31 December 2007

Uphill both ways - in the snow

My grandfather's favorite story was how he went to school in his family shtetl (village) of Suchastow in Galicia, Austro-Hungary (then Poland, now Ukraine)

With a serious face, he always said we kids had it easy in America. We'd never experience, he said, how he got to school in the Old Country. He and his siblings walked to school uphill both ways - in the snow - often chased by a pack of hungry wolves.

We were suitably horrified by the part about the wolves - rarely seen in New York except at the Bronx Zoo.

After all, the Old Country was alien terrain, where people slept on stoves (the concept of a warm shelf above the village house stove-cum-space heater was unknown to us as urban apartment-dwellers), were chased by wolves and Cossaks pursued the other side of the family.

I really don't remember when the "uphill both ways" was really a joke. The wolves might have been true or simply a metaphor for marauding peasants. I never discussed this with him, so we'll never know.

Jewish humor is an outgrowth of the hardships our people suffered wherever they lived throughout the centuries.

While I haven't heard any Inquisition jokes told by those who were exiled in 1492, there must have been some a la Mel Brooks in The History of the World. If you know any, please let me know.

Comedy was important to our survival. If we were going to cry over our troubles, we might as well be laughing so hard that tears ran down our faces.

I'm an optimist. I'd rather laugh than cry, and laughing seems a much better alternative. It is certainly more enjoyable.

A few months ago, a major news channel highlighted research in which individuals were shown war films (plenty of gore, bullets and blood) and comedy movies (titles not stated).

The results: When war films were screened, people's arteries narrowed by 70%; but when they watched the funny films, their arteries opened by 95%.

Moral: It's better (and healthier) to laugh.

Following the same theme, there's a story here on CNN about the 10 best Jewish comedians.

"Handed down since Moses was kvetching about having to cross the desert in his bare feet, Jewish humor emanated from Eastern Europe where the Hebrews overcame some seriously hellacious circumstances on the way to the Promised Land. "Laughter through tears," they called it.

Over the years it came in the form of slapstick (The Three Stooges), physical comedy (Jerry Lewis), smart-aleck observation (Norman Lear), occasional cruelty (Rodney Dangerfield), uncontrolled neurosis (Shelley Berman) and bemused irreverence (Jerry Seinfeld).

The religious theology itself also contributed to the craft, encouraging believers to question authority -- even God (Lenny Bruce) --and test audiences to the max (Don Rickles)."

Comedy was a way out of immigrant neighborhoods and away from their stereotypical Jewish mothers. The up-and-coming funny guys built vaudeville, Yiddish entertainment and the Catskills, and branched out to radio, the movies and TV.

Here are the some of the comedians covered; the story offers some of their great lines, how they got started and a synopsis of their careers.

Sid Caesar: "The guy who invented the wheel was an idiot. The real genius was the guy who invented the other three."

"Uncle Miltie" - Milton Berle and the Texaco Star Theatre.

Henny Youngman: "Take my wife - please!" and his one-liners

Groucho Marx and the Marx Brothers: Still funny decades on.

Andy Kaufman: Latka on Taxi, and infamous performances on Saturday Night Live.

Woody Allen: A favorite scene was Allen's Russian character holding up a small piece of sod with a miniature house on it, as he said, "Someday, my son, this will all be yours!"

Gilda Radner: Saturday Night Live's Emily Litella, Babwa Wawa and Lisa Loopner. How could we forget her Litella skit on "violins on television"?

Laugh a little, it's good for you.

And since it's the winter season, here are a few famous songs written by Members of the Tribe listing their original names. I've always wished they had written some toe-tapping Hanukkah songs that received as much play. "I have a little dreidel" just doesn't beat "Let It Snow!"

“White Christmas” (1940)- Irving Berlin (Israel Isidore Baline).

“Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” (1945) Jule Styne (Julius Kerwin Stein) and Sammy Cahn (Samuel Cohen).

“Silver Bells” (1951) Jay Livingston (Jacob Harold Levison) and Ray Evans (Raymond Bernard Evans).


  1. Great article Schelly! This wasn't where I thought you were going when I first started reading. I figured you were going to comment on exaggeration in regards to your grandfather's trek to school. My father in law was a great story teller and he grew up in the hills of western Pennsylvania. He used to tell of going to school uphill in a foot of snow walking for miles, etc. The story morphed many times over the years, the hills became mountains, the snow drifts were 5 feet high, the school was in the next town, etc. We all had many good laughs during these story telling episodes. Sadly, my father in law now suffers from Alzheimer's disease and can't speak anymore. Oh how I wish we'd thought to record those stories. No one could tell them like he could!

    Thanks for triggering those memories for me. They made me smile!

  2. Humor is definitely one of the greatest things about our tribe!

    My father always told the "uphill both ways" joke when talking about his childhood. He left out the wolves, though. Not many of those in Chicago, heh.

    Some lesser known, but still very funny Jewish comedians are Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) and Albert Brooks (The Simpsons Movie). I've seen both those movies recently on DVD, so they are on my mind.

    A toast to laughter!

    -Sally J.
    The Practical Archivist