, brought relief to liberal non-Jews in repressive societies, and enriched popular culture in the United States.

    Even as it invites readers to consider the pleasures and profits of Jewish humor, the book asks difficult but fascinating questions: Can the excess and extreme self-ridicule of Jewish humor go too far and backfire in the process? And is "leave 'em laughing" the wisest motto for a people that others have intended to sweep off the stage of history?

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4634-4
    Subjects: Sociology, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: The Best Medicine
    (pp. 1-28)

    One morning, in Harvard’s Semitic Museum where the Jewish Studies program is housed, I ran into two of my colleagues collecting their mail. The evening before, when I had lectured at a synagogue, a member of the audience had told me a good joke. I couldn’t wait to share it:

    Four Europeans go hiking together and get terribly lost.

    First they run out of food, then out of water.

    “I’m so thirsty,” says the Englishman. “I must have tea!”

    “I’m so thirsty,” says the Frenchman. “I must have wine.”

    “I’m so thirsty,” says the German. “I must have beer.”


  5. 1 German Lebensraum
    (pp. 29-58)

    At the dawn of the twentieth century, when Theodor Herzl drew up his vision for the Jewish future in Palestine, he included a withering portrait of the European Jews he was hoping to transform. His 1902 novel,Altneuland(Old-new land), features Viennese Jews afraid to speak freely in front of their Christian servants and young professionals with no practical prospects of employment or matrimony. In the novel, a Dr. Friedrich Loewenberg, an “educated, desperate young man,” attends a lavish engagement party—really a disguised business merger between the families of a well-born male and the female whom Loewenberg himself is...

  6. 2 Yiddish Heartland
    (pp. 59-103)

    The Yiddish humor of the East European Jew, orOstjude, was as different from the GermanJudenwitzasalephandkometzalephare from alpha and omega. In brief, Yiddish humorists peered out from inside Jewish life rather than, like Heine’s narrator in “The Baths of Lucca,” from outside in. This made their mockery not necessarily kinder but certainly more intricate and better informed. While the German language developed the stereotype of the “rootless cosmopolitan”—the Jew who is nervously trying to fit in while everywhere displaced— Yiddish conjured up a stuck-in-the-mud Jewish nation that was only belatedly lifting up its


  7. 3 The Anglosphere
    (pp. 104-142)

    When and under what circumstances did Jewish humor become a marketable commodity, leaving the synagogue and Jewish study-house to take the public stage?

    With their entry into European society, Jews began making their mark in the arts; we have seen how writers like Heine and Kafka exploited the doubled perspective of outsider-insiders and insider-outsiders for comedy. This chapter charts a further step: namely, the penetration of non-Jewish society, first in England and then in the United States, by Jewish humor and Jewish humorists—to the point where, by 1975, an estimated three-quarters of U.S. comedy professionals, from Woody Allen to...

  8. 4 Under Hitler and Stalin
    (pp. 143-181)

    From its beginnings in the 1920s and with mounting force in the 1930s, Hitler’s anti-Jewish propaganda powerfully affected neighboring Poland in the form of anti-Jewish pogroms, discriminatory laws, economic boycott, and prejudice from once-friendlier fellow citizens. Mass emigration—the time-tested Jewish answer to oppression—was blocked by closed borders in the lands of potential refuge. In a paradox characteristic of other modern Jewish societies under pressure, the growing sense of siege that pervaded the Jewish communities of Poland stimulated an already-booming culture. The Association of Jewish Writers and Journalists in Warsaw grew from a membership of sixty when it was...

  9. 5 Hebrew Homeland
    (pp. 182-220)

    “There is not a great deal of humor being created in Israel, and most of what exists is not very funny, at least not to non-Israelis.” Joseph Telushkin’s opinion is widely shared. So, too, is his explanation for the alleged dearth of Israeli wit: that Jews in Israel can deal with their problems directly and don’t have to settle for the substitute gratifications of humor. “Israelis, for example, don’t joke much about their Arab opponents; they fight them.”¹

    This deduction is based on two interlocking assumptions: the relation of Jewish humor to powerlessness, and the relation of Israel to power....

  10. Conclusion: When Can I Stop Laughing?
    (pp. 221-244)

    History itself seems to be making fun of the Jewish tourist in Europe who now pays good money for an excursion to the Auschwitz death camp or for a ticket to see Prague’s Pinkas Synagogue, whose walls are inscribed with the names of 77,297 murdered Czech Jews. Nothing in the works of Kafka is quite as weird as the presence oftwocompeting Kafka museums in the city where he once imagined the hero of his novelThe Trialbeing slaughtered “like a dog,” with only his shame to outlive him.

    Nor is history’s mockery confined to Jews. On a...

  11. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 245-248)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 249-266)
  13. Index
    (pp. 267-284)