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FIRST PERSONI sat next to Richard Belzer in Hebrew school — and it was a hoot

He made off-color jokes, cast himself as the serpent in Eden and kept me giggling all the way to my bat mitzvah

I loved sitting next to Richard Belzer in Mrs. Bar-Cohen’s Hebrew school class. My mother would drop me off, always late, in front of the shul in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and I would tear down the long, dimly lit hallway to the airless classroom with metal desk-chair combinations attached in pairs.

When I saw that the seat next to Richard was still empty (it always was), I was thrilled. He would greet me with that grin of his that seemed to make his ears stick out even more than usual. None of the other 10 or so students even looked up to acknowledge my arrival. You had to be in one of the cliques for them to talk to you. It was like I was invisible. 

Mrs. Bar-Cohen would mutter something about tardiness and then, even before I took my coat off, she’d bark at me, “Sheket bevakasha,” which was a sort of cross between, “Quiet, please” and “Shut up!”

Exiled to Kiddush Hall

Richard and I were both really silly and neither of us cared much about Hebrew school so we goofed around a lot. He’d begin by passing me a note with some of his linguistic insights. “Do you know that the word for tent in Hebrew is ‘oh hell’ and the letter zayin means dick?” As fifth-graders, we found that hilarious.

Then he’d launch into a monologue of made-up, off-color jokes. His favorite was the one about the things the teacher and her husband did together when they were naked. Soon, we’d be laughing hysterically, and Mrs. Bar-Cohen would throw us out of the room, saying, “Go sit in the Kiddush Hall until you learn how to behave.”

During one of our exiles in the Kiddush Hall, we came up with a plan for how to stop laughing in class. All we needed to do was not look at each other. So, we practiced “not laughing” as we walked back to Mrs. Bar-Cohen’s room. We stared at the floor and bit our lips. It was working! We were almost there when we saw two enormous black leather shoes coming towards us. When they stopped toe-to-toe with our smaller shoes, we looked up. Oh no! It was Cantor Leon and he looked angry. We weren’t supposed to be in the hallway during class. 

Before we had a chance to (try to) explain, he started chanting the line everyone had to learn to have a bar — or bat —mitzvah: “Mah-PA Pash-TOH …” Then he added, as though it were the next line, “You’re not gonna-have-a bar-MITZ-vah …” We sprinted back to our desks.

Lilith and the snake

In spite of the problems we had in class, we both enjoyed the homework assignments having to do with Torah stories. Once, I told Richard that I wished we could talk more about some of those strange, weird people, like Joseph, whose brothers left him to die in a pit, or Abraham, who sacrificed his son and sold his wife — twice. 

“And Adam and Eve were always naked,” Richard added, “and God seemed pretty nuts.” He told me he thought we should put on Bible plays and that he should either be God or the snake in the Garden of Eden. “What about you?” he asked. I considered the question and then answered, “Eve.” “Eve?” he said, with disdain. “Why not Lilith? Everyone thought she was a demon but she had a lot of fun.” That sounded good to me.

We decided to ask Mrs. Bar-Cohen if we could act out Bible stories and if Richard could be God or a snake and I could be Lilith. I don’t remember her response, but it didn’t happen.

One day during recess, I was trying to get a Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda out of the perpetually dysfunctional kosher drinks machine when a girl came up behind me and, in a taunting, barely-louder-than-a-whisper voice, told the back of my head, “The reason you always get to sit next to Richard Belzer is because nobody likes him.”

Suddenly, I stopped shaking the soda dispenser. I turned very slowly to face her, puffing up my chest on the way so I would appear to be as big and tall as she was. We stood there staring at each other for several moments in silence, me with my chin cranked up and her looking down at me. Then something in me exploded and I spun back around and started kicking, punching and screaming at the big, metal box with all my 10-year-old might. “Stupid soda machine! STU-pid! STU-pid! STU-pid!”

The kids from the other side of town

I hated that girl. Richard was so much better than her and all her snooty friends. I always felt bad around them. They lived in split-level houses in fancy Fairfield. They had gold charm bracelets and training bras and their families rented changing lockers at the private Fairfield Beach. My family was strictly Seaside Park, the public beach, and we lived in working-class Bridgeport. Once, in Hebrew school, I saw another kid roll his eyes when someone mentioned, “Bridgeport.” I don’t remember which side of the town line Richard was from but, in his weird case, class didn’t much matter.

When I told my mother what happened, she was very reassuring. She said I would always have friends. Then, she reprimanded me with: “Why didn’t you tell her off?”

The next two years Richard and I were in Mrs. Karpillow’s class. Mrs. Karpillow sat us on opposite sides of the room. I don’t remember being friends with him or anyone else in that class. I just remember feeling lonely. I wondered if he did too.

Richard quit Hebrew school the day after his bar mitzvah and a few months later, on April 13, 1957, just a day after my bat mitzvah, I followed him out the door of the shul. Four years later, my family moved to a split-level house in fancy Fairfield. I never saw him again.

Following Belzer’s career

By the time he was in his mid-20s, Richard Belzer was a famous stand-up comedian/actor and author in New York City. In the next four decades he had major roles in, among others, Cheers, The Simpsons, Frasier, Saturday Night Live, Law and Order and Homicide: Life on the Street, where he appeared in 119 of 122 episodes. (I looked it up.)

After graduating from the University of Connecticut, I moved to New York City where I studied modern dance at Juilliard, got a second-degree black belt in tae kwon do and opened a karate school for women in Greenwich Village. Later, after being treated for cancer, I began practicing — and soon, teaching — yoga to people with cancer and to people with movement disorders in hospitals. The New York Times described my instruction as “humorous and irreverent without taking away the reverence.” Nobody has ever been thrown out of my class for laughing. 

I used to think about going to see Richard perform at Catch a Rising Star, a comedy club in New York City where he appeared regularly. My plan was to pass him a note during his set, saying, “Do you know that the word for tent in Hebrew is ‘oh hell’ and the letter zayin means dick? Mrs. Bar-Cohen said so.” 

I thought of even throwing in an angry fantasy about our nemesis with something like, “I hear that snooty girl we never liked married an entrepreneur who specializes in Venetian blinds,” and maybe ask him a serious question about whether he thought there was a link between being an outcast as a kid and having an interesting life. But I never got around to it. I was always too busy.

Rest in peace, Richard. Thanks for making me laugh in Mrs. Bar-Cohen’s Hebrew class, for suggesting it was more fun to be Lilith than Eve and for showing me that being an outcast was better than being snooty.

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