The Magazine

You Could Die Laughing

What is the humor in Jewish jokes?

Aug 19, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 46 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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explores Jewish humor at the point that it becomes a modern phenomenon. .  .  . The ensuing rifts between the religious and agnostics, elites and masses, and especially warring impulses of loyalty and restiveness within individual Jews and their communities generates the humor that is the book’s subject.

Wisse retells many good jokes along the way, and makes a number of provocative connections about Jewish humor and the fate of the Jews in the modern world. A serious scholar, she is also an intellectual much engaged in contemporary political life, and she has a political point to make about Jewish humor that she only emphasizes in her final chapter.

“You can have too much even of kreplach,” says a character in an Isaac Bashevis Singer story. Wisse wonders if, perhaps, Jews can have too much even of humor, and many perfectly formulated sentences in No Joke both bring to mind and explain classic Jewish jokes: “Jewish humor at its best interprets the incongruities of the Jewish condition,” suggesting, for example, the joke about the meat shipment from Odessa .  .  .

On a laceratingly cold and relentlessly snowy morning in Moscow, Soviet citizens are lined up for five blocks awaiting a shipment of meat from Odessa. After an hour, a loudspeaker announces that the shipment is rather smaller than expected, so all Jews are asked to leave the line. An hour later, there is an announcement that the meat shipment has been further curtailed, so anyone who is not a member of the Communist party must leave the line. Two hours later, there is a further announcement that a large quantity of the meat in the shipment turns out to have been spoiled, so everyone is asked to leave the line except members of the Politburo. Three hours after that, the snow falling continuously all this time, there is an announcement that the meat shipment from Odessa has been cancelled.

“Those Jews,” says one member of the Politburo to another as they shuffle off toward home, “they always have it easy.”

The Soviet Union, that great and useless bump in world history, in its wretched 69 years left in its wake nothing but suffering and organized murder and a dozen or so good jokes, perhaps half of them Jewish. “Jewish experience was never as contorted as under Soviet rule,” Wisse writes. 

The Holocaust, which she also combs for its dark jokes, surely the ultimate gallows humor, is finally tragic beyond joking. She does bring out the terrifying one-liner, said by Jews in the midst of Hitler’s slaughter: “God forbid that this war should last as long as we are able to endure it.” Her gloss on this sentence reads: “I take this expression as an acme of Jewish humor and recognition of its fatal potential.” 

Jewish jokes elide into literature, with Sholem Aleichem certainly the most beloved, and perhaps also the greatest, of Yiddish writers. Aleichem’s comedy—turned into kitsch with the musical Fiddler on the Roof, where most people come in contact with it—is, Wisse notes, often “called ‘laughter through tears,’ [but] is more accurately understood as laughter through fears.” The fears were those of a people arbitrarily awarded pariah status, living under Russian and Polish despots and among brutish peasants. 

In The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903), powerless Eastern European Jews were accused of plotting to take over the world through their (non-existent) international connections, they were libeled about using the blood of Gentile children to make matzos, and they met with murderous pogroms staged by Cossacks and drunken peasants—sometimes as official government policy. One of the reasons so many Eastern-European Jewish families are unable to trace their lineage far back is that so many of the memories of their forefathers were thought best forgotten. 

Wisse explains scholarly rabbinical and Talmudic jokes. She sets out a nice array of comic curses used by Eastern-European Jewish women: “May you grow so rich that your widow’s second husband never has to work for a living,” is one example. “May you lose all your teeth but the one that torments you” is another. Wisse’s own mother, an emigré from Romania, was a dab hand at curses and at twisting proverbs into cynical yet sound advice, and Wisse supplies samples of her work in this line. Wisse suggests that Jewish women, provided less education than men, “developed more freewheeling oral aggression.”