A Treasury of Jewish Humor, edited by Nathan Ausubel
In compiling this massive anthology—and himself translating many of its items from the Yiddish—Mr. Ausubel has undertaken a heroic task, perhaps more heroic than he realized. A book as large as this, and bearing the title which this bears, ought to be a reasonably definitive collection of stories illustrative of characteristically Jewish humor. The most important preliminary task for an editor of this kind of work is surely to make up his mind about what Jewish humor is. That Jewish humor exists, is hardly to be questioned. Or rather, that Jewish humor existed. Many of the modern funny stories about Jews which Mr. Ausubel includes in his book are just funny stories that happen to be about Jews: they are not specially or essentially Jewish. Fewer and fewer of the new stories about Jews are essentially Jewish. For Jewish humor, so far as it can be clearly differentiated from other kinds of humor, is a product of the ghetto, and bears in its philosophy as well as in its idiom the marks of a “peculiar people” who are both proud and ironical about their peculiarity, who have developed a sad secular wisdom against a background of minute and daily religious observance, who always expect the worst while maintaining a teasing and quizzical familiarity with the Almighty. The great period of Jewish humor was the period between the Enlightenment and assimilation—the period, that is, when Jews were still Yiddish-speaking and ghetto-dwelling, but after the stern conviction of unquestioned faith had been modified in response to the infiltration of skepticism. Zangwill’s Melchitsedek Pinchas, one of the last comic characters in a Jewish literature now no longer written in Yiddish, could not have existed in the Middle Ages and could not exist today. Sholom Aleichem’s Menachem Mendel belongs even more completely to a lost world.
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