A Passover Joke

David and Herschel were two apple peddlers in a small shtetl in Galicia called, depending upon who you ask either “Schwini Gorodka” or “Shwenney Gorodka” — it doesn’t matter because it hasn’t existed since world war two. One day as they were pushing their carts they spied a 10 kopek piece at the same time. “Let’s get two tickets to Belgium.” said David. “I think we could make money trading on the Bourse. I have a cousin who is set up there.” Herschel was afraid to leave his town and said “No, you go.” And David went to Belgium.

Years passed. Herschel got married. He now had a small fruit store, but life was hard. Passover came around and he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to even afford a seder dinner. Two weeks before the day a coach in four arrived in Schwini Gorodka. It was an invitation to seder in Bruges at home of a prosperous trader — David Handelman. An invitation for one. For Herschel! Herschel’s wife said go. And he went.

A week after the Seder, Herschel came back. It was if somebody had hit him on the head with a rock. He was so stunned. His wife asked him “What was it like?” Herschel could say nothing. But he went “Ahh.” And she asked “Is David rich? Does he have a nice house?” and her husband would say “Ah.”

In the middle of the night Herschel’s wife was trying to sleep. Herschel kept her awake. He kept saying “Ohh!” and “Ahh!” Finally she got so annoyed she pulled him by the nose and said “Tell me what happened at the house in Bruges? Was he rich or not?”

“Was he rich?” said Herschel. “At the end of the seder the song Chad Gadya? You know?”

“Of course I know!” snapped his wife.

“Well in the house of my old friend, David Handelman, the prosperous trader on the Bourse, late of Schwini Gorodka and now of Bruges…the father bought the kid for three zuzim!”


The Father of Electricity

The very first short story I wrote made my father very unhappy with me, because it was pro-suicide. It posited a science fiction world where spores from outer space infected people and if you were infected the only thing to do to save the human race was to throw yourself into a fire in the middle of every town called The Saving Fire. The sign you’re infected is your skin gets blue. In my story there was a sort of fire drill. The main character, a boy named Hug has a blue dye dripped on him by his father. His father wants to see if he will be brave enough to throw himself into The Saving Fire. Secretly the father has turned off the fire. He just wants to know if his kids is brave. But the kid is not brave — he fails the test — when the father drips blue ink on him he just runs to his mother. The story ends with everybody being ashamed of the kid and not wanting to play with him.

As I said my father was very unhappy with me for writing this short story and I felt very ashamed. That first moment when I was ten years old introduced an element of shame and hiding into my relationship with my father. I never showed him any of my short stories any more, and I when I became a writer I moved away to California.

I started to write a series of stories about a boy who loses his father and meets a new father: the Father of Electricity. This new father is, unlike my father who was a fairly unsuccessful storefront attorney, a Wizard of the Electron. The boy in my stories thinks his actual father — who was if i remember correctly a typewriter salesman who became unemployed by the introduction of the personal computer — is his father but in the middle of the night the Father of Electricity reveals to him that he is his true father and takes him to the middle of a lightning storm in the Nevada desert in a veloci-gurdy where they are struck by lightning and in a beautiful scene they both learn the importance of the imagination.

I have a son who much prefers the Electric Father to me — he is my Electric Son.

I found my bravery just not where I expected it. Day follows day and I am less and less while the Electric Father blazes like a bolt of lightning that never stops flashing but stands permanent in the night sky, like a whiter and superior sun.


What is Funny?

I wrote this in response to Professor Rachel Barney but I kind of like it, so I thought I’d put it up here:

The funny is a bit like the rational part of us in the process of wrestling with the irrational part of us, but feeling good about it as opposed to bad (which would the horrific or the tragic). If we win it’s not funny and if we lose it’s not funny. But in the midst of it, it can be funny. But we don’t know ahead of time how it will be play out — if it’ll be funny or not — because if we knew ahead of time, we would not be wrestling with anything — we would have already won.

Think by comparison with being hexed.

You might be hexed.

You might not be hexed.

But if you’re afraid you’re hexed and you’re not sure if you’re hexed you can feel pretty hexed.

If you know for a fact you’re not hexed, you might not be hexed.

If you’re the one being hexed, that’s pretty different than if you are the one casting the hex.

If you get rid of the hex you know that you WERE hexed but you’re not currently hexed.


Touch that Works

For a few years I had a job where I was basically teaching people to use their hands. (Sometimes again, sometimes at all.). So, like, imagine you are going to carry two glasses in one hand — you know, or you can — I’m not sure if it’s “knowledge” exactly — to put a finger on the inside of each glass and push both against your thumb, and keep up the pressure hard enough that you can carry the glasses where you want to take them. But my clients didn’t know that or couldn’t do that. We’d have to do practice drills with two pieces of paper between thumb and forefinger and they’d have to learn what the pressure should be, how to use those three meat sticks so they stopped being meat sticks and became a hand, that could apply pressure in the right way so they could — I’m not sure the word here. Live? Be a person? Get through life?

I’m a very impatient person. Or I can be. Or I was in this instance. And I would start to have an edge in my voice when the piece of red construction paper would come fluttering down for the umpteenth time! I never scolded them but these were people who were already up against it pretty hard. They already felt failures, losers, and freaks. They felt shame, which is basically the fear that you are so unlovable your Mom will let you die. Or whoever is judging you in your culture. The tribe maybe.

I said something I shouldn’t have, the client yelled at me and I yelled back.

I thought about it later. I think what happened was the following. For me the failure to help effectively brings shame, because it reminds me of not being able to take care of my mother. It brings back a feeling that I am not good enough for her. Specifically it brings back a feeling that my mother needs my help to feel happy and if I fail to touch her — meaning touch in the most general sense — if I fail to use my self in a way that makes her happier — I have failed, and I’m not worthy. Not worthy in a deep, primal unconscious sense. Life unworthy of life.

My own pain made me less effective at touching my client and helping my client to touch.

Little by little, with lots of failures, including holding the glasses so tightly my thumb mound cramped and letting them fall to shatter in pieces on the floor, I learned to use my hands.


An Unclassy Joke, Well-Delivered

When I went to see the family my advisor advised me to only make classy jokes. Yes, they are interested in learning whether you are funny, and that is perhaps the most important requirement for the job you are gong to do for them, but make sure you are funny in a classy way, because, if you are funny but in an unclassy way, they may well laugh and laugh and make as if to enjoy your authenticity and genuineness, but behind their social facade they will judge and classify you, and you will never be accepted, not if you work for them faithfully for forty years.

I went to see the family, everything was going perfectly, the conversation lagged and I made an unclassy joke, delivering it well and graciously.

And everything has happened as he foresaw.