No Joke: Making Jewish Humor

Ruth R. Wisse, Author
Ruth R. Wisse. Princeton Univ., $24.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-691-14946-2
Reviewed on: 04/01/2013
Release date: 05/01/2013
Wisse, whose The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey Through Language and Culture won the 2001 National Jewish Book Award, is well suited to analyzing the history of Jewish humor. Through chapters that divide up the Jewish experience from the early 19th century through the present, the Harvard professor makes good on her goal of demonstrating “how the benefits of Jewish humor are reaped from the paradoxes of Jewish life, so that Jewish humor at its best carries the scar of the convulsions that brought it into being.” In looking at German Jewry during the Enlightenment, she trenchantly notes that “comedy’s predilection for inversion and incongruity was richly served by a society that enticed Jews into conversions that it necessarily distrusted, and Jews who distrusted the society into which they were voluntarily coerced.” That bitter edge is exemplified in jokes Jews told when the Nazi practice of using human fat to make soap became widely known, and she compellingly argues in another section that Israeli Jews used wit as “creative compensation for [the] political impotence” of the newly-formed Jewish state. Accessible to nonacademic audiences as well as scholars, this cultural history is a welcome addition to the study of humor in a sociopolitical context. 14 illus. (June)