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No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (Library of…
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No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (Library of Jewish Ideas)

by Ruth R. Wisse

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I have enjoyed reading articles by Ruth Wisse over the years, so when I saw she had a book out on Jewish humor, I had to get it.

While this book does indeed contain some very funny jokes, the purpose of the book is to explore the origins of Jewish humor and its differences over time and geographical distribution. As she summarizes:

“I have tried to show that Jews joke differently in Yiddish than in English, differently among themselves than in the presence of non-Jews, and differently in constitutional democracies than in totalitarian states.”

Most of the book focuses on the Yiddish humor of pre-Holocaust Europe. She talks about how Jews “sublimated their anxieties in joking” with Sholem Aleichem leading the way:

“Almost single-handedly, he invented a Jewish people that laughed its way through crisis...”

She writes that by 1975, an estimated three-quarters of U.S. comedy professionals were Jewish, crediting the tradition created in the Catskills as the most important factor in the professionalization of Jewish humor in the United States. In its heyday, she reports, one could find over six hundred shows on a typical Saturday night!

She also mentions the way in which Jewish entertainment served as “a quasisynagogue - a spiritual sanctuary and cultural gathering place” almost to make up, she avers, for the ceremonial occasions that the audience no longer observed at home.

She offers a look at Jewish humor in Israel, which is quite different than it is in the West, for the obvious reasons of Israel’s provenance, location, ongoing dangers, and different nature of political problems. She observes:

“...as the crowing of roosters and barking of dogs are transcribed variously in every alphabet, Jewish humor changes with language and circumstance.”

Finally, she tackles the subject of Holocaust humor, illustrating with a schtick from “Curb Your Enthusiasm” about the competitive suffering of a Holocaust survivor and a runner-up from the television reality show “Survivor.”

Evaluation: This is not a “joke book” like, say, The Joys of Yiddish, but rather a survey of Jewish humor and the factors contributing to its endurance and evolution. Nevertheless, it contains quite a few funny stories, and is quite entertaining. ( )
  nbmars | Aug 1, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0691149461, Hardcover)

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?

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:31 -0400)

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.

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