A compendium of jokes that reflect and create a sense of cultural identity.
An affiliate of the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations, Baum (English Literature and Critical Theory/Univ. of Southampton; Feeling Jewish: A Book for Just About Anyone, 2017) brings thoughtful analysis to a lighthearted, appreciative, and very funny survey of Jewish humor. Each pithy chapter abounds with jokes: some “that illustrate the arguments of the essay” and others “that have no obvious place in the essay but were too good to leave out.” The author begins each chapter with a question—e.g., “how do you tell the difference between a blessing and a curse? Jews, Baum asserts, can spot “the gloomier side of good news.” One example: “May you become so rich that your wife’s second husband never has to work a day in his life!” Much Jewish humor takes the perspective of the outsider and—like black humor—recognizes a history of oppression. As Jon Stewart put it: “We’ve come from the same history—two thousand years of persecution—we’ve just expressed our sufferings differently. Blacks developed the blues, Jews complained—we just never thought of putting it to music.” The sentiment of many jokes, Baum writes, reiterates a theme: “if you start worrying now, history will be sure to prove you right.” Take this terse rendering of “the traditional Jewish telegram: Start worrying. Details to follow.” The author includes unattributed jokes that have been retold by generations (some featuring rabbis, Jewish mothers, and, of course, Jewish mothers-in-law) and newer jokes by contemporary comedians, including Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Sarah Silverman, Jackie Mason, Joan Rivers, Palestinian-Israeli writer Sayed Kashua, and Amy Schumer. Considering the debate “over whether Jewish jokes are battling anti-Semitism or are in fact forms of it,” Baum admits that discerning the difference can be “slippery” and sometimes depends on whether a Jew or non-Jew is telling (or interpreting) the joke.
Delightfully entertaining and cheerfully insightful.