Future of Jewish Humor

Can Jewish-American humor survive the assimilationist 21st century?

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larry david curb your enthusiasmIn addition, the comix-as-art crowd have a Jewish-American champion in Ben Katchor. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Katchor grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home and this fact flavors such long-running strips as The Jew of New York and Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer. Those "in the know" know that a "knipl" is money put aside for a rainy day, which in the case of Katchor's real estate photographer is part of the joke about his history of economic reversals. He is yet another form that the schlemiel can take, just as HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm makes it clear, week after week, that an annoyingly funny millionaire curmudgeon can also be a schlemiel.

Three Glimpses of the Future

I conclude with three Jewish-American fictionists: Jonathan Safran Foer, Gerald Shapiro, and, Steve Stern. There are, of course, dozens of other writers who have livened up contemporary Jewish-American fiction; moreover, what I say about the ones I've chosen is limited to the prospects for Jewish-American humor in this century.

I begin, then, with Jonathan Safron Foer's ambitious first novel, Everything is Illuminated, a work in which dialect humor happens not from its Jewish protagonist but from his Ukrainian guide. The fractured English is hilarious in its own right but also part of the sheer excess at the heart of the various "histories" Safron Foer learns about.

By all the laws of literary logic Gerald Shapiro's three collections of short fiction should not exist. Writing about delis and Jewish guilt is not only quixotic but downright doomed. Still, Shapiro brushes off the old, by-now-stale material and makes it sing. As Kafka, and later Philip Roth, knew full well, Jewish guilt is funny.

Here is how one of Shapiro's protagonists describes his conflicted feelings when visiting day at camp was over and his father drove out of sight: "as Ira watched his father disappear into the dust of the gravel road, he felt free again, as if he'd just been pulled out of a lake full of glue… until the guilt started nibbling away at his innards again, a sensation that made him imagine that some angry little carnivore that was trapped inside his stomach was eating its way out."

Steve Stern combines many of the threads I've been talking about in The Wedding Jester, a story set in a crumbling Catskill hotel where an old comic turns up as a dybbuk (demon) who takes over the body of the bride. Moldy jokes, many of them x-rated, pour out of the bride's mouth, and one of the book's wonders (there are many) is that the jokes are funnier than they probably should be.

Many have argued that humor is the major export of the Jews. With a few caveats, this is probably true, just as it is certainly true that Jewish-American humor will not only continue but also find new ways to thrive. Smart-alecky Jewish kids, full of moxie, used to make their way to vaudeville stages where they sang, danced, and often got a shpritz of seltzer vasser up their pants. Nowadays, bright, restless kids create websites and put together shows (imagine a kosher Wayne's World) for public-access TV. No doubt lots of this is self-indulgent junk, but thus was it ever. As the Curies discovered, it takes sifting through a mountain of pitchblende to find an ounce of uranium. With Jewish-American humor, then and now, it's pretty much the same thing.

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Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor of English at Franklin and Marshall College. He writes widely about Jewish literature and culture, and in recent years has been a judge for the Edward Lewis Wallant Prize, the Reform Judaism Prize, and the National Jewish Book Award.