Humor is the most celebrated of all Jewish responses to modernity. In this book, Ruth Wisse evokes and applauds the genius of spontaneous Jewish joking--as well as the brilliance of comic masterworks by writers like Heinrich Heine, Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Babel, S. Y. Agnon, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Philip Roth. At the same time, Wisse draws attention to the precarious conditions that call Jewish humor into being--and the price it may exact from its practitioners and audience.
Wisse broadly traces modern Jewish humor around the world, teasing out its implications as she explores memorable and telling examples from German, Yiddish, English, Russian, and Hebrew. Among other topics, the book looks at how Jewish humor channeled Jewish learning and wordsmanship into new avenues of creativity, brought relief to liberal non-Jews in repressive societies, and enriched popular culture in the United States.
Even as it invites readers to consider the pleasures and profits of Jewish humor, the book asks difficult but fascinating questions: Can the excess and extreme self-ridicule of Jewish humor go too far and backfire in the process? And is "leave 'em laughing" the wisest motto for a people that others have intended to sweep off the stage of history?
Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and professor of comparative literature at Harvard University. She is the author of The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey through Language and Culture, which won a National Jewish Book Award. Her other books include Jews and Power (Schocken) and The Schlemiel as Modern Hero.
"[S]ubtle and provocative . . ."--Anthony Gottlieb, New York Times Book Review
"Ms. Wisse provides a rich assortment of mordant wit at the threshold of extinction."--Edward Kosner, Wall Street Journal
"Accessible to nonacademic audiences as well as scholars, this cultural history is a welcome addition to the study of humor in a sociopolitical context."--Publishers Weekly
"Seriously funny, humorously serious, scholarly, witty and wise."--Kirkus Reviews
"[S]harp and thoughtful. . . . To her credit, Ms. Wisse offers no general theory of Jewish humour in her book, preferring description and textual analysis, at which she excels, to psycho-historical puffery."--Economist
"[Ruth Wisse] has produced an excellent treatise about Jewish comedy in all of its forms, focusing her gaze on how it has changed and responded to the shifting landscape of Jewish powerlessness."--Elaine Margolin, Jerusalem Post
"[R]ichly absorbing . . ."--Robert Fulford, National Post
"No Joke is a remarkable combination of scholarship and current concerns, written in elegant prose, which can be enjoyed three times: first, for the humor; second, for the erudition; and finally and most important, for its moral vision."--Rick Richman, Commentary
"[E]xcellent. . . . I applaud the intellectual courage of this book, the breadth of Wisse's learning, the comprehensiveness of her ambitions, her unembarrassed declarations of pleasure in what she finds funny (and if we don't, that's tough onus), her unapologetic references to such serious students of comedy as Freud, whose writing on jokes it is easy to deride, and the confidence with which she moves from rabbis to writers to jesters, from literature to music hall and back. Comedy is comedy is comedy."--Howard Jacobson, Standpoint
Table of Contents:
List of Illustrations ix
Introduction: The Best Medicine 1
1 German Lebensraum 29
2 Yiddish Heartland 59
3 The Anglosphere 104
4 Under Hitler and Stalin 143
5 Hebrew Homeland 182
Conclusion: When Can I Stop Laughing? 221
Cosponsored by the Tikvah Fund