Ruth Wisse is the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature at Harvard University. Given that, maybe I should not be reviewing her new and actually dazzling book, No joke: Making Jewish Humor, at all. The truth is, however, that I had nothing to do with her appointment -no donor ever does at Harvard – and certainly nothing to do with her achievements as a literary scholar or a combative political analyst.
The academy across America is actually laced with Professor Wisse’s students who are now professors of Yiddish literature and other Jewish scholarly fields, at Columbia, Virginia, Stanford and Texas, plus various places in between. Her scholarship on Yiddish literary matters is the deepest of all the living learneds who write in the English language. Of the dead who did not write in English, there was one, Shmuel Niger, with whom I studied at a now long defunct secular Jewish Teachers Seminary which, on its way out, merged with the also now long defunct Herzlia Hebrew Teachers Seminary. Niger (in honor of whose brother, the New York socialist leader B. Charney Vladeck, a Lower East Side housing project was named) was an acolyte of my ancestor of deserved renown, I.L. Peretz, one of the grand triad -the others being Sholem Aleichem and Mendele Mocher Sforim- who created out of the shtetl an intensely modern Yiddish literature. Of course, Prof. Wisse has written and taught about these classic masters, including a volume about Peretz and his transformative treatment of tradition, his and the Jewish people’s career as contemporary actors.
But Prof. Wisse stands out as a scholar of the Yiddish whole, from late medieval family chronicles (many by women) to the most up-to-date cultural stylists in the language which lives on life-supports. The recent klezmerization of Yiddishkeit may have widened the audience interested in the immediate Jewish past. This so-called “revival” of Yiddish can have deepening corollaries. First of all, muzikants and musicologists, working almost like archaeologists, have dug out from literally their special graveyards music that challenges and can also please. Bard president Leon Botstein is one of the most imaginative pioneers rifling among the dead. My former Harvard student, James Loefler, who will be teaching at Columbia this year, is another. There are more. And their words and sounds are music to our ears.
Mr. Loeffler’s first book was called The Most Musical Nation: Jews, Culture and Modernity. It was a bold claim but not an unreasonable one. By contrast, NoJoke does not state that Jews are the most comic nation. And Jews certainly couldn’t compete with the dramatic comedy of the Greeks, the Romans or the Restorationists -although there was humor even among the learned and highly pious rabbis. But, when it comes to philosophical humor and the wacky jokesterism that together define much of how we laugh in today’s world, the Jews are right up there. Alas, today’s Jewish humor is less and less in Yiddish. It’s not only assimilation that robbed us of the language and its users. The Nazis and Stalin did their bit, , too, together wiping out a good deal more than the half of the Jewish world that lived in Yiddish.
The Jewish people is forever, as my mother used to say. Israel now has just shy of seven million Jews, and Hebrew is the tongue in which they speak, write and joke, the language having been virtually reinvented by an inspired madman, Eliezer ben Yehuda, who Robert St. John posited was reviving The Tongue of the Prophets. Prof. Wisse is (almost) as accomplished in that tongue as she is in Yiddish, and she is the first scholar to introduce Hebrew humor seriously to people who know no Hebrew. There is a fresh trope in Hebrew comedics, and it is the comedics of strength and victory, a construct hardly known in post-exilic Jewish history. But distrust comes with this territory, too, distrust of one’s own power. A distinguished Hebrew University mathematician put it this way: “We used to say there were two kinds of German Jews: the pessimists who went to Palestine, and the optimists who went to Auschwitz.”
The vast death happening in the middle of the twentieth century ushered in this specific obsession. Still, Jews had through history other reasons to fear the goyim. There is the famous story of the rabbi who, trying to persuade a pogromchik duke from expelling his Jews from the duchy, promises that he will teach the noble’s dog to talk. Entranced, the duke gives in and postpones his threat. Overjoyed, the rav goes home and tells his flock. “But you won’t be able to teach the royal canine to speak,” they cavil. “Ah, yes,” replies the rabbi, “but by the time we reach the deadline, either the duke will be dead or I will be dead or, more to the point, the dog will be dead.” Saved. Geratevit!
Jewish humor enters high modernity through Heinrich Heine, himself a meshumed, in the 19th century (“As go the Christians, so go the Jews”) and Franz Kafka, whose deep dark humor in the early 20th century narrated the shift from conversion and intermarriage to sheer and utter assimilation. My memory of what I had read of Kafka did not immediately bring his humor to my addled mind. But the distinguished intellectual historian Saul Friedlander’s scholarly Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt mustered a so goyish and tight wunderkind of Prague that he seemed to be creating a Jew untouched by the mystery and mastery of Zion, justifying, sanctifying Friedlander’s own self-exile from the promised land. It’s a tragic tale: as a child during World War II, he had been placed in a Catholic orphanage for safe-keeping. After that he had studied to be a priest. His parents were murdered in Auschwitz. He finally ended up in Israel where he was a professor in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It didn’t last. Only in self-banishment and Jewish self-abuse could the holocaust historian fulfill his life as a Jew. It’s a grim comedy Kafka himself might have written.
Disraeli does not appear in Prof. Wisse’s book. But the Jew converted by his father to Christianity is a prototype of many of his co-religionists of the age. Except that Disraeli was among the great Christian Zionists of the British political class, joining Lord Shaftesbury, Palmerston, Balfour, others in their biblical dream of the Jewish restoration to Palestine. Barbara Tuchman, who would now be 100 and a reader of the New York Observer, wrote about them in her momentous book Bible and Sword. Yes, read it. You should be ashamed if you haven’t. Which reminds me of a joke not told by Ruth Wisse.
A middle age Jewish man dressed in orthodox garb visits a bespoke tailor on Saville Row. Mr. Siegel explains to the salesman that he wants to change his appearance because he has changed his beliefs. He is no longer a religious Jew. “I am an assimilated Jew and I now live in a grand house in Belgravia. Help me change my life by changing my clothes.” Mr. Chapman assures him that this could be done and proceeds to outfit the man in the style of a true gentleman: “Of course, you must come back next Saturday to see whether your new clothes fit.” Siegel comes back. The ensemble fits perfectly, from spats to fedora. And suddenly Siegel begins to weep. Chapman reassures him: “You’ll get used to it. You look very distinguished.” “I am not crying because of my old clothes,” Siegel says. “I am crying because we lost India.”