Ruth Wisse’s recommendations

An interview with...

Ruth Wisse on Jewish Humour

About Ruth Wisse

Ruth R. Wisse is professor of Yiddish and Comparative Literature at Harvard University, and former Chair of its Center for Jewish Studies. Her most recent book is No Joke: Making Jewish Humor. Her other books include The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey through Language and Culture, which won a National Jewish Book Award, and The Schlemiel as Modern Hero. 

Sholem Aleichem

The Harvard professor and author of No Joke: Making Jewish Humour identifies Tevye the Dairyman as the first standup comic and Sigmund Freud as Jewish humour's greatest analyst. She picks the best books on Jewish humour. 

Let's start with your first book, The Big Book of Jewish Humour, a 25th anniversary reissue edited by William Novak and Moshe Waldoks. This is an anthology of stories and excerpts from novels, as well as occasional pieces, with many jokes in the margin that I particularly enjoyed. Anthologies of Jewish humour are something relatively new, they didn't always exist. Can you tell me something about anthologies of humour and why you particularly like this one?

Not long after the Grimm Brothers and folklorists in Europe began to collect stories and songs, Jewish collectors did likewise, and one of the first things they recognized was the prominence of joking. In fact, some of the intellectuals of the time put their minds to collecting humour and there are some truly first rate collections of jokes, witticisms and proverbs (many of which are quite funny) in Yiddish and in Hebrew as well.

When exactly are we talking about?

We're talking about the end of the 19th century. The Grimm brothers are a little bit earlier but in Europe, among Jewish intellectuals, this impulse to collect folklore began in the last decade of the 19th century in particular and the beginning of the 20th century.

And who are some of the Jewish anthology collectors you mentioned?

There's Yehoshua Hana Ravnitsky who was also the editor of the Yiddish Zionist weekly that was published after the first Zionist Congress in 1897. He was a very prominent writer and thinker and his collection of Jewish jokes is marvellous. Then there is Alter Druyanov. In Israel recently, a selection of the Hebrew joke collections of Druyanov was reissued by a contemporary young Israeli, Danny Kerman. And he writes in the introduction that of all the books on his parents' shelves, the three volumes of the Druyanov collection of jokes and satires were the books that were most thumbed through, that they most used. So he culled from that and had this illustrated in a very beautiful collection.

What do you particularly like about The Big Book?

Quality counts in anthologizing and in humour as much as in anything else and Waldoks and Novak are really professionals in this field. They have a personal delight in humour, but they also gave themselves over to this in a very scholarly way. They researched it for a long time. Actually they wanted to do a much larger version for the 25th anniversary book but they couldn't because of copyright laws: they would have had to go back and revise the whole book and it became too complicated. So all they did was add an introduction in which they tried to include as much new material as they could.

Have there ever been copyright issues over a joke?

It's a good question. It's probably the only form of folklore that's left because songwriting is copyrighted and storytelling is copyrighted. Jokes are probably the only form it's difficult to copyright, but cartoons, for example, are copyrighted. 

One of the things I like about this book is the sensibility of the two people who have collected it. Their choice is very good and it's capacious. They include formal literature, they include stories of very well known humorists and also some whom they uncover…

Except for the jokes in the margin that come from all over the place, most of the material in the main text is American.  In the introduction to this reissue, Waldoks and Novak say, “the Jews are becoming less Jewish in some cases, that may be balanced by the fact that Americans seem to be becoming more Jewish.” What do you think about that remark?

I don't know if it's applicable to American society as a whole, but it's certainly applicable to the realm of humour. The presence of Jewish comedy and Jewish comedians was so enormous up to the 1970s and 1980s that they had a tremendous impact on American humour and American entertainment in general. In that sense, the entertainment industry became much more Jewish, culturally and ethnically, I would say. But in some ways it became de-Judaized because, as the level of Jewish knowledge and Jewish observance decreased, what people called Jewish was less and less what had been known as Jewish behaviour and Jewish thinking and the Jewish way of life.

Your next choice is, by contrast, highly Judaized. These are the stories of Sholem Aleichem, Tevye the Dairyman, in a collection that includes The Railroad Stories. The main character, Tevye, and many of the other characters are constantly quoting the Bible and other forms of Jewish literature. Their lives are in every respect obviously Jewish. The author was born in the Ukraine and then came to America and was, apparently, known as the Jewish Mark Twain. You attach particular importance to him in your book, No Joke, in the formation of Yiddish humour. Can you tell us a bit about why he's so important?

He's probably my favourite Yiddish writer, and I think his impact on Jewish culture and the Jewish way of life is incalculable. He did not begin as a humorist, I think he wanted to cast himself as a great fiction writer, like Zola, like Balzac, like Dickens. He wanted to write these great novels…

Did he actually start any?

Oh yes, he did and he continued to write them, but they're not very good. He discovered pretty early on, luckily, that his métier was taking over the voice of a common character and letting that character speak, and become the monologuist of the story. He adopted the pseudonym of Sholem Aleichem, which means "Hi there!" as a way of indicating what kind of a writer he was, that he was going to adopt this popular voice. As a humorist he saw that the situation for Jews was actually becoming very dire. This was a time of tremendous revolution and transformation in Europe in general and it hit the Jews very hard. There was a great migration, not just from towns to cities but to America. There were wonderful ideological and nationalist movements and there was a great cultural ferment, but there were also pogroms, and the beginning of anti-Jewish violence and anti-Jewish ideology in a much more serious way than had existed before. For him, as a father, he saw this generation gap widening between himself and his own children and what their ambitions were. He saw that Yiddish was going to be threatened by upward mobility, that Yiddish itself was going to be devastated, and he was going to be made irrelevant as a writer by the very forces to which he was giving life. And he turned this into humour. As one of the critics said, he creates the nightmare from which he then awakens.

Tevye, the main character, will be quite well known to people through the musical Fiddler on the Roof. When I recently reread the stories I was struck by one big difference between Tevye on the page and Tevye on the stage. Tevye on the page talks the most enormous amount. I've never come across a character who talks so much. You wouldn't want to meet him, or at least not spend much time with him! The other thing is that he hardly ever opens his mouth without citing Jewish scripture or lore.

It's the good and the bad. The Americanization of Tevye was obviously the opportunity of bringing it to a much broader audience. It became a really beloved musical, it's acted by schoolchildren and was translated into many languages. It did popularize what would otherwise have lain dormant. But at a tremendous cost, because that is not really Tevye. To me, he functions as the first standup comic…

That's quite an accolade.

It is, but when you read him on the page he really is a standup comic. He is speaking to Mr. Sholem Aleichem so that they have formed a kind of magic circle, a cultural island, within a sea of change. They are this stable unit, Mr Sholem Aleichem is the audience but he is a very important audience because he is the entrepreneur who is taking these heavy monologues and publishing them. It's an extremely complicated work in the way it is fashioned. It seems simple and straightforward — the man telling the story is so amiable and so forth — but it is one of the most perpetually fascinating texts because of the various levels of interaction between the character and the listener and in relation to the devastation that he is describing. The trajectory of the plot is totally downward from the first story to the end, it becomes more and more tragic. He is bereft of everything that was important to him. But he remains a speaker. He is the one who keeps reinterpreting all that happens, and it's through his eyes that you see this. So, in a sense, nothing is taken away from him because he is the one who has the last word. I think Jewish readers began to see themselves in this model. They would quote him. They would see themselves as a people who — as long as they were in possession of the narrative — it didn't really matter all that much what happened.

You certainly make a strong case for him as a foundational figure.

I hope so.

The next book you've chosen is Saul Bellow's Herzog, which was published in 1964 and is about the mid-life crisis of a 47-year old Jewish man. I don't think you discuss it in your book, why did you pick it now as one of your favourite books about Jewish humour?

Actually when I began my work in the field of Yiddish literature, my doctoral dissertation was written on “The Schlemiel As Modern Hero,” and I devote a chapter to this Bellow novel.

Can you define schlemiel?

I define schlemiel in that study as “a loser as winner.” In other words, a person who is hapless, who is cuckolded very often, who is made fun of because he's a weakling, but who is given the moral credibility — he has the moral authority. I begin with a joke from World War I: a Jew gets lost on the border between warring nations. Suddenly he is at the border and the searchlight shines on him and the guard says, “Stop, or I'll shoot!” And the Jew says, “What? Are you crazy? Don't you see this is a human being?”

Nobody nowadays ever laughs at that, but it's uproarious. For the Jew, it's an absurdity. "You're going to shoot me because I'm stepping over a boundary line?" On the other hand, you see the implications of this idiocy, the sense that in the real world it's fatal. Herzog, I think, grows out of that tradition. What Bellow does — magically almost — is to make the schlemiel into a liberal humanist. Herzog is cuckolded. Here you have this great intellectual, this man who has written a tome on romanticism, Moses Herzog, a prominent professor and what happens?  His best friend is making out with his wife and everybody knows about it. The only person who doesn't know about it is he. That's a classic comic situation, from Chaucer onwards everybody has always made the cuckold into a comic figure. But here again, Herzog is in control of the narrative. Everything in the book is seen from his perspective. He begins with the statement, “If I'm out of my mind, it's alright with me.”  He is accepting that limitation. It's as if the whole book is there to show us that there are other forms of wisdom than that kind of philosophical or scholarly intelligence or the cynicism of realists who want you to double down on the facts. Herzog realizes that he'd be prepared to make the same mistakes again.

Are you saying that he is in some sense a victim who is taking control, at least intellectually, of the situation? Is that what makes it distinctively Jewish?

Yes. It's actually one of the most autobiographical works that Bellow wrote. Not only in the sense of being based on the facts of his life, but in that he really draws on his own childhood, on his own use of Yiddish. Bellow was one of the best Yiddish speakers I ever met in my life, and one of the reasons we became friends is because we could speak Yiddish together. His brothers, with whom he had spoken Yiddish, had died and he just loved speaking Yiddish. This was a great bond between us. So there's that in the book, with which he advertises its Jewishness. But I think that what he is grappling with is — so you're a good person, you're a sweet person, you're that innocent person in the joke that I quoted. And you're living in a world where there is a lot of evil, and some of that evil happens to you. Then Herzog is also a witness to things — that terrible courtroom scene where a mother and her boyfriend have beaten a child to death against the wall. He sits there in the courtroom listening to this case and he's devastated. He has to deal with that. So what do you think, the world is going to be a sweet place, because you, Moses Herzog, want it to be that? He realizes that his innocence is not typical and it's not going to win him points. But, at the end, he comes back to that same sentence, “if I'm out of my mind, it's alright with me,” meaning, there are worse things than losing your pride.

In your book, you quote him as referring to a particular type of joke as characteristically Jewish. What do you think he meant by characteristically Jewish?

He has a short introduction to a collection of Jewish short stories that he was once asked to edit and it includes one of the best descriptions of Jewish humour I've seen. He explains why he is quoting so many jokes and he says, “I call the attitudes of these stories characteristically Jewish, in them laughter and trembling are so curiously mingled that it is not easy to determine the relations of the two.” And he shows you what he means by that. That is very funny to me, because of course he is playing on “fear and trembling,” that the Jewish equivalent is "laughter and trembling."

So if Kierkegaard were Jewish, he would have written “Laughter and Trembling” instead of “Fear and Trembling”?

Exactly, the Jewish Kierkegaard would have written laughter and trembling. Bellow realized that he himself had a religious sensibility. He plays around with it, but it's there in book after book. Again, he knew that if he were to deal with this very seriously no one would pay attention or take it seriously. But if you deal with it in a semi-humorous way then you can show a person who is profoundly spiritual and believes himself to be living in a world which is, in some sense, governed by a moral authority.

Your next book is also a novel, British, by Howard Jacobson. It's The Finkler Question which won the Man Booker Prize, Britain's best-known fiction prize, in 2010. You, in your book, describe The Finkler Question as a “funny study of the current war against the Jews in Britain.” Can you tell us about the characters in this war against the Jews in Britain?

This book really took me by surprise. I had read others by Howard Jacobson before and I've read others since. I had actually not realized what an intensely serious humourist he had become. England has a very strong tradition of social satire and the book is in that tradition. The Jewish novel also began, in the 19th century, with a very strong tradition of social satire. But this book made me realize that one of the things that nobody likes to satirize is anti-Semitism, because Jews are always trying to accommodate to it. They're so eager to be accepted by the very people who detest them the most that they don't want to go around mocking and making fun of these things.

Well, they didn't. They do now, think of Sacha Baron Cohen and so on.

It's the Brits isn't it? It's not the Americans so much. It's the Brits who have undertaken to do this and this book does it in a very clever way. Jacobson doesn't so much go out against the anti-Semites as the Jewish anti-Semites. This is, in a sense, even more unique and it is also very shrewd. These are people who should be satirized. After all, it is kind of a comedy that here you have millions and millions of Arabs and Muslims, multiple countries that for 60 years have been waging a war against the Jewish state. It's the most lop-sided war in history and one of the longest, and it's become increasingly violent. Of course one of its main casualties are the people waging the war, because instead of dealing with their own societies they are organizing their politics against the Jews. All of that, and yet you have all these Jews who not only join the enemy in the assault against the Jews, but they want the moral credit for doing so. They say they're not doing it because they're anti-Jewish, but because the Jews are being so horrible to their enemies. This is such an inversion. Humour is made of incongruity, humour is made of inversions. How come no one has really exposed these inversions and incongruities before?

What do you think of Finkler's own attitude? Is he an anti-Semitic Jew?

Yes. The book is written from a non-Jew's point of view who is trying to understand his friend Samuel Finkler, and why this Samuel Finkler should be so obsessed with being against the Jews. Finkler joins a group who call themselves “Ashamed Jews,” and they pride themselves on their shame. They're ashamed to be Jews, they're ashamed to be associated with Is-Ray-El, as they call it. Finkler says, very wittily, that he wants the Ashamed Jews to be called the ASHamed Jews and then he writes, “which might or might not, depending on how others felt, be shortened now or in the future to ASH, the peculiar felicity of which, in the circumstances, he was sure it wasn't necessary for him to point out.” In other words, that those once reduced to ash are now reducing others to ash. This is precious and very clever. As I say, I just don't know anything which is as penetrating on this subject.

And it's a successful work of humor as well, presumably.

Yes, it is funny. That kind of tendentious social satire has its limits. It's not of the ages: It's funniest to people who can read it as roman à clef and recognize the characters whom he is making fun of. That will all disappear. The book isn't Sholem Aleichem. Sholem Aleichem's humour is not that kind of pointed satire, it's much more philosophical and, in a way, detached.

And you're also fond of Kalooki Nights, by the same author, which nearly made your top five?

Yes I am. Kalooki Nights was really troublesome. It gave me sleepless nights, which it did to the author too. It's really about the legacy of the Holocaust and what one does with it and how weird it is to have to live with that, to have to integrate it, how damaging it is. He makes fun of it, but it's a book about the kinds of lingering damage that the Holocaust has done.

To the individuals?

To the individuals, to the Jews who have to cope with it and don't really know how to do that effectively. That also comes into The Finkler Question, because one of the characters in The Finkler Question is building a Holocaust museum. So Jacobson doesn't leave this subject alone. He shows a continuity between the war against the Jews of the past and the war against the Jews of the present. He shows that the Jews who are somewhere in this mix really are not yet in a position to understand where they stand, or how they should stand, and he makes comedy of it.

Speaking of comedy, with your last book, we're going backward chronologically to Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, which was published in 1905. There's actually a joke about Freud in The Big Book of Jewish Humour that caught my eye: A man says that he had dinner with his father last night and made a classic Freudian slip. 'I meant to say “Please pass the salt,” but it came out as “You putz! You ruined my childhood.”' Would you say that the study of Jewish humour begins with Freud?

He quotes his predecessors. In Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud is quite generous in talking about Theodor Lipps and others who preceded him in writing books about humour. But I would absolutely say that the serious study of Jewish humour begins with Freud, and he remains, to my mind, its greatest analyst.

Though he's not explicitly analyzing Jewish humour. He says he is studying humour in general, though most of the examples he uses — and he draws attention to this fact — are actually Jewish stories.

Apparently it began with him just collecting these jokes, because he enjoyed them so much — and not just him, everyone in the circle. One of the things guys still do in my circles is to trade jokes, it's really a form of social intercourse. But Freud's book is a study rather than a mere collection of humour. I do appreciate the analysis that he does of the technique of jokes. He gives you really wonderful descriptions of techniques like condensation accompanied by substitution, condensation accompanied by slight modification and so on. He teaches you that really what you're laughing at is not the content, but the form.

The structure, the way the reversals work?

Exactly, and that's really very insightful and instructive. Then he talks about the purposes of humour, which is also instructive. We know about satire, we know about the humour that  mocks others that Aristotle and others have written about. But Freud shows you that humour is also a way of telling the truth which would otherwise be impossible. And here is where this book really dazzles me. It's a precursor of his book on Civilization and its Discontents. What he's really saying is that the more civilized we become, and the more highly educated we become, the more we have to repress those things which would give children pleasure, that would give us delight ordinarily. And joking becomes a legitimate way of letting the truth out. What we call a Freudian slip is where the unconscious speaks. It's as if joking is a Freudian slip which is deliberate. And he's so eloquent about the pleasures:

"I will gladly renounce all the methods of satisfaction proscribed by society, but am I certain that society will reward this renunciation by offering me one of the permitted methods - even after a certain amount of postponement? What these jokes whisper may be said aloud: that the wishes and desires of men have a right to make themselves acceptable alongside of exacting and ruthless morality."

This is breathtaking, don't you think? And you can see, then, why Jews should be so drawn to this kind of humour. When you talk about ruthless morality, this is something Jewish civilization imposes on itself. All these laws — the Kosher laws that Philip Roth mocks — it's all a form of restraining certain impulses so we become more civilized without even having to practise it, so it's inculcated in us. But it really does hold us back from all kinds of things - hunting, aggression, and all this. What Freud is saying is that humour allows this in a permissible way. It's a gift, this insight.

So it's not just an outlet, a way of letting off steam, it's also a way for civilization to become more civilized?

Exactly, because you don't want to accept the repression only, and feel that civilization is nothing but repression. These jokes have a right — there is something in us that has a right — to make itself heard. Humour is a way of allowing for all that we cannot allow ourselves because we are trying so hard to be civilized and good people.

Interview by: Anthony Gottlieb

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