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Going For The Laugh
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Chapter OneGROWING UP IN WILLIAMSBURG
My name is Manny and although it may seem as if the story is about my life, it's actually not. You see, I'm only a typical 64 year-old American with a typical upbringing in a typical neighborhood with, you guessed it, typical friends. Now that I have reached beyond middle age, I am not as tall as I was, nor am I as slim and my hair is thinning. So, I have become short, fat and bald, the typical picture of Americans my age. I have lived the American dream. I am married to a wonderful woman and we have two and one-half children, one boy, one girl and one miscarriage. We lived in a small house, a midsize house and a large house and at one time we had one bathroom, two bathrooms and three bathrooms. Although we never had a white picket fence, we did have one brown six-foot stockade and a number of chain link fences.
Now that I am older, we have downsized to a smaller house with just two bathrooms. Just as a side note, if you have the opportunity to decide on the toilet, get the oblong one rather than the round style. When you sit, your testicles will fit into the bowl area rather than hang on the outside. It's also much easier to use the tissue. Our new house is a ranch style, so we don't have to walk stairs. Certainly, it won't be the last change, if we survive. When things get more difficult, you tend to downsize again and again, keeping in tune with our physical shrinking and bending. I recall visiting a nursing home and seeing all the really small 100 year old people, resting comfortably in wheel chairs, eyes glazed and staring into nowhere, too old to die and no reason to live. Have I made you really depressed? Good.
So, the story is not just about Manny, it's about everything else and everything being so typical, it's also about you.
As the years go by and you reach and pass your thirtieth, fortieth fiftieth and sixtieth birthdays, those around you point to those events as significant milestones in life. Arbitrary though they may be, these particular 'stages of life' may have a psychological impact upon those who feel that they are slowly and moving inexorably to their final destinations.
The impact is enhanced by the perception of your friends and family and the open social announcement that a certain age indicates the passing of youth, manhood, virility, hair and vigor and certainly gas and then passing on this perception to you.
The age group milestones also represent the addition to your body of hemorrhoids, wrinkles, age spots, heartburn, erectile dysfunction, and hair where you least expect it. Women experience the same, although hemorrhoids seem to come more quickly, and the only erectile dysfunction they may suffer is their husband's. For them, it is a time of Vagisil, and K-Y, hot flashes and cold sweats.
It includes the realization that you have become the 'sage advice giver' and all those you once called for sage advice are gone. It begins with the awareness that you have become the elder but inside you feel just as confused and not in control as you were when you were younger and confused and not in control.
For me, passing thirty had no apparent effect, neither did forty or fifty, but fifty-five was hard. It's comparable to hitting a brick wall with your head and walking away not realizing that you're bleeding until you look into a mirror. Not all of us will reach this same conclusion and some will say it happens at different times or not at all, but for me it happened at fifty-five.
Fifty-five was the epitome of age depression, until you begin nearing sixty-five. If you think fifty-five was bad, sixty-four was totally crappy. I can just imagine seventy. The old saying that life sucks and then you die is just a bunch of words until you get closer to the end.
At one time or another we have all experienced the flash of remembrances that one can equate with the passing of time and the passing of youth. This usually occurs when the good times are readily discussed among you and your friends without regard that they mostly took place thirty or more years ago.
In fact, when all of your conversations take place in the past tense rather then the present, you will have then reached the pinnacle of life's hilltop and have begun that journey down the far side.
Today, my elder family is mostly just a memory. The wash of humanity that touched my life during my childhood and adolescence are just ghosts whispering in the wind.
It all begins for me in the late 1940s, with my first verifiable recollections. If I concentrate deeply enough, I can still see the furniture from the perspective of a child, looming larger than I. The chairs are mountains to climb upon, the dresser is an obstacle to overcome, the linoleum on the floor was curling in the corners and the television was a small oval screen sitting inside a huge, brown, wooden case.
My mother was strong and vital, hustling back and forth on unknown errands while I sat in the living room, playing games with my brother Hank, watching the 'eye' on the small television screen and waiting for the Howdy-Doody show or one of the rare cartoon programs.
Every once in a while, mom would grab me by the hand and take me around the corner to Grandpa's fur store, where Grandma would bake a sweet potato for me, and somehow a coloring book and crayons would magically appear to keep me occupied while mom did whatever she did for Grandma and Grandpa.
One day a strange man appeared in the apartment. My mother told me he was my father. I hid behind my mother's dress and took a long look at this tall, thin man, someone whom I had only seen in pictures. Mom would talk about him being overseas, wherever that was, and fighting in a war, whatever that meant. He came home in 1948 and that is my first memory, living in Williamsburg, New York City.
And then there was my brother Hank. I suppose that having a little brother disrupted his lifestyle, so, as he tells me, he would pinch my arms and cheeks (the rear ones) until I complained and then he would stop before mom came. Since I rarely cried, even as a baby, when she did come to see what was wrong, there was no direct evidence of the pinching. But that's ok. At about age four, I recall that Hank wet his bed. Dad went to the store and purchased a wet bed alarm. This is a bunch of wires that when wet, rings an alarm immediately, wakes the bed wetter and constricts the peeing muscles (scientific term). Well, it also wakes the non bed-wetters as well, but it did the job and adds at least one embarrassing moment for Hank, that I can generally recall over and over, whenever it suits me.
Hank and I played board games together to the extent that we became incredibly proficient. Back then there were only board games and card games and we played both. We played all day on the weekends. Imagine that a four year old and a seven year old could play pinochle, gin rummy, rummy, and a number of other card games we found in the Hoyle's book; and we were both better card players than our parents.
We also put up tents all over the apartment, using my books and toys, my sheets and pillowcases. I never understood why until years later when mom explained that my sheets were always soiled and my books and toys broken. Hank's sheets were clean and his stuff was always in tip top shape. It didn't matter. We had fun playing together even if it was at my expense.
My brother Hank, being three years older than I, was the test case for our parent's parenting skills. Since they had none, this was all a case of trial and error, mostly error. As my brother suffered though this sophomoric approach, I watched and was able to learn what not to do and I am certain that I benefited from the negative responses my brother had as a reaction to their lack of skills. There were numerous instances, as we grew up together, that my treatment was much more liberal than my older brother's and he usually loudly expressed his feelings to mom when this occurred.
"How come Manny gets to go away? You didn't let me go away." Or, "I couldn't do that when I was eight." You get the idea. I suppose that sibling rivalry, jealousy and other dark emotions are probably generated by uneven parental behavior to their children, although I am certain that psychiatrists would never agree with this simple conjecture, as it would interfere with the profit motive that generates the pseudo complication of so many other simple issues.
Despite it all and the physical distance that now exists between us, I love my brother Hank and miss him.
Williamsburg is a small section inside the borough of Brooklyn, New York City, where DEM BUMS, the Brooklyn Dodgers, played baseball, a slum when I lived in it and a slum still.
"Once it was a fine, Jewish neighborhood, its main street along Manhattan Avenue lined with fur stores, garment shops and other small businesses. Its side streets were flush with the hustle and bustle of bearded men going from work to the synagogue and from the synagogue to home, each wearing black and ready to have their second shot of schnapps."
The above description came from my grandfather, Grandpa Sam, as he reminisced about the good old days before the big change which drove the Jews to Long Island - to places like Levittown and Hicksville.
Grandpa was smallish in stature, very much like most of the Eastern European refugees from the early nineteen hundreds. His complexion was a light olive, the same as his son's, but was not handed down any further as his son had no children and mom was extremely fair. He had emigrated from Western Russia, an area where the 'fiddler' on the roof might have lived. He later remarked upon listening to the fiddler's music that it reminded him of his home, the pogroms in Russia and the cruelty of the Cossacks that drove him from his family. Like most Europeans, he spoke many languages or dialects of language. Most of the time, he communicated in Yiddish, the language of the Jews from Europe, and at times in English. He taught my brother and me a song in Russian and another one in Polish. Even though I never truly spoke any languages other than English, I understood my grandparents perfectly and can still understand the Yiddish spoken in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods.
My great grandfather was unfortunately left behind in Russia, but a single picture of him still exists. It is an antique brown and white photograph centered on a cardboard base, crumbled at the edges and faded with the passage of time. True to the era in which it was taken, the look on his face was frozen, eyes gazing straight ahead, unmoving and a reflection of the hard times in which he lived. Great Grandpa is now partially preserved in a picture frame as a remembrance of my family lineage.
Nothing else remains of him other than his descendents and none of his descendents even remember his name.
Grandpa didn't speak much about his youth, as I am certain that the emotions surrounding the circumstances of his leaving Russia were tender and the situation difficult to talk about, particularly since his family, left behind so many years before, was gone, either killed by the Russians or the Germans.
It was to his credit that none of this ever affected the love he generously bestowed upon my brother and me or possibly the circumstances of his youth and lack of family caused him to overcompensate, and love and cherish everything in the image of that he had lost, so many years before.
To this day I can picture his smile, so sincere, his eyes filled with such warmth and his outstretched arms so protective, that no child could resist his hug or his loving and attentive affection. It was impossible to be bad, angry or unhappy around Grandpa.
He brought with him from Europe his devotion to Judaism and being an Orthodox Jewish man, he spent many days in the synagogue. Eventually he became the temple president and was an integral part of the Jewish community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The synagogue was just around the corner from my grandfather's fur store and the short walk made it easy for the Jews in the neighborhood to congregate. The old building, at first glance and with a fertile imagination, would be a beautiful structure. The large, carved stone foundation, the ornamented glass and the solid oak doors would remind us of a time of elegance that no longer exists in today's timely world, where things of antiquated beauty are torn down to make way for the modern and more cost efficient. Looking more closely at the old temple, you would see the dark stains of time ground into the stonework, the pealing of the wooden door surfaces and the small cracks and holes in the etched glass. Here and there are the 'graffiti' etchings of self styled artists and the initials of gang lords. Inside, the benches are worn, the varnish removed in spots where so many men have sat. Prayer books are inserted into cracked wooden slots, their pages yellowed with age with their corners broken. Still other pages are missing and the bindings crumbling due to the dried glue. It's as if the temple and its contents were an omen of the death knell of the congregation, as if it knew of its' impending end.
The rabbi of this declining congregation had ten children, nine sons and a daughter. He spent his entire life in the old Temple, caring for the spiritual needs of his congregation. When they could no longer afford to support him with their funds, he became the Temple's custodian as well, patching the roof, fixing the plumbing and doing odd jobs to earn enough money to feed his family.
Whoever began the rumor that all Jews are wealthy never met this man, or his congregation. If they had, the myth of Jewish wealth and power would become as irrelevant as the bigots themselves.
He was the officiator for my parent's marriage and fifty years later, through an amazing coincidence, his eldest son officiated at their fiftieth wedding anniversary. He was our family rabbi, my grandfather's close friend and my brother's teacher.
Being Jewish is not just a function of religion; it is actually a traditional way of life that most comedians use in their stand-up acts to gather in laughs when their normal jokes cause the audience to fall asleep. Mom and my family could be viewed as a caricature of all Jewish families everywhere. We had a matronly Grandma, the sweet Grandpa, the forefinger used as a pointer for object lessons, the father figure who attempted to order everyone about and instruct those in his family unit on 'what to do, how to do and when to do'. Of course we were being raised in the finest Jewish traditions that also included changing the conditions to fit the situation. In fact, most Jewish people don't have the faintest idea of which traditions are strictly from their families and which are actually from the Jewish people as a group.
When a Jewish boy passes into an age that allows him to learn to read, he is also taught to read in Hebrew as a preparation for his coming of age, at thirteen, the age when he is Bar Mitzvah, the age when he is said to be a man. Of course, this is a holdover tradition from the Semitic tribal days when young boys of thirteen were said to be men, capable of protecting the tribe from its enemies.
"Today I am a man," is what every young Jewish boy would proudly announce on this day. An old joke about all the fountain pens received as gifts is typically resurrected during the Bar Mitzvah. "Today I am a fountain pen."
Being Bar Mitzvah is a tradition and the Jewish approach to education. The beginnings of the educational process take place a few years before the Bar Mitzvah event, allowing enough time to become proficient reading the Hebrew and chanting the correct tonal sounds. This sounds more complicated than it actually is but in the context of religious understanding, there is quite less doctrine than in the other major religious groups.
My brother's rabbi was from the 'old school' and acted very much like the teaching nuns my friends described when they were in Catholic elementary school, as they received regular encouragement beatings from the Brothers and the Sisters. When Hank received his religious lessons from the rabbi, each pronunciation mistake would justify a rap on the knuckles with a ruler, physical punishment thought to improve behavior and learning ability.
My brother learned well (or else) but when I watched him get his daily beating, I refused to sit with the rabbi when my turn came. My father, although not happy with this, found an old family friend, a rabbi who believed in a modern teacher's approach, one that did not include capital punishment. My grandfather wanted me to use the Rabbi from his congregation but was flexible enough to understand that if I were to be ready for my Bar Mitzvah, I needed to learn. If it meant a different rabbi, then so be it.
Excerpted from Going For The Laugh by Zuckerman Copyright © 2009 by Zuckerman. Excerpted by permission.
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