Howard Jacobson in conversation with Ruth Wisse: “Should Jews Stop telling Jokes?”

The Anglo-Israel Association held a Dinner discussion between Ruth Wisse and Howard Jacobson “Should Jews Stop telling Jokes?”, at the office of Mishcon de Reya on Wednesday 19th November, 2014.

 The evening produced much laughter from start to finish with questions flying back and forth and many of the guests telling their own favourite jokes which besides laughter, led to some soul searching as to why Jews make the jokes they do.

 Ruth Wisse is the Marti Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. Her most recent book “No Joke Making Jewish Humor” evokes and applauds the genius of spontaneous Jewish Joking – as well as the brilliance of comic masterworks by writers such as Sholem Aleichem and Philip Roth, whilst at the same time drawing attention to the precarious conditions that have called Jewish humour into being – and the price it may exact from its practitioners and audience.

Born in Czernowitz in what is today Ukraine, but was then part of Romania, Wisse grew up in Montreal, Canada and earned her PhD from McGill University in 1969. Wisse has taught at a number of top universities including McGill, Stanford, where she developed a pioneering graduate programme in Jewish Studies, New York, The Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University. Wisse is known by her unwillingness to retreat from a skirmish and by the inability of even those who disagree with her to deny her brilliance.

 Howard Jacobson, the Man Booker Prize winning author and journalist feels that “what a Jew is has been made by the experience of 5,000 years. That’s what shapes the Jewish sense of humour, that’s what shapes Jewish pugnacity or tenaciousness.” Jacobson maintains “that comedy is a very important part of what I do”.