Let There Be Laughter

  • From the Publisher
May 3, 2016

Why has Judaism spawned such a rich and var­ied body of humor? What makes Jew­ish humor — humor by and about Jews — dif­fer­ent from, say, British humor or French humor (if French humor even actu­al­ly exists)? Is there some­thing dis­tinct­ly Jew­ish” — in style, tone, or nar­ra­tive tech­nique — about Jew­ish humor?

These are all tan­ta­liz­ing ques­tions that are, unfor­tu­nate­ly, large­ly evad­ed in Michael Krasny’s Let There Be Laugh­ter. While it is hard to resist a book sub­ti­tled A Trea­sury of Great Jew­ish Humor and What It All Means, and whose dust jack­et promis­es more than 100 of the fun­ni­est Jew­ish jokes of all time,” many read­ers will wish that the author had done more with the rich mate­r­i­al he has gathered.

A few caveats are in order from the start. First, Kras­ny focus­es almost exclu­sive­ly on Jew­ish-Amer­i­can humor of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Fair enough. As he makes clear in his intro­duc­tion, dur­ing the Gold­en Age of Tele­vi­sion in par­tic­u­lar, vir­tu­al­ly all Amer­i­can humor was, at least by pedi­gree, Jew­ish humor, and the Jews’ use of wit to cope with the dilem­mas posed by immi­gra­tion and assim­i­la­tion was par­tic­u­lar­ly telling.

Sec­ond­ly, Kras­ny seems to pitch his book toward a dual audi­ence — Jews look­ing for a com­pendi­um of Jew­ish humor, and goy­im look­ing for a key to under­stand­ing much of that humor. Again, this is fair enough. It is easy for Jews to for­get that their cul­ture is not an open book to the rest of the world, and that get­ting” a joke almost always requires a cer­tain amount of con­text that is not nec­es­sar­i­ly shared universally.

That said, Kras­ny could cer­tain­ly have delved deep­er, and adopt­ed a defter tone, through­out. One exam­ple will have to suf­fice: A boy on the day of his bar mitz­vah… is told that he is now a man and will be con­nect­ed from that day for­ward, for the rest of his life, to all pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. The kid responds, Today I am a man. Tomor­row I return to the sev­enth grade.’” Kras­ny gloss­es this clas­sic joke as fol­lows: Many young Jew­ish boys … scur­ry off from reli­gious involve­ment once they have a bar mitzvah.”

A cou­ple of points: First, Krasny’s retelling of the joke is a bit off-kil­ter. Being con­nect­ed … to all pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions” is not some­thing that sud­den­ly occurs upon turn­ing thir­teen, and no thir­teen-year-old worth his salt would ever say tomor­row I return to the sev­enth grade”; the more idiomat­ic go back to” both rings truer and cap­tures more effec­tive­ly the­bar mitz­vah boy’s under­ly­ing resent­ment. For the point of the joke has always been that while the bar mitz­vah cer­e­mo­ny is found­ed on the assump­tion, deeply root­ed in Juda­ic cus­tom, that upon reach­ing age thir­teen, a boy is per­mit­ted (and oblig­at­ed) to par­tic­i­pate in the reli­gious life of the com­mu­ni­ty as if he were a man, this is usu­al­ly of cold com­fort to the typ­i­cal thir­teen-year-old Amer­i­can boy, whose vision of adult­hood typ­i­cal­ly has more to do with Max­im than with minyans.

Discussion Questions