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Reviewed by:
  • God Laughed: Sources of Jewish Humor by Hershey and Linda Friedman
  • Jennifer Caplan (bio)
God Laughed: Sources of Jewish Humor. By Hershey and Linda Friedman. 2014. Reprint, New York: Routledge, 2017. 344 pp.

Hershey and Linda Friedman's God Laughed: Sources of Jewish Humor is an engaging and thorough addition to the growing scholarship on Jewish humor. It is situated at the [End Page 191] intersection of popular and academic writing, which makes the volume accessible to a much broader audience than a more scholarly approach might attract. The authors are both academics, but Hershey Friedman is a professor of business, while Linda Friedman teaches computer science. That neither of them is an academic in Jewish studies, religious studies, or the humanities is apparent in some of the choices they make, but that is a positive thing if you're looking for an extremely well-written volume aimed at other nonexperts in those fields.

The volume's biggest strength is in the authors' clearly extensive knowledge of Jewish traditional sources. Part 1 provides an overview of the study of Jewish humor and an introduction to Jewish scriptures for those unfamiliar with the canon. Both are helpful to the lay reader, although the overview of the study of Jewish humor relies a bit too heavily on the idea of a singular trajectory from biblical times to nineteenth-century Eastern Europe to today. Part 2 addresses biblical humor, while Part 3 (which makes up two-thirds of the book) looks at humor in the Mishna and Talmud (the "oral law," which along with the Bible or "written law," make up the entire legal canon in Judaism). Friedman and Friedman possess both an obvious dedication to textual study and a gift for rendering the analysis of these often opaque texts extremely readable. Their breakdown in part 3 of the humorous elements of the Mishna and Talmud is unlike any approach to scriptural humor I have seen and brings the texts to life.

The utility of the volume for scholars of American humor is, admittedly, limited. Ancient southwest Asia is simply not the United States, and transferring the authors' analyses of biblical and Second Temple–era Jewish texts to contemporary American texts would be an intellectual stretch in most cases. The authors understand this limitation and articulate it nicely: "All humor is to some extent cultural and, perhaps to that same extent, humor serves to define, explain, and enhance our understanding of a particular culture" (16). Although there are many volumes on humor that attempt to bridge space and time, the successful ones realize what Freidman and Friedman understand and respect how culturally (and linguistically) specific humor is.

One of the difficulties in this volume, however, is that the section on the cultural specificity of humor immediately precedes a section called "Origins of Jewish Humor," which leans a bit too closely on the assumption [End Page 192] that "Jewish" is a culture. Throughout the book Friedman and Friedman make reference to the popular theory that "Jewish humor" has its origins in nineteenth-century Eastern Europe. Their argument, however, is that despite many scholars labeling the Bible as a "humorless" book, it is replete with wit, irony, and humor that carries over to the Mishna and Talmud and that therefore the origins of Jewish humor go as far back as the origins of Judaism. That claim in isolation is fine, but to make a direct connection from the humor they identify in the scriptures to contemporary Jewish humor creates problems. This approach flattens a massive amount of history. It assumes that a group of people in southwest Asia speaking ancient Hebrew two to three thousand years ago are, culturally speaking, the same people who were speaking Yiddish in Eastern Europe two hundred years ago. That both groups "read" the Bible, Mishna, and Talmud does not seem a strong enough link to call this a single continuous culture. We really cannot know that the way Eastern European Jews read and thought about scripture was the same way its authors thought about it; we can barely claim to be able to compare nineteenth-century sensibilities to contemporary ones.

The authors introduce Part 2 by saying...