“I know just enough Yiddish to answer an old lady in an elevator that I am not going to kill her,” Paul Reiser joshed during our August 31 interview at the Regency Hotel. He was in town to tout his new film, “The Thing About My Folks,” which he wrote and in which he co-stars with Peter Falk. “My parents are second-generation Yiddish speakers…. But at [SUNY] Binghamton I took a course in Yiddish, where I learned to say — and I still remember it — di fareynikte shtatn, the United States [of America]” and not Amerike. “The teacher’s name was Isidore Friedland.”
Reminiscing about his early stand-up comedy days, Reiser recalled his inability to emulate legendary jokester Myron Cohen. “When I asked Cohen why I could not get his jokes across,” Reiser recalled, “he told me to forget it. Instead he gave me the following: Two men are walking on a beach. One compliments the other on his tan. ‘I’m brown from the sun,’ the tan one explained. ‘And I’m Goldberg from the Forward,’ the other replied.”
Directed by Raymond De Felitta, “The Thing About My Folks” is a deliciously edgy, feel-good, father-son comedy. Here’s a brief synopsis: Sam Kleinman (Falk) arrives unexpectedly at the home of his son, Ben (Reiser), and announces that Muriel, his wife of 40-plus years (Olympia Dukakis), left a note on the fridge that she was leaving him to “find herself.” Father and son set off on a trip to upstate New York. The father-son bonding odyssey offers not only a series of misadventures, including a fishing fiasco and one involving a pair of pool-hall sirens, but also a chance to relish New York’s glorious autumn foliage. Though the film’s Kleinman family is not identified explicitly as Jewish, I asked Reiser about the menorah in one of the scenes. “It was accidental,” he explained. “The set dresser put it there…. But then who but a Jew would say — as does Falk’s character: ‘Ford was an antisemite, but he made beautiful cars.’”
Falk, whom I also interviewed that afternoon, disclosed secrets that may surprise the fans of his alter ego, Lt. Columbo. Tucking his Hawaiian shirt into his pants, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get Falk told me, “My grandmother made great gefilte fish.” Born in Ossining, N.Y., he informed: “It’s named after the Sing Sing [originally known as Sint Sinck] Indians; the prison, the town — all Indian-related…. My father is from the generation that believes in work…. His dry goods store — Falk’s, 15 Main Street — opened at 9 a.m. He swept the sidewalk at 6:30 a.m. I never knew what he did between 7 and 9. My mother worked in the store… I always liked my father, felt comfortable with him. High Holidays, my father and mother did not want to go [to services] in Ossining. They drove all the way to… [New York’s] Park Avenue Synagogue…. That’s where I was bar mitzvahed!”
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On August 29, a “Tribute to the Fleischer Brothers” was offered by Mark Langer, head of Ottawa-based Carleton University’s graduate program in film studies, as part of the American Jewish Historical Society’s Mostly Monday Night Film Series, “Editing America,” at the Center for Jewish History. It was an evening of “aha’s” of the comic-strip light-bulb-over-the-head kind. Augmenting his lecture with film clips, Langer focused on the impact and significance of the Fleischer brothers’ work “in relation to Jewish-American culture.”
“The Fleischers,” Langer said, “created some of the best-known American animated films: the ‘Out of the Inkwell’ series, featuring Ko-Ko the Clown as well as the later ‘Popeye,’ ‘Betty Boop’ and ‘Superman’ cartoons…. The Fleischers were the major competitor to Walt Disney Productions until they lost their company in 1942.” Langer noted that he’d chosen to speak about the Fleischers “because [they] and many of their employees were Jews. Their films commonly feature characters with Yiddish accents, or incorporate words like ‘kosher,’ written in Hebrew letters, as part of the mise-en-scène…. The Fleischer cartoons illustrate the conditions of being Jewish in America — particularly in New York — at the beginning of the 20th century.”
Though Max Fleischer was born in Krakow and younger brother David was born in Manhattan — “on a site now covered by Radio City Music Hall” — the two grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn when it had “the highest concentration of Jews in New York City.” Early Fleischer films deal with a “hostile environment,” and with “otherness in relation to established society.” Langer noted that in “Minnie the Moocher,” “Betty [Boop] is unhappy with the demands of traditional culture (the otherness of the parents’…. Eastern European accents)…. Her boyfriend, Bimbo [a dog], is clearly not of the ‘tribe’ — or for that matter, the same species — an exaggerated version of the Jewish/gentile romance common to films like ‘The Jazz Singer’ or ‘Abie’s Irish Rose.’”
In the 1934 cartoon “Can You Take It?” Popeye wants to join a club that seeks to exclude him. He has to prove that he can “take it.” Popeye is beaten to a pulp, but through the intercession of the magical powers of spinach, he beats up the other club members. Langer notes, “This film both echoes religious persecution and the desire for some miraculous transforming agent that would give power to a relatively powerless minority.” As for Superman (created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster), Langer cites cartoonist Jules Feiffer, who joked, “It wasn’t Krypton that Superman really came from, it was the planet Minsk.” Langer noted that Joseph Goebbels denounced Superman as a Jew in the Reichstag in 1940! “Like many American Jews, Superman came to America from somewhere else,” Langer said. “It is tempting to interpret Superman as a kind of fantasy response to the historical conditions of World War II.”
A comic book fan since I first discovered Popeye in Japan in 1941, it never occurred to me to see him as “one of us.” Does the rest of America realize this?
ROAD TRIP: Paul Reiser (left) and Peter Falk (right) co-star in the new father-son road movie, ‘The Thing About My Folks.’ The author checked in with the two August 31 for a pre-release chat.