Opening this review with a story about a particularly Jewish predicament and ending it with a punch line would have been expedient. It could have been set in italics and placed above the lead paragraph for added flair. Perhaps it would involve a rabbi, a tiger, and a bar….

Yes, there will be some shpritzes for readers to chortle over later, but the proper way to launch an appraisal of “No Joke: Making Jewish Humor,” Ruth Wisse’s excursion through the world of Jewish jocularity, is to immediately brand her book as intellectually bracing, disarmingly entertaining, and disturbingly candid.

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Ruth Wisse

Wisse, a professor of Yiddish literature at Harvard, showcases some of the best material in the world – stuff that has been honed and riffed over the centuries – with the context and confidence needed to nuzzle all the sweet spots, or, more accurately, the bittersweet spots as laughter and tears mix with equal force.

Jews have always deployed humor as the ultimate doubled-edged sword. Thrust outward, it helped buffer repeated blows from the hostile world of gentiles, Arabs, and Cossacks. Turned inward, it signified any number of tropes from pride to self-loathing to otherness. All corners of the diaspora and Israel proper have swelled the storehouse of the Judaically risible.

This phenomena ranges from the blunt and unvarnished varieties to kinder, gentler expressions. They can pivot on very narrow or quite universal situations, slyly unfolding with irony, parody, inversion, whimsy, spoof, sarcasm, and compression. Whether satire, folk tale, fable, or comic masterwork, Jewish humor can pit modernity against tradition, the talmudically obscure against the absurdly common, and patron against peasant, all filtered through a welter of languages.

Take the predicament of a drowning person and the fickleness of geography. Wisse cites the tendency of Israelis to insist on unaccented Hebrew, free of European inflections and baggage, a language that speaks to the strength, focus, and identity of the Jewish state. She notes that a swimmer in trouble, let’s say off a Haifa beach, could be in even deeper water unless they cried out for help in acceptably enunciated Hebrew.

Contrast this with a possible scene at the Jersey Shore, one which stands tall in the pantheon of Jewish mother jibes, and imagine the regional accent:

Mrs. Markowitz was walking along the beach with her grandson when suddenly a wave came and washed the 3-year-old-boy out to sea.

“Oh Lord!” she cried. “If you’ll just bring that boy back alive I’ll do anything. I’ll be the best person. I’ll give to charity. I’ll go to temple. Please God! Send him back!”

At that moment, a wave washed the child up on the sand, safe and sound. His grandmother looked at the boy and then up to the heavens.

“Okay!” she exclaimed. “So where’s his hat?”

Here’s one from the blunter domain that can be told most effectively though not exclusively in Yiddish. Freud, who loved jokes and traded them with gusto among the Jewish glitterati of Vienna, would have labeled this a prime example of galgehumor (gallows humor):

Two Jews before a firing squad are asked whether they have a final wish.

One requests a cigarette.

The other snaps, “Shush, Moshe! Don’t make trouble.”

In just three mordant sentences, the tribe is taken to task for passivity, although sabras and IDF veterans would bristle at such a suggestion.

From the second, kinder-gentler category, comes this example:

A woman, feeling sorry for a beggar who had come to her door, invited him in and offered him food. On the table was a pile of dark bread – and a few slices of challah. The shnorrer promptly fell on the challah.

“There’s black bread, too,” the woman hinted.

“I prefer challah.”

“But challah is much more expensive.”

“Lady,” said the beggar, “it’s worth it.”

And since the third time can be a charm, an offering from the assimilation-at-any-cost-school:

A wealthy American Jewish widow, determined to rise in society, hires coaches in elocution, manners, and dress to help her shed her Yiddish accent and coarse Jewish ways. Once she feels ready, she registers at a restricted resort, enters the dining room perfectly coiffed, wearing a basic black dress with a single string of pearls, and orders a dry martini – which the waiter maladroitly spills on her lap.

The woman cries: “Oy vey! – whatever that means.”

These tidbits are part of a rich tapestry stretching from Berlin to Bialystok, and Beersheba to the Borsch Belt. Wisse’s ability to suss out the essential DNA in Jewish humor while delving into the darker question of whether one people’s tribulations have been treated with too much palliative self-mockery and shrugs of resignation commands and demands our attention.

Her analysis begins with the diaspora, continues through the indecencies of the Middle Ages, and sails into the fresh breezes of the Enlightenment. For Wisse, a watershed moment occurs with the birth of Heinrich Heine in 1797. The poet and satirist was a Jew who converted to Christianity, losing credibility in both camps but occupying the perfect perch with which to skewer each contingent’s foibles and pretensions, and doing so through elegant German constructs.

While Heine failed to speak to the Jews of Poland, Russia, Ukraine, and the Baltics, Sholem Aleichem’s writings certainly did, and in a mongrel tongue that became the lingua franca of the Pale of Settlement. In her Yiddish Heartland chapter, Wisse extols Aleichem’s beloved characters Menahem-Mendl, Sheyne-Sheyndl, and Tevye the Dairyman. His Yiddishkeidt legacy subsequently pulsed through theater, painting, and music on both sides of the Atlantic.

Although Aleichem never became wildly popular in America, Isaac Bashevis Singer did, and may have served as the bridge to Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth, sometimes referred to as the Hart, Shaffner & Marx of Jewish-American literature. Roth, as Wisse notes, trod where no other author had gone by both insulting gentiles and then bedding them.

In parallel, the Borsch Belt, Hollywood and TV stoked an insatiable appetite for hip, New York-centric shtick. As Red Buttons presciently explained: All the Jewish kids became comics and all the Italian kids became crooners, separated by a year of high school. Henny Youngman’s one-liners, Lenny Bruce’s profanity-laced screeds, a madcap Danny Kaye movie, or Woody Allen’s anguished self-deconstruction attest nicely to this postwar phenomenon.

Without missing a beat, Wisse returns to the former Russia of shtetls, now transmogrified into the Soviet Union of Stalin. Purges, famines, and forced collectivization generate a reservoir of trenchant commentary covering everything from chronic shortages to an authoritarian regime that rivaled and outlasted Nazi Germany (here Wisse limns a meager, underground supply, Poland being the exception). The cast is now ruthless instead of Romanov, but the anti-Semitism is vintage. An example:

Haim is walking down the street when someone calls him a Jew bastard.

He mutters: “Ay, if only there were meat in the shops, it would be like czarist times.””

Wisse concludes her trans-continental baedeker of humor with a focus on Israel. As Zionists labored to build the post-1948 Jewish state, levity was a precious commodity and somewhat frowned upon, a legacy from Theodore Herzl and the pioneers. How does one crack wise so soon after the Shoah or find time to kibbitz on the kibbutz when there are swamps to drain and fields to plant?

But that was then and this is now. Humor is firmly entrenched across a wide swath of Israeli society. Television, theater, film, and the lively arts sparkle with skits and bits. Nothing is off limits:

Sara in Jerusalem heard on the news about a bombing at a popular café near the home of relatives in Tel Aviv. She calls in a panic and reaches her cousin, who assures her that thankfully, the family is safe.

“And Anat?” Sara asks after the teenager whose hangout it had been.

“Oh, Anat,” says her mother reassuringly, “Anat’s fine. She’s at Auschwitz.

All of this leaves the reader with an excellent overview of the subject, although Witte admits that a hard definition of Jewish humor is beyond elusive. Trying to apply the principles of lexicography to a phenomenon as fluid and global as a people’s treasured history and excruciating trials, expressed through laughter, is nigh on impossible, especially when everyone from schlemiels to sages is targeted.