Not "Did you?" JEW eat? JEW? You get it? JEW eat?
For some reason this exchange of dialogue from Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” has stayed with me as the pinnacle of hilarity for almost 30 years now and I don’t think 24 hours have passed without me repeating it. Now if I even whisper “Jew eat?” to myself, Leah will sigh and automatically repeat in full Woody Allen timbre, “Not did you...JEW?” My biggest claim to fame was getting my nephew Sammy to repeat the entire phrase when he was just learning to talk. I believe "Jew eat yet?" may have been the first words he ever uttered.
The moment occurs when Woody is walking down a New York street with his goyishe best friend played by Tony Roberts and Woody is ranting about how everyone in New York is anti-Semitic, even the NBC executives he just met with. The proof he cites to his incredulous friend is the NBC executive saying “Jew” instead of “Did You?”
In another scene, after Woody and Diane Keaton break up, Woody is on a date and he tries to recreate the same funny, neurotic moment he enjoyed with Keaton earlier in the film when they went nuts trying to get live lobsters into a pot for dinner. But it all falls terribly flat when his humorless date stares at him blankly and says “I don’t get it. Just pick up the lobster.” That line has become another bit of shorthand in my cinematic lexicon whenever I feel someone is on a different wavelength and doesn’t get my humor at all.
As I sit here thinking about “Annie Hall,” a film I haven’t seen in ages, I realize with growing concern how much like Allen’s Alvy character I have become. Remember my recent panic that the Earth was going to spin off its axis (the third time I’m mentioning that in this blog)? Well, I just remembered another great moment from the film during a flashback involving Alvy as a little boy, his mother, and their family doctor:
Alvy's mother: He's been depressed. All of a sudden, he can't do anything.
Doctor: Why are you depressed, Alvy?
Alvy's mother: Tell Dr. Flicker. (To the doctor) It's something he read.
Doctor: Something he read, huh?
Alvy: The universe is expanding...Well, the universe is everything, and if it's expanding, some day it will break apart and that will be the end of everything.
Alvy's mother (screaming): What is that your business? (To the doctor) He stopped doing his homework.
Alvy: What's the point?
Alvy's mother: What has the universe got to do with it? You're here in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not expanding!
Oy, I AM Alvy Singer! I have no idea what got me off on this rant except that Leah and I repeated the “Jew Eat?” exchange less than an hour ago at dinner and I was wondering why I find neuroses and anxiety so terribly funny. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that they’re the ONLY things that have ever made me laugh out loud. And at the same time, it is my own neuroses and anxieties that constantly cause me so much pain. I won’t torture you by expounding on the relationship between pain and humor but I’m sure there are about a million PhD theses on the subject. But now I’m wondering—am I so insular, so ghettoized, that I'm only able to think Jews are funny? Or maybe I should say Jewish humor?
I’m also thinking about Jews and humor tonight because the restaurant where Leah and I ate is one where I used to always run into the great comedian Lotus Weinstock. Have you ever heard of her? By all rights, she should have been a superstar, a household name. She was so unbelievably funny. For several years in the late 1980s I was in a Jewish study group that was led by Rabbi Laura Geller, the second woman ever to be ordained as a rabbi in this country (and also the rabbi who married my current rabbi Lisa Edwards and her partner Tracy Moore years later). When Barbra Streisand was preparing to film “Yentl” she asked Rabbi Geller to be a consultant on the film and they started a study group focused on the Jewish lifecycle as seen from a modern, feminist perspective. By the time I joined the group “Yentl” was released and Babs was long gone but it was still a fascinating mix of people. Regulars included Leonard Nimoy and his wife, comedians Judy Carter and Larry Miller (who once brought his relatively unknown friend Jerry Seinfeld), Sandra Berhnard’s brother Mark, artist Ruth Weisberg, TV producer Freyda Rothstein, feminist icon Betty Friedan when she was in L.A., and Lotus Weinstock. I think that Lotus was the funniest woman I’ve ever met, but I don’t dare try to repeat any of her shticks because I could never do them justice. I saw her perform at least a dozen times and even though she’d often do the same bits, always dressed in her trademark bright yellow from head to toe, I laughed like I was hearing every word for the first time. Her delivery was perfection. Okay, I have to tell you just a few of her quips. You wouldn’t believe what she could wring out of lines such as:
• I used to want to change the world. Now, I just want to leave the room with dignity.
• With all the Jewish comics in the world, how come Israel doesn't have a Laughing Wall?
• Is it wrong to fake orgasm during masturbation?
• I married Mr. Right. Mr. Always Fucking Right!
I was shocked that she wasn’t more famous—she was known on a national scale more for being Lenny Bruce’s girlfriend during the last years of his life. And she was involved in a nasty bit of slander when Joan Rivers accused her of sending her a threatening note. Of course Lotus was completely innocent but it damaged her career and reputation even though her legion of famous friends never abandoned her. She was like the Den Mother for all the great comics of the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
Lotus died way too young of brain cancer in the late 1990s and I somehow got into her SRO memorial at the Improv. Her incredibly talented musician daughter Lili Haydn played the violin at the memorial and it was like she had a direct line to God. My mom died shortly after Lotus. I always thought they were cut from the same cloth. Why have so many of the funny, great Jewish women left us?
Well, I’ve done it. I was laughing out loud when I started writing this and now a few minutes later I’ve talked myself into a clinical depression. And THAT, my friends, is the true Jewish way!
Just pick up the lobster.