Read No Joke Online

Authors: Ruth R. Wisse

No Joke

No Joke


Cosponsored by the Tikvah Fund

The series presents engaging and authoritative treatments of core Jewish concepts in a form appealing to general readers who are curious about Jewish treatments of key areas of human thought and experience.

No Joke

Making Jewish Humor    Ruth R. Wisse


Princeton and Oxford

Copyright © 2013 by Princeton University Press
Published by Princeton University Press, 41 William Street,
Princeton, New Jersey 08540
In the United Kingdom: Princeton University Press, 6 Oxford Street,
Woodstock, Oxfordshire
OX20 1TW

All Rights Reserved

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Wisse, Ruth R., author.

No joke : making Jewish humor / Ruth R. Wisse.

pages cm. – (Library of Jewish ideas)

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-691-14946-2 (alk. paper)

1. Jewish wit and humor—History and criticism. 2. Jews—Humor—History and criticism. I. Title.

PN6149.J4W49 2013

809.7'98924-dc23                  2012051631

British Library Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available

Publication of this book has been aided by the Tikvah Fund

This book has been composed in Garamond Premiere and Tekton

Printed on acid-free paper. ∞

Printed in the United States of America

10  9  8  7  6  5  4  3  2  1

For my grandchildren    


List of Illustrations    

Introduction: The Best Medicine    

1   German Lebensraum    

2   Yiddish Heartland    

3   The Anglosphere    

4   Under Hitler and Stalin    

5   Hebrew Homeland    

Conclusion: When Can I Stop Laughing?    





Heinrich Heine monument in Dusseldorf    

Franz Kafka monument in Prague    

Marc Chagall,
The Green Violinist

New Year's card, early twentieth century    

Anatoli Kaplan illustration to Sholem Aleichem's “The Haunted Tailor”    

Illustration from Israel Zangwill's
King of the Schnorrers

Cartoon: “A practicing Catholic and an observant Jew”    

Cartoon: “Who gets the kosher meal?”    

Jolly Paupers
in Warsaw, 1937    

Mel Brooks's
The Producers

Shimen Dzigan as Golda Meir    

Cartoon by Dosh    

Comedy trio Hagashash Hahiver    


No Joke


The Best Medicine

One morning, in Harvard's Semitic Museum where the Jewish Studies program is housed, I ran into two of my colleagues collecting their mail. The evening before, when I had lectured at a synagogue, a member of the audience had told me a good joke. I couldn't wait to share it:

Four Europeans go hiking together and get terribly lost. First they run out of food, then out of water.

“I'm so thirsty,” says the Englishman. “I must have tea!”

“I'm so thirsty,” says the Frenchman. “I must have wine.”

“I'm so thirsty,” says the German. “I must have beer.”

“I'm so thirsty,” says the Jew. “I must have diabetes.”

The joke was brand new when I told it that morning—though it is by now well worn, at least in part because I put it into circulation in published and recorded talks about Jewish humor. If you are into such things, you will appreciate my thrill at the laughter that greeted the punch line. How often do you get to tell Jews a joke that they haven't heard before?

But as I was about to follow my colleagues out of the front office, the receptionist, who had overheard our conversation, told me that she found the joke offensive. Indeed, if we weren't Jews, she said, she would have called it anti-Semitic. Could I please explain what was funny about it and account for our hilarity?

This young woman, let me call her Samantha, was dating a Jewish student in our department, and as a Gentile, had previously asked me about unfamiliar terms and concepts in the novels of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Hence I took my time in reassuring her that stereotypes are a regular feature of joking, which depends for its effect on brevity. With no time for elucidation, jokes often designate people by a single characteristic. Is it fair that Poles or “Newfies” (Newfoundlanders) get labeled as dumb? Are all Scots stingy? Are all mothers-in-law hateful? Because compression of this kind is essential to the genre, a single national association represents each of the hikers in the joke, and whichever of them was placed last in a serial buildup would invariably be at variance with the others. As the last of the four, the Jew was
to say something different.

But this did not yet seem to get to the heart of the matter, so I continued: The joke turns on the double meaning of the verb “to have”: (a) to possess, as in, to have a drink, and (b) to be afflicted by or have a disease. Repetition of the first usage by the Englishman, the Frenchman, and the German raises the expectation that the verb will continue to be used in the same way. When the Jew breaks the pattern, we laugh at the displacement of one anxiety (thirst)
by a graver one (illness); Sigmund Freud provides a superb analysis of this technique in
Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious
. While the three hikers react to the problem at hand, the Jew anticipates its direst implications. The three want to quench their thirst, and he looks for complications behind the presumably obvious cause. Is he neurotic? A hypochondriac? Why is he conditioned for disaster? The joke may “know” what happened to the Jews of Europe and may assume that a Jew in European company is entitled to worry about his prospects of survival.

Forced in this way to think about the joke, I realized how it replicated the Jew's anxiety. A Jew in mixed European company introduces an additional level of insecurity beyond the one involved in the hike. Many times I had stood in that very building with those same colleagues discussing a recent suicide bombing in Israel or trading stories about our relatives in some hostile climate. The Jewish hiker's exaggerated worry made us laugh at a truth so ingeniously exposed. The joke organized our analogous concern and then exploded it to our surprised satisfaction.

I confess that my first impulse when Samantha asked me to explain the joke had been to tell her the famous one that introduces a collection of Yiddish humor by the folklorist Immanuel Olsvanger:

When you tell a joke to a peasant, he laughs three times, once when you tell it to him, the second time when you explain it to him, and the third time when he understands it.

The landowner laughs twice. Once when you tell it to him and again when you explain it, because he never understands it.

The policeman laughs only once when you tell it to him, because he doesn't let you explain it so he never understands it.

When you tell a Jew a joke, he says, “I've heard it before. And I can tell it better.”

This joke ridicules those who don't get Jewish humor, in a pecking order of wit that is dominated by Jews to such a degree that their only competition is among themselves. Failure to laugh at a joke signifies something like dimness in the peasant, remoteness in the landowner, and severity in the police officer. The slowest to laugh is the most threatening, and the one who laughs soonest is the most human. If the Jew fails to laugh, it is not, God forbid, because he missed the point of the joke but because he has exhausted the fund of laughter. The joke uses humor as a touchstone of humanity, consigning those who lack it to some lower existence, but implying that Jews are almost too human for their own good.

Naturally, I didn't tell Sam this joke because it might have expanded the distance between us that we were trying to shrink. The Olsvanger joke, if I may call it that, assumes an adversarial relation between Gentiles and Jews. It suited European societies where Christian peasants, landowners, and police were often hostile to Jews; intended solely for those who spoke the Jewish language, it was told elsewhere in Europe about an Englishman, a Frenchman, and a German. The
antagonism of surrounding European societies made Jews eager for the only kind of payback they could afford to indulge. But as far as I know, the joke has no U.S. equivalent. Who would be its foils? Blacks, Hispanics, and WASPs? A bank teller, manager, and president? There may be plenty of ethnic and racial joking in the United States, and some anti-Jewish bigotry behind it, but nowadays East and West Coast Americans seem so familiar with Jewish comedy that I was frankly surprised Samantha did not join in our laughter. Had I thought the joke excluded her, I might not have told it in that semipublic space.

Sam seems to me like the kindly bystander who worries about the health of smokers. She wants to protect Jews from anti-Semitism, which she associates with whatever sets them apart. In her eagerness to draw us all together, she may fail to understand why we should accept, reinforce, and celebrate our peculiarity. So does Sam have a point? Is it appropriate to wonder why Jews should enjoy laughing at themselves? Why joking acquired such value in Jewish society, or why Yiddish—the language of European Jewry, whose culture I teach at the university—is thought to be inherently funny?

As it happens, joking had also figured at a faculty meeting a few weeks earlier—though lest you think this is what we do all day, let me say that I found such occasions memorable because they were rare. The senior faculty of Harvard's Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, which includes Jewish Studies, Arabic, Armenian, Turkish, and Persian as well as the languages and archaeology of the ancient Near East, had gathered to vote on a new professorial position. We had been looking so long for the “right person”
that the dean was threatening to cancel the search if we did not immediately arrive at a decision. Our chair, who had also reached the limits of his patience, said he wanted a unanimous vote on our likeliest candidate, and that he would go around the table asking everyone either to agree or object with cause. The positive votes were adding up nicely until it came to our most demanding colleague, who had blocked some of the earlier applicants. He paused for a moment, then sighed and said, “Well, I guess he passes the Rosenberg test.” The non-Jewish members looked expectantly to us Jews, but we hadn't a clue what this meant. Our colleague explained:

Mrs. Rosenberg goes to the butcher early Friday morning to buy her usual chicken for sabbath and begins her usual routine of inspection. She is not satisfied with an examination from across the counter, but asks the butcher to hand her the bird. She lifts each wing and sniffs suspiciously, then one leg at a time, and finally the orifice. The butcher, who has tired of this performance, says, “Frankly, Mrs. Rosenberg, I don't know which of
could pass your test!”

The laughter that greeted this punch line sealed the decision. The fastidious colleague had told the joke at his own expense to expose the folly of excessive inspection. The mention of a Jewish-sounding name had raised expectations of some special Jewish wisdom only to dash them in a joke that was equally accessible to all. Implicitly, the laughter uniting us even included the prospective department member who had just been voted into our ranks.

These two examples of Jewish joking seem alike in making fun of Jews themselves, yet the ecumenicism of the second differs from the particularism of the first. Mrs. Rosenberg could have been Mrs. O'Brien stalking a Christmas turkey with no sacrifice of comic outcome, whereas the Jew's concern about diabetes spoofed some allegedly
trait. The Jewish-sounding name that threatened to distinguish Jews from non-Jews in the Rosenberg joke was only part of the diversionary machinery that kept attention on the action until the final shift of focus, whereas in the hikers' joke the Jew was at once the target and audience. Here we see that even within the same academic department, Jewish joking can function in opposing ways to include and exclude different constituencies. How much more so in the geographically and linguistically divergent communities this book explores.

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