Robert Fulford reviews No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (Princeton University Press) Ruth R. Wiss:
Irony arises from contradiction and the Jews for many centuries lived a profound contradiction: While believing they were the Chosen People, they were treated as pariahs in much of the world. Their style of humour arises as a way to interpret the harsh incongruities of the Jewish situation.
Wisse traces her subject from eastern Europe and Germany to Israel and through Hollywood into the core of modern entertainment. Her cast of characters ranges from Sholem Aleichem to Alexander Portnoy, from Heinrich Heine to Larry David.
The surprise and anger in Jewish comedy reflect the reversals and defeats that were part of Jewish life. Jokes became a defiant response to even the most terrible troubles. How else could Jewish comedy have made its way, in a mere 23 years, from the last days of the death camps to Springtime for Hitler…
Wisse touches upon a subtopic that interests me:
On the issue of anti-Jewish humour by Jews, Wisse expresses ambivalence. She celebrates it as a central part of her subject but she wonders why, if it has restorative powers, it’s not borrowed by other groups: “Let Muslims take up joking about Muhammad, British elites mock their glib liberalism …” Many would welcome such a development. Few expect it.
At the 6:30 marker of this excellent hour-long segment — where the great Ricky Gervais interviews Larry David — they discuss Jewish humor.