What Makes a Jewish Joke Jewish?

Ruth Wisse's Comedy Study Is Serious Business

What’s So Jewish About Them? The Marx Brothers are some of many Jewish jokesters name-checked in Ruth Wisse’s study. But there wasn’t all that much in the way of ethnic particularity in their routines.
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What’s So Jewish About Them? The Marx Brothers are some of many Jewish jokesters name-checked in Ruth Wisse’s study. But there wasn’t all that much in the way of ethnic particularity in their routines.

By Adam Rovner

Published June 11, 2013, issue of June 14, 2013.
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● No Joke: Making Jewish Humor
By Ruth R. Wisse
Princeton University Press, 292 pages, $24.95

As a well-known Yiddish expression has put it, “A joke is a half-truth.” Ruth Wisse presents readers of her latest work, “No Joke: Making Jewish Humor,” with half-a-book. The effective half offers a general audience analysis of literature and popular culture informed by Wisse’s long-standing and profound engagement with Jewish texts. Her chapters on the Yiddish comic tradition and the uses of humor during the Holocaust and under Stalin will be especially rewarding for nonspecialists. Readers have come to expect such clarity and insight from the distinguished Harvard professor. Wisse’s acumen is indeed no joke. But the unsatisfying portion of her book has to do with the volume’s lack of engagement with humor scholarship. Subtitle notwithstanding, “No Joke” simply does not offer a compelling explanation of how Jewish humor is made, and it evades the question of how to define Jewish humor. Instead, Wisse presents an idiosyncratic “descriptive map” of Jewish humor in various centers of cultural production.

The trouble begins in the book’s introduction on “Jewish joking.” Wisse interprets a joke that features a “Mrs. Rosenberg,” who aggravates her butcher by sniffing at the chickens he has for sale before the Sabbath. The joke is a good one, but its content matters less than Wisse’s analysis. As the author admits, “Mrs. Rosenberg could have been Mrs. O’Brien stalking a Christmas turkey with no sacrifice of comic outcome.” If this is the case, then one can conclude only that her example is in fact not a Jewish joke at all. Nearly 30 years ago, linguistics scholar Victor Raskindemonstrated that such jokes were “pseudo-ethnic” precisely because of the interchangeability that Wisse recognizes. What, then, is left to make the joke Jewish? Some might suggest the Jewish-sounding name of the character. But what if Mrs. Rosenberg were married to one Reichsminister, Alfred R.? For all her engaging anecdotes, Wisse has ignored several decades of research into the mechanisms of ethnic humor.

The Rosenberg joke is not an isolated example of the refusal of “No Joke” to define its terms. Wisse explicitly despairs of efforts “to identify some essentials of Jewish humor that distinguish it from other comic traditions.” “No Joke” claims that the “distinction lies more in the Jews’ greater reliance on humor than in the precise nature of that humor.” Wisse thus makes it axiomatic that Jews deploy humor more than do other peoples. Though the vision of a Jewish mission to bring lightheartedness unto the nations may be comforting, the claim is suspect.

Scattered references to American Jewish comedians whose routines lack explicit Jewish content mean that the book occasionally overreaches. There is little ethnic particularity in routines by Jack Benny, Sid Caesar, and the Marx Brothers. Sure, Benny had “Schlepperman,” and some Yiddish found its way into the 1950s TV series “Your Show of Shows.” But the non-Jewish Fred Allen, who also employed Jewish writers, featured the long-running dialect gag of “Mrs. Nussbaum” on his program. In other words, what makes Benny (Benjamin Kubelsky) representative of Jewish humor, but Allen (John Florence Sullivan) not, except a bris?


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