A survey and analysis of Jewish humor, from the Bible to Larry David and Sacha Baron Cohen.
Wisse (Yiddish Literature and Comparative Literature/Harvard Univ.; Jews and Power, 2007, etc.) has chosen an engaging style: sturdy, eclectic scholarship leavened with personal asides (she talks about a book-closing fit of laughter), informal diction (“One update, and I am done,” she writes near the end), good jokes and continual references to popular culture—from Saturday Night Live to Henny Youngman to Jerry Seinfeld. But all is in service of her serious agenda. She begins with an uncomfortable moment—a Gentile woman upset about a Jewish joke—then off she departs for a tour of the genre. She examines the history, the low and high humor, the literary and dramatic practitioners, Sigmund Freud on humor and much more. Along the way are names familiar to general readers—Franz Kafka, Sholem Aleichem, Philip Roth, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and many others—but she also introduces writers and humorists known principally to the cognoscenti—among them, Joseph Perl, the “master storyteller” Rebbe Nachman and a number of Yiddish comic writers (Moshe Nadir, Itzik Manger). Wisse also briefly examines the efflorescence of American Jewish novelists in the 1960s (Bellow, Heller, Friedman), then takes us to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, where she shows us how humor thrived even in the shadows of Auschwitz and the Gulag. She reminds us that the Soviets executed both Moyshe Kulbak and Isaac Babel for being humorous in the “wrong” way. She then turns to the notion that Israel, at least at its inception, had no sense of humor—a notion she dispels. At the end, she takes some swipes at political correctness and invites us to lighten up.
Seriously funny, humorously serious, scholarly, witty and wise.