Sunday, December 10, 2006

Laugh Rabbi, Laugh - The Maggid of Bergenfield

At long last we get a new Storyteller's submission, this one from the great Maggid of Bergenfield. At least it was worth the wait:

Laugh Rabbi, Laugh

By Larry Stiefel (The Maggid of Bergenfield)

He always knew he was funny. As early as he could remember, Shimmy made people laugh. Was it because his father was a very funny accountant? Or perhaps it was because his mother was a stern school teacher who didn't laugh often, but when she did it was uproariously, and well worth the wait. Or was it because he was the youngest of six and used humor to stand out-- survival of the fittest by banana peel? Whatever had planted the seed in his brain, he was a natural born comedian.

In grade school that made you the class clown. In high school you would write humorous feature pieces in the school newspaper, and your pranks necessitated occasional visits to the principal's office when they went a bit too far. The whoopee cushion on the teacher's chair. The dribble glass for the math substitute. Anything that involved shaving cream or red food dye. Rabbi Cammerman would sit behind his enormous desk, struggling to look concerned and not to chuckle, and he would say, "Shimon, what are we going to do with you?"

The impulse to make people laugh was suppressed when he reached Yeshiva Gedola. Learning Gemara all day didn't leave much room for levity, although of course the Talmud has lots of humor in it, if you knew where to look. Hafoch bah vehafoch bah, ki koolah bah. Go through it closely, for everything is in it. Still, the Babylonian scholars were not big on knock knock jokes. Writing the Purim schpiel for the Yeshiva once a year was the most he could hope for, and of course any dvar Torah he gave would start with a one-liner. It wasn't much, but it was all he had.

Then one time when he was at his parents' house for Shabbat, he found an old Bob Newhart comedy album. It was vinyl, but his parents still had a working turntable, being the technologically advanced cavepeople that they were, and he put it on and flipped the switch. The album was in bad condition and the sound had a grainy quality like a jazz recording from the nineteen-twenties, but that only added to its mystique. Bob Newhart was funny. Really funny. His routine was as dry as a hot desert breeze. Shimmy laughed so hard, a tear rolled down his cheek. He was hooked.

He started thinking back to the comedians he had seen at the Grossingers nightclub in the Catskills when he was a child. The less well known served as the opening act for some musician or a cantor who would perform Israeli folk songs or excerpts from The Rothchilds or Fiddler on the Roof. But they were often quite good, and the crowd ate them up. Some were headliners, like Freddy Roman, who always gave a good show. Shimmy had even seen Milton Berle once. He was past his prime. But people started laughing before he reached the stage. He just stood there, puffing on a cigar and throwing out moldy one-liners. But then he would give you that patented Uncle Milty look, and the crowd roared. He was an American icon.

Soon he was sneaking in comedy albums every time he came home to visit his parents. Bill Cosby. Shecky Green. Steve Martin. Paul Reiser. Jerry Seinfeld. He had even tried Lenny Bruce once, but thought he would go straight to hell if he didn't shut it off immediately. And Richard Pryor was out of the question. Still, from every comedian he learned something new. Timing, emphasis, material. It was all there.

Shimmy started writing his own standup routine, never once dreaming he would perform it. He practiced in front of the mirror in the bathroom, behind a closed door, pausing at the appropriate places for laughter and applause. He could even hear the snare drum roll when he said a particularly corny line.

Shimmy auditioned at an open mike night at Catch a Rising Comic in Hoboken one motzaei shabbat. He tucked in his tzitzit as best he could, pushed back his yarmulke on his head, and stepped out into the lights. He thought the audience response had been tepid, but the owner called him over after the show and offered him a shot. It wasn't so much that he was funny as the sheer novelty of a yeshiva bochur in white dress shirt and black pants doing standup that got him the spot.

Every other Saturday night Shimmy would do two sets at Catch a Rising Comic. He made excuses to his chevrusah, his learning partner, and rushed out of yeshiva after havdalah, sometimes still in his Shabbat suit. Then he would race down Route 3 from Passaic to Hoboken like a man possessed. He never missed his time slot. To Shimmy, the laughter was exhilarating, as fine as any perfectly darshaned Tosefot.

When Shimmy heard about the Funniest Rabbi in New York competition at Standup New York, he knew he had to go. It was bashert. He was meant to win; he could feel it in his bones. The club was on the Upper West Side, oddly enough directly adjacent to the West Side Mikvah. The contest was scheduled for a Saturday night in November. Shabbat ended early that time of year, and that would give him more than enough time to get there from yeshiva. He wanted to tell his friends, but he dared not. He kept it to himself.

The night of the contest came, and Shimmy bolted out of the yeshiva as quickly as he could. He told his rebbe he had a shiva visit to make in Queens, then went back to his dorm room and changed into his most casual pair of slacks. He left his tie on. This was, after all, a funniest rabbi competition; there was no need to pretend.

Shimmy made it to the City from Passaic with an hour to spare and had enough time to catch a few of the acts going on before him. They were terrible. Real clunkers. Shimmy pictured the students of these Jewish educators in Yeshiva day schools all over the metropolitan area saying to their teachers, "You're really funny, rabbi. You should be on stage," but he doubted they really meant it. If these weren't Jewish religious leaders in front of a friendly audience, there would be some serious heckling going on. Shimmy had an urge to do it himself. But the paucity of talent on the stage gave Shimmy an amazing sense of confidence. He was going to go out there and kick some serious tuches.

Finally his turn came. "Ladies and gentleman. Please welcome, all the way from Passaic New Jersey, let's give a big Stand up New York welcome to Simon Weissblatt."

Shimmy stepped out into the lights and grabbed the microphone. "When I was a kid, I was so religious, I put a mezuzuah on my Doors album."

Polite teetering.

He started to tell the joke about the rabbi who told his congregant it was permitted to ride on an airplane on Shabbat as long as she kept her seatbelt fastened because "then it's as if you're wearing the airplane," when he saw someone in the audience that drained all the color from his face.

Sitting in the second row of small tables near the back of the club, off to the right, but still clearly visible was, could it be?, his Rosh Yeshiva. And sitting next to him was the Rosh Yeshiva's aged father, the Alter Rebbe.

Shimmy couldn't be sure. The bright stage lights were in his face, so it was hard to see the audience.Was it possible? Or was it just his conscience playing tricks on him? What made it even more improbable was that he knew the Alter rebbe didn't speak a word of English. Whoever they were at table 17, they weren't laughing. They sat stone faced in their chairs with no drinks, despite the two drink minimum. If they weren't his rebbeim, they were hating his routine nonetheless.

Suddenly Shimmy began to question his material. The Madonna Kabbalah bit was out of the question. And the Conservative conversion routine seemed a bit dicey. He started to feel his timing was off and he was tanking big time. He decided to go with the old Jewish skiing routine he had stolen from Buddy Hackett ("Jew ski, Jew no ski"), follow it with the bit about how every joke in the Catskills ended in incomprehensible Yiddish, and then close with his Shavuot cheese cake sketch.

As an afterthought, he threw in a story he thought his Rosh Yeshiva might like. It was an oldey but goody. Shimmy knew that jokes were taboo in standup nowadays, but he couldn't help himself.

"So anyway, they asked a priest, a minister, and a rabbi what they would most like to hear someone say about them at their own funerals as the mourners were staring down at the casket.

"The priest said, 'They should look down and say, "He was a devoted leader who gave faith to many."'

"The minister said, "I would like to hear, 'He was a devoted family man and an inspiration to us all."'

"The rabbi said, "I'd like to hear them say, 'Oh look, I think he's moving!"'
"Thank you and good night."

Shimmy shuffled off the stage dejected. He had bombed. To be funny, he had to be cutting edge, and having your rebbe in the audience didn't help on that front. But had his Rosh Yeshiva actually been there?

Shimmy grabbed his coat and made for the side exit. Outside in the cold, halfway between the club and the Mikvah, stood his Rosh Yeshiva and the Alter Rebbe. Shimmy walked over to face the music.

The Rosh Yeshiva smiled at Shimmy and patted him on the back. "Shimon, we all have to serve Hashem in our own way. For me it is teaching sacred texts. If for you it is making people laugh, then Ivdu et Hashem besimcha, Serve G-d with joy. Just be sure to do it in a respectful and appropriate manner, and maybe do it in a way that brings others closer to their Creator. And of course it goes without saying that we still hope you'll be back in Yeshiva tomorrow."

Shimmy nodded respectfully. He turned to the Alter rebbe.

"Varf noch nisht dine leibin," said the Alter Rebbe.

"What does that mean?" Shimmy asked the Rosh Yeshiva.

The Rosh Yeshiva smiled. "Loosely translated, it means, 'Don't quit your day job.'"


Blogger Elster said...

I'm not usually the first perosn to comment at my own site, but there is an egregious lack of commenting for a fine story. So get the ball rolling I will.

Fine story oh Maggid of Bergenfield. Is it true you will be rolling out 8 stories over Chanuka at your site???

1:01 PM  
Blogger Larry Stiefel said...

Yes. Four are already in the can.
I've had to sell my family and give up eating to find the time, but it's worth it. I'll pick the muse over real life anytime.

10:11 AM  
Blogger Elster said...

Sadly, I agree

8:48 AM  
Blogger Lana said...

nice to have a new entry! i've been waiting for it.

interesting story- there is a lot of room (and need) for humor in Judaism- and if you haven't already, check out the Big Book of Jewish Humor- they pull quotes from gemara that are pretty funny- so much so that you have to think that the rabbis back then knew the benefits of a good joke.

12:48 PM  

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