"Pseudo-masochistic self-preservation" A definition for Jewish humor
They line us up. We enter the chamber. We have two minutes to live or die…
Trying to get a gig at a Jewish Book Fair is brutal. Tonight's "kosher cattle call," courtesy of the Jewish Book Council of New York's is being held at American-Jewish University, where sitting with booklets and badges are the women and men -- mostly women -- representing JCC's from Florida to St. Paul, from Boca and Raton all the way to Orange County, CA. Authors get two minutes to spill their spiel. And with eighty Jewish book festivals, competition is fierce.
There's nothing like an auditorium full of nervous writers to get the anxiety up and flop sweat pouring down. The 238-page booklet of "Jewish Book Network Authors 2008-2009" offers up scribes like A.B.Yehoshua! Robert Pinsky! Cathleen Schine, Jonathan Kirsch, and the wife of Benny Alon! What chance have I got?
"Don't worry," says the academic author sitting next to me with the picture of himself on his book jacket taken twenty years ago. "If they like you, they book you!"
There's nothing like an auditorium full of nervous writers to get the anxiety up and flop sweat pouring down.
Luckily none of the above geniuses make it tonight. Instead, leading off: the cookbook authors, each equally hyper: "This isn't just a cookbook - it's a way of life!" Then comes the American guy who was in an Israeli counter-terrorism force. Always popular. He's wearing a leather jacket. Can you say, "Book him Deborah?" Next: memoir-memoir-memoir in a row; a Syrian emigre, a girl at fat camp, and one from a striking young writer with a Muslim mother from Pakistan, a Christian father from Colorado, and a grandma who lived in the Bene Israel lost tribe community shipwrecked in Bombay. Title: The Girl From Foreign. Ka-ching!
Then come the-novelists-who-live-in-Brooklyn books, three tomes about Maimonides and nearly a minyan of rabbis - what rabbi talks for two minutes? - exploring "the spirituality of hiking" and Jewish Dharma. Then the speculative nonfiction - How Would God Vote? - and a stream of "What if they'd bombed the railroad lines to the camps?" books, a sea of Holocaust literature including the secret Nazi book and a guide to cemeteries in Europe.
My favorite are Israeli Kids' Letters to Terrorists and an author named Scott Raab (Real Hollywood), who instead of the hard sell does a terrifically-timed, two-minute interpretive dance.
Since our book (The Wicked Wit of the West by Irving Brecher as told to me) is allegedly funny, our main competition looks to be, Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century, by the author of Up, Up and Oy Vey! We're offered two minutes between a plastic surgeon from Beverly Hills (Even Doctors Cry) and a Hungarian survivor whose memoir is called, The Fifth Diamond because that's how many she swallowed before her family was taken to the camps. Nobody can follow that. She'll have the last two minutes. (Or is it because her name is Zisblatt?)
My 94 year-old writing partner couldn't be here tonight because he has a standup gig. Playing the Cedars...Sinai…hospital.
The podium is not on the stage and the microphone is tiny and lousy, but hey, Irv told me all about vaudeville. "Good evening Jews," I say. "You'll notice that our book is published by 'BEN YEHUDA' Press...He only invented modern Hebrew, that 'son of a Jew,' so I guess I'll see you at your Jewish book fair, right?"
Then I pretend to leave.
"Kidding!" I mutter, as my physical shtick goes nowhere fast. The minder in the front row flashes a sheet of paper at me: "90 SECONDS."
"Um," I recover, poorly. "My 94 year-old writing partner couldn't be here tonight because he has a standup gig. Playing the Cedars...Sinai…hospital."
Cut to the chase! I tell them Irv Brecher wrote two Marx Brothers movies, that Groucho called him "the wicked wit of the West," while Harpo called him, "Irv the Nerve." How Irv used to have a "peer group," but now he says he just has, "disappears." That he wrote for vaudeville, radio, film and TV and now he's even on YouTube, with upwards of 40 thousand hits. "That means," he told me, "they click on ya!"
The minder's flashlight goes on. There's no time to tell them how Irv: was blacklisted and went blind; loved Judy Garland - he wrote Meet Me In St. Louis-and hated John Wayne; got thrown out of hotels (with Groucho) by anti-Semites in West Virginia and Wyoming; bought Gleason a new set of teeth but Jackie, that bum, took the dough and bought a new set of clubs…
Soon we're ushered into an adjoining room for after-show comfort food (cold kugele and warm salad), all these authors with much-better Jewish names than mine, like Zachter, Nussbaum, Korngold, Lasensky, Kugel. The Girl from Foreign author is gorgeous, so all the writers want to sit with her. Instead, we're ordered to schmooze, "J-Date style," hopping tables every few minutes so as to impress as many JCC reps, like the ones from Bethesda and Boca who want to know, "Do you do the PowerPoint?"
"Oh yes," I tell them, as seven years work on a book suddenly seems like two minutes, compared to what it will take to sell it.
Turns out, I was able to secure one festival - Detroit in November. I'm not sure my 94-and-a-half year-old writing partner will be able to make the trip. But I'll be there. Detroit is where I grew up, forced to go to the Jewish Community Center for swimming lessons, and as Irv's friend Judy used to say: There's no place like home.
"The Wicked Wit of the West" by Irving Brecher as told to Hank Rosenfeld will drop from Ben Yehuda Press in November.