JOURNAL WATCH
Fri, 03/19/2010
Special to the Jewish Week

 “Did you hear the one about … ?”

Humor is an enigma. Philosophers and physicians and psychologists, historians and linguists have for centuries pondered why we laugh. Aristotle and Freud, Kant and Bergson have offered explanations of humor. But at bottom, there ain’t nothing like a good joke.

Humor, especially Jewish humor, is often about our laughing at ourselves, the internally directed chuckle. So Journal Watcher begins with Hillel Halkin’s perceptive article, “Why Jews Laugh at Themselves” (Commentary, April 2006), in which literary critic and translator Halkin asks, “What makes a joke ‘Jewish’?”

More to the point, where does the Jewish joke come from? “By laughing at the absurdities and cruelties [visited upon them], Jews draw much of the sting from them … The Jews are a very ancient people, and they have navigated the seven seas of misery since Pharaoh.” The problem with this, says Halkin, is that there is nothing in classical Jewish texts — the Tanach, the Talmud and Midrash — resembling a “Jewish joke.”

Indeed, according to Freud, who wrote about the topic, Jewish humor is not found in writing before the 19th century, making its first appearances in literary form with the baptized Jew Heinrich Heine, attaining its full development in the classic Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, granddaddy of the Borscht Belt comedian.

Jewish humor may not go back very far in classical Jewish tradition, but Jews recognize the imperfections in those leaders who created the elaborate structures that do go back very far, and crystallize these imperfections into jokes. Halkin argues that the believer who can laugh at his prophet or leader will be more secure in his religious faith than the one who cannot.

In tracking Jewish humor, Journal Watcher moves easily from the early eras of the religious canon to the modern American Jewish literary canon — in this case Philip Roth and his 1969 novel “Portnoy’s Complaint.”

Wake Forest University’s Dean Franco’s comprehensive “Portnoy’s Complaint: It’s about Race, Not Sex (Even the Sex is about Race)” (Prooftexts, Winter 2009), takes a long look at the thematic elements in Roth’s watershed novel — but he also looks at Roth’s use of humor as a vehicle to explore themes of race and sex.

While Portnoy’s fixations — the Jewish family, assimilation, power and sex, always — are the objects of Roth’s wonderfully satiric voice, it is the central character, Portnoy, who is the most ironic caricature.

Franco shows how the comic intertwining of race and sex — the racial metonym “Hebe hair” voiced by Portnoy’s coal-miner’s-daughter girlfriend is delicious and hilarious — together with the satirizing of the self-hating Jew, serve to prefigure Roth’s investigations of identity (especially Jewish identity) in subsequent novels.

But “Portnoy’s Complaint” never transcends the wonderful satire that it is; the psychoanalyst’s injunction in the novel’s last line to begin analysis is one of the great punch lines of 20th-century literature.

The obverse side of the coin of satire is parody, in which broad humor is used to achieve a satirical purpose. Much of the recent journal literature on this arena is in the area of Tanach, the Hebrew Scripture.

But historian Derek Penslar of the University of Toronto (“The Continuity of Subversion: Hebrew Satire in Mandatory Palestine,” Jewish History, 2006) thoughtfully brings us to an underexplored place and period, that of British Mandate Palestine.

One of the more interesting manifestations of the sophisticated expression of Jewish humor, an expression that in this case had historical implications, was the use of satire in the Yishuv in early 20th-century Palestine, which took the form of parodies of traditional texts such as the Talmud and the Passover Haggadah.

These parodies, produced in the secular atmosphere of Tel Aviv and the kibbutzim, were the successors to — and in sharp contrast with — their predecessors in late-19th-century Europe.

In tracking the changes in both form and content of parodies of sacred Jewish texts, Penslar deftly walks the reader through the transition in the first half of the 20th century from Jewish to Israeli culture, with parody as a vehicle in that transition. “The Yishuv was a liminal zone in which a catalytic coming together of Judaic erudition and a freethinking spirit engendered a Zionist secular culture.”

Citing numerous examples — some insiderly clever (“Mi-Mitzrayim Ve’ad Henah” [From Egypt Unto Here] is a 1931 parody of the Haggadah that bitingly satirizes both the British hegemony over Palestine and Zionist struggle against the British), some uproariously funny — Penslar shows how parody illumined political and social dynamics within the Yishuv during the Mandate period.

“Underneath the Yishuv parodists’ word-play and levity lay an utter seriousness of purpose, an identification with a national cause.” The satirists viewed themselves as engaged in a national project that was nothing less than revolutionary.

To the satirists of the Yishuv, “parody of revered texts both lent legitimacy to the manifestos’ message and heightened distinctions between the old and desired orders.” It was about an effort to establish equilibrium between tradition and modernity in the struggle for the Homeland — and a good joke was a good vehicle in that effort.

Anthropologist Mary Douglas once taught us that the joke is predicated on the existence of a dominant pattern of relations, which is then challenged. To Journal Watcher the joke is all about dissolving the existing pattern; a good joke produces an exhilarating sense of freedom from form.

Contemporary Jewish America, 19th-century Europe, British Mandate Palestine — all had gaseous balloons that needed puncturing. Contemporary Jewish leaders: take note!

Did you hear the one about . . ?