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Diaspora and Transnational Studies
Anne- Emanuelle Birn

This article was downloaded by University of Toronto LibrariesOn 23 November 2011 At 0814Publisher RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number 1072954 Registeredoffice Mortimer House 3741 Mortimer Street London W1T 3JH UKJournal of Modern Jewish StudiesPublication details including instructions for authors andsubscription informationhttpwwwtandfonlinecomloicmjs20Towards an appreciation of AmericanJewish HumorStephen J WhitfieldAvailable online 18 Aug 2006To cite this article Stephen J Whitfield 2005 Towards an appreciation of American JewishHumor Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 41 3348To link to this articlehttpdxdoiorg10108014725880500052709PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR ARTICLEFull terms and conditions of use httpwwwtandfonlinecompagetermsandconditionsThis article may be used for research teaching and private study purposes Anysubstantial or systematic reproduction redistribution reselling loan sublicensingsystematic supply or distribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbiddenThe publisher does not give any warranty express or implied or make any representationthat the contents will be complete or accurate or up to date The accuracy of anyinstructions formulae and drug doses should be independently verified with primarysources The publisher shall not be liable for any loss actions claims proceedingsdemand or costs or damages whatsoever or howsoever caused arising directly orindirectly in connection with or arising out of the use of this materialStephen J WhitfieldTOWARDS AN APPRECIATION OF AMERICAN JEWISH HUMORHARTtandfcoukTaylor and Francis LtdCMJS105253sgm10108014725880500052709Journal of Modern Jewish Studies14725886 print14725894 onlineOriginal Article2005TaylorFrancis Group Ltd41000000March 2005StephenWhitfieldFrom the era of the early republic American humor has drawn from the frontier ethos thatvalued domineering triumphs over nature and over others The tradition of masculine posturing and physical bravery was countered in the twentieth century by Jewish comedians whopunctured brawn with brain and who played with antiSemitic stereotypes as well as showingthe advantages of business acumen Instead of glorifying winners as mainstream frontierhumor had done Jewish humor in the United States toyed with the character ideal of theloser who is indifferent to practicality and to mastery of the environment and thus shuffledcards of identity that made the nations culture more variegatedIn 1937 when George L Mosse entered Cambridge University and expressed a desireto study the past the response of the master of Emmanuel College to the youngGermanJewish refugee was hardly encouraging You people become journalists nothistorians Moose 94 The vocational limitations of the minority group into whichMosse had been born were presumed to be permanent despite two scholarly eventsoccurring only eight years earlier that should have torpedoed this particular generalization Lewis B for Bernstein Namier had published The Structure of Politics at the Accessionof George III and the technique known as Namierization would be added to the OxfordEnglish Dictionary Also in 1929 Marc Bloch cofounded the Annales a journal thatwould decisively influence the way in which historians would work for the remainderof the century Inaccuracy is the least that can be said for the generalization that themaster of Emmanuel College propounded The most that could be said is that essentialism is wrong because characteristics should not be ascribed to a group as though theycould not be changed or multiplied or abandonedThe operations of history itselfthe subject that was presumably beyond Mossesgrasptend to invalidate essentialism Circumstances can deeply affect and even alterthe way in which peoples shape themselves and acquire recognizable attributes TakeDownloaded by University of Toronto Libraries at 0814 23 November 2011 mirth which biblicists have rightly ignored in studying the ancient Hebrews They werehardly hardwired for humor and even during the many centuries after the compositionof the Bible Jews in the diaspora did not strike their neighbors as notably amusingNeither medieval nor early modern Jewry seemed to bequeath a particular a gift forlaughter That talent was cultivated under modern conditions and in the United Stateswhat would commonly be recognized as Jewish humor and wit are barely more than acentury old They are now so endemic as to seem inextricably attached to the Jewishfate itself It now comes with the laugh track produced by a thousand clowns In 1982approximately three out of every four standup comedians in the United States wereJews The New York Times reporter who made this estimate nevertheless detected aJournal of Modern Jewish Studies Vol 4 No 1 March 2005 pp 3348ISSN 14725886 printISSN 14725894 online2005 TaylorFrancis Group LtdhttpwwwtandfcoukjournalsDOI 10108014725880500052709
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