My Papa loved nothing in life so much as a good cigar and a good laugh. When I was a little girl, I loved to listen to Papa, my father's father, regale me with his exploits of practical jokes he deployed against unsuspecting victims. This was more than a mere hobby. The man was on a mission to bemuse, befuddle, and even annoy with intended irony.
The artist's signature spelled "You're nuts" in reverse
One evening, when my grandparents were dinner guests at an elegant home, Papa secretly slipped a slew of drugstore remedies for stomach upset along the gleaming dining room table. My grandmother was furious at her prankster husband, but Papa was hugely satisfied with the uproar he caused. You won't be surprised to learn that my grandparents were never invited back. He also once recruited a neighborhood kid to paint an intentionally awful painting, and had the boy sign it, "Eruoy Stun." Papa claimed to a friend that this work of art came from a promising new artist, and sold it, never revealing that the artist's signature spelled "You're nuts" in reverse. No wonder my grandfather always signed his letters to me, "Silly Papa."
Papa held nothing sacred, including religion. When he was only seven, his father died, leaving his mother and six siblings nearly penniless. A rabbi meaning to offer comfort told my grandfather that his father's death was God's will. But words can hurt and words can heal, and these powerful, unintentionally painful words prompted this little boy to renounce God for good. Stubborn to the core, he never looked back.
If Papa wanted to be the life of the party, my Zeyde was the life of the library – somber and bookish. This makes sense since a book may well have saved his life. During World War I, Zeyde escaped from the Polish army but was caught by an army superior, who discovered that Zayde carried a volume of poetry with him, written by an author also beloved by the superior. Zeyde was only too thrilled to exchange the book for his freedom. He eventually made it to America, and out went many of the Orthodox traditions that had fortified his life in Europe. He became ordained as a Conservative rabbi, and he and my Nana, admitted "greenhorns," were determined that their children wouldn't be.
Like many clergymen, Zayde had to pack up and move frequently to find work. He served congregations in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Wheeling, West Virginia (which he pronounced "Vheeling"); Corpus Christie, Texas (we always loved the irony of that) and, only a touch less ironic, Las Vegas, Nevada. In Vegas, Papa's claim to fame was tying the knot for Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher, until that knot unraveled. I cannot imagine that Zayde was ever found near a slot machine.
My siblings, cousins and I tried to get Zeyde to lighten up, to laugh at our jokes, but he never connected with the humor. He found it especially unfunny when we watched television, saying, "A vaste of time!" as he shook his head in frustration. (Secretly, I suspected he was right.) Despite his intensity, it was clear that Zeyde loved us deeply, and we gave up ever trying to start a conversation with him that began, "So these two Irishmen go into a bar. . . "
I actually delighted in having such wildly opposite grandfathers, one always wielding a cigar and a joke, the other sipping a "glezzle tea" over a Talmudic work. My world seemed bigger and broader because of them, and as different as they were, I loved them both very much. To their credit, both Papa and Zeyde worked to keep the family peace by refraining — most of the time— from insulting one another's religion or apostasy. I couldn't decide who was right theologically, either. I felt something sacred was going on when Zeyde solemnly recited the Kiddush over the wine on Friday night, something that connected me to thousands of years of Jewish history and to my ancestors. But Papa's audacious style was irresistibly fun: He'd raise a wine glass in front of company and announce mirthfully, "Here's to those who wish me well, and all the rest can go to ---!"
Unintentionally, Zeyde conveyed the message that Judaism just wasn't fun, or funny. But Jews were definitely funny: Milton Berle, Andy Kaufman, Carl Reiner, Alan Sherman cracked us up, but they were secular, so I guessed that maybe Zeyde was right.
Religious Jews could be funny, too!
Imagine my surprise when I first attended Torah classes in my 20s and heard Orthodox rabbis, complete with beards and sometimes even black hats, ripping great one-liners throughout their talks. This was a revelation that hadn't come down from Mount Sinai: It wasn't only secular Jews like Woody Allen and Billy Crystal who were hilarious. Religious Jews could be funny, too!
As a beginning writer I was irresistibly drawn to humor. Absurdities of life abounded, and I loved to poke fun at them. I was thrilled to discover that my work could make people laugh, because as Papa had taught me, humor was a survival tool in a world of pain and trouble. But Zeyde understood something, too, which was that when the joke ended and the laughter died down, you needed a spiritual anchor, a roadmap for living.
My grandfathers are both long gone, but I cherish the gifts they each provided. I hope that they each might finally share a laugh together and call it even that their granddaughter grew up to believe in God — and in humor.