Scholarly and thought-provoking work that places Jewish humor at the center of a discourse about Jewish and German relations through most of the 20th century
At Wit’s End explores the fascinating discourse on Jewish wit in the twentieth century when the Jewish joke became the subject of serious humanistic inquiry and inserted itself into the cultural and political debates among Germans and Jews against the ideologically-charged backdrop of anti-Semitism, the Jewish question, and the Holocaust.
The first in-depth study to explore the Jewish joke as a crucial rhetorical figure in larger cultural debates in Germany, author Louis Kaplan presents an engrossing and lucid work of scholarship that examines how “der jüdische Witz” (referring to both Jewish wit and jokes) was utilized differently in a number of texts, from the Weimar Republic to the rise of National Socialism, and how it was reintroduced into the public sphere after the Holocaust with the controversial publication of Salcia Landmann’s collection of Jewish jokes in the reparations era (Wiedergutmachung). Kaplan reviews the claims made about the Jewish joke and its provocative laughter by notable writers from a variety of ideological perspectives, demonstrating how their reflections on this complex cultural trope enables a better understanding of German-Jewish intercultural relations and their eventual breakdown in the Third Reich. He also illustrates how self-critical and self-ironic Jewish Witz maintained a fraught and ambivalent relationship with anti-Semitism.
In reviewing this critical and traumatic moment in modern German-Jewish history through the deadly discourse on the Jewish joke, At Wit’s End includes chapters on the virulent Austrian anti-Semitic racial theorist, Arthur Trebitsch, the Nazi racial propagandist, Siegfried Kadner, the German Marxist cultural historian, Eduard Fuchs, the Jewish diasporic historian, Erich Kahler, and the Jewish cabaret impresario, Kurt Robitschek, among others. Shedding new light on anti-Semitism and on the Jewish question leading up to the Holocaust, At Wit’s End provides readers with a unique perspective by which to gain important insights about this crucial historical period that reverberates into the present day, when potentially offensive humor coupled with a toxic political climate and xenophobia can have deadly consequences.
Louis Kaplan is Professor of Visual Studies and affiliated faculty member at the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. He is the author of several books including, most recently, Photography and Humour.
Louis Kaplan's marvelous book profoundly probes the deadly seriousness and deep structures of the discourse around the Jewish joke as uttered by various European progenitors, propagandists and analysts, especially in Germany from the Weimar Republic through Nazism and the post-Holocaust period. This is not your usual run-of-the mill book on "Jewish Jokes". Rather, in a uniquely sophisticated manner, Kaplan uncovers the multiple functions, ambiguities and hidden connections between anti-Semitism, Jewish self-conceptions and this slippery and dynamic discourse. I know of no other work that has recognized and so profoundly grasps the deep seriousness of "wit" as it penetrated Jewish and European history. That itself constitutes a major achievement. Added to this is Kaplan's fascinating "Afterword" in which he reflects on "The Jewish Joke in Trump's America" and the ways in which there is a surprising continuity in a discourse which seems to have lost none of its controversial and potentially dangerous relevancy.
With insight and incisiveness, a steady hand and a clear eye, Kaplan navigates through the most treacherous of comedic waters - the role of the Jewish joke in Germany through much of the twentieth century and beyond. Jokes have sharp and manifold edges, and Kaplan is a clear and brilliant guide to explaining how they bite as well as bind.