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March 6, 2009

The Wicked Wit of the West: One of the Funniest and Most Poignant Books of the Year About Life and Death

Pam Vetter of the American Chronicle reviews Wicked Wit:

The Wicked Wit of the West: One of the Funniest and Most Poignant Books of the Year About Life and Death

Pam Vetter

"The Wicked Wit of the West" is definitively the best read of the year as you find yourself re-reading excerpts over and over again. Author Hank Rosenfeld is giving the world a gift by sharing this story in Irving Brecher's own words.

Imagine pursuing Brecher, a screenwriter from the Golden Age of Hollywood, for an interview and then the relationship blossoms into an opportunity. That is exactly what happened for Rosenfeld.

While Brecher wasn't sold on the book idea immediately, his family loved the concept. His wife, Norma, had been encouraging him to do it for years. Brecher wanted the memoir to be different than a tawdry exercise of Hollywood self-absorption and he found a way to share his true voice through Rosenfeld. More memoirs should involve the actual subject because what results in this book is a page-turning work of art. Instead of painting in broad strokes, this memoir is more an exercise in fine-detailed pencil drawings that make you laugh and remember how it used to be in Hollywood. With perfect timing, "The Wicked Wit of the West" showcases one original story after another. Stories you've never heard before. It took Rosenfeld six years to record his conversations with Brecher. As a result, he collected a portion of cinematic history.

Born in 1914, Brecher had dreams like every other kid. He wanted to be a journalist but found success and rewards in being a comedy writer when Milton Berle hired him to write jokes. Over the years, Brecher amassed many credits in radio, film and television. His credits are an uplifting walk through film history with two Marx Brothers' films, a punch up of dialogue in "The Wizard of Oz," a shared Oscar nomination for "Meet Me in St. Louis," and screenwriting credits for "Shadow of the Thin Man," "Bye Bye Birdie," and "The Life of Riley," among others.

Brecher's incredible memory into his 90s exposes a time in history when a career was built on talent rather than a single headline or a retouched photo. It never seems like name dropping when Brecher mentions the people who used to sit at his table at the private Hillcrest Country Club: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, George Burns, Al Jolson, Jack Benny, George Jessel, Lou Holtz, Milton Berle and the Ritz Brothers. As one-liners flow from his lips, it reminds readers that Brecher was no slouch himself. He made comedians look good with tight one-liners that made the audience think and made the audience laugh.

Throughout the book, Brecher weaves a reality about enjoying life, experiencing the highs and lows of the studio system and ultimately facing death. While there are hilarious bits on nearly every page, Brecher also acknowledges that many of his contemporaries are dead as he has attended far too many funerals. He describes himself as "the last man standing" after the Hillcrest table of famous friends had passed away. He thought it would be nice to hold funerals before someone died so the guest of honor could enjoy the event.

In an interesting review of a farewell, Brecher shares the story of Milton Berle's funeral, as he resented that he was not asked to speak at the service. He felt it was because he didn't have a big enough name, but you sense his loss of Berle, a man whom he greatly respected. With a streak of ongoing honesty, Brecher also talks about the death of Bob Hope and his dealings with the comedian. This section reads with a mix of hilarity and hostility reflecting on the way he was treated.

When you live into your 90s, you experience a lot of death and it becomes part of life. Brecher describes finding his first wife, Eve, "with that beautiful smile, asleep forever." Who can describe a passing better than this? No one. Brecher delivers on so many levels in this book, you find yourself wanting a sequel. Even when he jokes about death, it's poignant. In true form, he read famous obituaries and was proud when his films were mentioned. When he read the obituary for Susan Marx, the wife of Harpo Marx, he pointedly told Rosenfeld, "Listen, kid, come on over and let me give these stories to you before I croak."

While you never feel rushed in reading, time is ticking throughout this book and you realize how important it is to document every story from Brecher's memory.

There are little extras throughout as well, including detailed payments he received for jokes, good reviews of his films, a 1940 typed letter from Groucho Marx, and photos of Brecher with celebrities. The story about Al Jolson is a mouth dropper. The details of celebrity affairs are shocking. The ditty on Jackie Gleason and the capping of his teeth is hysterical. Behind the scenes, the reader gains personal insight from Groucho Marx about quiz shows and "You Bet Your Life." The way Brecher tricked Judy Garland into performing in "Meet Me in St. Louis" is an absolute hoot! Clearly, studio stars only wanted to hear what they needed to hear and Brecher knew it. And, finally, Brecher reveals how Ann-Margret was really discovered. The last few chapters are rife with banter and you may find yourself shedding a few tears.

When I read the introduction to this book, I was a little wary at the use of various fonts to represent different voices. Alas, my worry was for naught. The reader easily embraces the typesetting and it works beautifully.

Great thanks goes to writer Rosenfeld for making the time to follow Brecher all over town, documenting what otherwise would have been lost.

Simply put: "The Wicked Wit of the West" is a must-read book. In fact, it's so wonderful you're not going to want to share it with your friends when you're done reading it. Tell them to buy their own copies. It's a keeper that you will want on your bookshelf so you can re-read it on a rainy day for a pick-me-up. If an official, unedited recording of the Brecher-Rosenfeld conversations is ever released, this writer will be first in line to buy the audio.

The publication of this book begs the question: how many other amazing life stories are going untold at the Motion Picture home? Probably, far too many.

In 2001, his obituary ran in print prematurely. Sadly, Irving Brecher died in November 2008 at the age of 94 and never saw the official release of this book. But, I bet it was one helluva funeral.

Posted by yudel at 8:50 PM | Comments (0)

March 5, 2009

It's Only A Purim Shpiel

How was the holiday of Purim celebrated back in Europe? This funny childhood memory is one of the tales told by award-winning storyteller Roslyn Bresnick-Perry in her new collection, "I Loved My Mother on Saturdays" and other tales from the shtetl and beyond.

There is a section of this story in which I enumerate all the delicacies that my aunts and grandmother prepare for the holiday. I relate how I pestered them to let me help them in all they attempted to do. Then I ask in the story, "So what could my grandmother do?"

At one performance, before I could give the solution, a man yelled out from the audience, "Give you a good spanking!"

"Yes," I answered him, "but then you wouldn't have a story." -RBP

Purim is coming--you can smell it in the air. Even the snow, hard-packed and glistening in the sun, feels it and cries a little, making puddles in the well-worn pathways. Poor snow; it knows that if Purim is here, Pesakh can't be far behind, and it brings with it the sweet and glorious spring. Soon the rains will come and turn everything to mud. Purim is coming, and the long winter with its boring nights and icy days is just about over.

There is lots of gay talk in my grandparents' house. Everyone is busy preparing for Purim. Everyone is busy writing, making lists. My grandmother and my mother are making a list of all the ingredients needed to make and bake all the Purim delicacies. Teiglakh, cakes, tarts, cookies in all shapes and sizes, scones filled with prune jam or currants and, of course, those tasty, gooey hamentashen. My aunts Liebe and Shushke are compiling lists of who is to receive shalakhmones, gifts of delicacies exchanged by one family with another. My mother and my grandmother really have the final say on this matter and will no doubt rearrange the names.

My uncle Avrom-Layb has enlisted the services of my Aunt Fiegel to help him write a new version of the Purim shpiel, which will then have to be presented to the Dramatic Society for approval. My uncle is a gantzer makher, a big wheel in this society, which can boast of the best and the brightest young people of the shtetl.

This dramatic group was originally organized to perform Bible stories like "The Selling of Joseph," or the story of Hanukkah or Purim, told through satire. But it expanded its repertoire with the influx of more educated, more enlightened young actors. It now performed Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov in Yiddish. There was always a charge to attend a performance, and the money would go to support the town library. During Purim, however, the actors put the money given to them by the householders in whose homes the story of "The Megila of Esther" was performed into a fund for the needy of the shtetl, for Passover provisions. And I, Raizelle Kolner, was part of this troupe!

How did this all come about, you may ask? Well, if you'll give me a moment of your time, I'll tell you about it.

Since my father was in America, and although my mother and I lived in our own apartment, my mother, who was the oldest of four sisters and one brother, practically lived in my grandparents' house. And, since she was always there, where should I be if not with her? I was the only grandchild and smart for my age, so I became the pest of the entire household. But before holidays, even those saintly people gave up on me. I was constantly underfoot, involving myself in all the intricate preparations that were being planned for the holiday celebration.

Imagine having a child of six declaring loudly that she wants to mix the poppy seeds with the honey for the hamentashen, knead the dough for the challah, fill the scones with prunes and press the cookies!

Well, my grandmother is no one's fool, so she sends me off to my Uncle Avrom-Layb, whom I adore. And no small wonder, because to me he has all the qualifications of what God must be like. Tall, blond, handsome, full of fun and stories. Besides which he is a hero to all the young ladies of the town. Wasn't he always the most important character in the plays? Didn't he always have the biggest parts? Boy, I sure was lucky to have him as my uncle. (A fact which my cousin Zisl, on my father's side, used to tell me whenever she went with me to my grandparents' house.)

So what was Avrom-Layb going to do with me? As usual, he hit on a most ingenious plan. Since I had a very loud voice and was not ashamed to use it, he decided to dress me up as a Purim shpieler, a little raggedy clown with a grogger, a noisemaker, in my hand with which I called the people gathered to see the Purim shpiel to attention. When I had them listening, my uncle would give me a sign, and then I would call out loud and clear, "Zietye Yiden sha un shtil--mir haben on de Purim shpiel!"

Then after the play was over, I would bow graciously to the audience and say, "Hynt iz Purim, morgen is oys--Git undz a grosen un varft undz aroys! Today is Purim, tomorrow it's done--Give us a penny and tell us be gone!"

I would then take my cone-shaped hat, which had a large red pompom on it, turn it upside down, and use it as a bag to collect the money. The Purim shpiel was always a hit, and my participation in it was not only an asset to the company, but it was also a great relief to my mother and grandmother, because I wasn't underfoot.

The last Purim shpiel I was involved in was a most memorable occasion. Actually, it is really the reason why I am telling you this story.

For that year's Purim shpiel, my uncle had a brand-new scenario on the megilla story.
That year, it seemed that the beautiful Esther had a heretofore unknown boyfriend who was broken-hearted that she had allowed herself to be talked into applying for that beauty contest by her uncle Mordekhai. Now that she had actually won it, he decided to confront Mordekhai himself about Esther's Ahashverus. My uncle Avrom-Layb, who always played Mordekhai, was now playing the broken-hearted boyfriend.

There was, however, a subplot to that Purim shpiel. You see, my uncle was himself courting a girl who was considered to be a great beauty. Not only was she beautiful, but her father was one of the wealthiest men in the shtetl. He did not look too kindly on this modern notion of his daughter going out with young men, especially those whose yikhes (status) was not to his liking.

I had often heard my family joke about my uncle's romance with this rich girl, whose name by the way was also Esther. They did not take it seriously. My uncle, after all, was all of seventeen years old. But to him, it was a painful situation.

Well, to continue with the Purim shpiel. After going to several homes and performing this original version of the Megilla, which by the way was greeted with much fun and laughter, we finally came to the home of Reb Fievel Rosenfeld, the owner of the one factory in the shtetl, a tannery in which my grandfather worked. He also happened to be Esther's father.

Reb Fievel, his wife and children, along with other family members, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews and cousins, were seated around a large table, heavily laden with the best that Purim offered. The beautiful Esther, my uncle's love, was seated at her father's side.

When the play began and Reb Fievel became aware of what was now going on in the Purim shpiel, he got up from the table and asked if he could take over the role of Mordekhai. Since everyone knew the traditional story, this was not such a far-fetched request. However, with this year's additional character of the boyfriend, everyone waited for the unexpected. The actors all looked at one another with meaningful glances. What was now going to take place was a play within a play. Avrom-Layb was now going to plead his own case. But how should I, a child of six, understand all this?

Reb Fievel was in great humor, enjoying every minute of my uncle's pleading for his Esther. Everyone was in stitches, everyone was laughing, but not me. I forgot all about Purim, I forgot all about the play, all I heard was my uncle's voice, all I felt was my uncle's pain. Then when Reb Fievel called his daughter Esther over and asked her if she would rather marry this penniless boyfriend instead of the great king Ahasverus and thereby save her people, and when she answered without a moment's hesitation that she would rather marry the king, I jumped up, ran over to my uncle and cried out with all the soul in me, "Don't feel bad, Avrom-Layb. You don't need her. Just wait for me to grow up, and I will marry you, I promise, I promise!" I then started to cry as if my heart would break.

My uncle grabbed me in his arms, hugged me close, and to the accompaniment of the raucous laughter of everyone in the room, I buried my head deeply into his shoulder.

"Raizelle," said my uncle, "it's only a Purim shpiel!"

Learn more about "I Loved My Mother on Saturdays"

Posted by yudel at 5:19 PM | Comments (0)

My Formal Entry into the Garden of Internet Blogging, Full of Snakes and Apples!

This is a far cry from my days on JCN, the Jewish Communications Network. Alot has happened on the Web since that time, but I've kept a rather low profile.

What lures me out from the lurker's corner is a chance to share in the excitement of new Torah and teaching tools with other educators, noodniks and armchair theologians like me--and NOT like me!!

What I am hoping for: An interactive community of people who want to learn, to teach, and to squabble about Text. I would like to see teachers talking to each other and sharing curriculum ideas and reproducibles. We are working on several arms of Jewish education: We are making our way through Tanakh with Yeshivat Chovevei Torah's amazing lectures-turned-readable essays. Our first book was Samuel. The next one coming out is Judges. We plan to have curriculum available for all the texts as they come out and a forum for teachers to share with other teachers what has worked in their classrooms.

We also have an amazing set of Holocaust books produced by twenty dedicated teachers from the Holocaust Consortium. The set is edited by Karen Shawn, Ph.D, who teaches Holocaust literature at Yeshiva University and was director of Holocaust education at the Morah School of Englewood, NJ, for many years. A Covenant Award recipient, she served for 10 years on the staff of Yad Vashem's summer Institute for Educators from Abroad. Her co-editor, Keren Goldfrad, collected essays by professors from universities in Israel, Australia, and America for the teacher's guide.

I realize how retro it is to rhapsodize about the internet. It's such a "given" in our lives, that it is uncool to be awed. But man, it's the library of Alexandria, the Smithsonian Institution and the Tower of Babel and more. It is our shared project: to know, to know and to know more. To connect and to learn, about each other and about ourselves. It's the Fifth Dimension. Let's play.

Posted by Eve at 2:55 PM | Comments (0)

March 2, 2009

Cabalist's Daughter by Yori Yanover is "laugh-out-loud funny" says Binghamton Jewish Reporter

Rabbi Rachel Esserman of the Binghamton Jewish Reporter looks at The Cabalist's Daughter and likes what she sees. Her review begins:
While it's not uncommon for novels to offer wisdom about life's absurdities, few manage to do so while being laugh-out-loud funny. That's what makes two new tales of woe and apocalypse, "Isaac's Torah: Concerning the Life of Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld Through Two World Wars, Three Concentration Camps, and Five Motherlands" by Angel Wagenstein (Handsel Books) and "The Cabalist's Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption" by Yori Yanover (Ben Yehuda Press), so much fun to read. My first impulse is to fill this review with quotations from both works to show just how wonderful their dark humor is, but that wouldn't do justice to the complex and interesting plots they also contain.

Esserman turns to The Cabalist's Daughter after discussing Isaac's Torah:

While the events of "Isaac's Torah" are loosely based on history, the same cannot be said for those portrayed in Yanover's "The Cabalist's Daughter." This offbeat look at contemporary messianic redemption and the end of the world starts slowly, but gathers steam as Nechama Gutkind leaves her adopted parents' house in order to facilitate the beginning of the messianic age. On her side is a 130-year-old master kabbalist, Rabbi Lionel Abulafia, who has written "The Cabalist's Handbook of Practical Messianic Redemption," which offers a humorous, and at times almost-fall-off-your-chair funny, look at how God created and developed the world. Against her is Samael, otherwise known as Satan, who is, as in traditional Jewish lore, an angel doing God's bidding, even if his actions seem evil to humans. Samael has set in motion a plan to destroy the universe in order to return it to the wholeness that existed before creation. Nechama seeks to redeem humankind before his plan succeeds.

While the plot in the second half moves quickly and creates a great deal of suspense, my favorite parts are the work's strange and wonderful theological discourses. For example, Abulafia writes that "some scholars suggest Creation is the handiwork of a sadistic celestial child, who delights in pulling the wings off butterflies and babies from their mothers' bosoms. Soon, they surmise, God's mother will come into the room and smack him, and thus bring an end to our suffering." (This is one of the milder interpretations of celestial behavior offered.) When explaining Abulafia's interpretation of Samael's behavior, Yanover notes that the unfortunate angel is only doing his job: Samael "is in charge of destroying the Jews, and so followed orders like a loyal soldier." Even though Jewish prophesies usually predict his defeat, that doesn't stop him: "If Samael were to take every blasted prophecy seriously, he might have as well closed up shop and concentrated on his real passion, creating crossword puzzles for the New York Times."

Readers should be wary of the novel's interpretations of Jewish history and mysticism: these sections are funny, but clearly biased. The branch of Judaism Nachama and Abulafia belong to is the Cosmic Wisdom movement, which is loosely based on the Lubavich Chasidic movement. The similarities between the movements include a rabbi who encourages his followers to open Cosmic Wisdom Houses across the world and the debate among members of both communities over whether their late leader is really the messiah.

The craziness featured in "The Cabalist's Daughter" is closer to that of such works as "Good Omens" by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett and "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams than it is to more traditional Jewish novels. However, it was a great pleasure to finally read a novel featuring a Jewish theological approach to the apocalypse.

Although Wagenstein and Yanover offer bleak looks at the world and jaded thoughts about the nature of God, their unflagging humor and enthusiasm prevent their novels from becoming depressing. Trying to compare these works is difficult because they each offer something wonderful. "Isaac's Torah" is the more successful literary work and Wagenstein the better writer. However, for sheer fun and weirdness, "The Cabalist's Daughter" excels on a scale with which the other novel cannot compete. Fortunately for me, I don't really have to choose. Both books are welcome additions to my shelf.

Posted by yudel at 1:53 AM