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Fulford: The schtick of time

The genius of Mel Brooks was to submit Hitler, the ultimate killer, to ultimate over-the-top clowning.
John MacDougall / AFP / Getty ImagesThe genius of Mel Brooks was to submit Hitler, the ultimate killer, to ultimate over-the-top clowning.

In the last decades of communist power, Jews in the Soviet Union discovered that they had achieved a previously unimaginable advantage over Gentiles. Jews could get out of Russia and  Gentiles couldn’t.

Moscow, under pressure from the US, had agreed to give a limited number of Jews exit visas to Israel. Many non-Jews also wanted to leave and imagined escaping by claiming to be Jews. Some discovered that they had always felt Jewish and began advertising for Jewish grandmothers.

For centuries Jews in Czarist Russia had been banned from many of the empire’s regions. Thousands were killed in pogroms that the government supported. After the 1917 revolution their religion was suppressed and the word JEW was printed on internal passports, their identity cards.

Now Russian Gentiles were pretending to be Jews! It was an astounding reversal of fortune. Naturally, this situation cried out for Jewish comment. Sure enough, someone came up with the perfect joke: Certain resourceful Georgians (the story goes) forge passports that will prove them Jewish and win them visas. Alas, the authorities discover the scam. Their punishment? They aren’t jailed or killed but they must retain their Jewish identity forever.

Both stories, the facts and the comic legend, appear in a richly absorbing new book, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (Princeton University Press), by one of the most interesting scholars Canada has produced, Ruth R. Wisse.

She was born in what is now Ukraine and raised in Montreal. At McGill she made herself an expert in the Yiddish language, then a little-known specialty in universities. She took a particular interest in Yiddish-influenced comedy and at McGill wrote a doctoral thesis on a Jewish folkloric type, the schlemiel. It was published in 1971, as The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, and I still remember being struck by how adroitly she handled her account of the bumbling, fool who began life in east European villages and migrated so far that he ended up as a character named Robert Cohn in Ernest Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises.

Wisse moved from McGill to Harvard, where she’s become famous for her fierce defence of Israel and her fierce disdain for political correctness. She’s never lost her affection for Jewish comedy and the story about would-be Jews forging new identities fits neatly into No Joke. Whoever imagined that joke seized upon a densely ironic situation from real life and then piled a fresh level of fictional irony on top.  Irony is central to Jewish humour and Wisse suggests that if irony were an Olympic event, Jews would bring home the gold.

Irony arises from contradiction and the Jews for many centuries lived a profound contradiction: While believing they were the Chosen People, they were treated as pariahs in much of the world. Their style of humour arises as a way to interpret the harsh incongruities of the Jewish situation.

Wisse traces her subject from eastern Europe and Germany to Israel and through Hollywood into the core of modern entertainment. Her cast of characters ranges from Sholem Aleichem to Alexander Portnoy, from Heinrich Heine to Larry David.

The surprise and anger in Jewish comedy reflect the reversals and defeats that were part of Jewish life. Jokes became a defiant response to even the most terrible troubles. How else could Jewish comedy have made its way, in a mere 23 years, from the last days of the death camps to Springtime for Hitler, the triumphant anthem in the great Mel Brooks film and stage musical, The Producers? The genius of Brooks was to submit Hitler, the ultimate killer, to ultimate over-the-top clowning.

The surprise and anger in Jewish comedy reflect the reversals and defeats that were part of Jewish life. Jokes became a defiant response to even the most terrible troubles

Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), the great German poet whose beautiful lyrics became art songs by Schumann and Schubert, plays a large part in Wisse’s story. He founded German Jewish humour, which he derived partly from his own situation. He was a Jew who converted to Christianity and in a much-quoted phrase declared that baptism was his “ticket of admission” to European culture.

In writing on the subject he ridiculed Christians for accepting inauthentic converts and Jews like himself for giving up their culture in exchange for a religion that despised their own. Heine was more than willing to criticize Jews, a technique of his that became a habit of comedians and novelists in the 20th century. Perhaps Freud had Heine in mind when he wrote that “I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.”

On the issue of anti-Jewish humour by Jews, Wisse expresses ambivalence. She celebrates it as a central part of her subject but she wonders why, if it has restorative powers, it’s not borrowed by other groups: “Let Muslims take up joking about Muhammad, British elites mock their glib liberalism …” Many would welcome such a development. Few expect it.

In the 20th century summer resorts not far from New York nourished Jewish comedy. Wisse asks how that happened. Why, from the 1920s to the 1970s, did Jewish hotels in the Catskills Mountains compete by hiring on-the-rise comedians such as Danny Kaye, Phil Silvers, Billy Crystal and scores of others?  There was certainly no parallel among non-Jewish resorts, whose patrons had to be satisfied with a little music and a lot of Ping-Pong.

Wisse sees the Borscht Belt as an extension of the old Yiddish theatres in downtown New York, where performers and audiences were both part of the show. The comedians imported the intimacy of Yiddish theatre into the Catskills and encouraged the guests to laugh at themselves and their fellow Jews. Stand-up comedy came alive when performers competed in developing ingenious forms of self-mockery.

When Catskills comedy was vibrant it seemed interesting but marginal, a minor element in show business compared with movies, Broadway or television. It turned out to be a perfect example of how little we understand new cultural forms as they unfold.

Today, with the world of comedy vastly expanded, it’s clear that the Borscht Belt was the fountainhead of styles that first conquered America and then worked their way around the world, much like American popular music. As Wisse suggests, the Catskills were to comedy what New Orleans was to jazz. That’s one of several dozen original
insights that flash across her pages.

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