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Laugh for God's Sake
By Stanley J. Schachter
220 pages; $20
Call me crazy, but when I started reading Stanley J. Schachter's Laugh for God's Sake: Where Jewish Humor and Jewish Ethics Meet I thought I might giggle a few times while reading it. It's meant to be a book about jokes, right? Wrong. Well, not wrong - it is a book about Jewish humor, but it's not funny.
Now, don't get me wrong. Just because it's not funny doesn't mean it's not enjoyable, thorough or interesting.
Perhaps the problem is Jewish humor itself, rather than the analysis of it. As Schachter often comments, Jews have long used humor as a way to make things bearable, to laugh at the sad realities of their existence, to make light of dark situations. Jewish humor has been a revered part of the Jewish narrative, of the Jewish journey through time. Jewish jokes have been told in a plethora of different languages and penetrate all aspects of the Jewish experience. We've all heard them before.
Indeed, the humor was hardly the point of this book, but rather the ethical analysis of the Jewish narrative.
Laugh for God's Sake is split up into 13 chapters, and each examines what it is that the jokes about that particular subject can tell us about Jewish ethics and morals and the Jewish experience in general.
In "The Dark Side of Money," the chasm between rich and poor is explored, as well as what Judaism has to say about how each party should behave. In "The Learned and the Ignorant," the concept of education is examined, and the prejudices behind the jokes are highlighted in such a way that you'd probably feel bad for laughing at the anecdote in the first place.
A combination of general commentary and a rich bank of traditional textual references backs up Schachter's explanations, and a cartoon depiction of one of the jokes accompanies each chapter.
The chapter on the notoriously foolish Jews of Chelm is saved for the end, and it too has a thought-provoking slant to it. While the Chelm community is known for its simpleness and silliness, and its ridiculous lack of decision-making skills, Schachter paints it as an inherently righteous one, despite, or even because of, its laughable shortcomings.
All in all, if there's something to joke about, according to Schachter's thesis, there must be some underlying injustice, some niggle that we're poking fun at instead of telling the straight, if troubling, truth about.
This book is essentially an academic work and could be most useful as a teaching reference. Anyone interested in what's behind the rich tapestry that is the Jewish narrative will take something from Laugh for God's Sake, though they most probably won't be holding their bellies in laughter.
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