Commentary Magazine


Jewish Wit, by Theodor Reik

Jewish Wit Psychoanalyzed

Jewish Wit.
by Theodor Reik.
Gamut Press. 242 pp. $2.45.

It would be ironic indeed if Jewish wit had outdistanced its persecutors for centuries, only to succumb in the end to the heavy hand of psychoanalysis. The best thing that can be said of this “pilot study” . . . “for the psychoanalytic exploration of the Jewish group” is that it does not come anywhere near reaching its goal; if it did, the joke might really be ruined for all time. By way of conclusion Dr. Reik offers several less than electrifying insights of a general nature about Jewish jokes and hazards a few Freudian guesses about the collective psyche of the Jewish people. He presents these findings in a tentative, even hesitant spirit which almost allows one to forgive him for them.

Decked out as a scientific treatise, this book is in fact a homespun medley of digressions, pep talks, and childhood recollections. The shadow of Freud looms large here, as over the rest of Reik’s writings, and his tributes to the master are, as ever, poignant and slightly embarrassing. (“A few times I made him smile myself by some funny observation.”) Dr. Reik’s candor about his own failings is disarming, and so is his analyst’s penchant for letting the reader in on his thought processes in the works. (“In the loose manner of thought associations a saying of a New York writer occurs to me . . .”). In the end one wishes Dr. Reik had stuck to his accounts of hijinks at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society and citations in full from Richard Beer-Hoffmann. When he digresses from his digressions and sets out in pursuit of his elusive quarry, it is heavy going indeed.

There are the usual jokes in the usual groupings (shadchen jokes, shnorrer jokes, two-Jews-on-the-way-to-Cracow jokes, Disraeli-in-Parliament jokes) followed by exegesis. The reader follows the usual procedure of skipping the exegesis and reading the jokes first, only to find that he has heard most of them before.

Dr. Reik is something less than a natural raconteur. To the intrinsic perils of rendering the Jewish joke in print, he adds several contributions of his own: a compulsion to explain the punch line (“the witty effect is here intensified by . . .”); a tendency to miss the point; traces of condescension to the Jew of Eastern Europe which flights of rhetoric in his behalf only compound (“. . . indomitable figures in kaftan, creepingly marching through the centuries . . .”). Dr. Reik labors under the common delusion that Yiddish (or, as he calls it, the “singsong of Yiddish jargon”) has neither grammar nor other formal strictures of its own, and hence can be achieved by a kind of creative leap from the German. When he undertakes to render the original punch line in transliteration (“Wir zyn two Spanish Granden”) the luckless reader who knows Yiddish can only cringe. A considerable number of the jokes that Reik tells make no sense at all. In these cases the reader’s only recourse is to try translating the joke back into German and then once again into Yiddish. He might occasionally thereby succeed in restoring the joke to its original form—but by then he has lost the inclination to laugh. There would be no reason for belaboring this point were it not for the fact that Dr. Reik frequently undertakes to analyze the latent content of jokes whose manifest content seems to pass him by.

The formal analysis of wit—a cataloguing of its types and investigation of its techniques—is a respectable intellectual exercise; some very witty people have undertaken it. But the psychoanalysis of jokes is another story altogether: it appears to come down to an attempt to analyze the unconscious motives of the protagonists of the joke. What seems wrong with this procedure, apart from the fact that it has nothing to do with what makes the joke funny, is that it offers no intrinsic limits to speculation. To take an example cited by both Freud and Reik: Rabbi N. of Cracow is seated one day in the synagogue when he suddenly screams. The worried students cluster about him and he explains: “I just saw the Rabbi of Lemberg die.” But travelers arriving the next day from Lemberg have heard nothing about their Rabbi’s death. Later it is ascertained that the Rabbi of Lemberg is, in fact, alive and in excellent health. A Jew from Lemberg uses the occasion to tease a disciple of the Cracow Rabbi about his master. “Your Rabbi made quite a fool of himself the other day. Our Rabbi L. is still alive.” “That makes no difference,” replies the disciple. “To look from Cracow to Lemberg is still a marvelous feat.”

Freud cites this joke as an example of sophism: the Hasid, eager to believe at all costs in the miraculous powers of his Rabbi, refuses to readjust his beliefs and readjusts the laws of logic instead. Reik carries the analysis further: he attributes the Cracow Rabbi’s telepathy to an unconscious wish for the death of his rival; then he proceeds to explain the disciple’s reaction not as the comical response which it seems to be in the joke, but rather as an unconscious acknowledgement of the power of the Rabbi’s “emotions and drives,” powerful enough, in fact, to bring about the death of a rival. There is no possible answer to this assertion, since neither the Rabbi of Cracow nor his disciple is available for further analysis. But the question is—why stop there? Once having departed the premises of the joke itself, it seems as feasible to discuss its visual symbolism, for example (primal scene?) as the infantile omnipotence fantasies of the Cracow Rabbi. Not to mention the meaning of the continuous journeying. Or the emphasis on disputation. (Oral syndrome?) A similar case is that of Knoepfelmacher in the Viennese delicatessen. Knoepfelmacher, who has converted to Catholicism, is gripped by a sudden urge for breast of goose. “And from such a religion one converts!” he sighs. Dr. Reik has Knoepfelmacher regressing for an instant to the ur-memory, the pre-conscious identification of food and religion. But why stop at this obvious explanation? What about the primal crime against the father? Is it merely accidental that Knoepfelmacher orders goose breast and not, for example, sauerbraten?

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Throughout this book Dr. Reik enjoins upon his readers the necessity for listening “with the third ear,” meanwhile doing untold violence upon the other two. He is master of the not-quite-right comparison (“the playing fields of Eaton [sic!] and the Yeshivot of Eastern Europe”), the inappropriate tone, the mot injuste. The Jewish people are “like a jack-in-the-box . . . they can be counted, but they cannot be counted out.” He opens his investigation with a query about whether the Jews are “the Shlemihls among the nations” and ends a discussion of the role of truth in Jewish humor with a rousing clincher from the Gospel according to St. John.

The book has apparently not been edited at all, leaving Dr. Reik’s incredible prose Style intact. There is a fresh surprise on every page. No sooner has the reader built up an immunity to the continuous present, the Germanic inversion (“Late resounds in us what early sounded”) and the mangled citation (“Be Kent unmannerly when Lear is crazy”) then he is faced with new challenges: “While he still lived in Germany, he identified with his Jewish friends and emigrated to America.” In the end it becomes a game and there are rich incidental rewards: women who are “chase and virtuous” ; a man who “spoilt his changes in life”; “the saving grave of the Jewish people.” (Has no one read the gallows?)

Some of the best jokes in this book are unwitting (and not particularly Jewish). They stem from Dr. Reik’s encounters with the American vernacular, through the agency of his patients who are a remarkably cliché-ridden lot. “Tell it to the marines!” says one (Azoi redt men zu a doktor?), and Dr. Reik wonders what the Navy has to do with it. When they are not complaining of “the white man’s burden,” they are pausing for station identification. The solemn analysis Dr. Reik extends to these stale locutions is incidentally funny, but it raises certain serious questions. Perhaps what disqualifies psychoanalysis as a tool for the study of wit, is that it does not acknowledge distinctions of merit between one utterance and another; the formal joke and the Oxydol commercial both well up from the unconscious and hence are equally susceptible of this method of analysis. In this book Dr. Reik does not distinguish between a good joke and a bad one, a wisecrack and a bon mot. He trains the same scrutiny on the quips of Oscar Levant as he does on the most polished epigrams of Heine. We have all been taught by now the sources from which humor stems, the aggressions it masks and the anxieties it discharges. Yet this does not serve to explain why the unconscious of one man compels him toward irony and the unconscious of another toward the throwing of custard pies.

Reik offers in conclusion a fourfold summation of the characteristics of Jewish wit—having first proven its uniformity and continuity by a series of agile comparisons spanning the millennia (from “the first Yahwist commentator of 850 B.C. to George Jessel; from Ibn Ezra to Charlie Chaplin; from Shylock to Disraeli”): Jewish wit, he asserts, is intimate; it proceeds by antitheses; it makes one laugh but is not merry; it devolves upon a moment of subjective truth. Bidding us follow him then “into the dark netherworld of the unconscious,” he adduces the clinical implications of these findings: “Jewish wit is an oscillation between the paranoid and the masochistic trends.” Restored to the vernacular, this seems to say that Jewish wit expresses feelings both of superiority and inferiority, that it is born out of ambivalence, anxiety, and marginality. True enough, but our friends have been saying this at parties for years—and with considerably more lilt. Surely it is more meaningful to describe a masochistic character who has the strong unconscious wish to fail as a shlemihl, than a shlemihl as a masochistic character who has the strong unconscious wish to fail.

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Ultimately one cannot quarrel with even the most unlikely of Dr. Reik’s formulations, for they do not exist in the arena of proof or disproof. Beyond pointing out that his analysis frequently wrenches the joke from its context, that it usually explains nothing about what makes it funny and could serve equally well for a news item, an editorial, or a dream, one can dissent from Dr. Reik’s procedures only on grounds of taste. What this kind of analysis lacks is that peculiar sense of the apropos, the fitting, the congruent—sometimes called wit—which would have prevented him at all costs from attributing death-wishes to the Rabbi of Cracow and clan memories to Knoepfelmacher. In the end it is a matter of tact, as difficult to explain as a joke is to someone who doesn’t get it. There is, finally, only one rebuttal to an analyst’s discussion of Jewish humor: a book by Sholem Aleichem on psychoanalysis.

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