January 17, 2019

It’s funny what you can learn from Jewish humor

Jokes are no joke. Freud himself and countless other scholars have studied jokes as artifacts of human civilization and embodiments of theology, philosophy and morality. And that’s exactly what Michael Krasny does in a book that is both profound and laugh-out-loud funny, “Let There Be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What It All Means” (William Morrow).

Krasny, a professor of English and American literature, is perhaps best known as the open-minded but intellectually exacting host of “Forum,” a nationally syndicated radio show that is produced by NPR’s San Francisco affiliate, KQED. Among his previous books are “Off Mike,” a memoir of his radio days, and “Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest.” Now he turns his considerable intellect and his sense of humor to the Jewish joke.

Who among us hasn’t told a Jewish joke?  Krasny confesses that he has sometimes taken to the stage as a stand-up comedian to tell the jokes he had collected. “But I was not just telling Jewish jokes,” Krasny insists. “I was also analyzing them.” The results are richly displayed in his new book: “I came to view jokes, like fiction, as portals to knowledge and ways to see how the powers of storytelling and laughter are linked.” 

The book consists of an abundance of jokes that fall into various categories, ranging from “Jewish Mothers” to “Schlemiels and Schmucks.” But the real treasure is to be found in Krasny’s elaboration and interpretation, a kind of high-spirited midrash that affords us an opportunity to glimpse what a Jewish joke really says about Judaism and Jewishness.

Thus, for example, the first joke in the collection is one of my own favorites, a much-told classic of the genre whose punchline is: “He had a hat.” (The punchline alone will be enough for many readers to know what joke he is telling.) Krasny points out that the mothers and grandmothers are routinely portrayed in Jewish humor as the source of love, care and concern, but that’s only “one side of the equation.”  As with the mother who asks after the missing hat, they also are portrayed as “overly critical, impossibly demanding nags who are the bane of their children’s lives.” The Jewish joke, in other words, steps away from the comfortable stereotype and points out some uncomfortable truths.

Another one of my favorites is the joke that ends with an admonition from an otherwise permissive rabbi who objects to engaging in sex while standing up “because that might lead to dancing.” As told in its entirety, it is a deeply ironic joke, and Krasny sees equal measures of irony in much Jewish humor on the subject of sex. Pious Jewish tradition may affirm the sanctity of sex, but Jewish humor preserves all of the conflict and frustration that sexual relationships can sometimes entail. As an example, he retells a Joan Rivers joke: “A man can sleep around, no questions asked, but if a woman makes 19 or 20 mistakes, she’s a tramp.”

To be sure, some Jewish jokes are not really all that Jewish. “If you ask the question at what stage a fetus becomes viable for the Jews, you still hear the answer, ‘After med school,’” he writes. “Yet the novelist Amy Tan told me she heard the same joke told about Chinese Americans.” And he points out that some early Jewish celebrities were careful to conceal their Jewishness. “[Jack Benny] felt he had to keep his Jewishness entirely under wraps while, a couple of decades later, Jerry Seinfeld would include not only Jewish characters, but a regular lampooning of Jewish themes and stereotypes.”

Even the final barrier — making jokes about the Holocaust — has now been crossed, thanks to comedians such as Larry David and Sarah Silverman. Krasny heard a joke from Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish Literature and Comparative Literature at Harvard, about an Israeli family that receives an anxious telephone call from relatives in America. They have heard about the suicide bombing of a Jerusalem café where the family’s teenage daughter was known to hang out. As it happens, she is out of the country on a school trip. 

“Hodel is fine,” the parents say. “She’s at Auschwitz.”

“Let There Be Laughter” is as much a memoir as an anthology, and some of the best moments in the book are the anecdotes that Krasny tells about how Jewish humor asserts itself in unexpected, provocative and meaningful ways, as when he found himself interviewing Isaac Bashevis Singer on stage in front of a live audience. Seeking to plumb the depths of the great author’s mind, Krasny asked Singer if he believed in the philosophical doctrine of free will, “and he answered, ‘I have no choice.’”

JONATHAN KIRSCH, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.