God & jokes
My family, religion and me
“The truth is not ashamed of appearing contrived.”
—Isaac Bashevis Singer
My father told us bedtime stories until my two older sisters, my younger brother and I each attained the age of 4, and could thereafter read to ourselves. We loved the stories because he cast us as stars of little sagas in which we found ourselves in exciting situations requiring guile and intelligence to escape from danger so we could live happily ever after as we fell asleep.
So I guess you could say it was my father who taught me how to tell stories.
But it was my Jewish grandparents Goody and Casey (Gertrude and Myron) and my Uncle Bob who taught me how to tell jokes. Nearly all their stories had the structure of jokes: a simple setting and situation, a couple characters, a puzzle or a problem or a mystery to unravel and a conclusion equivalent to a punch line.
My Uncle Bob, who as the result of a terrible car accident was paralyzed on his right side from head to toe, was a habitué of pubs and taverns and was a dogged collector of jokes, which he loved to tell when he came to visit us. His paralysis affected his speech, too, so that he had to speak very slowly to be understood. Thus as a little boy, I heard Uncle Bob perform dozens of jokes, some quite risqué, and told at the perfect speed for me to remember them.
So this guy goes to see a psychiatrist, and after 50 minutes the psychiatrist says, “I think you’re crazy.”
And the guy says, “Hey, wait a minute. I want to get a second opinion.”
And the psychiatrist says, “OK, you’re ugly, too.”
My father was a child psychiatrist. Until I was 8 or 9, I had only vague notions of what my father’s practice consisted of. I knew he had a playroom adjacent to his office, and in that playroom there were board games and a sandbox and dolls and trucks and other cool things for kids to play with, and I knew my father wore a suit and tie when he interacted with these kids, and that he was sort of a doctor.
So this guy with a chicken on his head goes to see a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist says, “What’s this all about?”
And the chicken says, “I don’t know. I woke up this morning and there he was.”
When I was in my 40s, a childhood friend invited me to lunch with him at his mother’s house. After lunch, I called my father to let him know I’d be dropping by a little later. While I was on the phone with my father, my friend’s mother said, “Tell your dad he did a wonderful job with Marvin, and thank you.”
So I say into the phone, “Dad, Iris says you did a wonderful job with Marvin, and thank you.”
It turns out that Marvin, my friend’s younger brother, had gone to see my father a dozen or so times when he, Marvin, was 7 and suffering from insomnia and sudden outbursts of rage. This was before the widespread use of drugs in psychotherapy, so my father treated Marvin with talk therapy and play therapy, and Marvin began sleeping well and his rage outbursts mostly went away.
Until my father was in his 70s and near the end of his time as a practicing psychotherapist, he rarely spoke about his clients to me, and he certainly never spoke about anyone we might know. I later found out that my father treated a number of my classmates, but I did not know this at the time of their interactions with him.
So I was mightily curious to know what my father had done to help Marvin, a person I knew pretty well. My friend said, “Marvin never told me.” My friend’s mother said, “I think they played cards and talked. Your father is a miracle worker.”
When I got over to my father’s house, I said, “Dad, what did you do to help Marvin?”
My father sipped his coffee and frowned as he tried to remember back 30-some years to his time with Marvin, and then he smiled and said, “Oh, yes. He had two much older brothers. They played Monopoly and cards and all sorts of games with him, but his brothers were merciless and never let Marvin win. No matter how hard he tried, Marvin couldn’t win, and he was so terribly frustrated that he began to act out, and he had nightmares as I recall.”
“So what did you do?”
“Well, as his mother told you, we played cards and Monopoly, and he talked about how he hated his brothers, and … I let him win.”
So this guy goes to see a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, my wife thinks she’s a refrigerator.”
The shrink says, “How long has this been going on?”
And the guy says, “Oh, about a week now, and I can’t sleep.”
“That’s only natural. You’re worried about her.”
“Well, it’s not so much that,” says the guy. “But she sleeps with her mouth open, and you know that light that goes on when you leave the door open? Shines right in my face.”
My junior high school brought together kids from two elementary schools, so there were lots of new kids to get to know, and the inevitable question of what my father did came up. And I will never forget my shock when I told a guy that my father was a psychiatrist and the guy replied, “Oh, a head shrinker, huh?”
“A what?” I said, dismayed.
“A head shrinker,” he repeated. “A shrink. Ugga bugga. Witch doctor.”
When I asked my father about the term shrink and the witch doctor reference, my father explained that there were many people (in 1960) who still thought psychiatry was hocus-pocus nonsense. He said that many people thought that when a person went to a psychiatrist it meant the person was crazy, and many of my father’s patients were so ashamed about coming to see him that they did so clandestinely.
So these two psychiatrists are having lunch together, and one of them says, “Man oh man, I was having breakfast with my mother yesterday, and I made the most incredible Freudian slip.”
“Oh really?” says the other shrink. “What happened?”
“Well,” says the first shrink, “I meant to say, ‘Mom, will you pass the butter?’ But instead I said, ‘You bitch! You ruined my life!’”
We often wonder, my siblings and I, what our lives would have been like had our father treated us and our mother as he treated his clients, with kindness and patience and compassion and acceptance. But we will never know, and that’s life.
So … one Christmas Eve a few years before my father died, my brother and I are standing in the living room of my father’s house looking at a wall of photographs of our family from when we were little kids all the way up to middle age, when my father comes into the room smirking as he smirked only when he was very drunk, and to our astonishment he makes the following speech.
“You know, I don’t think I ever told you this, but when you were growing up I could see how easy everything was for you, how easy school was, how quickly you learned things and how good you were at so many things without really trying very hard, so I took it upon myself to undermine you at every opportunity, to undermine your confidence, to break you down and make things as difficult for you as I possibly could.” And then, chuckling to himself, he walked away.
So this priest is sitting in the confessional, and a guy comes into the booth and sits down on the other side of the grill and says, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”
“I’m listening,” says the priest.
“I’m 80 years old,” says the guy, “and I’ve been married for 60 years and never once cheated on my wife. But yesterday I’m sitting in the park and this beautiful young woman approaches me and says she’s got a thing for older men, and would I like to come to her apartment. So I go with her and we have fantastic sex for hours and hours and hours.”
“Heavens,” says the priest, taken aback. “How long has it been since your last confession?”
“Oh, I’ve never confessed,” says the old man.
“You’re Catholic and you’ve never confessed?”
“I’m not Catholic,” says the man. “I’m Jewish.”
“You’re Jewish?” says the priest, flabbergasted. “So why are you telling me?”
“Telling you? I’m telling everyone.”
I am Jewish, though I didn’t know I was Jewish until I was 12. When my mother was growing up in Los Angeles in the late 1920s and early 1930s, she was twice stoned by gangs of kids when they found out she was Jewish. Her parents changed their name from Weinstein to Winton in the 1930s so they could get housing and my grandfather could get work more easily. Thus my mother learned to erase any overt traces of her Jewishness, married a non-Jew, and vociferously denied that she was Jewish for the rest of her life.
So these two cops are driving along and they see a nun walking to town. They know that the only nuns in the area live in a cloistered nunnery and never ever come out except in the direst emergencies. So they pull up beside the nun and one of the cops asks her, “Sister, anything wrong?”
“Indeed,” says the sister, nodding gravely. “The mother superior is terribly constipated and sent me to town to get her a laxative.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” says the cop. “Can we give you a lift?”
“No, thank you,” says the sister, averting her eyes and continuing on her way.
A few hours later, the cops are driving that same part of their beat when they see the same nun walking back to the nunnery, and she does not appear to be steady on her feet. As they get closer, they see she is obviously drunk. They pull up beside her and the cop says, “Sister, you’re drunk. I thought you were going to town to get the mother superior a laxative.”
“I did,” says the nun, slurring her speech. “And when Mother Schuperior sees me, she’s gonna shit.”
My parents were alcoholics, but they did not appreciate jokes about drunks. So no wonder my brother and I became avid collectors of jokes about drunks, and took such extreme pleasure in performing these jokes when we knew our parents were listening.
So this drunk guy wearing an old baggy coat goes into a ritzy nightclub, slinks up to the bar and says to the bartender, “If you like my act, will you give me a drink?”
“I already don’t like your act,” says the bartender, pointing to the door. “Get outta here.”
“Wait,” says the drunk, taking a beautiful little grand piano out of his pocket and setting it on the bar. “You’re gonna like this, I promise.”
And impressed by the exquisite little piano, the bartender says, “OK. What’s the act?”
“This,” says the drunk, bringing out a little piano bench and setting it in front of the piano. “And this.”
Now he reaches into his pocket and brings out a lively white mouse wearing a black tuxedo, and he sets the mouse on the piano bench. And finally he brings out a gorgeous yellow parakeet and sets her on top of the piano. And the mouse plays the piano brilliantly and the parakeet sings a gorgeous Italian aria.
Well, as you can imagine, the bartender’s jaw drops and he says, “That’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.” He pours the guy a glass of whiskey and says, “I’ll give you $500 a night for that act and all the booze you can drink.”
“It’s a fake,” says the drunk, gulping the whiskey and putting the piano and mouse and parakeet back in his coat pockets. “The whole thing is a fake.”
“Whaddaya mean it’s a fake?” cries the bartender. “I saw it with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears. Let me get the manager. Don’t go anywhere.”
“And you promise you’ll give me another drink?” shouts the drunk.
“Absolutely. Just stay right there.”
So the bartender comes back with the manager, who takes one look at the drunk in the baggy old coat and says to the bartender, “You brought me out here to see this schmuck?”
“Just wait,” says the bartender, turning to the drunk. “Show him the act.”
“I told you it’s fake,” says the drunk. “The whole thing is fake.”
“Please,” says the bartender, “just show him the act so he won’t think I’m crazy.”
So the drunk brings out the little grand piano and the little piano bench and the lively little mouse and the gorgeous yellow parakeet; and this time the mouse plays even better than the first time and the parakeet sings a gorgeous aria in French.
“God in heaven,” says the manager, “that’s the most astounding act there’s ever been. I’ll give you $1,000 a night and …”;
“It’s a fake,” says the drunk, downing his whiskey. “A total fake.”
“How can it be fake?” asks the manager. “We saw it with our own eyes and heard that beautiful music with our own ears.”
“Yeah,” says the drunk. “But what you didn’t know was that the bird can’t sing a note. The mouse is a ventriloquist.”
As far back as I can remember, I loved to act and sing and perform, the bigger the audience, the better—much to the chagrin of my parents. They were insistent I follow in my father’s footsteps and become a doctor, and until I was 16 I dutifully took math and science classes with the intention of entering college as a pre-med student. But then I got a big part in our high-school musical, which led to my being a singer in a rock band, and flush with teenage success I was emboldened to tell my parents I didn’t want to be a doctor. I wanted to be an actor and a playwright and a composer and a performer.
Well … in response to my announcement, my father got mean drunk and raged at me for several hours, calling me a coward and a quitter and many other things too vile to recount. And for most of the rest of my life, whenever I would visit my parents, my father would get drunk and launch into a vicious diatribe about how I had wasted my life and was doomed to failure because actors, playwrights, composers and especially fiction writers, all of which I had become, were totally fake and had no real value.
But what makes this story even sadder and more poignant to me is that my mother had aspired to be an actor and a playwright, and she had the talent to match her aspirations. When she and my father started going together their senior year in high school, she was starring in plays at Beverly Hills High, she had a great singing voice, could dance like Ginger Rogers and played the piano like Chico Marx; and then she went to UCLA and majored in drama. But when she married my father upon graduating from college, she was convinced to go to law school rather than pursue an acting career.
Wait. There’s more. When I recorded Goody, my mother’s mother, for the family archives when Goody was 79, she told of being a singing and acting prodigy as a little girl growing up in the Jewish ghetto of Detroit in the early 1900s, and how a wealthy Jewish matron was so impressed by Goody’s talent that she offered to pay for Goody to study music and acting with the best teachers in Detroit, but Goody’s orthodox Jewish parents considered such endeavors the path to hell, and so Goody’s theatrical aspirations were thwarted. “But I have always hoped,” said Goody, making sure to speak loudly and clearly into the microphone, “that one of my descendents would pursue those arts I was not allowed to pursue. And you, my darling, have done that, thus fulfilling my destiny.”
So there’s a rabbi living in New York City, and one day he wakes from a dream and distinctly hears God say, “Rabbi Feinberg, go to the small Arkansas town of Redfern and carry on your work there.”
So the rabbi gives up his life in New York and moves to Redfern, where there are no Jews. Having no money and no way to build a synagogue, the rabbi arranges with the Baptist minister to use their church on Saturday mornings. And every Saturday he carries out the duties of his office in an otherwise empty church.
One Saturday as the rabbi is preaching in the Baptist church, there comes a great storm and it rains so hard the town begins to flood. The Baptist minister comes rushing in and says, “Rabbi, sorry to interrupt, but they say the river could overflow her banks and seriously flood the town. Come with me to safer ground.”
“No,” says the rabbi. “God sent me here. If he wants to save me, he’ll save me.”
So the Baptist minister leaves, and the river, indeed, overflows its banks and the town is soon 4 feet deep in water. The Baptist minister returns in a rowboat and says, “Rabbi, get in. The upstream dam is about to break and the church will be entirely underwater.”
“No,” says the rabbi. “God sent me here. If he wants to save me, he’ll save me.”
So the Baptist minister rows away and the water continues to rise until it is up to the rabbi’s chin, at which point the Baptist minister returns in his boat and says, “Rabbi, please. Get in the boat or you’ll drown.”
“Nay,” gurgles the rabbi. “God sent me here. If he wants to save me, he will save me.”
Well, the Baptist minister reluctantly leaves, the water rises over the rabbi’s head, and he drowns.
Shortly thereafter, the rabbi arrives at the pearly gates, pushes past St. Peter and storms into God’s office.
“Why did you let me drown?” he cries. “You sent me to that town, so I went. I did everything you asked of me. I, your devoted servant, Rabbi Feinberg. So why did you let me drown?”
“For goodness sake, Feinberg,” says God, with a mighty shrug. “I sent the boat twice.”
My father was a fierce atheist. He pounded it into us day in and day out, year after year, that there was no God, and that anyone who believed in God or angels or anything even remotely spiritual was a delusional, infantile, magical thinker; in other words, an idiot. So I tried to follow in my father’s atheistic footsteps, but in my early 30s I had the first of several experiences that made it impossible for me to deny the mystical nature of my life. I will now attempt to describe one of those experiences, with the following disclaimer: I have no expectation you will believe me, yet I have absolutely no doubt what I am about to tell you actually happened.
It was 1980. I was sleeping alone in my bed in my old house in East Sacramento when I was aroused from a deep sleep by the sensation that I, quite separate from my bed, was being swiftly lifted up by a powerful force, and I was certain that if I didn’t resist the force I would be lifted entirely out of this life. So I did resist, and as the sensation of being lifted up subsided, I opened my eyes and saw the red digits of my clock reading 6:11. My logical mind sought an explanation for what I had felt, and I concluded there must have been an earthquake. I closed my eyes and slowed my breathing to calm myself, and it was then I had the sensation that someone was in the room with me.
I carefully rolled onto my side and opened my eyes, and here was my grandmother Goody. She was wearing a beautiful coat and looked fabulous, young and strong and full of life. She smiled at me and then gazed toward the foot of my bed. I followed her gaze, and there was the ancient shrunken version of Goody I had recently visited in the hospital.
Then the younger Goody stepped confidently onto an escalator, going up. And as she rode the rising stairs she communicated, “You can think of it as an escalator, though that’s not really what it is.”
Then I felt that powerful lifting force again (was I feeling the force of her departing spirit?) and then the force abated, and I sank down through layers of matter and time into a sodden dreamless sleep.
A ringing phone woke me two hours later, my sister calling to say Goody had died at 6:11 that morning. And though I was sad Goody was dead, I did not grieve for her because she had shown me with her vigor and determination and joy how eager she was for whatever came next.
And, eventually, I got over my aversion to the word God, and now I use it synonymously with Nature, Universe, and Willie Mays.