The History of Mel Brooks, Part I

Tells Difference Between Jelly Jars and Yahrtzeit Glasses

Showman of Showmen: Mel Brooks is the subject of a new PBS American Masters documentary and will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute.
Courtesy of Pamela Barkentin Blackwell
Showman of Showmen: Mel Brooks is the subject of a new PBS American Masters documentary and will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute.

By Curt Schleier

Published May 13, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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Brooks recalled how, growing up, “I was never really interested in the religious aspect of being a Jew. But Rabbi Nachman cured me of that.”

Nachman founded the Breslov Hasidic movement, and Brooks, a voracious reader, says he studied and was moved by his philosophical works. “He wrote a lot of stuff,” Brooks said. “He said talk to God like you talk to a friend. Until I read that, I’d always thought of God as a stern “burn you in fires and fury” tough guy. But Nachman’s thinking was so different, I became a little more religious.”

I asked Brooks if he gets bored answering the same questions over and over again. “Yeah, I do,” he said. “But I make believe I’m not. I’m really a good actor, and I say, ‘That’s an interesting question,’ and answer it. ‘What was your favorite movie?’ ‘How did you get into show business?’ You know.”

But now Brooks does not seem to be acting. He delves into the topic of religion with apparent enthusiasm, gaining vigor as he recalls his grandmother, “who was terribly religious,” putting a handkerchief on her head as she lit Sabbath candles and recited the blessings: “I used to ask my brother, ‘Is this the real McCoy, or is she faking it?’ It was real.”

Passover seems to have been his favorite holiday. It was celebrated at his grandfather Abraham’s house; “Everyone called him Shloimy,” Brooks recalled. “I don’t know why. It should have been Avraham. He would conduct the service. It would be three and a half hours.”

But, he says, Uncle Leon, who was the youngest of his mother’s brothers and therefore placed closest to the children’s end of the table, made the proceedings easier: “Leon saved the day. He’d say, ‘It’s a fly to center field,” and he’d do the whole thing like it was a Dodger game. He would say something like, ‘Mel Ott lifts his legs, swings and it’s going, going, gone’ every time my grandfather said something.”

These days, Brooks attends Seders hosted by Ron and Sheila Clark, respectively a co-writer on three Brooks films and his wife. “You get a lot of gefilte fish, but not too much reading,” he said.


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