Shortly after Adam Gopnik and his family returned to Manhattan, after six years in Paris, the New Yorker writer was asked to be the master of ceremonies at the Jewish Museum’s annual Purim Ball. He was flummoxed, first by the invitation (“How did they know I’m Jewish?”), and then by the task at hand—what did he, with his non-religious upbringing, know about the Book of Esther?

Gopnik went digging in his past for some Jewish identity, and found it in humor—the jokes his grandfather told, the Myron Cohen bits he saw on television, the Woody Allen routines he memorized from records. On a sunny day in Central Park, near the Children’s Gate, which figures in the title of his new essay collection, Gopnik dissects that comedic legacy for us.