A Funny Thing Happened on the way from My Grandmother’s Funeral

The great comedy writer, director, producer and sometimes actor Mel Brooks once said, “Look at Jewish history. Unrelieved lamenting would be intolerable. So, for every 10 Jews beating their breast, God designated one to be crazy and amuse the breast-beaters. By the time I was five years old, I knew I was that one.”

I’m no Mel Brooks, but I am “that guy” within my family. While some of you are aware that this skill has come in handy for me during my professional stage work, it is particularly useful at funerals—especially the one this past weekend for my 100-year-old Grandma Bess.

One of the great American bar and bat mitzvah traditions is the personalized yarmulke (the Jewish skullcap pronounced “ya-ma-ka”). Next time you go to someone’s home for a Jewish ceremony, look inside the yarmulke and you will see what I mean.

A case in point was at the service my mother Diane held at her house on the evening after my grandmother’s funeral. Grandma Bess was my father’s mother, and despite my parents’ divorce in 1979, these two women remained as close as any mother-daughter combination I have ever seen. They spoke with each other every day, and went out together once a week until the end. Given the closeness of their relationship, my mother brought out all the “good stuff” for the shiva (the home of a deceased Jewish loved one that receives guests for several days after a funeral).

As the service began, the rabbi commented on the 10 beautiful yarmulkes my mother had laid out for guests. They were a pretty, green velvet with gold trim and looked like family heirlooms. Curious, I looked inside them to determine their provenance, and found that they were from one Dan Rosenberg’s bar mitzvah in 1987 at the Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan. As Mr. Rosenberg isn’t someone I know, I asked my mother, “Who is Dan Rosenberg?” Looking down, she replied, “Uh, yeah, these are from a bar mitzvah of your distant cousin that I attended several years ago.”  In other words, my mother liked these yarmulkes so much that she took a few “extras,” and they were now appearing with the “good stuff” in the shiva house.

Now, given the reverence of the situation and the crowd assembled, most would have let the exposed caper die there. But at that moment, I summoned the spirit of Grandma Bess (and a little bit of Mel Brooks) and thought this was too good of a comedic situation to pass up.

“Rabbi,” I said, “what is the yarmulke policy when someone attends a bar or bat mitzvah? Is it one per customer, or is it ok to take more than one, or nine more in this case?” Neither the Talmud nor the rabbi could provide an answer to this completely inappropriate question at a minion (Jewish religious gathering). In good form, he and my mother feigned shock at my question, and we all agreed that God would forgive this “sin.” Afterwards, we all laughed like crazy. Comedy trumps tragedy.

To whoever Dan Rosenberg is, I want to say thanks and “nice yarmulkes.” Second, please send this blog to your mother, who I fear will be both proud and mortified by this story. Should you see tragedy instead of comedy in this story, I am pretty sure that the statute of limitations on petty theft has expired after 30 years and that the NYPD probably has a few better things to do than investigate this. If you or your mom are a little sore about this situation, please reach out and my mother and I will treat you to pastrami, chicken soup and Dr. Brown’s Cel Ray Soda at Ben’s Best deli in Rego Park, Queens as a peace offering.

So that there is some semblance of business relevance because I’m posting this on LinkedIn, I can tell you that my grandmother—despite only having a high-school education and, early in life, not having two nickels to rub together—helped me in business. Like many in her generation, she was fluent in Yiddish and frequently mixed it with English (with an accent exactly like Edith from All in the Family). I telephoned her during several business meetings when someone would drop a Yiddish word I didn’t know. Instead of “phone a friend,” I called it “call an old Jewish grandmother from the Bronx.”

This came in particularly handy when I was negotiating a lawsuit settlement in Boston. During the negotiation, Mr. Boston Jewish Guy called me a gonif (Yiddish for “thief”), not realizing that he was facing Mr. New York Jewish Guy, whose grandparents spoke Yiddish fluently. After quickly consulting with Grandma Bess by phone, I responded by calling him a schnerer (Yiddish for “sponger” or “beggar”). This greatly amused him , and we settled the lawsuit within minutes. Thanks Grandma, ir zent a gut mentsh!

The death of my grandmother, or any other 100-year-old for that matter, is no tragedy. It is a celebration, and comedy can alleviate any sorrow. Goodbye, Grandma Bess. Congratulations on a life well lived!

By Spencer Levy, Head of Research, Senior Economic Advisor, CBRE