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Scholar gets serious about Jewish humor
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Scholar gets serious about Jewish humor

Jewish jokes are no laughing matter in the latest book by Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard University.

In No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (Princeton University Press), Wisse argues that jokes told by Jews about Jews are a way of reinforcing collective identity in a diverse world.

“Joking is something we do together,” she told an audience March 9 at The Jewish Center in Princeton. “It creates a bond among people who laugh at the same thing together.”

Moreover, many Jewish jokes negotiate the difficulties of living in an open society, especially those that feature Jews and gentiles.

“My hypothesis is that this habit of joking in this particular way began to mushroom and thrive precisely at the moment when Jews were coming out of their own community and living among others,” Wisse said. “It is hard to negotiate that ground — how much do you want to assimilate or acculturate, and how much do you want to stay apart?”

Wisse mixed jokes and scholarly insight during a talk introduced by Fred Appel, cochair of the Jewish Center’s adult education committee and executive editor of works on anthropology and religion for Princeton University Press. Her book is part of The Library of Jewish Ideas, a series the press is developing with the Tikvah Fund, a not-for-profit Jewish education foundation.

Humor, suggested Wisse, is very much an in-group/out-crowd phenomenon, which became clear to her after her non-Jewish secretary overheard Wisse telling the following joke to Jewish colleagues:

Four Europeans were hiking together in the mountains, got terribly lost, and ran out of food and water. The Brit said, “I’m so thirsty, I must have tea.” The Frenchman said, “I’m so thirsty, I must have wine.” The German said, “I’m so thirsty, I must have beer.” And the Jew said, “I’m so thirsty, I must have diabetes.”

Her secretary pulled her aside and said, “I didn’t understand what was funny, and if you hadn’t been Jewish, I would have thought the joke would have been anti-Semitic.”

Wisse explained the distinction that humor theorists make between “laughing at” and “laughing with”: “If it is told outside of the group, it is an anti-joke, making fun of the group; if inside, that is the way we are and it is a funny way to be,” she said.

‘A joke on ourselves’

She shared another joke, set on a landing El Al flight in late December. The captain does the usual announcement about remaining seated until the seat belt signs have been turned off. Then he adds, “And to those of you still seated, we wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”

“This is pointing in two directions — in one way, self-critical, but also self-affirming,” said Wisse. “It makes fun of Jewish impatience and pushiness, but congratulates us for the same qualities in the start-up nation: Jews think out of the box, think for themselves.”

Humor has also become something of a stand-in for a more solidly based Jewish identity, Wisse suggested, quoting a recent Pew report that found 42 percent of American Jews say that having a good sense of humor is essential to their Jewish identity, as opposed to 19 percent who said it involved some aspect of observance. “When it gets to that point, it is as if we’d made a joke on ourselves,” Wisse said. “This is a people? This is a very strange kind of upside-down emphasis that one has come to.”

Rabbi David Silberman of Princeton agreed. “We can’t rely on humor to preserve Judaism. We have to rely on what the humor draws from — the faith and the observance.”

Other audience members said they appreciated the chance to take jokes seriously.

“I never thought before about the depth of Jewish humor and how it relates back to Jewish experience from all corners of the world,” said Jerry Spector of Princeton, whose daughter Andrea took a class with Wisse at Harvard.

“I liked her because she made me think,” said Carol Shatoff of Princeton, who added, “Some of the jokes at the end were very deep and made me a bit sad.”

“I’ve always taken Jewish humor for granted — it’s part of the family,” said Phyllis Caras of Princeton. “We were hearing it on a different level.”

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