Cover image for No joke : making Jewish humor
Title:
No joke : making Jewish humor
Author:
Wisse, Ruth R., author.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Princeton, New Jersey : Princeton University Press, [2013]

©2013
Physical Description:
279 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm.
Summary:
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.
Language:
English
Contents:
German lebensraum -- Yiddish heartland -- The Anglosphere -- Under Hitler and Stalin -- Hebrew homeland -- Conclusion: when can I stop laughing?
ISBN:
9780691149462
Format :
Book

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Summary

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?


Author Notes

Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and professor of comparative literature at Harvard University. She is the author of The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey through Language and Culture , which won a National Jewish Book Award. Her other books include Jews and Power (Schocken) and The Schlemiel as Modern Hero .


Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Wisse, whose The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey Through Language and Culture won the 2001 National Jewish Book Award, is well suited to analyzing the history of Jewish humor. Through chapters that divide up the Jewish experience from the early 19th century through the present, the Harvard professor makes good on her goal of demonstrating "how the benefits of Jewish humor are reaped from the paradoxes of Jewish life, so that Jewish humor at its best carries the scar of the convulsions that brought it into being." In looking at German Jewry during the Enlightenment, she trenchantly notes that "comedy's predilection for inversion and incongruity was richly served by a society that enticed Jews into conversions that it necessarily distrusted, and Jews who distrusted the society into which they were voluntarily coerced." That bitter edge is exemplified in jokes Jews told when the Nazi practice of using human fat to make soap became widely known, and she compellingly argues in another section that Israeli Jews used wit as "creative compensation for [the] political impotence" of the newly-formed Jewish state. Accessible to nonacademic audiences as well as scholars, this cultural history is a welcome addition to the study of humor in a sociopolitical context. 14 illus. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Library Journal Review

Wisse (Yiddish & comparative literature, Harvard Univ.; The Modern Jewish Canon) traces the history of Jewish humor from its first major formal appearance in the fiction of Heinrich Heine right up to material by Larry David. Wisse backtracks to the diaspora experience, contingent status of Jews throughout European history, and conflicting readings of the Talmud to underpin her analysis of themes underlying various Jewish-joke traditions. Those who love the American Jewish comedic tradition running from Sholem Aleichem's work to that of Jerry Seinfeld will certainly chuckle. While providing generous examples of Jewish humor, some of Wisse's ruminations are only for experts to grasp. (What is really so funny about Kafka? Wisse's explications are not friendly to the generalist.) She occasionally overreaches, too. Her claim that the weakling who wins his girl is a specifically Jewish staple neglects to account for Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton, all gentiles. The hard-line anti-Palestinian views she invokes in the conclusion to justify her hostility to certain contemporary Israeli comics undercuts some of the subtlety in her argument that ethnic humor is a force for cultural understanding and pride. VERDICT Not to be mistaken for a light read on Jewish humor, this is a scholarly monograph for those undertaking Jewish cultural studies.-Scott H. Silverman, Dresden, ME (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Choice Review

Wisse (Yiddish and comparative literature, Harvard Univ.), arguably the foremost Yiddishist in North America, has produced a jewel of a book on Jewish humor, replete with academic erudition and often side-splitting jokes. She is equally at home in the works of Heinrich Heine, Sholem Aleichem, I. B. Singer, the Israelis, and Philip Roth, as well as among Borscht Belt comedians in the Catskills, or with Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. This slender volume is as scholarly as it is downright hilarious. One can laugh, but disaster is never far away: witness the destruction of European Jews under Hitler and Stalin. What is so damn funny about that? Well, Professor Wisse helps the reader understand. Inevitably, she leads into difficult discussions about self-deprecation, Freud, the horrors of the Holocaust, and how Jews manage to keep laughing in spite of the misery all around them. Occasionally, she wonders whether too much laughter is good for a people whose history has been one of survival amid slaughter. This is a wise, well-written, and unique analysis of why Jews laugh. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers. S. Gittleman Tufts University