by Daniel D. Stuhlman
I edit a newsletter for the local Judaica librarian network. In the last issue I wrote an article, "How Do You Spell the Name?" on the spelling of family names in Hebrew and English. For a library catalog, there are rules for entering names in the catalog, but for individuals there are no rules. I discovered people who spell their own names one way in Chicago and another way in Israel. The stimulus for this article was a question from a professor of Hebrew literature concerning the English spelling of an Israeli artist's family name. The answer depends on the circumstances; there are multiple right answers.(1) The whole issue is available on line at: home.earthlink.net\~ddstuhlman\jln-sum02.htm.
Last year Lawrence J. Epstein wrote a book (2) about Jewish comedians. Epstein is an English professor at Suffolk (NY) Community College. This book is a scholarly study of the confluence of the Jewish comedian and American society. Epstein does a superb job of explaining the history of America Jewish comedians and how they mirrored what was happening in both Jewish and general American society. He claims that Jewish comedians had a special mission. They served as important mediators between Jewish and American cultures and exemplified two conflicting themes in American Jewish identity assimilation and the search for a greater understanding of ones Jewishness. The title refers to the mixed feelings toward Judaism held by these comedians. Many of the comedians profiled had no formal Jewish education; some never even graduated high school, yet they had a gift that enabled them to entertain.
Jewish comedians brought the Jewish community to the forefront of American culture. When they used humor to separate Jew from non-Jew they introduced characters who were schlemiels, kibitzers, nebbishes, schlumps, mavens, and gonifs into American entertainment. They used both self mockery and self praise for comedic effect.
Epstein describes each generation of comedian as setting the stage for the next. George Burns, Jack Benny and Sid Caeser laid the ground work for Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Joan Rivers and others.
In this column and the ones that follow, I will profile a few of these comedians and their Jewish connections. Humorists attempted to separate themselves from their past. Some were good storytellers; some were class clowns; some enjoyed the public attention; and as George Burns put it some were just hungry for food.
Like many of their American contemporaries, the comedians wanted to fit into to American life. Some wanted to turn their backs on the Judaism and ethnicity of Europe; some wanted to build on their roots.
The Marx Brothers effectively left Jewish observance in childhood. Groucho (born Julius Henry) Marx (1881-1977) was born into an "orthodox" home to Simon (later named Sam) and Minnie Marx. The family lived in a New York City cold water flat. Minnie's mother was a pious soul, but when she died the last bonds to Judaism were broken. Groucho's parents were ambitious but were not very educated or concerned Jewishly.(3) Groucho married three times and none of them were Jewish.
Jack Benny (1894-1974) was one of my favorites performers when I was growing up. Benny always said that he was 39 years old and my father used 39 as his age, too. Ever time I hear the word, "Weelll" I think of Jack Benny. Jack, born Benjamin Kubelsky in Chicago, grew up in Waukegan. His mother thought a Chicago birth was an honor. She dreamed that her son should be a concert violinist. He began studying violin as soon as he could hold one. Benny was not much of a student in school. He was often truant and his bad conduct caused his parents much concern. He failed in every subject and kicked out of Central High School after only one term.
Benny's adopted daughter, Joan, wrote a biography(4) that included a previous unpublished autobiography. Jack tells the story of how he met his wife. He was with Zeppo Marx in Vancouver. Zeppo told him they were going to a wild party. In reality they were invited to the home of Henry Marks, a distant relative, for the first seder. Mrs. Marks introduced Jack to their two daughters, Ethel, who was about 20 and her younger daughter, Sadie, aged 14. Sadie tried to act very grown up. She hung on his every word and unknown to Jack at the time she decided to marry him. Two years later the family moved to San Francisco. Sadie went to see Benny's show and afterwards went to the stage door to say hello. Jack did not recognize her. In 1926 Benny was on a double date with Al Bernovici and his wife, Ethel. Ethel's younger sister, Sadie was Benny's blind date. Benny vaguely remembered them. He was very impressed with his date, a smashing brunette. Sadie didn't want to go on the date because she distrusted actors. Benny liked her because she had manners and listened politely. He asked her out on a second date, but she refused. He pursued her by going to the store where she sold ladies hosiery. He bought hosiery and invited her to lunch. Since he had to leave on tour, the rest of the courtship was by phone. Her sister, Ethel and husband moved to Chicago. Benny convinced Sadie to go visit and meet his father. (His mother had died in 1917.) She arrived on a Sunday. They got married on the following Friday, January 14, 1927, in an orthodox wedding ceremony attended only by his father, her sister, Ethel and husband, a family friend and the rabbi. When the glass was broken, Sadie fainted. A few months later Sadie asked if Benny remembered a seder in Vancouver with Zeppo Marx. Benny answered, "I'll never forget it. There was a silly little girl all dressed up in her sister's clothes." She said, "You married her." (5)
Sadie joined Benny's act even though she hated performing. She had an instinctive gift for comedy. In 1928 Sadie filled in as a "dumb girl" in a new act. She eventually became Benny's partner in his act and later on the radio and TV. She changed her name to Mary Livingstone. In 1934 they adopted a girl and named her Joan.
Joan went to elementary school in Beverly Hills which was probably more than 50% Jewish. One of her best friends was Sandy, daughter of George Burns and Gracie Allen. Her parents' religion was show business. I remember the Jack Benny TV show. He never did any Jewish jokes or made any references to Jews. I never knew he was Jewish until after he died. I never knew his wife was Jewish until preparing this column. They were members of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, but never attended any services.
George Burns delivered the first eulogy at Jack Benny's funeral wearing a kipah. They had been friends for more than 55 years. "What can I tell you about Jack?" he began, "I can't image life without him." Then Burns broke down sobbing and was unable to continue. He had to be helped to his seat. (6) (7)
In future columns I'll talk about Danny Kaye, Sam Levenson, Milton Berle, Mel Brooks and more.
Daniel D. Stuhlman is president of Stuhlman Management Consultants, Chicago, IL, a firm helping organizations turn data and information into knowledge. We are looking for new clients and opportunities. Previous issues of Librarian's Lobby can be found at: http://home.earthlink.net /~DDStuhlman/liblob.htm. He can be reached via e-mail at: DDSTUHLMAN@earthlink.net.
1. The issue of spelling of given names for halakhic purposes is a separate issue and not covered in this article.
2. Epstein, Lawrence J. (Lawrence Jeffrey). The Haunted Smile the story of the Jewish comedians in America. New York, Public Affairs, 2001. xxii, 356 p. (1-891620-71-1)
3. See Kanfer, Stefan. Groucho : the life and times of Julius Henry Marx. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. pages 9-17. Groucho was the author or co-author of 11 books. Mostly autobiographical, all of the stories choosing humor above accuracy. There have been about 27 biographical accounts of Groucho or his brothers.
4. Benny, Joan and Benny, Jack. Sunday nights at seven : the Jack Benny story. New York, Warner Books, 1990. There have been four biographies of Jack Benny including one written by his friend and writer for his shows, Milt Josefsberg.
5. On his TV show in 1959 the meeting in the department store was played for laughs. The TV Benny set the story in 1943. While walking past May Department Store he sees a shirt on sale for $1.99. This was the same shirt he was wearing in the beginning of the show. While waiting for his change he notices Mary in the women's hosiery department. Benny tied to act suave and tried to ask Mary out to dinner. His request and he refusal was played for lots of laughs. He said he was Jack Benny and no one in the store knew him. His penny change and that did not win points with Mary. The show ended with Mary getting Jack to admit that the penny was still in his pocket more than 20 years later. Jack Benny has a fan club with a web site: http://www.jackbenny.org/.
6. See Gottfried, Martin. George Burns and the hundred-year dash. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996.
7. According to Avi Jacobson, while examining a recording of one of the old Jack Benny Lucky Strike broadcasts, he noticed that while perhaps ad libbing, Benny followed up an off-the-cuff gag by saying the Yiddish word, "Takeh!." He says it rather softly, and over copious audience laughter from his gag, but it is audible. Jacobson replayed the recording many times and has no doubt that this is what Benny said. He may have been trying to crack up Artie Auerbach ("Kitzel", the stereotyped Jewish character) or his wife Mary Livingstone.
8. This note was added July 17, 2003 --> The Bob Hope Show on radio in the 1940's frequently had guests who used Yiddish words as if they were part of the English language.
9. This note was added Feb. 13, 2011 --> If you want a real connection to Jack Benny, the Boston Public Library's Rare Book room has letters that he wrote to his friend Frank Remley. Reported in the Boston Globe, Oct 13, 1999 page E1.
To listen to any of 130 Jack Benny radio shows click here www.freeotrshows.com/otr/j/Jack_Benny_Program.html
His TV shows are avaiable from several sites. Retrovision has 22 of the 343 produced/
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©2003 Last revised February 13, 2011