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Jewish Comedy Has Earned Big Praise, But Is It Time to Stop the Joke-Telling?

Scholar Ruth Wisse likes to laugh as much anyone, but also sees peril when Jews can’t seem to quit clowning around. In ‘No Joke’ she explains why.

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Henny Youngman on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1966. (CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)
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What are the three words a woman never wants to hear when she’s making love? Honey, I’m home. Whether their circumstances are happy or fraught, Jews have been pointing out the humor in their predicaments since the biblical era, when Sarah the matriarch saw the fact that she’d bear a child at her advanced age as a cruel joke. But it was only since the Enlightenment that, as a people, the Jews became known as a witty lot—reveling in word play, contradiction, and self-deprecation. Yiddish scholar Ruth Wisse loves a good punchline (and, with her grandmotherly comportment, has perfected the straight-man delivery) but rejects the idea that Jewish humor is a uniform thing and, furthermore, that it’s something of which to be proud.

In No Joke: Making Jewish Humor, Wisse considers the variations of humor from Heinrich Heine to YouTube. She joins Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry to share some gallows humor, to compare the jokes of the Haskalah to those told in yeshivas, and to argue that engaging in humor that distracts us from suffering, rather than confronting it, is not worth the laughs. [Running time: 32:16.] 

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Ptolomy Jones says:

I’m not Jewish, but I want to be and I can tell you the first album I ever owned was “When You’re Love The Whole World Is Jewish”. I think the humour is a big part of my wanting study Judaism -because it is profound. Coming from America to Australia you feel the empty cultural space -the lack of Jews- Aussies are funny but they aren’t good comedians for some reason-maybe because life is too good here…I think the lack of Jews explains whey there isn’t any good Christmas music as well

    Alex Mandel says:

    Jews actually wrote some of the most well known Christmas songs-
    Irving Berlin (White Christmas), Mel Torme (The Christmas Song), Johnny Marks (Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reinder).

ThorsProvoni says:

I was at the Bostoner Rebbe’s shabbestish, and the Rebbe began to tell a few hassidic stories.

The stories all came from Bajki i Przypowieści (Fables and Parables, 1779) by Ignacy Krasicki, who was the chief Polish Enlightenment writer and Primate of Poland.

I doubt that the Rebbe knew the origin of the stories and was consciously plagiarizing, but the incident highlights how Yiddish Jews have often “Judaized” borrowings from co-resident non-Jews.

    Hershl says:

    And how, exactly, do you know that Ignacy Krasicki created all of these stories?

    How do you know that they originated with gentiles?

    Jokes are jokes. Stories are stories.

    Apparently, no one but you really cares about their absolute origin.

    I certainly don’t.

      ThorsProvoni says:

      What’s the problem? The Tablet offers a segment on the Jewish joke, and the first question should be whether the Jewish joke is something universally Jewish or is perhaps the Yiddish joke.

      The diabetes joke is in fact a variant of a joke that is found in the Talmud and that is probably Roman in origin.

      My uncle Nathan told a variant. How do a German, a Brit, an American, and Jew deal with competition in business? (Nat would have said a Yid.)

      A German tries to understand what his competitor is doing right and then tries to outdo him.

      The Brit tries to purchase his competitor.

      The American tries to sue his competitor.

      And the Jew tries to throw a wrench in his supply chain (via middle market restraint of trade) and then starts a rumor to drive away his competitor’s customers. When his competitor goes bankrupt, the Jew picks up the pieces of the business in liquidation for a song.

      Now it may sound like an anti-Semitic stereotype, but it was exactly how Nat did business, and he would laugh at the goyishe kep (stupid gentiles).

      So what does the diabetes joke have in common with the opera joke?

      Guess what! Absolutely nothing. However the mixed language sort of joke is fairly common throughout the regions where Polish, Slovak, Czech, Russian, Belorussian, and Ukrainian all coexist.

      Lwów (Lviv) was a Polish dominated city in a majority Ukrainian speaking area. Before the Soviet takeover the language of instruction of the University of Lwów was Polish. The Soviets compelled the University to switch to Ukrainian. Lenin once wrote that language is the most important means of communication. All the Polish linguistics scholars prefaced their papers with the official Ukrainian version of Lenin’s statement because the exact same words meant “The tongue is the most important tool in intercourse.”

      Yiddish/Yinglish can of course make such puns with English or German.

      In other words after Wisse’s discussion of the Jewish joke, we probably know less than we did before she spoke.

      Wisse mentions the Haskole but does not say anything about the Polish Enlightenment

      1) which proceeded the Haskole,

      2) whose literature is for good reason often characterized by gallows humor, and

      3) from which Haskole intellectuals borrowed a tremendous amount.

      Wisse ignores the context of the Haskole because she does not trade in Jewish history but in Jewish fictions.

      Now I suppose that sort of negligent scholarship can be overlooked because Wisse is a literature specialist and not an historian, but it is too bad that Harvard did not hire someone with a better command of Yiddish and with a greater understanding of the Jewish and Eastern European literary background to Yiddish literature.

    Hershl says:

    And how, exactly, do you know that Ignacy Krasicki created all of these stories?

    How do you know that they originated with gentiles?

    Jokes are jokes. Stories are stories.

    Apparently, no one but you really cares about their absolute origin.

    I certainly don’t.

Hans Bakker says:

I very much enjoyed the interview. The joke about waiting for the “fat lady” to sing before it is “over” is good! The whole idea of gallows humor is valuable. the joke about the man crossing a border saying: “Can’t you see that this is a human being (and not an animal)!?!” is also dead on. But I have a little bit of a quibble about the explanation. If it is indeed true that the humor ultimately stems from the tension (gap, discrepancy) between the Promise of the Covenant (i.e. the moral dignity of Jews) and the actuality of the need for accommodation to the petty annoyances and major acts of aggression of everyday life on this planet earth (versus God’s realm) then why would the same not hold for Evangelical Fundamentalist Christians, many of whom do not have much of a sense of humor at all? Does not the tension between Promise and actuality also exist for them? Moreover, if that is the explanation then why is it mostly the “thin” Jews who are assimilated (Woody Allen, Jon Stewart, Milton Berle, etc.) who are so full of fun? Isn’t the essence of assimilation the playing down of the tension between the Covenant (understood literally) and everyday life? If you no longer really believe that G-d will punish you for your evil deeds (someday?) then what motivates the use of double entendre (e.g. three words: “Honey, I’m home.)?

doctordogood says:

I don’t trust a writer who doesn’t know that “fraught” takes an object. e.g. “fraught with humor,” “”fraught with danger,” etc. So what does “fraught” describe all by itself? Seeing a story starting with an ignorant formulation sure isn’t bliss.

LarryDerfner says:

Given Ruth Wisse’s politics, I think her point is: Why waste time telling jokes when you could be killing Arabs?

    ThorsProvoni says:

    The Modern Jewish Canon by Ruth Wisse (Harvard University) provides a particularly good example of using Jewish Studies as a soapbox to serve Zionist racism and to demonize Palestinians or Arabs in general. She writes on p. 98.

    “The logic of language imposed itself on the kindred writers, Kafka and Brenner, to spectacularly different ends. Brenner’s hero Hefetz went mad within the security of Hebrew while his author was murdered by Arab assailants who imported the pogrom politics of Europe into the Middle East.”

    We all know that there were problems between the native Palestinian population and the Ashkenazi colonists, but to claim that the Palestinians were importing pogrom politics from Europe is over the top, corresponds to the most extreme Revisionist demonization of the native population and was not the opinion of most of the Zionist leadership. She could simply have stated that Arab assailants killed Hefetz during the violence of 1929. Anything more crosses the boundary into propaganda, and one has to question the decision to inject Zionist anti-Palestinian politics into a book that is supposed to be a semi-scholarly survey of modern Jewish literature.

    Her comment also shows the typical Zionist lack of imagination. Her racist anti-Arab nonsense in The Modern Jewish Canon hardly differs from that in Hitler’s Professors, which Max Weinreich unfortunately and irrelevantly incorporated into his rather useful book. He probably unconsciously absorbed these ideas from the standard 1930s Zionist anti-Palestinian propaganda.

    Wisse’s race hate is not confined merely to typical Zionist demonization of Palestinians or Arabs in general. In November 1997, she authored a Commentary article entitled Yiddish: Past, Present and Imperfect. She writes the following.

    “I have described that trip before, and it was actually as a consequence of my article about it in these pages (‘Poland’s Jewish Ghosts,’ January 1987) that Khone’s manner toward me cooled. I, too, was thrilled by the rise of Polish liberalism, and drawn by powerful emotions to the Polish home of my parents and ancestors. It was stirring to explore the physical landscape where so much of Yiddish literature had been created. But in my article I also noted the presence of what I called ‘the phantom limb’ an anti-Semitism that continued to make its presence felt in Poland long after the Jews had been physically excised from the country. While it was important that Jews protect the visible memory of their past, and promote scholarly exchanges as Shmeruk was doing, I believed they should not ignore the anti-Jewish cast of modern Polish nationalism, including its present-day variety.

    “Khone did not appreciate my cautionary approach, any more than a lover wants to hear about his sweetheart’s failings. His critical attention was shifting, from the internal contacts between Yiddish and Hebrew to relations between Jewish and non-Jewish literatures, Polish in particular. I did not understand the import of his growing interest, or recognize its every facet. One of them was this: he had fallen in love with a Polish Christian woman, Krystyna Bevis, who shot the documentary film of our trip, and shortly after the death of his wife in 1989 he married her, and she bore him a son. He named the boy Avigdor, after his father.

    “WHEN SHMERUK officially retired from the Hebrew University in 1989, he began to divide his time between Warsaw and Jerusalem, teaching and guiding research in both places but with the stronger pull coming from Europe. How many reasons, in addition to the fact of his new family, one might offer for his attraction to Poland! He would certainly not have been the first Israeli to chafe at the constrictions of a tight society, or to leap at the opportunity to spend time abroad. Cut off for so many years, he now had access to Poland’s archives and its scholars. A lifelong teacher, he welcomed the chance to pioneer Yiddish studies in a new country: he could do as much, if not more, to protect the Jewish past in Poland by training Polish students in Jewish research as by preparing students for the task in Israel. Jews habitually visit keyver oves, ancestral graves; is it not understandable that Khone Shmeruk, who left his family one day in 1939, should have wanted to forge a link with his martyred parents in Poland? But I think it was also the enticement of life, not death, that drew Khone so powerfully to Poland: the allure of his interrupted youth, when he was just starting out as a historian with all his years ahead of him. One night during our 1986 trip I returned with Khone from a performance at the Yiddish theater. We were strolling along a tree-lined street (Grzybowska, I believe), and Khone said, ‘This is where I used to walk with girls in the evening when I was a student.’ Before there was a professor of Yiddish there had been a young man who felt the promise of romance and the prospect of greatness and who adored the complications of his city. Now that Poland was free again, what was to prevent that man from starting all over, in the city of his youth, in the university that had once humiliated him; what was to prevent him from creating a new Polish-Jewish symbiosis in his own person?

    “One of Shmeruk’s most interesting and far-reaching studies concerns the legend of Esterke, which exists in both Polish and Yiddish versions. Obviously based on the biblical book of Esther, the story tells how the Polish king Casimir the Great (1310-70) fell in love with a Jewish maiden and took her for his mistress. This tale has served as a litmus test for perceptions of Polish-Jewish relations. To Polish anti-Semites, the king’s out-of-wedlock liaison with a Jewish concubine has long been a reminder of the perils lurking in their country’s hospitality to the Jews. To philo-Semites, especially in the 19th century, it seemed to confirm the generosity of native Polish impulses.

    “What interested Shmeruk was something else: the unequal way the story developed in Polish and Yiddish literature. Whereas modern Yiddish writers were aware of and responded to the various Polish versions of the legend, Polish writers in general paid scant attention to the Yiddish. Shmeruk’s study interprets this as still another paradigm for the inequality at the heart of Polish-Jewish relations. But his study itself, simply by virtue of existing, establishes a connection between the two cultures that the cultures had failed to make, and consummates a kind of union between two peoples otherwise doomed to remain apart.

    “Khone must have felt uniquely qualified to help bring about a new rapprochement between Poles and Jews. While Poland was still under Soviet occupation, he had extended many invitations to Polish academics to attend conferences in Jerusalem, making ‘the West’ available under the auspices of Jewish studies. Now that Israel was strong and free, the Jew could return to Poland not as a supplicant but as a benefactor, bringing Western know-how to a society that had stagnated under Communism. Perhaps he even wanted to play out the Esterke romance in reverse, as the munificent Jew coming to the rescue of the Polish maiden.

    “If so, however, this is not how it felt to those he left behind. During the last stages of his illness, when he deliberately flew from Jerusalem to Poland because that is where he wished to be buried, he imprinted a wound on the hearts of his countrymen. I cannot speak for his daughters, his colleagues, or his students, but I know how his attraction to Poland affected our own relations over the past decade, and how a sense of rejection has compounded my grief. In effect, everything that his postwar life, the land of Israel, and scholarly achievement had brought him could not replace what he had lost in Warsaw. His life also reminds us that, even in the newly constituted Jewish commonwealth, Jewish dreams of exogamy, in both the personal and cultural sense, are not soon likely to fade.”

    Not only is the nasty sarcasm and a not too subtle criticism of miscegenation somewhat offensive albeit unsurprising in the context of the garbage that Commentary has published about Edward Said, but Wisse in this article has reached a whole new level of insipidity for Commentary with the implication that the preeminent scholar in her field was thinking with his dick because he did not happen to share her anti-Polish prejudice. Even though her phraseology is rather less direct than mine, I found it truly amazing that a full Harvard professor would publish such a comment in a national journal. Harvard seems to have relocated to the twilight zone sometime recently.

    Wisse’s hatreds also cloud her scholarly judgment. Her analysis of the Esterke literature is questionable. Polish anti-Jewish prejudice typically took the form of a demand that Jews convert to Catholicism and intermarry with other Catholics. Wisse is projecting a Nazi prejudice onto Poles.

    The debacle in the former Yugoslavia has provided graphic illustration that ethnic hostility has been quite common in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The hatred has been completely mutual among all the groups since modern völkisch nationalism fused with Eastern European confessionalism, and there is no reason for someone of Eastern European Ashkenazi background to take a pose of ethical superiority over other Eastern European ethnic groups.

    I can understand why Shmeruk might have cooled in his relations with Wisse, and I feel very sorry for the Arab, the Pole or the member of a Jewish non-Jewish couple that takes an interest in Yiddish literature at Harvard.

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Richard P. McDonough says:

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Dian Kjaergaard says:

Context is everything. Some humor is healing – providing relief from tensions within and between people – giving the strength to go on. Some is aggressive, some is passive aggressive, some is “pacifying” – the kind that Ruth Wisse is pointing out the dangers of.


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Jewish Comedy Has Earned Big Praise, But Is It Time to Stop the Joke-Telling?

Scholar Ruth Wisse likes to laugh as much anyone, but also sees peril when Jews can’t seem to quit clowning around. In ‘No Joke’ she explains why.

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