Rabbi Meir Soloveichik and Dr. Ruth Wisse Discuss Jewish Humor at Straus Center Event

In his introduction of Dr. Ruth R. Wisse, Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University, Rabbi Dr. Meir Y. Soloveichik described her as a renowned scholar and courageously outspoken supporter of Israel, as an “eishet chayil” [woman of valor].

“You know what they say about the eishet chayil—she ran off with an officer,” quipped Wisse, playing on the Hebrew phrase’s other literal meaning, “wife of a soldier.”

The line was one of several funny moments at the Yeshiva University Museum, which hosted a conversation between Wisse and Soloveichik about Jewish jokes and Wisse’s newest book, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (Princeton University Press, 2013) on June 11.

The event, attended by 200 people, marked the second installment in the “Author Conversation Series” under the auspices of YU’s Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought—directed by Soloveichik, who was recently appointed as rabbi of Manhattan’s Congregation Shearith Israel. Sponsored by Pamela and George Rohr in honor of Wisse, the event was presented jointly by the Tikvah Fund (co-sponsor of the Library of Jewish Ideas series, in which No Joke appears), the Straus Center and the YU Museum.

Although much of the conversation prompted hearty laughter, Wisse stressed that Jewish humor also has a serious side, hence the title of her book.

Much of Jewish humor “has a lot to do with how Jews—perhaps not alone in this world, but to a degree—have to balance two kinds of existence simultaneously,” said Wisse, noting a discrepancy between traditional Jewish belief in divine intervention and the frequent need to deal with an unfavorable reality.

To illustrate this point, Wisse and Soloveichik mentioned the biblical matriarch Sarah, who laughs when she is told she will bear a child in old age. Wisse also referenced the tragicomic prayer of Tevye the Dairyman, the most famous character of Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem: “God will provide, but if only He would provide until He provides.”

“Is this faith or is this skepticism?” challenged Wisse, highlighting the precarious balance between the two in the modern Jewish experience. “I think you can read it the way you want.”

Other topics discussed over the course of the conversation included the misguided American Jewish perception of the Yiddish language as inherently comic or as a repository of all Jewishness, the variance of Jewish humor according to time and place, the role of Jewish literacy in determining comedic content and the idea of the inept “schlemiel” archetype as a paradigm for moral standards.

Another topic of conversation was Jewish particularity versus universality, a major theme in Jewish humor that sometimes elicits discomfort. “The biggest value in the university today is that you can be whoever you want to be,” said Soloveichik. “But maybe what these jokes are picking up on is that in your Jewishness and your very blood, you’re supposed to feel this tension.”

While growing up, YU Museum Director and Stern College for Women Art History Professor Jacob Wisse—Ruth Wisse’s son—never would have expected his mother, the family’s “proverbial straight man” to write a book on Jewish humor. However, he said he now realizes she is particularly well-suited to the task. “Well-groundedness and intelligence; steadiness and commitment to truth; serious of purpose and resoluteness in the face of absolute chaos,” he said, “turn out to be the very qualities needed to contextualize, bring to life and explain Jewish humor.”

The audience seemed to agree.

“It was really spectacular,” said Senator Joe Lieberman, who attended the event with his wife, Hadassah. “Rarely do you have an evening that is so intellectually stimulating and hilarious.”