No Joke: Making Jewish Humor [NOOK Book]


Humor is the most celebrated of all Jewish responses to modernity. In this book, Ruth Wisse evokes and applauds the genius of spontaneous 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. At the same time, Wisse draws attention to the precarious conditions that call Jewish humor into being--and the price it may exact from its practitioners and audience.

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No Joke: Making Jewish Humor

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Humor is the most celebrated of all Jewish responses to modernity. In this book, Ruth Wisse evokes and applauds the genius of spontaneous 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. At the same time, Wisse draws attention to the precarious conditions that call Jewish humor into being--and the price it may exact from its practitioners and audience.

Wisse broadly traces modern Jewish humor around the world, teasing out its implications as she explores memorable and telling examples from German, Yiddish, English, Russian, and Hebrew. Among other topics, the book looks at how Jewish humor channeled Jewish learning and wordsmanship into new avenues of creativity, brought relief to liberal non-Jews in repressive societies, and enriched popular culture in the United States.

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?

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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
"Wisse, arguably the foremost Yiddishist in North America, has produced a jewel of a book on Jewish humor, replete with academic erudition and often side-splitting jokes. She is equally at home in the works of Heinrich Heine, Sholem Aleichem, I.B. Singer, the Israelis, and Philip Roth, as well as among Borscht Belt comedians in the Catskills, or with Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. . . . This is a wise, well-written, and unique analysis of why Jews laugh."—

"[A] rare work of cultural scholarship that is also laugh-out-loud-funny . . ."—Jonathan Kirsch, Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles

"With her book packed with juicy Jewish quips and tales from across the ages, Wisse shows she has a good sense of humor, too."—Dan Pine, J, the News Weekly of Northern California

"[T]he proper way to launch an appraisal of No Joke: Making Jewish Humor, Ruth Wisse's excursion through the world of Jewish jocularity, is to immediately brand her book as intellectually bracing, disarmingly entertaining, and disturbingly candid. . . . [No Joke] leaves the reader with an excellent view of the subject . . ."—Jonathan Lazarus, New Jersey Jewish Standard

"In No Joke, Wisse follows laughter from the Yiddish heartland to the Borscht Belt and beyond, providing a comprehensive look at what has kept our oft-oppressed people laughing for so many years."—Matt Robinson, Jewish Journal of Massachusetts

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: 9781400846344
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 5/21/2013
  • Series: Library of Jewish Ideas
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: Course Book
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 397,451
  • File size: 4 MB

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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