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National Post - Wednesday June 19th, 2013

Larry David in his HBO cult series Curb Your Enthusiasm.

When I was young, our Toronto family – like most Jews who could afford to do so – occasionally spent holiday time in the Catskill mountains’ “Borscht Belt.” Grossingers and its arch-rival, The Concord, were the area’s two most lavishly endowed resorts. But there were countless others. Even the most modest of the Borscht Belt hotels guaranteed excellence in two pastimes: Feasting and entertainment.

The eating was strictly kosher, and the entertainment was – well, not always kosher, but definitely Jewish.

By day, poolside, we laughed through games of Simon Says, led by one of the resort’s many staff “tummlers” — “tuml” means “noise” in Yiddish — all aspiring entertainers (Jerry Lewis, amongst innumerable other Jewish comedians, started as a Catskills waiter). By night, we laughed at established stand-up comics, including Myron Cohen, Buddy Hackett and Joey Bishop.

Wherever European-descended Jews have lived in modern times, their humour has penetrated the larger culture. A massively disproportionate share of successful U.S. comedians are Jewish. The same held true for Berlin in the 1920s and Russia during 75 years of Bolshevik rule. On any Saturday night at its Borscht Belt peak, 1920-1970, Catskills hotels hosted something like 500 comedy acts. And most dwelt heavily for laughs on the quintessentially Jewish schlemiel — the innocent, Woody Allen-esque underdog who somehow manages not only to survive, but even triumph against incredible odds.

I assumed this was resort life for everyone, but as I later learned, gentile resorts didn’t feel obliged to have their guests rolling in the aisles every waking moment. Thou shalt laugh, and thou shalt make other people laugh are two post-Enlightenment commandments Jews observe with the fervour they once reserved for the other 613 listed in the Torah.

In her new book, No Joke: Making Jewish Humour, Harvard University Yiddish and Comparative Literature professor Ruth Wisse, a native Montrealer, opens with the question: “Why do Jews enjoy laughing at themselves?” The rest of the book supplies her fascinating answer.

No Joke is divided into five chapters that explore important sources of Jewish humour in Germany, Eastern Europe, Russia, Israel and the anglosphere.

Wisse’s departure point is the Enlightenment. Modern Jewish humour emerged from an existential tension between Jews’ minds and hearts, arising “from Baruch Spinoza’s mid-17th-century denial of any functional reciprocity between the divine and human spheres.” More plainly put: Even though it became irrational to suppose that God had personally “chosen” them, Jews remained committed to the ennobling idea of peoplehood that only such an intimate relationship could have forged.

Each chapter of Wisse’s book features biographical sketches of important humourists and jokes — both highbrow and low — typical of their time and place. Her aim is “to show that Jews joke differently in Yiddish than in English, differently amongst themselves than in the presence of non-Jews, and differently in constitutional democracies than in totalitarian states.”

JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty ImagesMel Brooks’ audacious film satirizing Hitler, “The Producers,” shocked in 1968, but not today.

For an amongst-themselves example: When European Jews were still socially ostracized, many of them converted for purely expedient reasons. In one comic tale from this period, four Jews are talking frankly about their conversions. The first admits he converted to join a restricted club; the second for love of a Christian girl; the third for professional advancement. The fourth claims he converted out of belief in Christianity, whereupon the three others turn on him in exasperation: “Oh please — save that for your gentile friends.” Funny or not, the tale epitomizes the aforementioned tension between one’s solemn, spiritual affectations, and one’s true motivations.

Jews have found humour everywhere, even in existentially trying circumstances. The sobering Warsaw ghetto Yiddish witticism Wisse cites as the core of her thesis is: “God forbid that this war should last as long as we are able to endure it.”

She adds: “Yiddish humor knew that it dared not succumb to the weight of evidence militating against its very existence.”

Modern Israelis have developed their own survival-style humour, which adopts the classic Jewish form by playing on the perceived disparity between Zionist ideals and grim reality. During the Second Intifada, a joke circulated that had Sara, a worried Jerusalemite calling her Tel Aviv cousin after a seashore café bombing, and being assured that the family is safe. “And Anat?” Sara inquires after the teenager whose hangout the café had been. “Oh Anat is fine,” says the mother. “She’s at Auschwitz.” (The punch line works only if you know that today’s Israeli teenagers are routinely taken to tour the infamous Polish death camp as part of their education in modern Jewish history.)

The joke, Wisse explains, “offends both sides of the political spectrum: liberals who deny the ferocity of Arab aggression, and Israeli patriots who cannot acknowledge that Zionism does not fully safeguard the Jews.”

With time, even the worst Jewish tragedies get mined for comedy

It also illustrates Jewish humour’s defining qualities of “reversal, displacement and turning the tables,” which mock the chasm in Jewish history between our supposedly divine election as a chosen people, and the reality of continual persecution. As Wisse notes in an earlier context, “Few [religions] have had to balance such high national hopes against such a poor political record.”

With time and mainstream Jewish acceptance, even the worst Jewish tragedies may be mined for comedy. Mel Brooks’ audacious film satirizing Hitler, “The Producers,” shocked in 1968, but not today. In Larry David’s TV comedy series, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” a Holocaust survivor farcically vies with a television reality-show “Survivor” — there’s that authentic-inauthentic chasm again — for alpha-victim status at a dinner party.

Larry David routinely spoofs the coarsening and deracination of American Jewish life, and “the foibles of a community that has no excuse for its moral failures.” His character on Curb Your Enthusiasm is “the television schlemiel who *earns* the contempt in which he is held. He is now the Jew with influence, thoughtlessly rich. The transformation of this character from harmless to hurtful demonstrates the adjustment of Jewish humor to altered conditions of power and prosperity.”

Wisse ends by encouraging other cultures to take up the example of Jewish comedy: “Let Muslims take up joking about Muhammad, Arabs satirize jihad, British elites mock their glib liberalism, and anti-Semites spoof their politics of blame.”

Could happen. And who knows? The czar’s horse might even learn to speak.

That’s an old Jewish joke punch line. Back at Grossingers, it killed.

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