Ruth Wisse has taught a course on Jewish humor at Harvard for years, but you might not know it given her most recent work. “Jews and Power,” published by Nextbook/Schocken in 2007, was a very serious book.
It argued that throughout history Jews have often blamed themselves for problems not of their own making. Since the destruction of the Second Temple, in 70 C.E., Wisse detected a pattern in Jewish history in which Jews aligned themselves with ideas that ran counter to their own interests in the hope that it might save them.
Wisse relishes a good fight, but it is worth noting that “Jews and Power” was something of a departure from her original work. Since the 1960s, her primary focus has been Yiddish literature, not politics.
Her first book, “The Schlemiel As A Modern Hero” (1971), established her as a star scholar of Yiddish literature, and as the book’s name implies, it takes humor seriously.
She argued that Jewish writers used humor, perhaps best exemplified by Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916), as a way to cope with the new modern, secular world in which they found themselves.
Unleashed from the authority of provincial rabbis, and not yet having a state of their own, Jewish writers created a satirical mode of expression that helped them accept the futility of emancipation while still maintaining their inner sense of self.
Wisse has begun work on a new book about Jewish humor and spoke to Text/Context about the topic last month.
Text/Context: Where would you begin a study of modern Jewish humor?
Ruth Wisse: Wherever I started, I would feature Sholem Aleichem. He had a profound impact on Jewish humor. Whether or not other writers identified him as a forerunner, he had a strong influence on them.
He not only created comic characters of his own, he also drew a lot from Yiddish folklore and adopted much of it in his work. He cast himself as a comic writer but at first he had aspired to be a serious novelist, along the lines of Zola and Balzac and Tolstoy.
Only gradually did he realize that his talent was for comedy, at which point he even adopted a comic pen name. “Sholem Aleichem” means “How do you do?” It’s a funny name to give oneself. But it was his way of dealing with his Jewish identity and his attempt to become a modern Jewish writer on his own terms.
Does his type of ironic humor, and the comedians who later co-opted it, have any direct impact on humor more generally? In other words, did Jewish humor influence Western humor?
Well, there’s been a lot written about the outsider in modern culture, and on the Jew’s influence on the comedy of alienation. But Yiddish humor is insider humor. It’s very much based on Jewish sources, and the better you know the sources, the funnier the puns are.
In the text of “Tevye the Dairyman” [by Sholem Aleichem], to bring the most famous example, he plays with the Jewish idea of being chosen. Tevye says, “Thou hath chosen us from all other nations,” then adds, “Why did you have to pick on the Jews?”
Tevye prays in the same ironic way, providing his own commentary that goes entirely against the grain of the prayer he is reciting. The best of Tevye’s joking cannot be translated.
So you don’t see much of an influence.
The thing that interests me is context. In Eastern Europe, where Jews lived in their own communities, they were writing an insider’s humor. Jews in the secular world like [Heinrich] Heine created a different kind of humor that was edgy and much less internal.
But is there any continuity between the two?
Yes, there is a certain continuity between yesterday’s humor and today’s.
But Yiddish humor adapted itself to its circumstances just as American-Jewish humor adapts to its circumstance. Yiddish humor was very verbal, intellectual, witty. It was never really slapstick, which I think American humor is becoming.
Once you get to Sacha Baron Cohen, Jewish humor is much more physical. It’s vulgar. He can’t make fun of Talmudic passages or deeply embedded Jewish practices because most Jews, let alone most Americans, don’t pick up on these references. So he has to play up the most common understanding of Jews and reach for the broadest kind of comedy.
Would you then not consider Sacha Baron Cohen’s humor Jewish?
No, that’s not it. What I’m saying is that the humor is only as Jewish as the comic is.
But Cohen is known to be a very observant Jew.
Sure, in his private life maybe. But his humor doesn’t really suggest a specific knowledge of Jewish life. It’s not very insider-ish. At least not in his movies.
How about Larry David. Is his humor more Jewish?
I don’t think it’s a question of less Jewish or more Jewish. Larry David is an interesting case, though, because in the case of “Seinfeld” he used very benign forms of comedy. He gives you various little dramas, but apart from some Jewish references, there’s really nothing Jewish about them.
But, then, in the same way that Richard Pryor’s stand-up comedy played up deep anxieties in the black community, Larry David’s own show is much more anxious about Jewish identity. And his humor is much more cutting.
Can you tell me a little about your new book?
Well, it’s very early in the process.
Not even the title?
OK, but it’s not settled yet. I’m thinking of calling it “When Can We Stop Laughing?”
Eric Herschthal is a staff writer for The Jewish Week. He covers arts and culture.
The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.