my grandmother Goody at a Hollywood party with Red Skelton and William Bendix
Author’s Note: Here we are nearing the end of 2019 and a few days away from my 70th birthday, and I’m happy to report that my last blog entry Telling Jokes brought several positive emails from readers. Inspired by this deluge (more than two and less than eight) of good reviews and requests for more jokes, I’ve decided to resurrect for your reading pleasure an article I posted on my blog in 2008 that was subsequently published in the Anderson Valley Advertiser and the Sacramento News & Review. I wrote Jewish Jokes while in the throes of self-publishing my collection of contemporary dharma tales Buddha In A Teacup, which has subsequently been published in paperback by Soft Skull Press (2016) and is currently available from bookstores and online as an actual book, an e-book, and an audio book.
“The truth is not ashamed of appearing contrived.” Isaac Bashevis Singer
I recently self-published a new book, and with its publication a press release was loosed upon the nation. There were several responses, one from a Jewish publication in Detroit. “Is the author Jewish? If so, we would like a review copy.”
“Funny you should mention it,” is the punch line to a well-known Jewish joke, and that’s what popped into my head when I considered this question about my racial background. Clearly, the inquiry was about ethnicity, not religion.
Jewish jokes are always funnier when told rather than written because how the joke is told is paramount. I should also note that if one is not Jewish, Jewish jokes (as opposed to anti-Jewish jokes) often make little sense and are not particularly funny. This is because Jewish jokes refer to things that non-Jews rarely know anything about.
For instance: On the first day of school, a teacher asks her Second Graders to tell about what they did over the summer. A boy stands up and says, “My name is Mike Jones. My dad and I went snorkeling and I found a really cool bird’s nest.” He sits down and a girl stands up and says, “My name is Fiona Parker. We went to Yosemite and I saw a bear, and my mom taught me how to bake cookies.” She sits down and a boy stands up and says, “My name is Jaime Goldberg and I pledge ten dollars.”
That’s the joke. It refers to the phenomenon of Jewish gatherings frequently turning into fundraisers. When my mother’s mother told me this joke, and whenever she told jokes, she began to laugh midway through the telling but without disrupting the flow of the narrative. No easy feat.
So… two Jewish guys, old friends, meet up after some years apart and reveal that they gave their respective sons the same college graduation present—a trip to Israel to get in touch with their Jewish roots. And lo and behold, while traveling in Israel, both sons became Christians. Perplexed by this double outrage, the two Jewish guys rush to the synagogue and demand an explanation from God. Thunder rumbles and God’s voice intones, “Funny you should mention it.”
That’s the joke. I will risk insulting your intelligence by explaining that God’s response implies that his Jewish son, Jesus, also became a Christian while traveling in Israel.
My grandmother Goody was born in the Detroit ghetto, the Jewish one, in 1900. Her father, an orthodox Jew, was from Poland. A cantor with a golden voice, he earned a pittance from singing in the synagogue and preparing boys for bar mitzvah, while Goody’s mother, also an orthodox Jew from Poland, kept a grocery store and was the family’s breadwinner. Goody was more formally known as Gertrude, which was an anglicized version of Golda.
Most people knew my Jewish grandfather by his nickname Casey, and more formally as Myron. Whenever I pressed him to tell me his “real” name, he would rattle off a burst of Yiddish that never failed to send Goody into gales of laughter.
I did not know of Goody and Casey’s Jewishness—or my own—until I was twelve years old. My mother, born Avis Gloria Weinstein, was, as far as my siblings and I knew, a Winton who married a Walton. I would find out much later in life that her parents changed their name from Weinstein to Winton during the depths of the Great Depression so, as Casey put it, “I could get a job and we could get a place to live.”
Twice in her childhood—in Los Angeles, no less—my mother was stoned by gangs of children when they discovered she was Jewish. Following Goody’s advice, my mother tried to hide all traces of her Jewishness and married my father, a non-Jew, who was then disowned by his parents for marrying a Jew. Oy vey.
So there I was, twelve years old, at a party at Goody and Casey’s house in Los Angeles. Goody deposited me in front of a quartet of Jewish matrons and said, “Girls, I’d like you to meet my grandson Todd,” and then she hurried away.
One of the matrons pinched my cheek and said, “What a good looking Jewish boy you are.”
Another of the matrons nodded in agreement, said something in Yiddish, and seeing my bewilderment translated, “You’ll break a thousand hearts.”
“But I’m not Jewish,” I replied. “I’m a Unitarian.”
Two of the matrons frowned, two laughed.
“You’re Avis’s boy,” said the eldest. “You’re Jewish, sweetie pie. Through and through.”
“No,” I said, emphatically. “I’m not Jewish.”
To which she replied, “They would have burned you.”
I did not get an explanation of this frightening remark from my mother, but from my father. He explained to me that in Hitler’s Germany, in accordance with Jewish matrilineal law, anyone born to a Jewish mother was considered Jewish, and thus I would have been considered a Jew and sent to a concentration camp where I would have died.
“Mom is Jewish?” I asked, stunned by the news.
“No,” said my father. “She is of Jewish origin. There’s a difference.”
For the next twenty-eight years, when asked if I was Jewish (and for some reason I was often asked) I would reply, “I am of Jewish origin on my mother’s side.”
So there’s this Catholic priest sitting in the booth, a slow day in the confession business, when in comes an old guy who puts his face up to the little window and says, “Bless me father for I have sinned. I’m eighty-years-old. I’ve been married for sixty years and never once cheated on my wife. Yesterday I met a gorgeous young woman. We went to her apartment and had fantastic sex.”
The priest considers the gravity of this sin and asks, “How long has it been since your last confession?”
The old guy says, “Oh, I’ve never confessed.”
“You’re a Catholic and you’ve never confessed?”
“I’m not Catholic. I’m Jewish.”
“You’re Jewish? So why are you telling me?”
“Telling you?” says the old guy. “I’m telling everybody.”
But seriously, folks, when I was forty, my life in shambles, I began therapy with a woman who literally saved my life. One day, a few months into the therapeutic process, I found myself face down on the floor of the consulting room, my body shaking uncontrollably. I had no conscious understanding of why I was so terrified, but I was absolutely scared to death. My therapist deftly touched the center of my back and said, “Right there. What’s that?”
I shouted, “I’m Jewish!”
And I knew with every fiber of my being that storm troopers were going to kick the door down and drag me away to be killed. I didn’t imagine this might happen. I didn’t think it. I knew they were coming to kill me because I had violated the great taboo and revealed I was Jewish. This taboo was implanted in me in my mother’s womb and amplified day and night through my entire childhood, though it was never spoken aloud and never known to my conscious mind.
To insure that I would never reveal this awful truth, I was also commanded from day one (through emotional osmosis) to never stand out, never succeed in a big way, and never become well-known, else questions would be asked, inquiries made, and misery and death would inevitably follow. This was how my innocent psyche was programmed.
“Is the author Jewish. If so, we would like a review copy.”
And now for a few mohel jokes.
Pronounced moil, a mohel is a person (traditionally a man) trained and anointed to perform the physical and religious procedures of circumcision that Jewish boys undergo eight days after they are born. Now please imagine a tiny woman with a sparkle in her eye, laughing until she cries, telling the following jokes.
Mohel Joke #1: So there’s this mohel with a shop in the village. In the front window he’s got a big grandfather clock. Along comes a man from out of town. He’s been wanting to get his watch fixed, and seeing the big clock in the window he enters the shop and says to the mohel, “I vant you should fix my vatch.”
“I don’t fix vatches,” says the mohel. “I’m a mohel.”
“You’re a mohel?” says the man. “So vuts vid the clock in the front vindow?”
“If you vas a mohel, vut would you have in the front vindow?”
Mohel Joke #2: So the mohel dies and leaves his widow a big box of all the foreskins he ever snipped. His bereaved wife goes to a leather shop and says to the leather smith, “I vant you should make for me a keepsake of my late husband, the mohel. I don’t care what you make, only that you should use all the skins. Understand? All of them.”
“Soitanly,” says the leather smith. “My condolences. Come beck in a veek.”
So she comes back a week later and the leather smith presents her with an elegantly crafted change purse.
“This is very nice,” she says, frowning at the little thing, “but I specifically said you should use all the skins.”
“I did,” says the leather smith. “Rub that thing a few times and it toins into a steamer trunk.”
Mohel Joke #3: Thirteen baby boys are born in the village on the same day, and eight days later, the mohel—with his operating room on the second floor of an old building—is working fast, tossing the foreskins into a box by the window. In his haste, he tosses one of the little skin rings too hard and it flies out the window and flutters down into a passing convertible, right onto the lap of a young Jewish gal on a date with her boyfriend. She picks up the foreskin and says to her suitor, “Vut is dis?”
“Try it,” he says, winking at her. “If you like it, I’ll give you a whole one.”