Laughter Through Tears or Tears Through Laughter? Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse’s Dialogue over Sholem Aleichem’s Humor – Take 2


In their epistolary introduction on Sholem Aleichem,  Irving Howe sets the tone for his declaration of Jewishness by noting that he has an “uneasy feeling” that he has discovered a Sholem Aleichem that has “seldom been encountered.”  Howe says what no-one wants to hear; namely, that Sholem Aleichem “turns out to be imagining, beneath the scrim of his playfulness and at the center of his humor, a world of uncertainty, shifting perception, anxiety, even terror”(vii).

Howe uncovers and shares something shocking about Aleichem.  He then akes the newly perplexed reader by the hand.  After disclosing what has been repressed about Aleichem, he compassionately notes: “Let no innocent reader be alarmed: the stories are just as funny as everyone has said.  But they now seem to me funny in a way that almost no one has said.”

Reading this sentence, I could not help but think of how Martin Heidegger, the celebrated German philosopher, speaks in his talk “What is metaphysics?”  Here Howe acts like Heidegger when he performs, like and unlike Heidegger, what Heidegger would call the “nihilation of the Nothing.”  What happens for Howe, as a reader of Aleichem, is that the world he, the reader, lives in – the world of Sholem Aleichem – is “now” different.  It has been nihilated by suffering and unspeakable horror (which Howe assocaites with the scars of Pogroms, violence, anti-Semitism, and an existential experience of everything become strange, unfamiliar…all of a sudden). In this moment of nihilation, the fictional world of Aleichem’s schlemiels is funny, but it is no longer the same.

Aleichem’s “Kasrilevke” – his Chelm full of Schlemiels – is nihilated by the nothing.  Howe tells us, however, that the world of Sholem Aleichem’s stories is still funny.  In other words, Kasrilevke (Aleichem’s Chelm) remains funny, but it is other: the world of Sholem Aleichem’s stories is “funny” but “in a way that almost no one has said.”

If we listen closely to this line, we can see that Howe’s line sounds stupefied at its uniqueness.  But, in truth, it is so only because, in his reading experience of Aleichem, he has lost his belief in Aleichem’s laughter through tears (his “folksy” Chelm) and is fascinated with witnessing a terror that, he argues, permeates Aleichem’s fictional world.

But though it is “other,” Aleichem’s world remains comic; in other words, one has not totally lost one’s kitschy relation to the world of Sholem Aleichem by this shocking realization.  One is still, so to speak, Jewish if one identifies with folksy humor and schlemiels.  But this identification is of the masses while Irving Howe’s identification is with those who scrutinized themselves.   These special readers find that Aleichem shows us what we don’t want too see: the suffering that ruptures our history.  As Howe wants to remind us, Jewish history, like Aleichem’s stories, is full of rupture.  In other words, Chelm and Kasrikevke, the fictional worlds of schlemiels, are still funny and familiar yet they are also…. “now” unfamiliar.

Howe reiterates this existential astonishment after noting that the Yiddish Critic S. Niger, which he and Eliezer Greenberg “anthologized in our Voices from the Yiddish, thought that Aleichem was a “writer of tenderness and cleverness, with a profound grasp of Jewish life.”  Howe says that, at this moment something has changed.  This is not “the Sholem Aleichem I now see.”

Howe’s movements from this to the next sentence are astonishing.  After reading this, Howe asks Wisse: “Is my view a distortion, the kind induced by modernist bias and training?”  Following this he acknowledges that he may be overreaching in his claims for Aleichem’s Jewish humor: “I am aware of that danger and try to check my self, but still…”

Strangely enough, Howe incriminates himself and his obsession with crying through laughter.  He must report what he sees in Aleichem despite the fact that it goes against the grain of the community and despite the fact that he fears Wisse will accuse him of a “modernist bias.”

Howe goes on to insist that what we find in Aleichem is not “merely a folk voice” but a “self-conscious disciplined artist.”  Aleichem is not a “folksy tickler.”  And in addtion to him being a “self-conscious disciplined artist,” Aleichem, like “all great humorists, he attaches himself to the disorder which lies beneath the apparent order of the universe, to the madness beneath the apparent sanity.  In many of the stories one hears the timbre of the problematic.”

Speaking directly to Wisse’s work on the schlemiel, Howe claims that, based on his experience of the nihilation of the kitschy, folikish aspect of Sholem Aleichem’s stories/world, he can now state the generalization that the “Chelm stories, Herschel Ostropolier stories, the Hasidic tales, even sometimes the folk songs, all have their undercurrents of darkness.”


Will Wisse agree with this crying through laughter which challenges the schlemiel’s laughter through tears?   Will she agree with Howe’s reading of the schlemiel?  In the next blog, we will address this question and look into how she addresses it.  This will help us to better understand the similarities and differences between them regarding the schlemiel and Jewishness itself.

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