No Joke: Making Jewish Humor


"Ruth Wisse's electrifying undressing of Jewish wit catapults us well past Freud's far more inhibited perceptions and into the naked precincts of tragic insight. Riffing through the laughter thrown up by the interpenetrations of language, history, and the political culture of variegated societies, Wisse uncovers subversion, paradox, fright, anger, grief, and the often defeated imagination of reversal. Tickle the funny bone long enough, she warns, and hilarity will expose dread. This stirringly original study of Jewish joking reveals the darker

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No Joke: Making Jewish Humor

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"Ruth Wisse's electrifying undressing of Jewish wit catapults us well past Freud's far more inhibited perceptions and into the naked precincts of tragic insight. Riffing through the laughter thrown up by the interpenetrations of language, history, and the political culture of variegated societies, Wisse uncovers subversion, paradox, fright, anger, grief, and the often defeated imagination of reversal. Tickle the funny bone long enough, she warns, and hilarity will expose dread. This stirringly original study of Jewish joking reveals the darker irony that underlies the comedic ironies of the Jewish mind at play."--Cynthia Ozick

"One of the most interesting and insightful books about comedy I've ever read. I learned a lot, and I laughed a lot."--B. J. Novak, writer and actor, The Office

"This is a wise and witty book, and a necessary one, too, because Jewish humor hasn't always received the commentary and analysis it deserves. Almost every page of this fine new work offers something to learn from or laugh about--or both."--William Novak, coeditor of The Big Book of Jewish Humor

"The funniest thing since we let the goyim into show business."--David Mamet

"It's a treat. The jokes are abundant, well chosen, and funny; and Ruth Wisse brings Harvard scholarship to our wonderful Yiddish treasury of humor. A salute and congratulations to Professor Wisse."--Herman Wouk

"An essential examination of Jewish humor. Ruth Wisse ably traces the subject through high literature and low culture, from Heine to Borat, offering new and glimmering insights in each case. She takes on the difficult questions, not least the one of utility: has humor helped the Jews, and does it help them still? No Joke is vastly erudite, deeply informative, and delightfully written--plus it's got plenty of good jokes. What more could one ask for?"--Jeremy Dauber, Columbia University

"No Joke is both an anthology and running interpretation of Jewish humor. Ruth Wisse provides original treatments of Heine, Kafka, Sholem Aleichem, Israel Zangwill, Leonard Q. Ross (Leo Rosten), Sh. Y. Agnon, and Philip Roth, among many others. In an age of books that cover four or five disparate figures and call themselves wide-ranging, No Joke is a return to the ambition of comprehensiveness and to the confidence that scholarship might appeal to the common educated reader. I can't recommend the book more highly."--D. G. Myers, Ohio State University

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Anthony Gottlieb
No Joke, a subtle and provocative new book by Ruth R. Wisse…recounts the long history of Jewish humor and brings it up to date.
Publishers Weekly
Wisse, whose The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey Through Language and Culture won the 2001 National Jewish Book Award, is well suited to analyzing the history of Jewish humor. Through chapters that divide up the Jewish experience from the early 19th century through the present, the Harvard professor makes good on her goal of demonstrating “how the benefits of Jewish humor are reaped from the paradoxes of Jewish life, so that Jewish humor at its best carries the scar of the convulsions that brought it into being.” In looking at German Jewry during the Enlightenment, she trenchantly notes that “comedy’s predilection for inversion and incongruity was richly served by a society that enticed Jews into conversions that it necessarily distrusted, and Jews who distrusted the society into which they were voluntarily coerced.” That bitter edge is exemplified in jokes Jews told when the Nazi practice of using human fat to make soap became widely known, and she compellingly argues in another section that Israeli Jews used wit as “creative compensation for political impotence” of the newly-formed Jewish state. Accessible to nonacademic audiences as well as scholars, this cultural history is a welcome addition to the study of humor in a sociopolitical context. 14 illus. (June)
New York Times Book Review - Anthony Gottlieb
[S]ubtle and provocative . . .
[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.
Jerusalem Post - Elaine Margolin
[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.
National Post - Robert Fulford
[R]ichly absorbing . . .
Commentary - Rick Richman
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.
Standpoint - Howard Jacobson
[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.
Christian Century
Because Jewish humor arose in response to specific conditions of living, Wisse organizes chapters around locales and times: Germany, the Anglosphere, fascism (Hitler and Stalin) and modern Israel. Wisse calls humor the only folk art that isn't copyrighted.
Canadian Jewish News
In the delightful book No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (Princeton University Press) Harvard professor Ruth Wisse evokes and applauds the genius of 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. Wisse broadly traces modern Jewish humour around the world, teasing out its implications as she explores memorable and telling examples from German, Yiddish, English, Russian and Hebrew.
New York Journal of Books - Martin A. David
No Joke is a thought-provoking compilation of humorous stories woven almost seamlessly with history, and interpretive analysis. The author keeps it personal—sometimes moving comfortably into a relaxed and chatty tone—and she keeps it real.
Harvard Magazine - Daniel Klein
[No Joke] offer[s] a far-reaching discussion of the essential role humor plays in an ethnic group that historically has dwelt in the margins of the nations and cultures of others. . . . [N]o Joke is a comprehensive and insightful historical survey of Jewish humor and its perpetrators, ranging from Heinrich Heine to Woody Allen . . .
From the Publisher

"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?"--World Book Industry
Library Journal
Wisse (Yiddish & comparative literature, Harvard Univ.; The Modern Jewish Canon) traces the history of Jewish humor from its first major formal appearance in the fiction of Heinrich Heine right up to material by Larry David. Wisse backtracks to the diaspora experience, contingent status of Jews throughout European history, and conflicting readings of the Talmud to underpin her analysis of themes underlying various Jewish-joke traditions. Those who love the American Jewish comedic tradition running from Sholem Aleichem's work to that of Jerry Seinfeld will certainly chuckle. While providing generous examples of Jewish humor, some of Wisse's ruminations are only for experts to grasp. (What is really so funny about Kafka? Wisse's explications are not friendly to the generalist.) She occasionally overreaches, too. Her claim that the weakling who wins his girl is a specifically Jewish staple neglects to account for Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton, all gentiles. The hard-line anti-Palestinian views she invokes in the conclusion to justify her hostility to certain contemporary Israeli comics undercuts some of the subtlety in her argument that ethnic humor is a force for cultural understanding and pride. VERDICT Not to be mistaken for a light read on Jewish humor, this is a scholarly monograph for those undertaking Jewish cultural studies.—Scott H. Silverman, Dresden, ME
Kirkus Reviews
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691149462
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 6/2/2013
  • Series: Library of Jewish Ideas
  • Pages: 292
  • Sales rank: 491,953
  • Product dimensions: 8.50 (w) x 5.60 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

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".
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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
Acknowledgments 245
Notes 249
Index 267
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