When I was growing up, my parents would take us to the Catskills (also known as The Mountains or the Jewish Alps) or other places where after gorging ourselves on the most unhealthy, cholesterol-laden food on the planet, we would be entertained by jugglers, magicians, singers and a Latin band. What was it with Jews back then and Latin music—everybody dancing to cha chas, merengues, mambos? You’d think we were related to Ricky Ricardo. But the best part of the show was the comic.
They were always men of my parents’ generation or older. There were famous ones like Buddy Hackett, Milton Berle, Jack Carter, and hundreds of others, some famous, some not. The routine was that since the audiences were Jewish, they would tell a joke in English and then give the punch line in Yiddish. Since my knowledge of Yiddish was rudimentary at best (I probably know a couple hundred words), I never understood the punch line and felt left out when the entire audience was convulsing with laughter. So, I would turn to my aunt and ask her to translate, to which she would reply with something like, “It’s raining outside.” Then I would say to her, “I don’t get it. That’s not funny.” To which she would always respond, “All I can tell you is that in Yiddish, it’s very funny. It loses something in the translation.”
You’ve heard that expression, “It loses something in the translation?” You guessed it—my aunt invented that phrase. Everyone uses it now and doesn’t credit her. I’m sure, if she were alive today, she wouldn’t mind. She was a very generous person. Anyway, this sort of thing went on for years. I picked up a few more Yiddish words, but as time went on, the comics crossed over to general audiences, and the punch lines, to my delight, were now told in English. Hey, these guys were funny. Who knew?
By that time, I was a young trumpet player in New York and got to back up some of these great comics, like Alan King, Shecky Greene, and I can’t even remember the dozens of others. Some were famous, some not. But I loved them all. We would play them on and off, and sometimes they would do some shtick that would involve us playing something. I love show business.
One of my favorite comics back then was Myron Cohen. I did a week with him about 40 years ago at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. What a nice man. We would play him on with the first eight bars of Fine And Dandy, and play him off with the same eight bars and keep repeating them until everyone stopped clapping—usually about five minutes later. That was it—a lot of repeats. There was no other music in his act at all.
On New Year’s Eve after we played him on, he told the audience that the guys in the band were so nice that, with the audience’s permission, he’d like to dismiss us, so that that we could spend the evening with our families. That was no joke. I was home by 9:30. Like I said, what a nice man.
I’m pretty sure that I first heard Myron tell this joke, which has become a classic:
This little 85-year old man walks into a Catholic church and sits down in the confessional booth. A few moments later the window slides open and the priest asks him if he has something to confess. He proceeds to tell the priest: “Father, I was happily married for 60 years, and last year my wife died. After a proper amount of time, I happened to meet a young woman. Actually, she’s 23 and a real looker. We have sex 3 or 4 times a day.” The priest interrupts him, “So you and the young woman are not married?” “No father.” The priest tells him to say ten Our Fathers and five Hail Marys. The old man asks, “Why would I do that? I’m Jewish.” So the priest says, “You’re not Catholic? Why are you telling me all this?” “Why am I telling you all this? I’m telling everybody.”
I probably love every joke that involves religion and sex, but this is one of those jokes that makes me chuckle just thinking about it. It explains a lot about men’s attitudes about sex. This past Friday David Brooks wrote an insightful op-ed piece in the New York Times entitled Lovers, Prospectors and Predators. He broke sex down into three rooms. I’ll paraphrase.
Room #1 is romantic love. This is where you want to know your partner deeply and your pleasure comes from knowing that you are making your mate happy. You both are vulnerable and share on the deepest level. We learned about this room from Jane Austin, George Eliot, the American Songbook, romantic movies, and if we were lucky, our parents.
Room #2 comes into play with the explosion of hormones in adolescence. Sex is about bodily sensations. Knowledge of the other person is minimal or even non-existent. Many men boast of their sexual conquests and women may feel shame that they gave in to their base instincts. This kind of sex is consensual and usually is more an ego-booster for the insecure than it is about love. These are sex prospectors. This kind of sex can leave people feeling empty, so they repeat it with other partners to fill that void. The idea is to avoid true intimacy, which involves vulnerability, love and truly knowing the other person and ultimately knowing yourself.
For some people, Room #1 is not possible, and Room #2 is not enough. They need to dominate the other person by forcing themselves on weaker people. This can be physical rape, psychological rape or situational rape. The goal is to demean and hurt their victims for whom they feel contempt. These sex acts have nothing to do with love, and little to do with sex. These are criminal acts of violence. Some of these criminals will excuse themselves by saying that the women were asking for it by the way they dressed or were friendly. Some of these men feel that they deserve to assault women and children because they are special. Besides, women and children are inferior, in their minds, and therefore don’t deserve respect. Some, probably most, of these criminals keep their behavior secret, but some are proud of it and boast about how they have this amazing power.
Over the past year and half, some rich and powerful men have been exposed for their crimes. Most have lost their business positions and are shunned by society. Except the current President of the United States, who bragged on tape about his behavior. It bewilders me no end that anyone would give this criminal a free pass, let alone elect him to our highest office and allow him to remain in power.
Just coincidentally, I re-watched a terrific movie called Don Jon. It’s about an aggressive low forehead young bartender in New Jersey whose entire life revolves around one-night stands, bragging to his friends and watching porn on the internet. Actually, his porn addiction is the most important part of his life. When I saw this movie several years ago, I almost turned it off mid-way through. I couldn’t relate to this Neanderthal, but luckily, I hung on to the finish. In its own beautiful way, this film explains Rooms 1 and 2. I love sleepers like this. You don’t expect much, if anything, and then SURPRISE! A deep idea has crept up on you and made you look.
This is one of the things I love about Duke Ellington’s music. It’s mostly couched in the popular music of the Swing Era, but Ellington is able to convey the deepest musical ideas and relationships without disturbing the couples on the dance floor. I love this relationship in all the arts, not just music and film. When I was a young man I discovered pulp fiction writers like Dashiell Hammett and my favorite, Raymond Chandler. These guys wrote detective stories that sold for a dime, but every line of dialogue, character and description is pure poetry.
Nearly 50 years later, I’m still fascinated by the relationship of low and high—the ordinary and the extraordinary. In knowing that which is outside of us, we learn who we truly are. How lonely life would be without the companionship of other people. It can be a dangerous to let down our guard and explore the depths of others, but that just may be the greatest gift we can give to ourselves in this life. Down deep, we all want to be loved for who we are, but we rarely let anyone see the real us because we are afraid.
When I was growing up, my parents abused their power and laughed at my emotional vulnerability until I learned to hide it from them, the rest of the world, and even from myself. Over the years, I have gradually learned to trust myself and others with my feelings and deepest thoughts. It’s an ongoing process. I highly recommend it.