Marking 47 years as a member of San Francisco State University’s department of English and 24 years as host of KQED Forum, Michael Krasny offers a chronicle of Jewish humor, Let There Be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What It All Means, reflecting his role as our University’s pre-eminent public intellectual. The volume, published in 2016 by HarperCollins imprint William Morrow, adopts a thematic approach to the history of American Jewish humor.
Krasny will discuss the book at a free reading from 5pm to 6pm Thursday, March 2, in the Humanities Building, Room 587.
In chapters focused on the Jewish family, life cycles, culture and language, Krasny mines classic Jewish jokes for insights into both the American and Jewish experiences. Humor, it turns out, captures the complex and ambivalent experience of American Jews, animating both internal discord as well as public-facing challenges for an ethnic minority that constantly navigates its social status as both insider and outsider. “If ambivalence is the emotional currency of Jewish lives,” Krasny reminds us, “then the humor of Jews embodies and even embraces it.”
Let There Be Laughter offers an introductory essay, seven thematic chapters as well as an epilogue titled “outtakes” that includes just a few more jokes that didn’t otherwise fit into the narrative scheme. Krasny opens with an exploration of Jewish mothers and grandmothers (“bubbies”), exploring some of the best-known and popular Jewish jokes. A chapter on sex and marriage delves into gender-based assumptions about Jewish intimacy, or lack thereof. Self-deprecating jokes about Jewish stupidity form a section on schlemiels while schmucks, the literal Yiddish word for penis, offer a platform for humor about less appealing characters.
Krasny investigates the complex dynamics around the Americanization process in a chapter on “Yiddish, Generations and Assimilation.” Here we learn of the difference between a Yiddish kop (a Jewish brain) and a Goyishe kop (a non-Jewish brain). A chapter on celebrations credits humor for giving Jews “the ability to survive by whatever means are necessary” while a section on suffering takes a comedic look at life’s most challenging moments. Krasny closes with the most challenging of themes, separate and distinct, as Jewish humor navigates a pathway for Jews to reflect on their essential difference even as a rapid integration into American life gives the appearance of assimilation.
It’s a challenge to analyze humor from a scholarly perspective. On the surface, jokes make us laugh because they point out some sort of deep cultural dissonance between the Jews and the dominant cultures that surround them. As Krasny points out in each of his chapters, Jewish jokes make us laugh precisely because they comment on often-unflattering Jewish stereotypes. In his chapter on Jewish mothers and Jewish bubbies, for example, we learn about women who, according to Krasny, “are quite possibly seen as the most overbearing and overly protective mothers of them all.”
Jewish misogyny pierces many of these jokes, which inevitably depict Jewish men as un-masculine as well. Non-Jewish women suffer as well, emerging in Jewish humor as an enticing prize for social-climbing Jewish men more interested in the physical attractiveness of the “goyim,” a pejorative reference to non-Jews, than the intelligent if over-nagging stereotypical Jewish woman. In these jokes and so many others selected by Krasny, humor reflects the awkward and ongoing resolution of a Jew’s relationship to herself, his community, and the larger world around them.
Krasny tackles these challenges head on, owning both the self-hating and anti-Semitic elements pervasive in Jewish humor as well as the important insights and understandings these jokes offer about the Jewish experience. Jewish jokes are both funny and offensive. They often need to be whispered (or rejected outright if uttered in too public a place) yet they maintain their strength and longevity because of their ability to communicate truth, however uncomfortable. Put another way, humor, since it’s funny, emerges as an ideal platform to explore the most difficult themes in Jewish life (and beyond). In the affirmative, Jewish humor celebrates ethnocentrism, a more universal love of aggrandizing one’s own group.
For Krasny, who must for professional reasons limit Jewish self-advocacy on the air, an interview with famed Harvard linguist Ruth Wisse proved too enticing. They broke down, turning his daily radio broadcast into a celebration of Jews through their humor, only to discover through subsequent viewer emails that Jewish jokes resonated across ethnic lines.
More than any other member of the SF State faculty, Krasny has championed the town-gown challenges of a public intellectual. At times in front of a classroom of undergraduates examining a work of literature and at other times broadcasting to the region and beyond through radio, podcasts and the internet, Krasny embodies the civic outreach imperative of San Francisco’s public university. At its most basic, the university exists to complicate the narratives of our students while deepening their learning. The public intellectual, then, seeks opportunities to share that wisdom and approach on a much grander scale. Let There Be Laughter gives in book form what Krasny offers through his regular public radio interviews: a university-level sophistication packaged in a format that welcomes the lay audience.
To that end, Krasny’s book appeals as the work of a public intellectual through its focus on a theme as universal as humor. Still, he goes much further. The book’s very formatting, layout and design break free of traditional scholarly styles in favor of a readable and engaging text. His theme-based chapters group Jewish jokes in a cohesive and understandable way, encouraging readers to plow through the pages, laugh at the humor, recall their own favorites and perhaps even complain to themselves about some seemingly obvious omission.
The thematic organization, though, proves a bit of a ruse. Krasny opens each chapter with an anecdotal joke that’s an excuse to delve into a larger and deeper analytic question. The jokes that follow, then, develop the theme. Each of the chapters journeys from joke to joke with commentary interspersed, offering larger context, meaning and complications. Editors have gone so far as to switch ink color and indentation to help the reader navigate between the jokes and the commentary. At the conclusion of each chapter, readers leave with a good laugh, perhaps a memory of their own lives, as well as a deeper understanding of humor’s purpose as a form of literature.
In traditional university-level scholarship, the author is discouraged from inserting herself or himself into the narrative. A critical work should stand on its own merits, subject to peer review and intent on advancing knowledge in its field. Personal reflections, anecdotal stories, in the classical approach to publishing, diminish the strength of one’s argument. Not so for public intellectuals. Krasny trusts the reader, sharing his own personal love for Jewish jokes, his many humorous interactions with people famous and not so famous, and his desire to write this book simply because he loves it. The affection proves contagious. The readers join Krasny on his journey, paralleling their relationship with Jewish humor, or their own brand of ethnic jokes, with the author’s.
This is, in book form, simply another way for Krasny to connect, challenge and teach a much broader group of students.
— Marc Dollinger
Marc Dollinger holds the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies and Social Responsibility in SF State’s Department of Jewish Studies. His first book, Quest For Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism In Modern America, was published by Princeton University Press in 2000. His second book, California Jews, edited with Ava Kahn, was published in 2003 by Brandeis University Press. American Jewish History: A Documents Reader, edited with Gary Zola, was published in 2004 by Brandeis University Press. Dollinger is at work on a book titled Is It Good for the Jews? Power, Politics and the 1960s.