No Joke: Making Jewish Humor, by Ruth R. Wisse

A Harvard scholar on what makes Jewish wisecracks distinctly Jewish

August 15, 2013

Jokes are but one form of humour. There is also, for example, physical humour, as typified by Tommy Cooper and Kenneth Williams. Jokes are verbal humour, and they require nimbleness even to tell, let alone to create. Can one imagine an administrator trying to tell a joke? It calls to mind Samuel Johnson’s line about – among other things – a dog walking on its hind legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Ruth Wisse, a distinguished scholar of Yiddish literature at Harvard University, analyses Jewish jokes over the past three centuries. Towards the end she also considers physical humour. She takes modern Jewish jokes all the way back to Heinrich Heine in the 19th century and all the way forward to the comedians and writers of today, such as Jerry Seinfeld and Howard Jacobson. Jews told jokes long before they secured citizenship in the West, long after they were citizens, in Eastern Europe and Russia, during the Holocaust itself, in the US, and in Israel today. For Wisse, jokes are a serious business.

The target of her book is Sigmund Freud’s 1905 work Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. For Freud, jokes are like dreams. They use the same psychological mechanisms, including condensation, displacement and distortion. Dreams are a way of expressing wishes, primarily sexual, that dare not be expressed openly. Because the wishes are repressed, only in analysis is the meaning revealed.

Jokes are also a means of expressing ideas and emotions, but their meaning is conscious rather than unconscious. Unlike dreams, jokes require an audience, who must get the joke for the joke to work. What is expressed can be an attitude and not just a wish. Still, jokes, just like dreams, are a compromise between doing something outright and not doing it at all. “I’m just joking” is a compromise between saying something straight and not saying anything. Of course, one is never merely joking. And jokes about one’s own culture as well as about other cultures can be exceedingly disparaging. Where dreams, or at least adult dreams, are for Freud overwhelmingly sexual, jokes are as much aggressive as erotic.

Wisse faults Freud, who loved Jewish jokes, for his assumption that the meaning of these jokes is universal: “Though he [Freud] draws heavily on the humor of his native Jewish culture, he extrapolates from it only such findings as are presumably universal. He is interested in the relation of joking to other psychological phenomena, not in relation to Jews.”

But for Wisse, the meaning of Jewish jokes is distinctly Jewish. The jokes Jews tell are not about frustrated sexual or aggressive desires. They are about frustrated freedom and opportunity. They stem from the marginal and threatened place of Jews in a hostile world. She notes that Jews tell jokes only to one another, although she does grant that today Jewish jokes are appreciated by non-Jews.

Let me cite the first, and funniest, joke that Wisse tells: “Four Europeans go hiking 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.’

Is this joke really about social insecurity rather than about neurosis? Why is this joke hilarious even for socially secure Jews? Also, why are Jewish jokes sometimes adopted from non-Jewish sources, and why do they sometimes travel to the gentile world? Wisse’s smartly and sharply written book offers an alternative to Freud’s book, but not a refutation of it.

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