No Joke: Making Jewish Humor
By Ruth R. Wisse
Princeton University Press, 292 pages
In Jews and Power, her brilliant 2007 analysis, Ruth R. Wisse described the Jews’ survival strategy after the Romans destroyed their state: Jews converted to a purely spiritual nation, ascribing their defeat not to the power of their enemies but to God’s dissatisfaction with them, and devoted themselves to proving their moral worth to God. This way of thinking gave Jews an independence from temporal powers, but it ran the risk of venerating powerlessness as if it were a Jewish ideal. And indeed, the modern state of Israel became the only nation to win multiple defensive wars and each time sue for peace, from enemies who viewed Western morality as weakness.
Wisse’s new book, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor, extends her insights into a surprising realm. This is a historical, literary, and polemical study of the Jewish joke. Explaining humor can be difficult: The novelist David Foster Wallace once noted that the difference between a Calvin Klein ad and a hard-core adult film was the difference between “a funny joke and an explanation of what is funny about that joke.” Explaining a joke can rob it of its magic—“to point out, for example, that Lou Costello is mistaking the proper name Who for the interrogative pronoun who, and so on.” Wisse, a longtime Commentary contributor and professor of Yiddish literature at Harvard, avoids that danger, because her principal purpose is not to explain the jokes but to locate them within Jewish history. It is a measure of her achievement that her explanations simultaneously entertain and educate.
She moves from Hasidic and Yiddish humor to humor under Hitler and Stalin, from Israeli humor to humor in America. Her approach is exemplified by her treatment of this famous Yiddish joke:
When you tell a joke to a peasant, he laughs three times, once when you tell it to him, the second time when you explain it to him, and the third time when he understands it.
The landowner laughs twice. Once when you tell it to him and again when you explain it, because he never understands it.
The policeman laughs only once when you tell it to him, because he doesn’t let you explain it so he never understands it.
When you tell a Jew a joke, he says, “I’ve heard it before. And I can tell it better.”
There is a lot going on both inside and outside that joke. Laughter serves as a measure of humanity, with Jews competing with each other in humor. But the joke also reflects its historical background: Humor was the only weapon Jews in Eastern Europe could safely use against hostile peasants, landowners, and police. In Western Europe, where anti-Semitism also prevailed, the joke featured a Frenchman, an Englishman, and a German. But there was never a U.S. equivalent, for, as Wisse writes, “Who would be its foils? Blacks, Hispanics, and WASPs? A bank teller, manager, and president?” Jewish jokes reflected the societies and times in which Jews lived; the underlying theme was the precarious relationship of Jews to the wider world.
Humor became so important that the Yiddish language itself—once spoken by 10 million, more Jews than ever shared the same language before or since—came to be considered inherently witty. Yiddish jokes were the product of a culture that used humor as a psychological defense, to explain the glaring contradiction between the promise of divine election and the continuing presence of unrelenting persecution.
Many jokes mocked Jewish passivity and overreliance on intellect. Two Jews in a wagon come to a narrow road blocked by boulders; as they consider what to do, two Gentiles arrive in another wagon, get out, and shove the rocks away. “There’s goyish thinking for you,” says one of the Jews. “Always with force.” In another joke, an officer in the czar’s army orders his troops to prepare to charge the enemy for hand-to-hand combat. The Jewish soldier replies, “Show me my man! Perhaps I can come to an understanding with him.”
Jewish jokes also mocked pseudo-intellectual explanations for self-interested actions, as when four Jews trade stories about why they converted to Christianity:
The first explains he was the victim of a false accusation and converted to escape the harsh sentence….The second confesses his parents drove him wild with complaints about his lax Jewish observance, so he converted to spite them. The third gives a rambling account of falling in love with a Christian girl….The fourth pipes up, “Unlike the rest of you, I converted out of firm conviction that Christianity is a religion of a higher order “Oh, please!” the others interrupt him—“Tell it to the goyim!”
Yiddish-inflected humor eventually became a significant part of American humor, producing such comedians as Jack Benny (Benjamin Kubelsky), Milton Berle (Berlinger), Joey Bishop (Joseph Abraham Gottlieb), Mel Brooks (Melvin Kaminsky), Lenny Bruce (Schneider), George Burns (Nathan Birnbaum), and Red Buttons (Aaron Chwatt). And those are just the B’s. Their humor combined Jewish and American experience. (A Jewish man is hit by a car and is asked by the paramedic, “Are you comfortable?” He answers, “I make a living.”) The Borscht Belt was the birthplace of stand-up comedy, in the same way New Orleans gave birth to jazz.
Wisse’s background in Jewish humor goes back more than 40 years. Her doctoral dissertation, published in 1971 by the University of Chicago Press as The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, analyzed the schlemiel as a comic figure that resonated with American Jews, who were living with opportunities their grandparents once associated with a messianic age but who still shared their ancestors’ anxieties. The schlemiel was the funny fool, whose comedy was intended to persuade others that weakness was his strength. He became a recurrent figure in American culture in the 1950s as Jewish humor became widespread.
Wisse ended her 1971 book with an analysis of two recent Jewish books she saw as part of an important revolt against schlemiel literature. In Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth used comedy to criticize the crippling effect on the Jewish psyche of the schlemiel identity. Alex Portnoy’s complaint—his book-length rant to his psychiatrist—was this: “Doctor Spielvogel, this is my life, my only life, and I’m living it in the middle of a Jewish joke!…Only it ain’t no joke!” Norman Podhoretz’s autobiography, Making It, recounted his coming to the “astonishing revelation” at age 35 that “it is better to be a success than a failure.” Wisse praised the book as the tale of “the unmaking of a schlemiel.” Both were controversial at the time, a sign of how deeply ingrained the schlemiel heritage was in American Jews.
In her new book, Wisse includes an incisive analysis of Portnoy’s Complaint that demonstrates how serious a novel it was. She calls the novel an “early warning” that laughter as a strategy for survival could become “a recipe for defeat.” But it is clear, as she writes about current comic figures such as Jerry Seinfeld (whose show was famously about nothing) that the schlemiel figure—40 years after the warning—remains a significant part of the American Jewish psyche.
No Joke is a new warning that this may not be good for the Jews. There is a moral hazard at the heart of Jewish humor: It is intended to deflect the difficulties of life, but at some point the difficulties need to be faced, not laughed off. Wisse describes the disparity in the 1930s between secure American Jews and Jews living in Europe and Palestine in a gathering storm, and she asks rhetorically what we should make of “the fantastic spurt of Jewish laughter in the very years when American Jews ought, perhaps, to have been laughing less and doing more”? The question reverberates today, as European and Muslim anti-Semitism grows unabated and the Jewish state is under existential threat.
Wisse has written an appreciation of Jewish humor while warning Jews against relying on it too much. Her final message is that until Muslims joke about Mohammad, Arabs satirize jihad, and anti-Semites start to kid themselves, Jews should “reexamine their brand.” It is dangerous when only one side is laughing. No Joke is a remarkable combination of scholarship and current concerns, written in elegant prose, which can be enjoyed three times: first, for the humor; second, for the erudition; and finally and most important, for its moral vision.