Recently, I lucked into an all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii. Tempting fate in a way any fellow ex-Soviet Jew could have told me was reckless, I looked up the weather in Honolulu. Then I took a screenshot and sent it to my non-Jewish fiancee, with the message: “This is called Jewish luck.” Seven days of rain.
What made the experience truly Jewish, however, was that, in the end, it didn’t rain at all. No, it was infernally humid and hot in a way that local people assured me “never, ever happens” in their dry, breezy paradise.
In her slim volume “The Jewish Joke,” the British academic Devorah Baum collects enough humor of this ilk to unstick the slowest dinner party. There are groaners to please every Jewish mother sitting in the dark waiting for her son to change the lightbulb, and there are “jokes” that leave marks, like the one that goes: “Good news! Good news! The child that got killed in the forest yesterday? He’s Jewish!” (This is good news, Baum explains, because a dead Christian child would have started a pogrom.)
Between the jokes, which are divided into 23 brief sections, Baum sprinkles light analysis and commentary. She tacitly proposes that what unites and explains the less recent humor in these pages is the outsider status Jews have endured almost everywhere and almost always. Only professional, consummate outsiders could make a joke out of a Jewish panhandler pretending to be Christian next to a confessed Jewish one: The goyim’s dislike of Jews will make them give double to “the Christian.” (This joke — or the Jewish plight it references — had no respect for the Iron Curtain. I heard a version of it from my grandfather.)
The groaners seem to show up roughly when the threat of bodily harm goes away, if not its phantom limb: existential anxiety. In other words, in America. (Baum tends to cite American-Jewish humor more frequently than its British counterpart.) Jewish mother: “My son loves me so much, he goes to see a special doctor five times a week to talk exclusively about me.”
But Baum doesn’t pursue this kind of historical connection. Her categorization scheme is thematic (“How Do You Tell the Difference Between Jews and Israelis?”). And she seems to feel a little guilty about interpreting too much in the first place. Tellingly, the main section of the book carries the heading “Less Essay, More Examples.” But even the best jokes can feel relentless after a while, and the “essay” part is what someone like Baum is uniquely suited to write to enrich the meaning of these jokes for us. I longed for a longer perspective.
For instance, Baum almost never lingers on the melancholy, if not outright sorrow, behind a lot of the older humor. Reading her breezy, upbeat examination, you’d be forgiven for failing to realize — were you someone not born into the understanding — just how many of the jokes are meant to elicit a weary nod rather than outright laughter: This is the comedy of Bernard Malamud (whom Baum never mentions) rather than Woody Allen (whom she calls on all the time, along with Seinfeld).
Her reference points make the book right for a young Jewish audience, but somewhat false to the pain and suffering that actually produced a lot of the best humor she cites. Good humor is subjective, of course, but, for me, the problem with this tilt toward Woody Allen is that it reinforces kvetching as what most people think of when they think of Jewish humor. But Jewish humor can be far more complex, beautiful, haunting and moving. And cool — in the way that experience and wisdom are cool: A darkly humorous, knowing wryness as freighted with grief as with irony. I don’t know if Baum was seeking to explain Jews to others — she’s an affiliate of the Parkes Institute for the study of Jewish/non-Jewish relations at the University of Southampton — or clarify us to ourselves, but I closed her book a prouder Jew than I had begun it.
It feels unfashionable, if not downright retrograde, to remain devoted to this darker notion of what makes Jewish humor Jewish, especially considering that it’s among the main reasons I’ve failed to acclimate fully despite 30 years in America, a country that laughs and cries about very different things than my old one. Perhaps part of the reason is that it’s among my last bonds to the family that brought me here from the U.S.S.R. By now, we are all but foreigners to one another. But it takes only one little story about rain and heat in Hawaii for all of us to start nodding with rueful bemusement to the same invisible rhythm. It’s among the best feelings in the world.
Boris Fishman is the author of “A Replacement Life” and “Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo,” and will publish “Savage Feast,” a family history told through recipes, next spring.
By Devorah Baum
Pegasus. 208 pp. $22.95