French Journal For Media Research

Dorota Brzozowska

Arie Sover, “Jewish Humor: An Outcome of Historical Experience, Survival and Wisdom”, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 339.

1This book is about Jewish humor, but unfortunately it is not an entirely funny book. As the subtitle rightly suggests it is a story of survival and the aim of the book is to show that the hardships the Jews suffered throughout the history have been the source of their great wisdom that enabled them to use humor as a coping mechanism and distraction from the difficult reality. Arie Sover writes about it in a very convincing way at least for two reasons – he is an offspring of Holocaust survivors but also he is a professional humor scholar whose international academic career has focused on humor research (among others, he is an author of five books about humor, founder and editor of two journals - the “Israeli Journal of Humor Research” and “Humor Mekuvan”, and Chair of the Israeli Society for Humor Studies).

2The book consists of thirty more or less developed chapters (not numbered, though) – some 2-3 pages long, others longer – the longest one is 25 pages, some without subchapters others with as much as 11 subchapters. This structure reflects the Author’s idea that the book is a “complicated mosaic” (p. 1) consisting of bigger and smaller pieces. It is beneficial that the detailed Index is provided. A long list of references is an added value, too.

3In the first parts that concern the cultural importance of education, literacy and critical Jewish thought, the aspect of wisdom is discussed, followed by the introduction of the sources of Jewish humor – namely, The Bible, The Midrash, The Mishna, The Talmud. In the next chapters, Arie Sover describes the difficult historical experience of Jews in the context of their humor in different, chronologically presented periods (from the Middle Ages, the “Golden Age”, through the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries up to the present day) in various regions and empires, i.e. Muslim world, Babylon, Morocco, the Holy Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Europe – France, England, Spain, Central Europe, and Russia, where Jews created humorous texts despite undergoing difficulties, anti-Semitism, expulsions, blood libels, pogroms, massacres, discrimination and Holocaust.

4Jewish humorous literature is introduced in an interesting way. The most prominent details from the biographies of the writers are provided, along with the synthetic description of their works, illustrated sometimes with humorous quotations. The names mentioned include the authors of the first generation (Joseph Perl, Isaac Erter, Heinrich Heine); the second generation (Mendele Mocher Sforim, Abraham Goldfaden, Isaac Leib Peretz, Sholem Aleichem – whose portrait illustrates the book cover); and the third one: Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel, Moyshe Kulbak, Itzik Manger, Shimon Dzigan, and Israel Schumacher.

5Separate chapters are devoted to Jewish humor flourishing in the United States and the State of Israel, with attention being paid to most popular joke series and literary achievements. Jewish American humorous literature is represented by the first generation writers: Isaac Bashevis Singer, Leo Calvin Rosten, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Philip Milton Roth, and the second generation ones: Gary Shteyngart, Lara Vapnyar, Jonathan Safran Foer, followed by the introduction to satirical humor in Israeli literature, with names such as: Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Ephraim Kishon, A. B. Yehoshua, Haim Beer, Meir Shalev, Etgar Keret.

6Some of the writers are the most prominent and recognized internationally – as being Nobel Prize Winners (Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer), or having the streets named after them in many different cities (e.g. Isaac Leib Peretz in Wrocław, Zamość, Warszawa, Kutno, Piotrków Trybunalski, to mention Poland only), while other, lesser known authors seem also worth reading. The stories about their lives and works make the reader want to reach for more – look for their books and read them right away. (I personally logged in my University library to order several of the books mentioned in those chapters).

7By reading Arie Sover’s book, one may broaden the knowledge about Jews representing opposed political views, diverse opinions, or groups, gathered around or against various Jewish movements (The Hassidic movement, The Mitnagdim, The Haskalah, the national Jewish Zionist movement). Different comic types are introduced (e.g. “The Schlemiel”, who “does everything exactly the opposite to the way it should be done” (p. 95), and “Sabra”- “New Jew” – “self-confident, strong, and in control of his life” (p. 244)), and specific genres (like “The Chizbat” – tall tale) discussed. All this information is provided in an interesting and clear way, making the reader sensitive and aware of the complicated real and fictional world of humorous texts, skillfully described in the book.

8The large part of the volume deals with the presence of multiple types of Jewish humor – especially satire – in the media most available at consecutive time periods: theatre, radio, cinema, press, and television. Those parts may be of the great interest especially – but not exclusively – to media studies scholars. The discussion of satirical humor in the State of Israel is preceded by the pre-State period (1890-1948) and presented in the chapters describing three periods: 1948-1963, 1964-1993 and 1993 to present.

9The publication has many strengths – some mentioned above already. It is a fascinating book not only about Jewish humor, but also about Jewish people, their history and culture, and their complex identities. It is a source of knowledge about ordinary life of real people, popular writes, poets, satirists, or fictitious characters, about social conditions and politics. It is a compendium of knowledge about the complicated and diverse Jewish characters, stereotypes, their presence in the literary world, theatre, radio, and newspapers, the relations of Jews with other nations and ethnic groups, including the perspectives of Eastern Europe, Israel and the US.

10Arie Sover’s book if full of great stories: sad and humorous, real life biographies and pieces of fictions, jokes, songs, poems. What is worth point out, not only the published material, but also the one that has been censored is discussed (e.g. p. 229).

11It makes very intense reading showing the multiple layers of a very complicated society – from the Biblical roots and traditions to the current situation of the State of Israel, describing people whose common denominator is Jewishness and the sense of humor.

12Linguists will appreciate the sections about languages: relations between Yiddish, Hebrew, different European and Arabic languages are focused on in the chapter on “Yiddish: humor-laced language” (p. 104) and in some other places, e.g. Yiddish-language influence on English with words as Pupik, Kvetch, Knish, Kishkes, Grub, Greps, Drishkeh, Bobkes is presented (p. 149) – making linguistic issues an interesting thread worth developing on its own.

13For those who like numbers and statistics, interesting data is skillfully interwoven into the narration: e.g. we learn that “75 percent of American professional comedians were Jewish, even though Jews made up less than three per cent of the general population” (p. 149).

14Multiple dimensions: sociological, psychological, historical, literary, and media-related are discussed against abundant historic material, in which statistical data is subtly interwoven, which makes the reader admire the erudition but also style in which the book is written: one is reading this encyclopedia like a novel.

15The book is very valuable but exposes also a shortage – the underrepresentation of female presence in its narrative. The role of Jewish women in relation to humor is noticed mainly as their role of jokes targets: the strong character of Jewish mothers (p. 18) and the young women stereotype of Jewish American Princess (p. 182) are analyzed. Occasionally, female actors or writers appear – like Lara Vapnyar – the Jewish American writer of Russian origin (p. 172), but the shortest of the chapters (one third of the page) dedicated to the “Jewish women in the comedy and entertainment industry” (p.155) makes the reader hungry for more.

16This scarce presence of women in Jewish Humor is surprising, especially that the Author mentions the importance of Sarah - “when the three messengers/angels inform Sarah that she will bear her son Isaac, Sarah laughs” (p.11), and he underlines the vital role that Abraham’s offer of his and Sarah’s son Isaac has for Jewish mentality: “One can say that the father and the forerunner of the unique Jewish humor is the Patriarch Isaak. This is reflected in his name, Isaac, which means “will laugh” in Hebrew” (p.275). “Isaac’s story is a symbol to mankind that, regardless of the tragic situations and difficulties that they might experience in their lives, it is possible, through humor and laughter, to overcome them and go on living” (p.12).

17Sarah’s story as the Patriarch’s wife and mother, but also as the one who “laughs”, is also there to be told in the context of Jewish humor in a more detailed way, altogether with stories of other Jewish women that followed, so the separate book about Jewish women and humor waits to be told in the holistic way – I do hope for Arie Sover’s next book on this subject.

18The Jewish Humor is a valuable source of knowledge not only for humor and Jewish studies scholars, but also a fascinating read for linguists, literary scholars, historians, social scientists, political science researchers, and also for people generally interested in individual biographies – the complicated, difficult but also joyful lives of generations of Jews and their influence on their off-spring survival skills and their positive appreciation of life.

19Different attitudes towards religion, different backgrounds, sometimes opposite points of view, various historic periods – it is amazing how this book is still coherent – but it is. It is an emotionally demanding – because of vividly described tragic stories, but also an enlightening and, surprisingly, pleasurable read, fulfilling the Author’s hopes, “that this book will inspire you to add a pinch of humor and laughter to your own lives” (p. xv). It definitely does inspire and adds humor as well as gives the reader ample food for thought.

To quote this document

Dorota Brzozowska, «Arie Sover, “Jewish Humor: An Outcome of Historical Experience, Survival and Wisdom”, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 339.», French Journal For Media Research [online], Browse this journal/Dans cette revue, 17/2022 Médiations culturelles et marchandes : des liaisons numériques dangereuses ?, Notes de lecture, last update the : 16/09/2022, URL :

Quelques mots à propos de :  Dorota Brzozowska

Dorota Brzozowska
Prof. dr hab. 
Institute of Linguistics
University of Opole
pl. Kopernika 11, 45-040 Opole



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