Sunday, November 23, 2008

Why I Love Jews

A few months ago, I called home to chat with my mom and while we were talking, my cousin asked to speak with me. She wanted to tell me that she’d recently heard that all the major Hollywood studios were run by Jews and suggested that perhaps if I wanted to be more successful, I should try to think up some ideas that Jews might like. In my cousin’s defense, she’s a bit of an oddball who’s lived her whole life in small towns in Kentucky. I also suspect that she's never met a Jewish person in her life.

As embarrassing as this sounds, I didn't know there were any Jewish people in America until I was about 19 years old. Having grown up in small, working class towns, Jewish people weren’t exactly on our radar. Because my parents were big churchgoers, I’d definitely heard of Jews, but I thought they were just another dusty Old Testament tribe like the Pharisees or the Samaritans. In high school, I discovered that there were Jews in Europe and that after the war, many of them had moved to Israel. But somehow I missed the part about Jews having been a part of this country for over two hundred years. I smoked a lot of dope in those days.

Then at 19, I was cast in the chorus of a summer stock musical. The leading man was a guy named Barry Eisenberg. Barry told a lot of jokes and the punch lines always had something to do with somebody being a Jew. Needless to say, I never got the jokes. Then one day, I turned to Barry and with a totally straight face asked him if he was Jewish. He looked at me like I had just landed from Mars. “Yes,” he answered. Then, trying to sound sophisticated, I asked him what part of Israel he was from. Barry became sort of fascinated with my ignorance and during the run of the show, causally caught me up on a century or two of recent Jewish history. It was a good thing he did.

A year later, I was living in New York and working in a real estate office where I soon became intimately acquainted with the lives of two Jewish people. “Fred” (the middle-aged guy I worked for) had a particularly tortured relationship with his mother. Whenever he would see her coming from his office window, he would literally run out the back door, screaming that I was to tell her that he “wouldn’t be back for hours.” When his mother would huff and puff her way into the office, I would dutifully recite the official story. She would then shrug and say “I’ll wait.” And wait she did. Every hour or so, my boss would call in to see if she was still there. When I told him “yes,” he would yell at me to get rid of her - which was impossible. “Edna” had the patience of a Sphinx and all the time in the world. Clearly in no hurry to return to her empty apartment in the Bronx, she handily filled the time by telling me stories about the old neighborhood (which had apparently gone to hell after the Puerto Ricans arrived). She would tell me about my boss’s childhood. My boss’s brother. Their good-for-nothing father who'd abandoned the family. Her nervous breakdown. How her sons hated her. How, as revenge, they only dated blonde shikzas and refused to give her any grandchildren. Then there was her failing health. Her recent gastric operations. Her back. Her shoulder. Her feet. This would go on for hours.

Many times her visits lasted through lunch, which meant I would have to feed her. This was always sort of a production. We would go over the deli menu, item by item, as Edna briefed me on what she could or could not eat. Certain items would give her gas. Others would make her constipated. This could give her a headache. That could cause swelling. Eventually, she would settle on an Egg salad sandwich which (although it might result in death) would at least end her suffering.

After several hours, my boss would give up and return to the office. Since my desk was right outside his door, I couldn’t help but overhear every word. Having come from a repressed Southern family who loved talking about people but never to them, listening to Fred and Edna was a revelation. Their conversation would start out casually enough, but would soon blossom into a festival of guilt and blame, usually climaxing in yelling and tears. Then somehow it would settle down again. Edna would limp out of the office, get back on the number 6 train and head back to Riverdale. Nobody ever gave an inch and the whole thing would be repeated in about three week’s time.

When I left the real estate office, I went to work for a Kosher catering company based in Brooklyn that used to do events in a union hall so crowded it was like trying to serve dinner in a mosh pit. My first agents were a lovely pair of Jewish ladies named Marilyn and Diane. My second set of agents (who were young, crazy cokeheads) were also Jewish. My first great adult friend was a fellow acting student (also Jewish and also named David). In Hollywood, I’ve co-written with, been produced, represented, befriended, guided and counseled by Jewish people. My legal affairs, financial life and public relations have always been gracefully handled by some of God’s chosen. My doctor is Jewish. My neighbors are Jewish. My best friend (a guy who makes me laugh every day) is the son of camp survivors. It doesn’t get more Jewish than that. I adore his Mom. One of her paintings hangs in my bedroom.

I think one of the reasons I’ve always connected with Jewish people is that I was raised by a quiet father with unshakable faith who instilled in me a belief that I was part of something larger. I was also blessed with a loving mother who, while assuring me that I could achieve anything, also made it clear that it might be safer if I somehow achieved it without leaving the house. My parents taught me to show kindness and to offer praise and recognition to others. They also taught me to feel vaguely guilty about everything and to always expect the worst. When I explained all this to my friend Marty, he christened me “an honorary Jew.” He was also the person who told me that the video game Pac Man was actually a history of the Jewish People: Being chased while eating. Do you want to know the biggest reason I love Jews? They’re the only group of people I know who love bacon and Christmas more than I do. Friendly, funny, honest and loyal. As Marty’s mother used to say, “What’s not to like?”

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at


rscoach said...

As one of your Jewish friends, I think you will enjoy the story of my first encounter away from home. I arrived at my dorm first semester Freshman year in a small women's college in Virginia. My roommate Mary Lynn W. was already unpacking when I arrived. Since we had been sent letters ahead of time (pre-computers, e-mail and cell phones) telling each other our names and a little bit about each other as way of introductions, she knew my name - obviously Jewish. In a loud "stage whisper" I heard Mary Lynn's mother nudge her to "go ahead ask her..." Mary Lynn crossed the room and instead of saying hello asked "can I see your horns?" Coming from a fairly secular Jewish family, I had no idea what she was talking about. "You're a Jew aren't you?" she persisted. I said yes and she explained, "My mother says that you can always tell a Jew by the horns on their head" I didn't know what to say. Mary Lynn was from Suffolk, Virginia and had only encountered Jews in the Bible in her Southern Baptist church. Her preacher actually taught his congregation that Jews had horns and a tail but often they had been removed, leaving bumps in their place which could be felt when rubbing the Jews head. Needless to say my first day at college was a memorable one! xo Reva

Anonymous said...

Having been raised Catholic, I can relate. My best Jewish friend and I used to trade religious trauma stories for entertainment. The funniest thing she ever said to me was "The only difference between Jews and Catholics is that we are born with guilt and you have to learn it." Amen, Sister.


SteveM said...

Your writing is wonderful!
Thank you for this one.

Anonymous said...

I can relate, too, David! When I went to college in 1979, I didn't know any Jews. I dated a grad student named Friedman for weeks before I asked if his sister was getting married in a church. At least with no minorities in my small hometown, I never developed prejudices and I quickly corrected my ignorance when I went away to school. ;)
sarah in colorado