For some time now, I’ve been wanting to write an amusing column, one offering us all a much-needed diversion from the insistent grim news — violence, famine, unemployment, nastiness and all that — with which we are daily inundated.
The trouble is, even the light-hearted stuff seems to be rooted in the downside. So, for example, a friend sent me an e-mail under the heading, “What have we learned in 2,100 years?” The answer? “The budget should be balanced, the Treasury refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, people must again learn to work instead of living on public assistance, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt.” This is Cicero in 55 BCE. So what have we learned in 2,100 years? Apparently nothing.
All right, I realize that’s not belly laugh inducing. But hey, even a wry chuckle is welcome relief.
Speaking of Cicero, in the very first session of the Knesset, a learned member cited Cicero, pronouncing the name “Tzitzero.” He was immediately corrected by the Speaker of the Knesset, Yosef Shprintzak, who instructed the stenographer to write, “Kikero.” “No,” said the learned member, “if he is Kikero then you are Shprinkak.”
There are those who claim that was the last amusing thing ever said in the Knesset. But they are wrong. Zalman Aran, an early education minister and devotee of David Ben Gurion, once observed that he would follow Ben Gurion with his eyes closed — now and then, however, opening one eye to make sure that Ben Gurion’s eyes were open.
Notwithstanding the contemptible behavior of the incumbent American Congress, parliaments are often home to wit. My favorite example is the time a Labor member of the House of Commons shouted at Prime Minister Winston Churchill, saying, “Mr. Prime Minister, you are drunk!” Churchill’s reply: “Madam, and you are ugly. But tomorrow I will no longer be drunk.” (Reminiscent of the man whose psychiatrist tells him that he’s crazy. “How can you say such a thing?” the man explodes. “I want a second opinion.” “Very well,” replies the psychiatrist. “You’re also ugly.”)
Actually, the Churchill story continues: “If you were my husband,” his interlocutor said, “I’d add hemlock to your tea.” “Ah,” replied Churchill, “if you were my wife, I’d drink it.”
Yoram Taharlev, a wise and hilarious Israeli elder who is a prolific songwriter and storyteller, contends that the generally dour mood of the Knesset is the result of 3,500 years of division among the Jews, a weighty burden. And he proves his point by telling the story of the rabbi who came to his new congregation and discovered that when it was time to recite the Sh’ma, half the congregation would rise while the other half would remain seated. The ones standing would urge the seated ones to rise, reminding them that this was the Sh’ma. The seated would reply that the custom was to sit for the recitation of the Sh’ma and would urge their fellows to sit down.
The rabbi thought this division intolerable. He announced that there would be one approved manner and all would adhere to it. To determine the approved manner, a small committee inquired of the oldest member of the congregation, a gentleman of 95 years, and asked him what the custom had been when he was a child. “Isn’t it so that everyone stood?” “No,” said the old-timer, “that was not the custom.” “Ah,” offered another “then everyone was seated, right?” “No, not that either.” At this point the rabbi implored him: “Please, please, unless you can remember we will simply continue yelling at each other during the Sh’ma.” “That’s it! That was the custom.”
How are we doing? Is the burden lifting a bit?
The discomfiting truth is that there is no way to shut out the world, not these days. The best that can be said regarding the renewed violence in Israel and the growing apprehension that still more violence is imminent is that we’ve been there before, and the familiarity is perversely reassuring. The best that can be said of the horrifying famine in Somalia is that we been there before, too. The only genuinely new source of disconcert is the fatuity of the Republican Presidential candidates, from Michelle Bachman’s pledge of $2-a-gallon gasoline to Mitt Romney’s proposal for private savings accounts to replace unemployment compensation to Rick Perry’s desire to render government irrelevant.
Such comfort as the world out there offers comes, first and foremost, as it always does, from the kindness of strangers, from modest acts of grace that remind us of the good of which we are capable and, now and then, from snippets of news. Good news, so it seems, from Libya. And yes, from Israel, too.
There is an old joke about Israel that doesn’t work any more. It tells of the American Jewish tourist who, on her third day on the tour bus, asks her guide, “How do you say tikkun olam in Hebrew?” Cute in its day — but now there’s a ready answer. The way you say tikkun olam in Hebrew is Rothschild Boulevard, epicenter of the tent cities at the heart of the new social justice protest movement that has awakened a nation that had seemed dormant. That alone is as heartwarming as a barrel full of jokes.