On Jewish Humor
To the Editor:
“Only the angels in Heaven agree on everything,” my zaydeh told me when I was a little boy. Yet I dare say that, were it required of the angels to formulate a definition of humor, there would be as wide divergence of opinion among them as there has been on the subject among writers from Aristotle down to Bergson and Freud. And I am even more certain that, were a definition of Jewish humor in question, the angels would stand as opposed to one another as Mr. David Daiches and I are.
My definition of Jewish humor, which I concretized in my Treasury of Jewish Humor, and which Mr. Daiches rejects (COMMENTARY, January 1952), is simply this: Jewish humor is humor created by Jews about Jews anywhere in the world, regardless of the language in which it was written or the epoch in which it was produced. I was led to this view by the historical fact that for some three thousand years Jews have been a global people with an ethnic-cultural continuity, although with wide variations. Consequently, I culled the selections for my anthology from every language source available to me: from Yiddish and Hebrew literature especially, then from English, German, French, Dutch, Hungarian, Russian, etc.
Since humor is a creative expression of life, Jewish humor is a product of Jewish group life anywhere in the world, whatever the degree of piety or assimilation. This axiom I emphasized in the introduction to my book: “In almost every section. . . will be found characterizations bearing striking resemblance to one another, and this notwithstanding the fact that they were written in different languages, countries and times. This is due to the fact that wherever Jews have lived they have had common traditions to draw from and almost the same historic experiences. Similar circumstances give rise to similar psychologic types. . . .”
Mr. Daiches challenges the validity of my definition and the character of my selections as well. To my conception he opposes his own: “For Jewish humor, so far as it can be clearly differentiated from other kinds of humor, is a product of the ghetto. . . .” Now Mr. Daiches does not have in mind just any kind of ghetto; he is specifically referring to the East European ghetto, and there only beginning with the enlightenment movement at the turn of the 19th century. However, he observes with finality, “. . . that Jewish humor exists, is hardly to be questioned. Or rather, that Jewish humor existed.”
“Existed,” concludes Mr. Daiches. He plainly believes that Jewish humor no longer exists, is no longer being created. That is, it did exist once, but only in the East European ghetto. And when the ghetto came to an end Jewish humor died with it. Of course, it still “exists,” but only like a unique cultural monument of the past. As for Jewish humor created outside the East European ghetto—it is not “genuine”!
But Mr. Daiches’ perfectionist preoccupation with what constitutes the genuine in Jewish humor leads him to further delimitations, refinements, and qualifications. His modified definition soon becomes perilously attenuated and dogmatic: “Jewish humor at its most authentic arose from the clash between a vocabulary geared to a life of religious observance and a deeply ironical skepticism: as the latter comes more and more to dominate the former, the humor becomes less and less specifically Jewish, and when finally we get the Western Jewish intellectual playing his part as ironist in a sophisticated Western community, the Jewish ties are generally lost altogether.”
Now no one can question that religious skepticism generated much Jewish humor, yet it is baffling to me how Mr. Daiches can dismiss as less authentic other equally valid sources of Jewish humor produced by the self-same milieu. For example: the poverty and lack of opportunity in the ghetto gave rise to an infinitely more substantial body of Jewish humor than that of religious skepticism. It included an entire gallery of tragi-comic misfits: batlanim, shlemiels, shlimazls, luftmenshen, pipe-dreamers, delirious fortune-hunters, “geniuses,” and God knows what else!
As a historian of Jewish humor Mr. Daiches is highly vulnerable. His claim that there is no humor in the Bible is unfounded. Any Bible student can point out to him innumerable passages of irony and satire—for example, in Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and in the narrative about the prophet Micah. Furthermore, Mr. Daiches’ positive denial that an “authentic” Jewish humor existed before the Haskalah penetrated the ghetto is indeed puzzling. Is it possible that he is unfamiliar with the wealth of anecdotes, fables, exempla, witticisms, and aphorisms in the Talmud and Midrash? He will find in them the original matrix, the intellectual pattern, the very soul of much of the Jewish irony and wit he erroneously claims as the exclusive, “authentic” creation of the latter-day Polish and Russian ghetto.
I, for one, wish to believe in a living continuity of Jewish culture, not just in a frozen and “closed” heritage. Whatever forms the literature created by Jews about Jewish life may take in the unpredictable future they will still be Jewish to me. Change is as dynamic a process in civilizations as it is in nature.
The insecurity of our times for Jews, luridly high-lighted by the Nazi slaughter of one-third of the Jewish people, has inflicted psychic trauma on many sensitive intellectuals. Lately there has been a marked trend among Jewish writers to seek escape from the disturbing reality in reminiscence of the East European ghetto. They idealize and sentimentalize it ad nauseam. They gloss over all of its well-known warpings: its meanness and squalor, its hunger and despair, its lack of opportunity and stagnation. In carefully censored retrospect they see only the joyous, the morally elevating, the religiously ecstatic facets. They look back upon it nostalgically as a dreamlike, never-to-return Golden Age. . . .
Into such dismal snares and delusions can “ghetto-theories” about the only “authentic” and “genuine” Jewish cultural values lead the unwary, no matter how intelligent and sincere they may be.
New York City