Teachout grew up in southeast Missouri, knowing next to nothing about Jews, until he moved to New York at the age of twenty-nine. He begins his essay with an affecting story of his initial exposure to Jewish humor:
To Wasps, Jewish humor is mostly a closed book, by turns incomprehensible and embarrassing. Thus, I was surprised to find how quickly I took to it after I moved to New York . . .
The [jokes] were for me what Russian jokes were for Ronald Reagan. And while no other brand of humor is more ethnically specific, stories like the one about the rabbi who converts to Christianity, becomes a minister, and begins his first sermon with the words "Fellow goyim, . . ," made perfect sense to me.
Teachout summarizes Singer's brand of humor, stories of people who "[u]ndaunted by century upon century of persecution . . . told the terrible truth about their suffering -- and laughed at it." And then he has this explanation of the demons that constantly bedevil Singer’s characters:
The [characters] are forever being tempted by demons. What is more, they almost always succumb to these temptations, and suffer appalling torments as a result.
You would think this unending cycle of temptation and torment would be no laughing matter, but Singer typically writes of it (often in the voice of Satan himself) with the same grim glee he brings to his portrayals of lesser agonies. . . .
Who are these demons? For what malign force do they stand? That Singer saw them as metaphors is all but certain. He was, in his own words, "full of faith and full of doubt," . . . .
Singer’s credo, such as it was, stopped well short of belief in the literal existence of demons, and probably a good deal shorter than that. One thing he never doubted, however, was that by unleashing secular modernity on the world, the philosophers of enlightenment had left humankind defenseless against the "demons" of the self. . . .
Those who cannot pray to God find some other god to worship, and for naive children of the Haskalah [Jewish Enlightenment], that god was rationalism. Singer’s contemporaries had eagerly embraced all manner of rationalistic schemes for improving the world, foremost among them Soviet Communism.
Not so Singer himself, who from childhood onward seems to have sensed that there were "just as many questions to be asked of Reason as there were of God." . . . [A]s early as the 1930’s, in Satan in Goray, he was using the havoc wrought by 17th-century Sabbatianism as a symbol of the destructive effects of that falsest of messiahs, the god of reason.
There is much more in this five-page essay -- a summary of Ruth Wisse’s acute interpretation of Satan in Goray, a comparison of Singer's fiction to the "Christ-haunted characters" of Flannery O’Connor, and a beautiful concluding paragraph about why one does "not have to be Jewish to appreciate the harsh consolations of Jewish humor."
Definitely worth reading in its entirety.