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.
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.
When Ronna Glickman and Beverly Ginsburg, two 50-something lifelong friends from Boston who between them have seven marriages, three children and several stepchildren they don’t talk about, come to Los Angeles to promote their book, “You’ll Do a Little Better Next Time: A Guide to Marriage and Remarriage for Jewish Singles,” they announce that they love the used bookstore they find themselves in because “everything is half-off” – and then berate the hapless Jewish clerk they meet because his wife isn’t Jewish.
Thirty years ago, when we were finishing up “The Big Book of Jewish Humor,” a few older comedians were still doing what comedians had always done. They told jokes — by which we mean funny little stories of indeterminate authorship — about a man and an elephant walking into a bar, for example, or a rabbi, a priest and a minister on a train.
I really admire considerate telemarketers who listen and try to sense your mood without immediately forcing a dialogue on you when they call. That’s why, when Devora from YES, the satellite TV company calls and asks if it’s a good time for me to talk, the first thing I do is thank her for her consideration. Then I say politely that no, it isn’t.
“The thing is that just a minute ago I fell into a hole and injured my forehead and my foot, so this isn’t really the ideal time,” I explain.
The eruv — that ethereal yet physical boundary enabling observant Jews to push strollers and use wheelchairs on Shabbat — fosters community even as it sparks tensions.
Before the Internet Age rendered geography irrelevant to community there was the eruv, the rabbinic response to spatial separation. A strategically placed wire here, a natural hedge border there, the inclusion of a fence or a highway, turns a neighborhood into an imaginary walled community of halachic intent, as such a deliberate remembrance of pre-diasporic Jerusalem.