Many years ago at a literary conference in Key West that focused on humor, I heard Billy Collins speak. Comedy, he said, is the dog that leaves the room when you call its name. Collins’s wistful, loving resignation over the elusive nature of comedy has distinguished antecedents. The list of those who have called comedy’s name only to watch it prance off in the other direction, wagging its tail, is long and illustrious, reaching back millennia. Cicero warned that one could “discourse more wittily on any other topic than wit itself.”
Humor is physical, intellectual, emotional, cultural, ephemeral, essential. Puns and riddles and slapstick and satire and dirty jokes and knock-knock jokes, sitcoms and witticisms and clowns—they find categorical constrictions risible. Like physicists, humor scholars seek a unified theory. The linguists Salvatore Attardo and Victor Raskin have tried to propose one, developing Raskin’s Script-Based Semantic Theory of Humor into the General Theory of Verbal Humor. As a field of study, humor is hot.1
Linguists and philosophers and lexicographers are not the only scholars chasing the dog of comedy. There are also historians of humor, who would seem to have an easier task: they’re not expected to discover its essence. They study comedy as it has lived. People have always laughed, in every age, in every part of the world. We even make the same sound when we laugh. Mary Beard points out in Laughter in Ancient Rome, her eloquent examination of classical humor:
Unlike the barking of dogs, the grunting of pigs, or the croaking of frogs—which different languages render in bewilderingly different ways (“oink oink,” says the Anglo-American pig, “röf röf röf” or “uí uí” the Hungarian, “soch soch” the Welsh)—laughter in almost all world languages, and in entirely different linguistic families, is rendered as (or includes within its repertoire) some variant on ha ha, hee hee, or tee hee.
The trouble for historians arises when, like their fellow comedy scholars, they have to explain what the “tee hees” are in response to.
This is a challenge that the Columbia professor and Yiddish scholar Jeremy Dauber has bravely accepted in Jewish Comedy: A Serious History. It is indeed a serious study and most interesting at its most serious and obscure. Dauber sets out one of the basic difficulties of his endeavor in the introduction to the book: “how to define and describe Jewish humor as it’s appeared in all its vast and variegated forms, from antiquity to yesterday.” He offers a straightforward, simple solution: humor produced by Jews and humor having something to do with Jews, regardless of historical period—a sensible corral for a subject that has wandered the world and millennia so extensively. But what ultimately emerges in Dauber’s study is a more dynamic definition of Jewish humor, a kind of call and response that is less simple and far darker.
As Dauber makes his way through wit, raunch, irony, folksiness, and ambiguity as well as biblical times, the diaspora, the Holocaust, and the postwar period, he reveals a polemical tendency in Jewish humor: Jewish Comedy is, in fact, a record of humor as a response to oppression. Sometimes the response is rebelliousness toward outside oppressors, including the excruciating Holocaust jokes Dauber mentions; sometimes there is rebellion against the oppressive pieties of Jewish authority, as among the Enlightenment Jews of the Haskalah movement. Sometimes the rebellion turns against the hypocrisy of the Jewish community itself, like the tales of shtetl fools. Sid Caesar, Woody Allen, and parodies in Mad magazine can all be understood as a response to some kind of oppressive cultural atmosphere, even if the pushback is against a domineering Jewish mother or the very idea of victimization.
Dauber begins by warning that what we find funny changes over time and in different situations and that not all the humor he discusses will seem funny to us now. It’s true that in a modern setting some of the examples of ancient and medieval humor he presents have more historical than comic force. In one animal fable, a genre Dauber calls a “repository of medieval wit and comedy,” a lion with bad breath approaches various animals to ask about his halitosis. If they say, Yes, you do have bad breath, the lion is insulted and eats them. If they say, No, your breath is as sweet as honey, the lion denounces them as flatterers and eats them. Then the lion meets a fox, an animal that represents the Jews in these stories:
“Smell me, my friend,” asked the lion, “and tell me whether my breath is sweet.” Now the sly fox saw the pitfall and was wary. “Pardon me, O king of the forest,” said the fox most politely, “for I cannot smell at all! I have a bad cold!”
Dauber divides his book into “seven major conceptual rubrics” that straddle vast geographical and chronological divides: responses to persecution and anti-Semitism; satirical looks at Jewish society; intellectual wit; crude jokes; metaphysical irony; folksy Jews; and the ambiguous nature of what it means to be Jewish. The first chapter, in which the fox fable appears, takes us from the biblical Esther to riddles to Sephardic parodies to Haskalah writings.
The features of satire that most interest Dauber are, first, its use as a weapon and, second, the targets at which that weapon is aimed. In the Book of Esther, for instance, the target is the hostile nation in power. In other cases, as with the Haskalah, the target is traditional Judaism itself. Dauber is less charitable to self-directed satire than to satirical attacks on outside threats, characterizing, for example, the intellectual reform movement of Enlightenment Jews, who sought political and social equality even if it meant emulating their neighbors’ culture and abandoning traditional Jewish culture, as the “desire by German Jews to fit in.” Jews in Russia, he says, “really bought into the new ideals of philosophical rationalism and religious toleration.” Haskalah interest in Enlightenment literary style and language is portrayed as effectively disloyal, relinquishing Yiddish and “prizing literary forms like the bourgeois satire or philosophical dialogue over the traditional Purim play.”
Dauber sees Haskalah satire of religious and cultural hypocrisy as fueling “the comedy of self-hatred (or self-criticism, if you prefer).” The concept of the “self-hating Jew” has a long, controversial history of its own (including, of course, its current incarnation as a label to dismiss any Jew who criticizes the Israeli government) that Dauber does not directly address. But few Jewish writers or comedians of the past fifty years have entirely escaped the appellation. For Dauber, Haskalah satire is the foundation of the modern “self-hating Jew,” from—in his judgment—Lenny Bruce to Philip Roth to Larry David.
Satire influenced by Molière and written in the scholarly language of Hebrew certainly did not play as well in the hinterlands as in sophisticated Berlin. In the villages of Eastern Europe, the decidedly antirationalist Hasidic movement was growing instead. A kind of culture war broke out, Dauber says, between elitist Haskalah Jews and the earthy Hasidim. In order to reach more people, Haskalah writers shifted from Hebrew to Yiddish in their satires of the absurdities and hypocrisies of traditional Jewish life. The pogroms of the late nineteenth century, however, made some in the movement doubtful about the possibility of real equality or progress.
S.Y. Abramovitch, known as Mendele the Book Peddler, was a Yiddish writer who started out as a liberal satirist and became increasingly ambivalent about the possibility of social change. Dauber cites his late novel The Mare (1873), in which a Jewish student barred from university goes mad and hallucinates the existence of a talking horse, a symbol of the Jews, who is beaten and exiled. Even the liberal Russians (represented in the novel by an organization that fights animal cruelty) assume it is the horse’s fault that it is beaten: “‘Let the mare become more presentable,’ they say. ‘When she has learned all the tricks required of a trained horse, she will be worthy of our commiseration, and our society will stand with her.’”
There is much to absorb and enjoy in Jewish Comedy: the 1893 Rand McNally Guide to the Hudson River describing the area that a generation later came to be known as the Borscht Belt as “a great resort of our Israelite brethren”; a wonderful passage describing Mel Brooks’s parody The Producers as hailing back to the Book of Jonah; Dauber’s surprisingly moving take on mid-twentieth-century political satirists—“sicknicks” like Mort Sahl—as growing out of the greenhorn comedy of the immigrant; or Jewish comedy’s leap “from schul to pool” along with secularized Jewish country-club prosperity, which leads eventually to 1970s figures like Norman Lear and Paul Mazursky.
The effort to categorize and link all these funny Jews can misfire. The association of a mere vulgarian like Howard Stern with a brilliant revolutionary of manners like Mel Brooks is tenuous, to say the least, and the treatment of contemporary comedians like Sarah Silverman and Jon Stewart sometimes feels like my 1960s Reform Jewish Sunday school’s name-checking of Jewish sports figures, though with many more names. (Silverman is, unsurprisingly, one of the few women Dauber can call on in the comic land of the patriarchs.)
In a book that consciously holds up a very particular lens to its subject, Dauber’s treatment of writers like Philip Roth, Nathan Englander, and Cynthia Ozick is perhaps necessarily narrow. Jewish Comedy is not meant to be a work of literary criticism. It is also not a joke book, though there are some very good jokes, like this one from the time of the pogroms: “Two Jews before a Russian firing squad, both offered blindfolds. One accepts, the other scornfully refuses. His friend urges him: ‘Shh…don’t make trouble.’”
That joke, with just a little tinkering, could be told by a black comedian today. Or a Muslim comedian. Or a gay comedian. Any minority that has been excluded, threatened, oppressed. What makes the firing-squad joke Jewish is its specific historical setting. And while the appeal and threat of assimilation may be newer to some ethnic groups or nationalities than to wandering Jews, the same tension exists, a tension ripe for humor.
Devorah Baum’s Feeling Jewish (A Book for Just About Anyone) makes the point that the struggles associated with Jews as outsiders can be experienced by anyone today, minority communities and individual misfits as well as Jews. It is not a book about humor, although the chapter headings read like a Woody Allen parody: Self-Hatred, Envy, Guilt, Over the Top, Paranoia, Mother Love, Affected.
While Dauber seeks to isolate the Jewishness of humor, Baum is concerned with the Jewishness of the modern individual. When she writes that “self-hatred…is never more obvious than when it strives to escape itself, as when Jews counsel each other to behave ‘perfectly’ in order to solve their problems,” she seems to be making the same point Dauber did about Enlightenment Jews trying to “fit in,” but Baum is talking about something else entirely: “tell that to the person with OCD,” she continues, or “anorexia, or any other perfectionist disorder.”
As my stepfather used to say, “It’s tough to be an old Jew.” Dauber says it was always tough, and that is the background for all of Jewish humor. Baum is saying it’s tough for everyone, not just Jews. Dauber illuminates an argumentative, dynamic relationship between Jews and the despotic world they have survived, a defining relationship that mirrors a long, testy covenant with God. Baum discusses the exclusion of Jews less as a historical reality or even a cultural inheritance than as a feeling shared by all marginalized individuals or groups.
Her chapter on self-hatred takes a decidedly philosophical and psychoanalytic tack. She concentrates on Philip Roth and Amy Levy, the nineteenth-century English writer who committed suicide at twenty-seven, but she also has recourse to her own academic version of name-checking with shout-outs to everyone from Franz Kafka to Adrienne Rich to Gary Shteyngart. Baum quotes Freud referring to Theodor Lessing, a German-Jewish philosopher who was one of the originators of the term “self-hating Jew,” in a letter: “‘Don’t you think…that self-hatred like [Theodor Lessing’s] is an exquisite Jewish phenomenon?’” There is also Nietzsche, who, she writes, was able to emancipate himself from his hatred of the “fixity” of his own German identity by ceasing to hate the Jews, something he accomplished by, in turn, admiring Jews for their self-hatred. She ends the chapter with a grateful nod to Groucho Marx for breathing “some air and lightness into an impossible situation by suggesting a kind of confidence within and about the unrelentingness of one’s self-doubt.”
In a 1962 Commentary review of Theodor Reik’s Jewish Wit, Marion Magid observed: “It would be ironic indeed if Jewish wit had outdistanced its persecutors for centuries, only to succumb in the end to the heavy hand of psychoanalysis.” There are moments, certainly, when Feeling Jewish capitulates not only to psychoanalysis but also to the turgid demands of critical theory. Nevertheless, the impulse behind the book is both learned and generous, and Jewish wit manages to carry on quite happily. Here is a joke Baum offers in her concluding chapter:
Two Jews, Moishe and Itzhik, are walking in the forest in the Ukraine some 150 years ago. In the distance they see two local guys walking toward them. Moishe turns to Itzhik, panics, and says: “Itzhik, what shall we do? There’s two of them, and we’re all alone!”2
A sense of marginalization does cross religious boundaries, and for many of us disillusioned with the present state of the world, finding common ground with others who are “all alone” can be a rare source of hope. That’s why Dauber’s descriptions of Jewish reactions to specific oppression feel universal. Baum is offering an open hand to the despised, a worthy endeavor, but by sometimes appearing to define Jewishness as primarily an uncomfortable feeling, she distorts a long, peculiar historical burden.
Feeling Jewish, Baum comments, “can often sound like a byword for feeling funny: both funny peculiar—strange, odd, out of place—and funny haha.” For many in my generation of postwar, comfortable, secular, suburban Jews (and our secular, less comfortable, less suburban children and grandchildren), feeling Jewish is more associated with feeling funny haha than funny out of place. Overt anti-Semitism seemed until recently to be on the wane, and comedy, whether stand-up or in movies or sitcoms or novels, is a fundamental part of popular culture.
Funny haha is our place, one created for us by our ancestors. A biter gelechter, bitter laughter, was one of the first phrases I learned in Yiddish, the secret language of adults, of laughter and of bitterness. When I begged my grandparents to translate what I heard them say, it was almost always jokes or curses. But that secret language was shared with all of America without America fully realizing it. Yiddish, or its echoes, has survived in comedy in a way it has not in other literary art forms.
Dauber’s description of Enlightenment Jews attempting to join the greater culture through assimilation is presented as a doomed enterprise, which it obviously and nightmarishly turned out to be, at least in mid-twentieth-century Europe. And the recent surge of anti-Semitism reminds us that thousands of years of outsider status embeds itself deeply. But in comedy, Jewishness has been blown about by the winds of Yiddish and has managed to put down a few roots. There are stray words, as in this headline from USA Today on October 31, 2017: “Bupkis on Bump Stocks.” When you consider that bupkis (translation: nothing, nada, rien) always has a slightly humorous ring and literally means “goatshit” in Yiddish, the headline was in rather bad taste so soon after the mass murder in Las Vegas.
But bupkis has assimilated—it has become American. Rob, the all-American suburban character played by Dick Van Dyke on The Dick Van Dyke Show, wrote a song called “Bupkis.” The Dick Van Dyke Show was created by Carl Reiner, so a bupkis here or there should not, perhaps, be surprising, though I imagine it was in 1965. But when bupkis appeared in a 2006 Mos Def lyric, Reiner probably had nothing to do with it. This assimilated Yiddish turns up in unexpected places: “None of that 25,000 Miles Mishegas” says the sign at the JetBlue terminal in New York. Token Yiddish. But a token of the survival of a comic tradition, a delight in the ridiculous—not unlike the kitchen Yiddish my mother picked up sitting under the table listening to her grandmother or the vocabulary of humor and insult I gleaned from my grandparents.
The phenomenon is a sort of low-culture inside-out version of Cynthia Ozick’s New Yiddish. Ozick gave a controversial talk in 1970 that was later published as “Toward a New Yiddish” in her masterful collection Art and Ardor. She offered a hope that the Anglophone diaspora would use English to express a truly Jewish art rather than America’s pagan “religion of art.” In English, perhaps, a diaspora literary culture could thrive through a Jewish, liturgical voice: “a choral voice, a communal voice: the echo of the voice of the Lord of History.”
The Lord of History seems to have played a trick on us all, his echoes resounding in comedy, too. Yiddish, the immigrant’s pastiche language, the language Israel rejected, the dead language that lives in a few fundamentalist religious enclaves, is also the language of Jewish humor for assimilated American Jews, and by “language” I mean not just words but rhythm and intonation and gesture. Is this a superficial understanding of Yiddish and what it means to be Jewish? Of course it is. It is a hopeful, cherished fantasy as much as Ozick’s New Yiddish was a hopeful, cherished fantasy. But it is also a daily, living fantasy. When I asked my mother recently how she would define Jewish humor she said, “a flavor.” We are still tasting it. And it’s still funny.
For me, a nonspecialized consumer of comic works and an amateur humor studies hobbyist, the most accessibly thoughtful and enjoyable book on the subject I’ve read is Argument of Laughter (1951) by D.H. Monro, a linguistics professor at Melbourne University. There are nonsense poems by Edward Lear in it. ↩
This joke is one of many that Baum also includes in her jaunty collection, The Jewish Joke, to be published in May. ↩