What's so funny about being Jewish?

In 45 years of teaching, Ruth Wisse, BA'57, PhD'69, has earned numerous accolades, though perhaps none as fitting as when the celebrated novelist and critic Cynthia Ozick labeled Wisse “the Grand Explainer of our time.” Wisse, currently the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature at Harvard, acknowledged the “wonderful compliment,” but also preferred to downplay it. “I just try to say what’s obvious,” she says. One thing that’s obvious about the 77-year-old Wisse, who was born in Romania and who came to Montreal with her family when she was four, is how deep her connection to McGill runs. In town recently to launch her new book, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (Princeton University Press), and to attend the 60th reunion of her high school graduating class (formerly Strathcona Academy, now Outremont High), Wisse spoke to McGill News contributer Joel Yanofsky, BA’77, MA’81.

McGill News: When you were leaving high school did you ever consider attending a university other than McGill, say, somewhere else in Canada or the U.S.?

Ruth Wisse: I didn’t know anyone who went away to college. We all lived at home. McGill was considered “a streetcar university” and, though it sounds counter-intuitive, this arrangement was very much to our advantage. You might think this would restrict a young person. After all, here we were, still living with our families, sometimes way into our early twenties. But our parents were preoccupied with other things – like making a living. And we could do whatever we wanted. We experienced tremendous freedom at McGill – intellectually, as well as in every other way you could imagine. I was going off every morning, meeting different people, being exposed to different ideas. It was really a breathtaking time.

MN: At McGill, in the late sixties, you pioneered teaching Jewish studies. What made you take on that challenge?

RW: I returned in 1968 and I was one of the first people at McGill to be studying for a PhD in the English department, a program just instituted. Between my BA and PhD, I had studied Yiddish literature at Columbia University. But, as for Jewish studies, there was nothing of the kind at McGill or anywhere else in Canada. As a subject, it was nowhere to be found. I remember I studied Kafka at McGill with a wonderful teacher, but he never told us Kafka was Jewish. The word “Jew” even felt taboo. It was as if people didn’t want to call attention to it. So after I graduated and began teaching, I was really excited to convince McGill’s English department to allow me to teach Yiddish literature. I talked them into it. It didn’t happen overnight. It took me two years. But that led, eventually, to McGill having a Department of Jewish Studies.

MN: Your doctoral thesis at McGill was on the comic figure, the schlemiel in Yiddish literature, that also became the basis of your first book, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero (1971), and it also connects with your new book. What is the genesis of No Joke?

RW: At Harvard, I designed a course called “Comic Tradition in Jewish Literature” because there was so much of that comedy in the books and writers I was teaching. The course became quite popular. I was – and still may be on the books at Harvard – the adviser of the standup comedy club. Who even knew they had such a thing at Harvard? So No Joke was a natural continuation and outgrowth of that course, and, yes, it does go back to my doctoral thesis at McGill.

MN: In No Joke, you make a strong case for the integral role Jewish humour has played in American comedy and culture. How did that happen?

RW: In the thirties, the Borscht Belt became to comedy what New Orleans was to jazz – the incubator of a new form of entertainment that soon moved into the American mainstream. Jews who gravitated to these hotels in the Catskill Mountains put a premium on a certain kind of wit that scolded them as they had once been scolded by their preachers – but did it with a comic twist. Some of the targets of comedy were assimilation, adultery, hen-pecked husbands, and newly-minted wealth, like that of the Jewish young man who takes his mother to show off the yacht he has just bought. “Look, Ma,” he says, “I’m the captain.” She replies, “Sonny, by me you’re a captain, and by you you’re a captain, but by a captain you’re no captain.”

When radio became the rage and then television, who was readier for prime time than the already professional Jewish comedians who had honed their talents entertaining the sometimes finicky hotel guests? Their humour grew more sophisticated with its audience. Introducing the singer who follows his act, the comic says, “He has Van Gogh's ear for music." Woody Allen moved the humour in a metaphysical direction: “I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” By the seventies, some estimates of Jews in American comedy ran over 75 percent.

MN: No Joke covers a lot of ground – from Sholem Aleichem to Borat – and is ultimately a celebration of Jewish humour, especially its quality of self-deprecation. However, in your concluding chapter – “When Can I Stop Laughing?” – you point to the danger of Jews being the only ones laughing at themselves. Why did you want to explore the problematic side of Jewish humour?

RW: No Joke is really about American as well as Jewish culture and is written partly as a warning. Self-deprecation can be a wonderful strategy in Jewish humour, but there’s also an inclination to innocence, not to act, especially not to confront aggression, and rather turn it a little bit inward so that you really don’t have to deal with it. The most difficult problem we have now in America is akin to the most difficult problem Jews have always had: what does one do with this real aggression, this real intention out there of destroying you and your way of life? You have every incentive to deny it, to laugh it off. But we know from experience the danger of doing this. I’d feel much more comfortable, for example, if Muslim humour became more like Jewish humour. That is to say more self-analytical, if it found it easier to poke fun at its own mistakes.

MN: You’re back in Montreal for your high school reunion – do you have any memories of what the transition from high school to McGill was like?

RW: Wonderful. It was the fifties and my classmates and I felt it was a time when we could do anything we wanted in life. Because for us, for young Jewish students, in particular, it felt like the worst in history was behind us. The worst had happened. All that was ahead of us was for us to build this country, to choose what we wanted to do, what we wanted to be, and how we wanted to go about being it.

Joel Yanofsky’s latest book is Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism.