‘On the Tradition of Jewish Humour’. An Extract from ‘Jews and Words’ by Amos Oz & Fania Oz-Salzberger

The 61st annual Jewish Book Week is currently underway in London, this year the event features a number of appearances from Yale University Press authors, including Frederic Raphael, Judith Walkowitz and Fania Oz-Salzberger. Since its foundation in 1952, Jewish Book Week has hosted numerous distinguished speakers and displayed countless fascinating books, and to celebrate this fact the Yale Books blog is posting several articles investigating Jewish culture and religion.

Below you will find an excerpt from Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger’s Jews and Words, an exploration of the role of the written word in Jewish culture within the topics of continuity, women, timelessness and individualism.

Another closely related offshoot of the Jewish way with words is humor. Modern Jews probably display more humor than their ancient forebears, at least if we go by written evidence. Still, the second Patriarch was named Isaac, ‘He who will laugh’, because both his parents laughed at the divine promise for a child in Sarah’s barren old age. As we have mentioned, Sarah and God embark on a rather amusing argument on that occasion: ‘Then Sarah denied, saying: ‘I laughed not’; for she was afraid. And He said: ‘Nay; but thou didst laugh.’ ’ How many religions began with God playing a game of ‘you did, too’ with the ancestral matriarch?

Ecclesiastes, said to be King Solomon, took a dim view of merriment: ‘I said of laughter: ‘ ‘It is mad’; and of mirth: ‘What doth it accomplish?’ ’ The Bible’s terse, stark, magnificently concise Hebrew is seldom jocular. In fact, some of the funnier people in the Bible are not Hebrews at all. The Philistine Achish, King of Gath, lands a good punch when he dismisses David, who plays the fool in his court: ‘Wherefore do ye bring him to me?’ Achish scolds his servants. ‘Do I lack madmen, that ye have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence?’ This turn of phrase bears an uncanny resemblance to Yiddish (nu, oych mir a meshugener). Did ancient Philistine wit somehow feed into medieval German-Jewish dialect? This is a nice thought. We often notice that present-day Israelis and Palestinians share a common sense of humor.

Frequently biting, indeed self-biting, and sometimes outright self-derisive, Yiddish made Jewish humor into an art, and Groucho Marx and Woody Allen transformed it into a universal brand. Freud did not explain why among Jews fear, anger, or despondency is so often and so effectively detonated into wit. Jewish humor is almost always verbal, and thus it is characteristically far more Groucho than Harpo. Body language, though richly employed, has almost always served as a vehicle for funny words. Pantomime is almost un-Jewish.

Argumentativeness and humor breed that other Jewish trait, irreverence. Rather peculiarly for a people of staunch faith, and certainly untypical of other monotheistic religions, Jewish chutzpah targets prophet and rabbi, judge and king, gentile and coreligionist. Its earliest recorded target was the Almighty himself. This irreverence can dovetail with devotion in a way distinctly alien to other systems of faith, and displays a temperament more democratic, not to say anarchic, than other systems of politics.

There is something adolescent, eternally puerile, about some Jewish attitudes to God, rabbis, and worldly authority. The book of Genesis is full of fathers and mothers of various sorts, as well as a plethora of offspring, all under the fatherly gaze of the Creator. There is plenty of sibling rivalry and intergenerational bickering. Tellingly, the term family in the Bible is often equivalent to nation. And of all the ‘families of the earth,’ as the prophet Amos put it, the Israelite family considered itself closest to God and most accountable to him: ‘You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will visit upon you all your iniquities.’ Note how family, nationhood, verbal imperative, and accountability—hence, guilt—are knotted together from a very early time.

Excerpted from Jews and Words, Yale University Press 2012. Copyright © 2012 by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger. All rights reserved.

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Amos Oz, Fania Oz Salzberger, Yale University Press

Jews and Words

Amos Oz is the internationally renowned author of more than twenty works of fiction and numerous essays on politics, literature, and peace. He is also professor of literature at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva. Fania Oz-Salzberger is a writer and history professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Haifa. She recently held the Leon Liberman Chair in Modern Israel Studies at Monash University, and a Visiting Laurance S. Rockefeller Professorship for Distinguished Teaching at Princeton University.

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