Laughter Through Tears or Tears Through Laughter? Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse’s Dialogue over Sholem Aleichem’s Humor – Take 1


Do we laugh through tears or do we cry through laughter?  The answer to this question or perhaps the question itself are, for Irving Howe, the crux of Jewish identity.  For Howe, the few Jews who really “scrutinize” themselves, the Jews who “dare to know” (so to speak), will come to this very question.  Howe has taken this risk and his experience of this question concerning Jewish humor serves as an example of his Jewishness.  This performance of Jewish identity – which comes out through his question concerning Jewish humor – is what Howe is showing us.   Howe is demonstrating a Jewishness that is based on pondering the question of what Jewish humor and with it Jewish identity is.

Either one laughs in order to dispel one’s sadness or one laughs and inevitably runs into sadness.   For Howe, laughter cannot dispel tears.  This declaration is, to be sure, Howe’s conversion experience. And he didn’t learn it from Saul Bellow, as he stated in his introduction to Jewish American Stories; rather, he learned it from an artist who is Saul Bellow’s Moses: Sholem Aleichem.

The relation of Bellow to Sholem Aleichem is a missing link for understanding not just Howe’s approach to Judaism, which ponders the question as to whether one laughs through tears or cries through laughter, but Howe’s Judaism, which he inherits.

Howe takes part in the legacy of a schlemiel tradition.  He is, in a way, educating the next generation of (troubled) schlemiels.

As I pointed out in the last blog-entry, Irving Howe, in his introduction to Jewish American Stories, and in this epistolary exchange, identifies with Saul Bellow’s reading of Jewishness.  And, as I pointed out, Bellow’s reading of Jewish identity is made in terms of Jewish humor.

Let us recall that Bellow finds that the uniqueness of Jewish humor is found in the fact that “laughter and trembling are so curiously intermingled that it is not so easy to determine the relation between the two.”  Howe so deeply identifies with Bellow’s claim about the intermingling of laughter and trembling in the Jewish humor that he repeats it in his shared introduction to another book published.  This new book, a collection of  Sholem Aleichem’s stories, was published three years after Jewish American Stories.  The 1979 collection of Shalom Aleichem stories is entitled The Best of Sholem Aleichem Stories.

In that introduction, Howe once again nods to Bellow and notes that Jewish humor “laughter and trembling are so curiously intermingled that it is not easy to determine the relation between the two.” The fact that Howe repeats this definition – not simply of Jewish humor, but, for Howe, Jewishness- is significant: he shares this “declaration” of his Jewishness with Ruth Wisse, a scholar of the schlemiel.

Given that he is testing his view of the schlemiel against hers, what Wisse says in response to Howe is even more telling.  Her similarities with Howe are important, but her differences are more interesting.  Her schlemiel and his differ.

The difference between their views of Jewish humor is instructive for those of us, today, who are concerned with the meaning of Jewish identity.  Their shared introduction to The Best Stories of Sholem Aleichem teaches us – by way of prompting us in a Talmudic manner – to interpret their relationship.  To prompt their readers to make a more literary reading of their introduction to Aleichem, they structured it as an epistolary exchange.

Let’s take note of this and read their dialogue closely.

I’d like to carefully go through this exchange of letters so as to show where Wisse agrees with Howe. After doing this, we can she where and how she tactfully disagrees.  The subtle differences between them are important and foreshadow Wisse’s recent book and much talked about book on Jewish Humor: No Joke.  ( I will address this book in a separate blog entry, but for now I’d like to draw out the precursor to that work which, I think, can be found in her dialogue with Howe.)

Ruth Wisse’s 1979 reading of Aleichem is of especial interest to a “schlemiel theorist” like me since Wisse is one of the foremost authorities on the schlemiel.  Her reading of Aleichem and Howe’s reading are not simply founded on their similar yet different readings of Jewish humor but also their readings of Jeiwshness.    For both, the famed Yiddish writer, Sholem Aleichem is an important starting point.  As a historian of Jewish literature, Howe believes that without Sholem Aleichem their could be no be Saul Bellow.  Bellow inherits crying through laughter not laughter through tears from Sholoem Aleichem.

First of all, although the introduction begins with (and is initiated by) Howe’s reflections on Aleichem’s perplexing humor, it ends with Wisse’s resolution.  Her resoluation balances between Howe’s “quizzical” view of Aleichem’s humor and Wisse’s own “quizzical” yet joyful view of his humor.   In the end, it is not just a matter of emphasis; in fact, their views of humor also articulate two kinds of Jewishness.  And the differences between these articulations are instructive and far reaching.

What concerns Howe most about Aleichem is the darker side of his work.  To be sure, one of the reasons he put Sholem Aleichem’s Best Stories together with Ruth Wisse was to show this neglected aspect of Aleichem’s humor.   Until then, many Americans who romanticized Aleichem (and, for Howe, Fiddler on the Roof didn’t help) associated Jewishness with joy and “laughter through tears.”

For Howe, this view, which I will call the “kitschy” view, is wrong.

The view of Aleichem (and the schlemiel) as simply a popular fun loving artist is, for Howe, too kitschy; and, as a result, it forgets history and rupture.  To be sure, Howe doesn’t desire a kitschy kind of laughter through tears.  He’s not interested in a Broadway or a Hollywood Production of Fiddler on the Roof (1964).

He seeks to be true to who he, by virtue of history, is: a Jew.  And his commitment to this kind of troubled laughter demonstrates his commitment to Judaism.  This commitment puts his kitschy identification with Jewishness into question. But the kitschy view of humor is not annihilated.  Alechem’s humorous world is, so to speak, “nihilated.”

Howe wants to show us (demonstrate for us) that his commitment to troubled laughter, in the face of such nihilation, is based on the approach to Judaism of his progenitor, Sholem Aleichem.  In other words, Howe’s Jewishness can be found in the troubled laughter we hear in Aleichem’s books.  He wants to share this insight and demonstrate how a commitment to Jewishness must challenge the popular, kischy view, that laughs through tears.

Howe seeks to set the record straight.  In the introduction he shares with Ruth Wisse, Howe tells us that Aleichem, like Bellow after him insist that to be Jewish we must admit that we cry through laughter.   This is tantamount to, as Howe says, “declaring” one’s Jewishness.

Wisse responds to Howe’s declaration with her own.

Irving Howe, Jewishness, and the Schlemiel – Take 2


From my own experiences and those of many of my friends, I have learned that many American Jews are perplexed about what it means to be Jewish while others, unfortunately, have become indifferent.  Those who are perplexed can turn to many different things for a resolution: some people try to understand their Judaism by turning to religion, some turn toward nationalism (Israel, Zionism, etc), some turn against Zionism, some turn to politics and justice, some turn to philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas or Martin Buber, some turn to Buddhism (Ju-Bus),  some turn to battles over sexuality and gender, some turn to music, and others turn to environmentalism,

Irving Howe’s search for the meaning of Jewishness differs from these.  His search was inseparable from his interest in the relationship of Jewish history to modernity and to Yiddish and Jewish American Literature.  It is also inseparable from his understanding of Jewish humor.  As I pointed out in the last blog entry on Howe, he went through many different readings of Jewishness and concluded that Jewishness is a “vague thing.”  Nonetheless, this doesn’t keep him from closely researching it and finding resonance in Jewish American literature.  What concerned him most was the future of Jewish American literature and Jewishness.   Relating to this, he thought that with the loss of the Jewish immigrant experience, which he believed were inseparable from places like New York and Chicago, Jewishness would also be lost.  As I pointed out in the blog entry, Howe believed that Jewish-American literature had no future because people no longer had a “felt” relationship to Jewish tradition or Yiddish.

Howe’s sense of Jewishness is, to be sure, found in his relationship with this loss of tradition and the transition from having a tradition to draw on to having no tradition.  But there is more to the story.  Of all the thinkers and writers that Howe mentions in relation to Jewishness (which include Osip Mandelstam, Saul Bellow, Harold Rosenberg, Isaac Rosenfeld, and Phillip Rahv), he finds his greatest affinity with the Nobel Prize winning author, Saul Bellow’s tragic-comic reading of Jewishness.  His own sense of Jewishness, which amounts to a big, sad, question mark, draws on what he says about Bellow in his introduction to Jewish American Stories and on what he says in a shared introduction to The Best of Sholom Aleichem (an introduction he shares, by way of letters (!), with Ruth Wisse).   Moreover, what he says about Jewishness vis-à-vis Bellow is nothing more nor less than his reading of the schlemiel.

Regarding Bellow’s understanding of Jewishness, Howe cites Bellow, in his introduction to Jewish American Stories, as saying:

In Jewish stories laughter and trembling are so curiously intermingled that it is not easy to determine the relation of the two.  At times laughter seems to restore the equilibrium of sanity; at times the figures of the story or parable, appear to invite or encourage trembling with the secret aim of overcoming it by means of laughter.

Immediately following this, Howe does something unusual.  He cites himself and gives his reading of Jewishness in terms of the perplexity of post-assimilation:

They (Jews) had achieved ‘a normal life’ in America, and for those with any taste for self-scrutiny, it was a life permanently beset by the question: who am I and why do I so declare myself? To live with this problem in a state of useful discontent was perhaps what it now meant to be a Jew.

Howe identifies himself with “those (Jews) who have any taste for self-scrutiny.”  And he also identifies with Bellow.  To be sure, later in the introduction, he confirms his identification with Bellow when he writes: “For what I want to assert is that the dominant American Jewish style is the one brought to a pitch by Saul Bellow and imitated and modified by a good many others.”  And, I would add, by himself.

Taken together, Howe is telling us that his “self-scrutiny” about what it means to be a Jew can be found in Bellow’s reflection on Jewish humor and its relationship to suffering and “trembling.”  Indeed, the exchange between the comic and the horrific is of great interest to Howe.   And this has a lot to do with what he thinks is Jewish, today.

His reading of Sholom Aleichem – as espoused in his introduction to The Best Sholom Aleichem Stories – is permeated by such a comic-horrific “feeling.”   With respect to the schlemiel, this reading is brought to its breaking point by way of his dialogue (in the shared introduction to that book) with the noted scholar of the Schlemiel, Ruth Wisse.

In the next blog entry, I will turn to this dialogue so as to tease out what is at stake when one reads the schlemiel in terms of an exchange between laughter and horror.  The stakes involve the relationship of literature and reflection to history.  As I have pointed out above, for Howe, this is his way of relating to Jewishness and it differs from those who seek to understand what it means to be Jewish by way of religion, Zionism, post-Zionism, etc.  And, unlike these other ways of seeking Jewishness, it underscores the importance of the schlemiel for understanding what it means to be Jewish.

Irving Howe, Jewishness, and the Schlemiel – Take 1


Irving Howe is most well known for being one of the “New York Intellectuals.”  He was born in the Bronx in 1920 to immigrant parents.  His name at birth was Irving Horenstein.  Like many children of immigrants, he went to City College in New York and there he met other “New York intellectuals” such as Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell.  Howe was interested in radical politics and literature.  He had written in both fields and had gained acclaim in each.

But as Leon Wieseltier claimed in his 1993 New York Times piece entitled “Remembering Irving Howe,” “What kept his eyes and his heart open, however, was not poltics.  It was literature.  He loved nothing more.”  Wieseltier points out that Howe’s approach to literature was eclectic.  He turned to literature to “learn about life, but the life about which he most wished to learn was the hard and lumpy common one.”  Nonetheless, Howe “despises proletarian art, and the ways in which populism and mass politics tortured the writer.”  On the other hand, he also couldn’t stand “art’s high priests.”  Given this kind of taste, Wieseltier tells us that “Irving’s greatest thrill was high art that felt democratic.”

After noting this, Wieseltier moves to Howe’s taste for Yiddish and his efforts to save a dying language by way of criticism, edited editions, and writing.  What is so interesting about this move is that Wieseltier leaves a gap between Howe’s love for “high art that felt democratic” and Howe’s love for a dying language.  Wieseltier, nonetheless, does give us a clue since he briefly focuses on Howe’s sense of what constitutes Jewishness.   I see this as a clue because Howe’s interest in Yiddish literature and Jewish American literature was primarily driven by his own personal sense of what Jewishness is or better yet was.  Jewishness, to be sure, pained Howe because he saw it as dying with post-WWII America.

As Wieseltier notes:

for decades Irving threw himself into the task of rescue, editing and introducing and writing about what he made famous as the “world of our fathers.”  He was without nostalgia, but he was not without grief.  I cannot count the the number of breakfasts at Leo’s on East 86th Street that were take up with the disappearance of that world, with the decline of secular Jewishness.

In his introduction to Jewish American Stories, which he edited and published in 1977, Howe delves into the meaning of Jewishness by way of Jewish-American literature.  Given Wieseltier’s words, we can truly see that this compilation looks to rescue that ‘world of our fathers” by showing that Howe is not alone in his efforts.  To be sure, Howe draws out a host of authors which includes Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, I.B. Singer, Stanley Elkin, etc.  For him, these writers write in the wake of immigrant Jewishness.   They are writers who live in the period of assimilation and post assimilation.  What, he wonders, will be the “foundation” for Jewishness after Jewish life has migrated from the city to the suburbs and beyond.  How long will this “foundation” show in the work of later Jewish-American writers?

Taking the perspective of a historical materialist, Howe initially situates Jewishness in different places.  Writing of “some writers in this book, like Gilbert Rogin, Paul Goodman, and Daniel Fuchs,” Howe notes that “what comes through, as pathos, comedy, or both, is the continued power of origins, the ineradicable stamp of New York or Chicago slums, even upon grandsons and granddaughters who  may never have lived in or seen them” (6).

Out of this general reflection, Howe tries to derive some particulars about Judaism:

But is that not an essential aspect of Jewish experience? – the way that past grips and forms us, and will not allow us to escape even when we desperately want to.  Or the way we come to feel the anxiety of loss, a depression of abandonment, even when we do escape. (6)

The last point is autobiographical.  Howe does see a link between his Jewishness and his geographical roots.  Citing Eudora Welty essay entitled “Place in Fiction,” Howe drives the relation of place to Jewish identity to its limit by saying that all literature is related to place:

“The truth is, fiction depends for its life on place.  Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of ‘What happened?  Who’s here?  Who’s coming?’ and that is the heart’s field.”

For “many Jewish writers,” notes Howe, “‘the heart’s field’ will forever be those gray packed streets, turbulent and smelly, which they have kept from childhood, holding them in memory long after the actuality has been transformed or erased”(7).

But Howe knew that although this emphasis on locale was important, it was not sufficient for explaining the uniqueness of Jewish-American literature – and Jewishness – in a post-assimilation American context.  Another element he looks to is the family.  He argues that while we see the individual stressed by Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, Hemmingway, and Fitzgerald, we see the family (or struggles with the family) emphasized in Jewish-American literature.

After passionately arguing for the relevance of location and family, Howe testifies to the fact that, ultimately, Jewishness “suggests a certain vagueness.”  To be sure, he puts the word “Jewishness” in scare quotes and notes that “when one speaks of “Jewishness,” it is to invoke a spectrum of styles and symbols, a range of cultural memories, no longer as ordered or weighty as once they were yet still able to affect experience”(10).

And this fact is what astonishes Howe.  It also troubles him as he doesn’t know how long the awareness of Jewishness will last and have an impact on American Jews.  He notes that American Jews, in the 70s, did think of themselves as distinct and argues that there is a “persuasion remains that ‘we’ (whoever we may be, however defined or bound) must live with a sense of our differentness and perhaps draw some sustenance from it.”  Without this sense of “differentness,” without the “assumption that there is something distinctive in ‘Jewishness’, the standard for many to affirm or others to violate, the (Jewish) story would verge on incoherence”(10).

But this is a vague standard.  And Howe struggles to clarify it.  To this end, he cites himself, Osip Mandelstam, Harold Rosenberg, Saul Bellow, Issac Rosenfeld, and Phillip Rahv.  Each of these citations points out a unique aspect of Judaism.  Mandelstam says that the slightest hint of Judaism fills up an entire house and one’s life; Bellow points out that Jewishness is found in the intimate relation of laughter to trembling; Rosenberg notes that Jewishness is found in the possibility of linking a Jew with the “collective and individual experience of earlier Jews’; Rosenfeld notes that Jewishness is rooted in cultural and historical marginality; and Rahv notes that for a Jewish-American writer like Bernard Malamud, as opposed to Dostoevsky, suffering is not idealized; rather, “suffering is not what you are looking for but what you are likely to get.”

Howe, in contrast to them, notes that, for many post-assimilation Jewish writers, Jewishness has to do with endless self-questioning (even when things are ‘normal’): “They had achieved a ‘normal life’ in America, and for those with any taste for self-scrutiny, it was a life permanently beset by the question: who am I and why do I so declare myself?  To live with this problem in a state of useful discontent was perhaps what it now meant to be a Jew.”

Although Howe considers all of these views to be important and although he does think that Jewishness has to do with questioning who one is and why one would “declare” oneself a Jew, today, he laments the loss of a sense of tradition in today’s Jewish-American writers (that is, for him, in the 1970s). A “lapsed sense of tradition” won’t help or doesn’t help.  What he sees today are remnants of Jewishness which are not anchored in any historical memory or “felt” experience.  And this makes him worry since that historical sense and experience are related to a historical origin which, as we saw above, is linked to certain locales and experiences that are fading.

Howe ends his introduction in a pessimistic manner.  While he feels that “there remains, to be sure the problem of ‘Jewishness’, and the rewards and difficulties this definiton may bring us,” he notes that it “does not yield a thick enough sediment of felt life to enable a new outburst of writing about American Jews.”  Today, since the “felt life” is missing, much Jewish writing is a “matter of will or nerves, and not enough of shared experience.”

This claim, made in the late 1970s, finds interesting resonance in the schlemiel of today.  Did this character’s popularity emerge out of “will or nerves” and not “shared experience” or does the schlemiel and its popularity come from another source of experience?  I want to end this blog entry with this question and return to it.  It gives a lot of food for thought since there are Jewish American writers today like Shalom Auslander, Nathan Englander, and Gary Shteyngart (to name just a few) who draw on the schlemiel in their work and find this character to be vital.  In addition, we see this Jewish character is and has been prevalent in films, TV shows, and stand-up comedy as well.  But does its “Jewishness” remain?

Questions for Reflection: Is the fact of its popularity and its appeal to Jewishness a remnant of a dead past?  What experience does it draw on? And has the schlemiel become, as Daniel Itzkovitz has argued in an essay entitled “They are all Jews” the “everyman”?  If Itzkovitz is correct, was Howe right?  Has Jewishness passed into Americana?  Or is this only the case for Hollywood but not for the world of Jewish-American literature?  If there is a tradition of the schlemiel, what makes it Jewish?  And where does it live on?