By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
The British can turn a phrase or two, whether applied to four-century-old plays plumbing the dark side of the human psyche, or 50-year-old bright, shiny pop tunes sung by charismatic mop tops.
Trouble is, the Mother Country is known for its trademark stiff upper lip, so humor – like delicious cuisine – is not typically a British import.
With a key exception, and that has an asterisk.
Rabbi Barry Schechter sports a charming English accent, on display as he shares a spot of tea with a visitor to his Morton Grove home. He’s a product of Cambridge, not known as a source of Animal House antics. And yet aside from the natural refinement growing up near the center of London and using the King’s English properly, the Schechter family’s Eastern European Jewish roots make him 100 percent kosher when channeling humor.
On Shabbat – even on the High Holidays – the rabbi will come joking. After 23 years helming Congregation Kol Emeth in Skokie, Schechter now has a generation’s experience melding Jewish ritual with humor. He is the spiritual descendant of a rabbi mentioned in the Talmud who began his classes with humor, opening up the students’ emotional pores. There is no sense in developing a mental block to learning or contracting narcolepsy during services in shul if the rabbi can lighten things up with a talent that comes naturally to many Jews, for fun or profit.
“When you tell a Frenchman a joke, he laughs three times,” said Schechter, starting on a roll. “Once when you tell it. Once when you explain it. And once when he understands it. A Frenchman loves to laugh.
“When you tell an Englishman a joke, he laughs twice. Once when you tell it. Once when you explain it. He’ll never understand it.
“When you tell a German a joke, he laughs once when you tell him. He can’t understand it, and he’ll never let you explain it.
“When you tell a Jew a joke, you don’t get past the first line. You’re telling it wrong. And I’ll tell you the way you should have told it in the first place.”
Variations on these smile-inducers have been told for decades by Schechter. He first delivered his “History, Yiddish, and Laughter” series at Kol Emeth, where he began as cantor in 1981.
Word got around, so he expanded his talks to other synagogues in the Chicago area, Milwaukee and New York, as well as Hadassah groups, YIVO and public libraries. He has spoken at the University of Chicago and University of Hartford. Schechter headed back to the U.K. to evoke laughter at the University of Reading, then journeyed to Berlin to talk to the Jewish organization Gesher. His cable TV series “Yiddish and Laughter” won a Telly Award in 1999.
Schechter uses entertainment in fund-raising for Kol Emeth. Wife Julie Foreman has produced several cabaret fund-raisers for the synagogue. “What the World Needs Now is Love…Songs” was the theme in the 2015 event at the Skokie Theater.
“We could use love songs. We could use love in the world,” Foreman told the Chicago Tribune. “There’s so many horrible things going on. We wanted to have something that was fun and happy.” Schechter, who can also sing and play the violin like much admired comedian Jack Benny, emceed the event.
Schechter can be as serious as his English comrades. He has also lectured on the history of Eastern European Jews, Yiddish Language and Dialects, Austrian and German Jewish Refugees in Britain, the Holocaust and other Jewish subjects.
Following yeshiva studies at Etz Chaim in London and Gateshead Talmudical Academy, he was ordained as a rabbi. He has master’s degrees in economics from Cambridge and Essex University in England. After emigrating to the U.S. in 1969, he came to Chicago to do graduate work at Northwestern University.
He always prefers to make people smile. And Schechter recalls humor winning the day at Cambridge.
“I was always interested in seeing the humorous side of things,” Schechter said. “We debated in the (student) union. It was formal. But it could be funny. In fact, if you were asked a difficult question, you could turn it aside with a jest. It was amazing. It could be quite subtle. You could fail to answer the question. But if you turned it aside with a witty remark, then the audience would approve. You disarmed them.
“Debating is very serious in the U.S. But in England, at least in Cambridge, style was very important, almost more important than the content. The ratio of style to content was much higher there. It was not in-your-face humor. If you were clever enough in the moment to say something witty, you disarmed the person who asked the question and got the audience’s approval.”
Debating at Cambridge, Schechter met his jokester soulmate in Christie Davies, who died at 75 on Aug. 26. Davies, a Welshman, became a great authority on humor, writing what Schechter described as “many, many serious books on humor.”
The Jewish side of Schechter’s funnybone became imprinted in Davies.
“He became interested in Jewish humor partly because of me,” Schechter said. “He analyzed it. I’d talk to him back in England several times a week on the phone. He was a very funny man with wonderful jokes. He became a great authority on ethnic material all over the world with three volumes on it. We both enjoyed each other.”
Schechter also heard a joke from Davies that got translated into a Jewish angle, but actually had a Welsh counterpart:
“It’s the one about the Jewish man marooned on a desert island. After he’s rescued, he’s asked why he’s built two synagogues. He responds: ‘This one I go to. This one, I wouldn’t step inside if you paid me.’ In Wales, it’s non-establishment churches. It points a finger at a phenomenon many religions deal with.”
Over the years, the bimah and speaking lecterns – Schechter also taught at Oakton College – became natural channels for humorous asides and funny anecdotes to make a more serious point. Like the classic comics, Schechter will use a combination of scripted lines and ad-libs to loosen up his audiences.
“The High Holidays, I will have notes, I will have some humorous remarks or jokes prepared,” he said. “But I will not necessarily use all of them. I ad-lib in the sense of when I’m standing there, I’ll choose which one I feel like using. I say I have to yield to the temptation of saying something funny.
“During the year, it’s likely to come out much more on the fly, on Shabbat Friday night or Saturday.”
Schechter has his comic limits. He will not use audience members as foils, in the manner of riotous Jewish comics like Don Rickles.
“I may talk about something in a certain part of the world, like so-and-so is from Poland and knows about this. Or so-and-so told me this once. I don’t bounce something off someone.”
Schechter was in Britain during the prime of Waukegan native Benny’s career. But watching “Benjamin Kubelsky’s” old TV shows and movies, Schechter could see how the pregnant pause and sideways look, as much as a witty line, could carry the day. Benny, of course, mentored pausing/sidelooking Johnny Carson, who in turn midwifed so many prominent Jewish comics’ careers led by Robert Klein and Joan Rivers.
“The best bit was where the robber goes up to Benny and demands, ‘Your money or your life,’” Schechter said. “And there’s that pause where the audience knows all about (his stinginess). Of course, he then says, ‘I’m thinking.’”
Another favorite was satirist Mort Sahl, who said the only reason Ronald Reagan won two terms as president was he had poor opposition. Schechter added the punch line: “Then he said if he had run unopposed, he’d have lost.”
While Benny and other Jewish comics lifted spirits in the U.S. during the Great Depression, Schechter’s own family dealt with very serious business as the grip of Nazism enveloped father Izrael Schechter’s adopted home in Vienna. The story is compelling in so many ways. The elder Schechter needed help from two Nazi officials, including a former gas meter reader who felt beholden to Schechter, to escape the Holocaust.
Barry Schechter recounted the truth-is-stranger-than fiction tale in a 1986 Washington Post article packaged as a first-person memory of Kristallnacht.
The meter reader had pestered Izrael Schechter, a wholesale furrier, to sell a fur collar for his girlfriend. But Schechter was not a retailer and initially declined to make the sale. Eventually he relented. Grateful, the meter-reader repeated on each visit to Schechter’s home: “You are an honest Jew. I didn’t know there were honest Jews. You are the only honest Jews.”
Early in 1938, several months before the Anschluss – the forced union between Germany and Austria – newlywed Rosy Schechter suggested to her husband that they obtain visas to leave for England while they still could. But Izrael Schechter declined, suggesting the Nazi threat from the north would soon blow over.
It didn’t. However, Schechter caught a break when a relative in Palestine connected him to a British diplomat traveling back home through Vienna. The official granted the Schechters and their infant daughter exit visas at the British embassy. When he left, though, mobs of Jews desperately trying for visas also disappeared. The Nazis had rounded up the men as part of a dragnet of Jews on the same day as Kristallnacht.
Hurrying home, Schechter was caught by the Nazis and lined up with all the other local Jews in preparation to travel to Gestapo headquarters. But the old meter reader, now a Nazi, suddenly appeared, escorting another Jew out of the building. He spotted Schechter, found out he was caught in the roundups and unsuccessfully argued with the Nazi supervisor for his release.
Thinking quickly, the meter reader announced he would personally arrest Schechter and take him to headquarters. The pair began walking away.
Barry Schechter wrote: “But the release was too much for my father, and fear propelled him into a run…’Are you crazy?’ asked the gasman, and dragged him back. ‘A Jew on the run will be shot instantly.’ They walked side by side down the street, the gasman constantly repeating, ‘langsam, langsam’ (slowly, slowly) or ‘This man coming up is a very important Nazi official, slow down.’ And so they walked down the short block, endlessly, it seemed, varying the tempo with ranks of oncoming uniforms until finally the gasman whispered, ‘Go. Get into one of those cabs and disappear.’”
Izrael’s dance with danger was not over by any means. Seeking refuge in an apartment of a non-Jewish friend, he discovered the Nazis were going to search the building for Jews. The friend asked a neighbor, an important Nazi, to discourage the storm troopers from searching his apartment. The troopers continued down the corridor without entering the apartment.
Gathering his family, Izrael Schechter still had to dodge bullets, via a “grueling” airport customs inspector who threatened him with transport to Dachau if he found anything suspicious. Hours later, the Schechters’ plane nearly crashed into the English Channel. Finally, their trials over, they made it to London.
“In a sense, my father may have been intended to die that day,” Barry Schechter wrote in ending the Post article. “But three times, some other force intervened: the British official, the Nazi meter reader, the gentile friend with a powerful Nazi neighbor.”
After the Schechter family’s serious history, there are still more jokes to crack, more ancient funny stories to relate – and even more lessons to teach via the door-opener of humor.
“Use it in as many contexts as possible,” he said of future goals for comedy. “Teaching things that are quite technical. Teaching people to read. Teaching people to understand Hebrew. Teaching people to understand text, to understand moral lessons. To use it whenever possible, in the synagogue and many other places.
“It should be breaking down barriers. You can use it in contexts that can be quite surprising. It’s proving the point by demonstration. Some people are so closed to it, it doesn’t work. But you have to keep going.”
Schechter concluded a tea with his visitor with a parable/joke that applied to the world situation of 1938 – but could easily be updated to 2017:
“A Jewish man sees his friend reading a Nazi paper. ‘Why are you doing that, are you crazy?’ he said. But the second man says when I read the Jewish newspaper, it depresses me. Expropriations. Pogroms. Banishment. Persecution. But when I read the Nazi paper, it cheers me up. We run the world! We own the banks! We’re in charge of everything!
“This is an old joke, a bitter joke. But it mocks the nonsense these enemies of Jews are saying. It mocks them, pokes its tongue out and says you’re cheering me up.”