Book review: Can that possibly be funny? – Holocaust humor

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Liat Steir-Livny’s “Is It OK to Laugh About It?: Holocaust Humour, Satire and Parody in Israeli Culture”(Vallentine Mitchell) is not an anthology of Israeli Holocaust humor, although he does offer examples of that genre in order to explain his theories. Instead, it is a serious and fascinating look at the role the Holocaust plays in Israeli culture and how Israelis use humor as a defense mechanism to reduce the Holocaust’s impact on their lives. What’s particularly interesting is that Steir-Livny shows how, rather than defusing the trauma, the use of humor strengthens certain elements of Holocaust remembrance in everyday life.
Steir-Livny believes that Jewish Israelis have a unique relationship to the Holocaust. He writes that “the Holocaust was and remains a central trauma in Israel’s national consciousness. The memory of the trauma does not fade throughout the years; on the contrary, Holocaust representations and the public discourse regarding the Holocaust has only grown stronger in recent decades. Studies in Israel have shown the Holocaust memory has a very powerful presence, does not have just a one-generational impact, and is a cross-generational defining trait of the Jewish population in Israel.” This means that the majority of Jewish Israeli citizens see themselves as second- or third-generation survivors, even if no members of their family lived in Europe during World War II or perished at the hands of the Nazis.
The author quotes research that suggests most Israelis suffer from a type of post-traumatic distress due to the prominent role the Holocaust plays in their political and social lives. In the early days of the state, the Holocaust was connected to the attacks from Arab countries – with citizens seeing those wars as a continuation of the Holocaust. Holocaust-themed humor then became a defense mechanism to reduce that stress. Steir-Livny notes that there is a difference between Holocaust humor that gives details about what occurred during the war and humor that focuses on how Israeli culture uses the Holocaust for social and political means; for example, politicians using Holocaust imagery to further their particular cause or members of specific religious groups comparing governmental actions to the Holocaust.
Holocaust humor used to protest Israeli politics doesn’t always provide relief, though, because it inserts the Holocaust more deeply into everyday life and makes it even more present in people’s minds. Steir-Livny notes “that all Jewish-Israelis are subject to the postmemory of the Holocaust which locks them in a constant subconscious and conscious state of anxiety, victimhood and fear. The trauma haunts everybody and humour is a basic defense mechanism. Humour is used to expose this abnormality and acknowledge it, with the hope that this awareness will, perhaps, tone down the acting out of the trauma in the Israeli present. However, at the same time, paradoxically, these texts increase the dominance of the Holocaust in Israeli popular culture, social media and everyday life, and thus strengthen the acting out of the trauma.”
Among the examples Steir-Livny mentions are:
  • A TV skit called “Ghetto 2,” during which a young man from Tel Aviv tries to find his way to a party. When he asks for directions, every street name refers in some way to the Holocaust – “Hanged Man Street,” “Warsaw Ghetto Street” and “Dachau Square.”
  • A second TV skit called “The Berlin Museum,” which shows how, during a visit to Berlin, a young woman mishears and misunderstands everything her German tour guide says and does. For example, she hears “hi” as “heil” and, when he points to a painting, sees his gesture as a Nazi salute.
  • A variety of skits that criticize the commercialization of the Holocaust in films – doing takeoffs on Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” and Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.”
Other chapters discuss alternative Holocaust commemorations, some of which feature humor as a major component of the evening; the use of Hitler imagery, which ridicules the German leader; and actual Holocaust-themed jokes. These latter jokes appear in Hebrew on many Israeli websites and appeal to those with a dark or morbid sense of humor. Steir-Livny notes that while these types of humor may “simplify the complex narratives of the Holocaust, and turn complex experiences into a line of symbols,” they “do not blunt the possibility of feeling empathy toward the victims of the Holocaust nor do they trivialize the mass murder.” Instead, this humor shows just how integral a role the Holocaust plays in the identity of second- and third-generation Israelis, who still live in fear of the Holocaust.
“Is It OK to Laugh About It?” offers an excellent analysis of Israeli culture and its approach to humor. Steir-Livny’s writing style is scholarly, but his book will appeal to general readers who are interested in the subject matter. What he offers is a glimpse of Israeli society many Americans have never encountered.