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No Joke, Making Jewish Humour

Ruth R Wisse


The antagonism of surrounding European societies made Jews eager for the only kind of payback they could afford to indulge. But as far as I know, the joke has no U.S. equivalent. Who would be its foils? Blacks, Hispanics, and WASPs? A bank teller, manager, and president ? There may be plenty of ethnic and ra­cial joking in the United States, and some anti-Jewish bigotry behind it, but nowadays East and West Coast Americans seem so familiar with Jewish comedy that I was frankly surprised Samantha did not join in our laughter. Had I thought the joke excluded her, I might not have told it in that semipublic space.

Sam seems to me like the kindly bystander who worries about the health of smokers. She wants to protect Jews from anti-Semitism, which she associates with whatever sets them apart. In her eagerness to draw us all together, she may fail to understand why we should accept, reinforce, and celebrate our peculiarity. So does Sam have a point? Is it appropriate to wonder why Jews should enjoy laughing at themselves? Why joking acquired such value in Jewish society, or why Yiddish— the language of European Jewry, whose culture I teach at the university—is thought to be inherently funny?

As it happens, joking had also figured at a faculty meet­ing a few weeks earlier—though lest you think this is what we do all day, let me say that I found such occasions memo­rable because they were rare. The senior faculty of Harvard's Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, which includes Jewish Studies, Arabic, Armenian, Turkish, and Persian as well as the languages and archaeology of the ancient Near East, had gathered to vote on a new professorial position. We had been looking so long for the "right person" that the dean was threatening to cancel the search if we did not immediately arrive at a decision. Our chair, who had also reached the limits of his patience, said he wanted a unanimous vote on our likeliest candidate, and that he would go around the table asking everyone either to agree or object with cause. The positive votes were adding up nicely until it came to our most demanding colleague, who had blocked some of the ear­lier applicants. He paused for a moment, then sighed and said, "Well, I guess he passes the Rosenberg test." The non-Jewish members looked expectantly to us Jews, but we hadn't a clue what this meant. Our colleague explained:

Mrs. Rosenberg goes to the butcher early Friday morning to buy her usual chicken for sabbath and begins her usual routine of inspection. She is not satisfied with an exami­nation from across the counter, but asks the butcher to hand her the bird. She lifts each wing and sniffs suspi­ciously, then one leg at a time, and finally the orifice. The butcher, who has tired of this performance, says, "Frankly, Mrs. Rosenberg, I don't know which of us could pass your test!"

The laughter that greeted this punch line sealed the decision. The fastidious colleague had told the joke at his own expense to expose the folly of excessive inspection. The mention of a Jewish-sounding name had raised expectations of some special Jewish wisdom only to dash them in a joke that was equally ac­cessible to all. Implicitly, the laughter uniting us even included the prospective department member who had just been voted into our ranks.

These two examples of Jewish joking seem alike in making fun of Jews themselves, yet the ecumenicism of the second dif­fers from the particularism of the first. Mrs. Rosenberg could have been Mrs. O'Brien stalking a Christmas turkey with no sacrifice of comic outcome, whereas the Jew's concern about diabetes spoofed some allegedly Jewish trait. The Jewish-sounding name that threatened to distinguish Jews from non-Jews in the Rosenberg joke was only part of the diversionary machinery that kept attention on the action until the final shift of focus, whereas in the hikers' joke the Jew was at once the target and audience. Here we see that even within the same academic department, Jewish joking can function in op­posing ways to include and exclude different constituencies. How much more so in the geographically and linguistically divergent communities this book explores.


■ Most of its aficionados take a positive view of Jewish joking. "Incidentally," writes Freud, one of its devotees, "I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people mak­ing fun to such a degree of its own character." He writes this approvingly, adducing an example of Jewish self-deprecation:

A Galician Jew was traveling by train, and had made himself really comfortable, had unbuttoned his coat and put his feet up on the seat. [The regional designation here signifies traditionalism and lack of deportment.] Just then a gentleman in modern dress entered the compartment. The Galitsyaner promptly pulled himself together and took up a proper pose. The stranger fingered through the pages of a notebook, made some calculations, reflected for a moment and then suddenly asked the other: "Excuse me, when is Yom Kippur?" "Oho!" said our traveler, putting his feet up on the seat again as he answered.

Freud thinks this anecdote conveys the Jews' democratic mode of thinking, "which recognizes no distinction between lords and serfs, but also, alas, upsets discipline and co-operation."4 The joke reinforces the stereotype of the uncouth traditional Jew that exists in the mind of Gentiles, but redeems the in­dictment through the egalitarian spirit it uncovers among the Jews themselves. One may say the same of the analyst telling the joke. Freud, too, is relaxing, putting up his feet, indifferent to the impression he is making because he assumes that the others in his "compartment" of listeners or readers resemble him in finding it funny. (Regarding this intimacy, Theodor Reik, a member of Freud's Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, re­calls the quip of a fellow member at the appearance of Ernest Jones, one of the only non-Jews in their circle: "Barukh atoh adonoy, here comes the honor-Goy.")

But Freud's contemporary Arthur Schnitzler treated Freud's joke much more guardedly. In Schnitzler's novel Der Weg ins Freie (The road into the open), published in 1908, three years after Freud's book on joking, the Gentile protago­nist Georg von Wergenthin is engaged in conversation with Jewish friends in his Viennese circle, among them the play­wright Heinrich Bermann:

Heinrich laughed. "You know the story about the Pol­ish Jew who sat with a stranger in a railroad car, very politely—until he realized from a remark of the other that he was a Jew, too, whereupon, with a sigh of azoy, he im­mediately put his legs up on the seat across from him?" "Very good," said Georg.

"More than that," continued Heinrich forcefully. "Deep. Deep like so many Jewish anecdotes. They offer an insight into the tragicomedy of contemporary Judaism. They express the eternal truth that one Jew never really gets respect from another. Never. Just as little as prison­ers in an enemy country show respect for one another, especially the hopeless. Envy, hatred, sometimes even admiration, in the end even love can exist between them; respect never. For all emotional relationships take place in an atmosphere of familiarity, so to speak, in which respect is stifled."

"Do you know what I think?" Georg remarked. "That you are a worse anti-Semite than most Christians I know."

Both versions of this joke feature the same discourteous Gali-cian or Polish Jew, but what Freud celebrates as creative inter-dependency, Heinrich deplores as self-contempt. In Schnitz-ler's scenario, the Jew does not tell the joke expecting to elicit a laugh; he knows that the most he can expect from the Gen­tile Georg is comprehension—the approbation of his "Very good." He does not tell the joke to reinforce Jewish familiar­ity but rather to protest the imprisoning ghetto in which it thrives. Georg, in turn, knows himself excluded by this joke about Jewish intimacy and grasps how much it owes to the anti-Semitism that calls it forth…