Toronto filmmaker Alan Zweig’s new documentary When Jews Were Funny postulates that assimilation and success have made Jews complacent and therefore their sense of humour has suffered.
Harvard University professor Ruth Wisse, author of No Joke: Making Jewish Humor, begs to differ.
Wisse, who is a featured speaker during Jewish Book Month (JBM) at the Jewish Public Library (JPL) next week, said in a telephone interview that humour remains a prominent feature of Jewish culture – it just has adjusted to changing circumstances.
Zweig’s film, which won the best Canadian feature prize at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, may actually prove Wisse’s point: being funny, or at least concerned about how funny they are, continues to be a defining characteristic of Jews.
A former Montrealer, Wisse, who has taught Yiddish literature and comparative literature at Harvard for the past 20 years, will discuss No Joking, which was published in the spring by Princeton University Press, in a lecture titled, “Does Jewish Humour Win Friends and Why Should it Matter?” at the JPL on Oct. 21 at 7:30 p.m.
Wisse examines the evolution of Jewish humour from the early 19th century, the late Enlightenment period, to the present time in her book.
“Jewish humour, as abundant as it is, is very different according to the language or society in which it functions,” she said. “Jewish humour in German, in Yiddish, in English – whether in Britain or the United States, whether under Stalin or Hitler, or in Israel today – all differ.”
Jewish humour has always adapted to place and circumstance, she believes.
Wisse has observed that the best Jewish humour correlates to “how Jewishly educated or invested” its deliverer is.
“Some of the best Jewish humour today can be found in yeshivot, and this grows out of a very old and rich tradition of comedy that draws on Jewish sources,” Wisse said. The Bible and Talmud do have their lighter moments, she added.
Humour is a wonderful coping mechanism and laughter is good for you, and this has surely helped Jews endure hardships over history, but Wisse raises the question of whether it can be a way of avoiding confronting an issue.
She warns, for example, that the “Arab war against the Jews” that Israel has lived with throughout its history is “being brought to our shores and gathering momentum. Is humour the best response?”
Being able to laugh at one’s self is healthy, but she wonders if Jews may take it too far. “Laughter may be the best medicine, but as any doctor will point out, there can be overdose,” she said.
“Jews have a reputation for being tremendously self-critical… Jewish humour is different in the sense that Jews make fun of themselves, instead of others, and when they do make fun of others, it is usually also at their own expense.”
A people known for both the Holocaust and their humour is an irony that sets Jews apart, Wisse thinks.
Wisse, who was born in Romania in 1936, taught Jewish studies at McGill University before going to Harvard. Her ties to Montreal remain strong, and she and husband Leonard visit often.
“I don’t know if there is a distinctive Montreal Jewish humour… Perhaps you could challenge your readers to suggest whether local conditions – relations between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, French-English tensions, say – have contributed to a distinctive humour.”
Wisse said that, “alas,” she does follow what goes on in Quebec, but she declined to comment on the government’s proposed charter of values or other political issues.
Wisse and her family have a long association with the JPL. Her late parents, Leo and Masha Roskies, were among its founders. Her sister, Eva Raby, was executive director until her retirement last year.
“We grew up in the library. We are all products of the JPL,” Wisse said.
Wisse will be introduced at her Oct. 21 lecture by Gershon Hundert, professor of history and Jewish studies at McGill.
For details on other JBM events, which run from Oct. 19 to Nov. 19, visit www.jewishpubliclibrary.org.