A Purim Letter from the Editors: Laughter is Despair’s Opposite

Jessica Kirzane and The Editors

Tayere leyeners,

Last year, when faced with the task of compiling Purim material for In geveb, I felt compelled to compose a letter reassuring readers that it’s OK not to want to laugh. In light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the horrors of the war that followed — still continuing to this day — I knew that not everyone would be in the mood for levity. I also knew that some lightheartedness was exactly what others might be needing in order to make it through.

This year, another year into the war in Ukraine and five months after the October 7th massacre and into the war in Gaza, I hardly know how to begin to write this letter. I can only pray it will not become an annual apology for even considering laughing in the face of so much suffering and death.

The megile is a traumatic story; it tells of the potential destruction of the Jewish people. Embedded in the megile, in the celebration of Purim, is a vision of a Jewish power that is as grotesque in its execution of military might as those who would destroy the Jewish people. The ironic reversals of the story reveal the absurdities of both Persians and Jews when they act at the extremities of violence, without reason and without mercy. 1 1 Goldman, Stan. “Narrative and Ethical Ironies in Esther.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 15, no. 47 (Jun 1990): 15-31. For those who read the megile as carnivalesque in its vulgarity, the humor of this excess lies in its implausibility. 2 2 See, for instance, Jeremy Dauber, Jewish Comedy: A Serious History (W.W. Norton and Company, 2017). But these days both the annihilation of the Jews and the Jews’ annihilation of their enemies are concepts it seems not only inappropriate but impossible to joke about. Especially now, at a moment when the excesses of war are on full display, it’s hard to imagine they could ever be a laughing matter. It’s hard to imagine wanting to laugh at all.

Still, as Timothy Beal writes, the megile is a book “about living beyond the end,” using humor to push back against those in power whose rule is unjust. 3 3 Beal, Timothy K. The Book of Hiding: Gender, Ethnicity, Annihilation, and Esther. (London: Routledge, 1997). As Kathleen O’Connor reminds us in her view of Esther’s humor as psychological resistance, “laughter is despair’s opposite. It bursts out of the body and articulates without words a vision of survival.” 4 4 O’Connor, Kathleen. “Humour, Turnabouts and Survival in the Book of Esther.” in Are We Amused?: Humour about Women in the Biblical Worlds, ed. Athalya Brenner. (London: T & T Clark International, 2003).

So it is in this spirit of articulating a hope for survival, of, as O’Connor describes it, “life on the other side of sorrow and pain,” that we offer you once again our Purim issue of In geveb, full of all the levity we love to share with you. It is a privilege to be able to try to make you laugh, even now. Maybe especially now.

Wishing you some modicum of joy this Purim,

Jessica Kirzane, Editor-in-chief & the editorial staff of In geveb

Kirzane, Jessica, and The Editors. “A Purim Letter from the Editors: Laughter is Despair's Opposite.” In geveb, March 2024:
Kirzane, Jessica, and The Editors. “A Purim Letter from the Editors: Laughter is Despair's Opposite.” In geveb (March 2024): Accessed Apr 24, 2024.


Jessica Kirzane

Jessica Kirzane is the assistant instructional professor of Yiddish at the University of Chicago. She holds a PhD in Yiddish Studies from Columbia University. Jessica is the Editor-in-Chief of In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies.

The Editors