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Poking fun at totalitarianism: A scene from the 1968 film “The Producers”, whose director Mel Brooks was the son of a German Jew

Mr Roubitschek is doing so well in the Ministry of Commerce that he is sent to Budapest to negotiate a new contract for the exchange of goods. Next day a telegraph arrives in Prague: "Contract successfully negotiated, stop, Long Live Free Hungary!"

Highly pleased with this, the Minister sends him to Warsaw. On the third day a telegram arrives: "Contract successfully negotiated, stop, Long Live Free Poland!'

"Comrade Roubitschek," his impressed superiors declare on his return, "you speak many languages and will therefore be given the important mission of negotiating a treaty for us in the West."

Roubitschek packs his bags and sets out. A week later a telegram arrives at the Ministry. "Am in Paris, stop, business going well, stop, Long Live Free Roubitschek." 

- a joke from pre-Velvet Revolution Prague

That Roubitschek is a Jew we would not, I think, know for sure if Ruth R. Wisse (in her new book No Joke: The Making of Jewish Humor, Princeton, £16.95) hadn't told us she found the joke in Vladimir Karbusicky's Jewish Anecdotes from Prague, though the cheek and the shapeliness, the apparently obedient servant of the state having the last laugh on the system, the joy in the lingustic triumph, and of course the relief of getting the hell out, all have a colouration of Jewish comedy. "Long Live Free Roubitschek" satisfies because it cleverly mocks a sham freedom with a real one. Roubitschek "can finally release truth from the lies that he has been compelled to repeat", Wisse notes, but he can finally release himself into the freedom to have fun too. Roubitschek off the leash in Paris. You name them — Bellow, Heller, Malamud, Woody Allen — you can detect a hint of many a Jewish writer in that joke's relish of Roubitschek's victory.

But trickster jokes of this sort abound in cultures where there's a system to be tricked. So is this one uniquely or even distinctly Jewish? Wisse knows that's a question from which there is probably no return, not even for an escape artist as wily as Roubitschek, but she does find it fruitful to wonder why a non-Jew would "ascribe a Jewish provenance to anecdotes that could as easily have circulated about Catholic Czechs, or . . . Catholic Poles". Her answer to herself is that "where liberalism is under siege, the Jewish joke stands for independence, for the right to joke and freedom to mock".

This Jewish assumption of the "right to joke," where the right to think independently is denied, would explain why the Jewish narrator/hero has found such favour in the contemporary novel, even when the novelist isn't himself or herself Jewish. It also liberates the idea of what a Jewish joke is from the usual limiting descriptions. Hyperbole, self-criticism, oy-veying and kvetching might be recurrent features of Jewish joking, but Wisse compendiously demonstrates, in the course of this excellent book, that Jewish "humor" — I fear we have to indulge Americans their penchant for the word "humor": they just don't hear its inertness and that's that — has, as often as not, a covertly political not to say seditious intention. Where there is an insistence on the "right" to joke, it makes perfect sense to see joking as a subversive act, no matter how subtly it conceals itself. And enough jokers have been done away with by paranoid political systems to prove it.

Still and all, once this grander function has been granted — making a Jew of all of us when the chips are down — the unanswerable question of what determines a Jewish joke's Jewishness goes on nagging at the corners of our minds. Wisse makes a nice sidestep from the exercise of a right to the expression of a necessity when pausing to speculate that what such variously articulate Jews as Heine and George S. Kaufman have in common "is not the content of their wit but rather their reliance on wit". She is very good on what this "reliance" consists of, tracing with tactful erudition its evolution from the earliest Jewish consciousness of difference. But it has to be asked, nonetheless, whether the content of Jewish wit and Jewish reliance on it, now as a defence, now as a weapon, are in the end separable.

To return to the Roubitschek anecdote — isn't the victory it commemorates a little too easily achieved and a little too bracing in its effect to be as mordantly Jewish as a Jew would want it and even need it to be? Only compare it with an Israeli joke Wisse picked up during the Second Intifada.

Sara in Jerusalem hears on the news about a bombing in 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 all 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.''

The trouble with repeating jokes out of context — and here I'm doubling the contextlessness — is that you always have a bit of explaining to do. Anat is at Auschwitz, as Sara would immediately have understood, because visiting the camps is a routine component of an Israeli education. So that's part of what the joke comprehends — Israel's conscientious, some would say (though they would be wrong) obsessive, remembering of the Holocaust. "Anat's at Auschwitz" sounds a bit like "Anat's at Weight Watchers." Again! But no matter how often or perfunctorily it's visited, Auschwitz remains Auschwitz. And it's an acrid joke indeed that figures Jews as safer there than in a café in Tel Aviv. "The joke crosses the wires of anxiety over Jew-killing past and present," Wisse writes, "and revels in the forced recognition — surprise of surprises — that today's danger may be greater than yesterday's." In this way it offends alike "liberals who deny the ferocity of Arab aggression, and patriots who cannot acknowledge that Zionism does not fully safeguard the Jews".

Unlike the Roubitschek joke, then, this one promises no happy release. Crossed wires of anxiety is a good description of its edginess. Wisse reports that it had Israelis splitting their sides with laughter and I am not surprised. The bleaker the funnier is the rule where Jewish jokes are concerned. For bleakness pressed into the service of laughter enables the worst eventualities to be confronted in advance: this time, at least for the duration of the joke, we will be philosophically prepared. "Never again" is the injunction against forgetting. But Jews have long memories. It's not forgetting the past that's the Jewish weakness, it's anticipating even worse from the future. If another Auschwitz is a possibility that only a fool would discount, there is temporary relief in everyone acknowledging the terror of it together. And some satisfaction in not being naive. The Jewish joke is a strategy for survival, part of that strategy being an open-eyed acceptance that it might only be mental survival. You take what victories you can, and an intellectual victory must suffice when that's all that's on offer.

I should declare an interest in Wisse's book: my novel The Finkler Question gets a favourable mention in it. And having written a book about comedy myself, I feel a kinship with anyone else who tries. It is treacherous territory. Take on tears and tragedy and you meet no resistance; take on laughter and comedy and you walk into a steepling wall of hostility. The very enterprise sets up false expectations, the silliest being that if you write about comedy you must play the comedian yourself. Which is closely followed by the philistine objection that comedy, alone of everything else we do and think, must not be subjected to critical thought. Intellection kills the joke, it's argued, as though, like some arcane ritual, comedy loses its divine mystery in the presence of philosophy or criticism. And this is before we get on to disagreeing about what is or isn't funny. Certainly, what you find hilarious your neighbour won't. And not only won't he find it funny, he will be angered by it, for offence attaches to the very ambition to amuse. We are indifferent to tears that don't flow. Maybe next time. But for laughter that lies stillborn in our belly we cannot ever forgive the father. Whoever goes out on a limb, therefore, declaring for this comedian or comic writer or another, risks a double-wrath — for being too much the intellectual in support of comedy that isn't comic and for spoiling that which has no value anyway. Good luck with that.

So I applaud the intellectual courage of this book, the breadth of Wisse's learning, the comprehensiveness of her ambitions, her unembarrassed declarations of pleasure in what she finds funny (and if we don't, that's tough on us), her unapologetic references to such serious students of comedy as Freud, whose writing on jokes it is easy to deride, and the confidence with which she moves from rabbis to writers to jesters, from literature to music hall and back. Comedy is comedy is comedy.

That the book quickly comes to encompass so much more about Jewish cultural history than Jewish "humor" proves the richness of the material and justifies the ambiguity of its title — No Joke indeed. There are times when we feel we are reading a history of Jewish secular thought, though the Jewish joke is one place where it's dangerous to separate the secular from the divine. Here, anyway, Jewish writers we are familiar with rub shoulders with Jewish writers most of us won't have heard of. To call it an anthology of Jewish "humor" would be to underestimate its ambitions, but there are pleasures to be found in anthologies and we find many of them here.

Wisse is right to have seen that Jewish "humor" — I must stop going on about that word — is a way of accessing questions of Jewishness itself, that a discussion of Jewish comic writing in 19th-century Russia, say, must end as a discussion of Zionism. It would be to go too far to say that for some Jewish thinkers the major purpose of Zionism was to liberate Jews from wit and their "reliance" on it. But when Chaim Weizmann declared that the "central purpose of the entire Zionist experiment was to cure the Jews of precisely those wounds and neuroses that only their enforced rootlessness had bred in them", he surely had partly in mind the sorts of wounds and neuroses discerned by the Lithuanian Yiddish literary critic Ba'al Makhshoves in his devastating description of the shtetl Jew: "Among his atrophied senses there remained vivid only the sixth one: an overly sharp intelligence which tended to laugh and jeer at the contradictions of the life he was leading . . . In Jewish wit one can hear the voice of self-contempt, of a people who have lost touch with the ebb and flow of life. In Jewish mockery one can hear . . . the sick despair of a people whose existence has become an endless array of contradictions, a permanent witticism."

Is that the inevitable condition of being a diaspora Jew? To resolve his contradictions must a Jew escape the conditions that made mockery the only mode of survival and return to Israel? Will he then forgo his wit? Or will that act of return, as witness the joke about Anat in Auschwitz, only compound the contradictions of old, giving them, in the face of the continuing resistance to Israel and the ongoing precariousness of Jewish life, a more bitter edge than ever?

Wisse never doubts the seriousness of her subject. If every Jew is a joker then every Jew is a prophet warning of catastrophe too. Wisse sounds a note of caution early, and by the end her concern is plain. "If Jews truly consider humor to have restorative powers they ought to encourage others to laugh at themselves as well. Let Muslims take up joking about Muhammad, Arabs satirise jihad, British elites mock their glib liberalism . . ." Her conclusion: "One side laughing is not as harmless as one hand clapping."

How good a joke will it be when Jews are the only ones left laughing? I fear — and I think she fears it too — that it will be the best and bleakest Jewish joke of them all. 

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