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The Yale Journal of Criticism 14.1 (2001) 287-313

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After Such Knowledge, What Laughter?

Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi

I arrived late for the afternoon prayers on Shivah Asar be-Tammuz . . . Shivah Asar be-Tammuz is not your average fast day by any means. It kicks off the whole mourning season which runs for a full three weeks culminating in Tisha be-Av, the day the Temple . . . was destroyed. . . . Starting with Shivah Asar be-Tammuz you can really mourn your head off. It's not exactly a picnic, definitely not my best season and I come from a family which loves to mourn. And not just at the chapel or grave--ripping clothes, tears, stools, Kaddish, the works. . . . It's all very intimate, personal. When Shivah Asar be-Tammuz comes and you mourn your head off, who is it for? The whole world! A pretty tall order. . . . Did you ever try and mourn for the whole world the week Hank Aaron hit his 700th home run? It is a confusing experience. And if the Temple had not been destroyed, what would Einstein have been, a camel driver in Beersheba? The Budapest String Quartet, olive pickers in the Galilee? It's true. Yes, and if the Temple had not been destroyed, we would not have been around for Hitler and his ovens. That's true, too. All the years of blood. . . . What can you do? Mourn--from Shivah Asar be-Tammuz through Tisha be-Av, and who can be . . . certain Sandy Koufax is so happy anyway? But the man did pitch four no-hitters, so is it any wonder that I was late for minhah, the afternoon prayer?

Allen Hoffmann, "Building Blocks" 1

We have mourned our heads off, and now, God forgive us, there are those among us who are laughing. And not only on Shivah Asar be-Tammuz, but also on Yom Ha-Shoah. In his essay "Is Life Beautiful? Can the Shoah be Funny?" Sander Gilman seeks to understand this reaction. 2 He analyses a roster of humorous films whose subject is the Shoah, culminating (as his title suggests) in Roberto Benigni's widely admired La Vita È Bella (Life is Beautiful), exploring particularly his second question. Can these works be valuable, convincing, morally serious or aesthetically defensible? Gilman judges some more worthy than others. But can the Shoah be funny? Gilman implies that the answer to his second question is self-evident and, in consequence, there is no real need to ask the first.

This seems to me a missed opportunity. For the first question is not simply rhetorical, and more important, it can shape the way we think about the second. So let me state what might seem obvious: yes, life is beautiful. No, the Shoah cannot be funny. What is at stake in the reinstatement of laughter 'nach Auschwitz,' after Auschwitz, is not the fidelity of a comic representation of the Shoah but the reinstatement of the comic as building block of a post-Shoah universe. A people who, [End Page 287] after their Temple burnt down, had so fine-tuned the art of mourning, but went on to found the Budapest String Quartet, who ended careers as camel drivers to conceive of the theory of relativity (and came back, after some millennia, to reclaim the camels), had finally to develop a sense of humor. The comic mode, it may be said, is the belated approach to catastrophe, the most viable sequel to what Salo Baron called the "lachrymose conception of Jewish history." 3

Laughter cannot preempt the period of mourning and the tragic-epic vision of the world that emerges from a long wake. The comic reflex comes into being, in our time as in the centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple, in the intersection of tragic historical knowledge and a reconsecration of the universe. It is in constant dialogue with messianic temptation and apocalyptic despair; released by the messianic promise of resolution, the comic is then animated by the deferral of that resolution.

A certain kind of non-literal historical consciousness, governed by the...