What’s All the Complaining About?
A waiter comes over to a table where old Jewish women are seated and says, “Excuse me, ladies. Is anything all right?”
Jews have a history of complaining. They complained to Moses about not having bread, meat or water.
But complaining isn’t always a bad thing. If we complain to our politicians, that’s sometimes a good thing. Complaining to your neighbors about late-night noise or a dog barking nonstop is also OK. If you knock on your neighbor’s door ready to kill them because they don’t mow their lawn, that’s not OK. If you’re calm and explain the situation, then most people will understand.
These days, people complain about things that aren’t important. The chimney sweep scene in “Mary Poppins” is racist. Plastic straws are an environmental hazard. And, of course, airplanes are ruining the world. As my mother used to say: “People have too much time on their hands” or “They have nothing better to do than complain.”
Because the United States is a great country and basics such as food, water and shelter are taken care of, we tend to look for things to complain about. You’ll never hear someone in the Sudan grumble about something green growing out of an onion. I come from a long line of complainers. There was constant complaining about family members, food and, of course, the weather. One of my uncles said about the day someone died: “He picked the worst day to drop dead. He couldn’t wait till Tuesday?”
There’s an old saying, “Be careful what you pray for because you might get it.” Jews pray for rain, but then when it rains they complain. “Every time I go on vacation, it never fails to rain.” “Of course it’s raining, I just washed the car.”
People worry and get others worried. “Driving home from work, I couldn’t see a thing. It’s amazing I wasn’t killed” or “I’m not going to venture out in this.” They even try to persuade others not to go out. “Stay home today. What’s so important that you have to go out in this kind of weather?”
“I had an aunt who spent most of her life trying to figure out where the draft was coming from.”
People tell you the obvious: “If you go out, I guarantee you’ll get soaked.” They bring illness into it: “Are you looking to get pneumonia?” When it rains hard, they make it sound as if they were an assassin’s target: “Oh my gosh, I didn’t think I’d make it from the car to the house.” And, of course, they drag God into it: “A few more days of this and we’ll have to build an ark.”
Then, of course, when it doesn’t rain they get upset: “I wish it would rain so I could shut off the sprinklers.” Then, after only one day of rain: “Enough already. When’s it going to stop?” Heat also drives Jews crazy: “It better cool off soon. My AC bill is a fortune.” And then they talk as if they’ve spent time in hell: “Have you been outside? It’s hotter than hell out there.” They throw in cooking references: “You could fry an egg on the sidewalk.” They bring nonkosher animals into it: “I was sweating like a pig.”
Wind also makes Jews crazy: “I’m afraid a tree is going to come down on the house” or “If we lose power, everything in the refrigerator is going to spoil.” Even going to the beach becomes nonstop terror for Jewish people: “Put on a lot of sunscreen, otherwise, 50 years from now, you’ll regret it.” And let’s not forget sand: “This time, try not bringing half the beach home with you” or “Thanks to you kicking the sand around, I have an extra crunchy tuna sandwich.”
You get the point. It’s endless what a person can complain and worry about. I had an aunt who spent most of her life trying to figure out where the draft was coming from. She’d walk around with her hands up, testing the air.
Complaining, worrying and living in fear may not ruin your life but it certainly will make your life less pleasant. I work very hard at trying not to complain about people, places and things. It’s not easy but I am improving — except, of course, when it comes to complaining about my wife.
After all, I must have some fun.
Here Comes the Judge
Everyone hates to be judged, yet most of us do it.
Hillel wrote in “Ethics of Our Fathers”: “Do not judge your fellow, until you have reached his or her place.”
My cousin Sarah recently died five days short of her 34th birthday. She left behind a 12-year-old son, the father of the boy, and her divorced mother and father. She had a brother who killed himself a few years earlier, another brother with heart issues and a close family member who is a pill addict. Sarah’s life was not an easy one.
When Sarah (technically, my first cousin once removed) was around 9 years old, my wife and I offered to have her mother — my first cousin — and Sarah fly out from Long Island all expenses paid to sunny California and stay with us for a week. Just come and have a good time. The plan was Sarah would go to Disneyland and see a taping of a TV show. The works. When Sarah and her mom exited the plane, I noticed that Sarah was holding a small bag over her face — an airsick bag. Her mother said Sarah had been sick during the entire flight.
Heading to our house, she just sat with the bag over her face in the back of the car. When we got home, I showed Sarah to a guest room, where she immediately went to sleep. A few hours later, we woke her for dinner. Still carrying her airsick bag and a little doll, Sarah said she wanted to go home. The rest of the night she sat watching TV and holding the bag and the doll.
The next morning, Sarah’s mom told me Sarah didn’t want to do anything except go back to the airport and go home. After trying to talk Sarah into staying, we all agreed it would be best if they headed home. A part of me was glad to be rid of them. And as soon as Sarah heard I booked them a return flight for that evening, she perked up and had her first meal. She seemed like a completely different person. That’s when my judgments of Sarah really began.
After sending them home, all I could think was how ungrateful she was. And what a little brat she was. I made those judgments without knowing anything about what her life was like. I was convinced she was just a spoiled, ungrateful kid.
Over the next few years, except for sending her a birthday card with $15 in it, I don’t remember much communication. When Sarah got older and Facebook became ubiquitous, I read some of her very dark and depressing posts. She seemed like a very sad person. Once again, I judged and I decided to stop following her on Facebook.
A few years later, her brother came out to Los Angeles and stayed with us for a few days. I helped get him into rehab at the Salvation Army. A few months later, he blew his brains out with a shotgun in a motel room. I phoned Sarah to express my condolences and didn’t talk with her much after that.
Then I found out that she, my Jewish cousin, had found Jesus and was attending church regularly. Her Facebook posts were filled with crosses and Jesus quotes. More judgments on my part. I thought this girl must be so lost even though, admittedly, I knew very little about her. I thought if only she had stayed Jewish blah blah blah blah blah. More judgments.
Then about two years ago, I heard Sarah had cancer. At this point, I had almost zero communication with her, but I did have a trunkful of judgments and stories I had conjured up about her and her life. I thought I knew everything.
I happened to be heading to New York, so I thought, “Why not call Sarah and ask to visit?” Isn’t it a mitzvah to visit sick people? So I phoned and told her that I wanted to visit. She was thrilled. She said, “I’d love to see you.” It had been at least 20 years since I’d last seen Sarah. And so, I rented a car and drove out to Long Island.
“About two years ago, I heard Sarah had cancer. At this point, I had almost zero communication with her, but I did have a trunkful of judgments and stories I had conjured up about her and her life.”
Sarah was living in a tough neighborhood known for its MS-13 gang members. After my first visit, something happened to me. Most of my judgments seem to fall away completely. After visiting with her, I realized how sweet and wonderful this young woman was. She was a beautiful young person with a great smile and a heart of gold. Her friends loved her. Her religion was giving her strength. She had a huge poetic heart. She even had a motto, “Save the world.”
I realized how wrong I had been about her. How so much of what I thought about her was based on misinformation. I made it all up. We visited with each other many more times and spoke on the phone and exchanged email and Facebook messages. She was always so kind and so loving and so fragile. Never ever did she guilt me with, “Where have you been for the past 20 years?” or “Sure, now that I’m sick, you drop by.” Zero. She was just happy to see her cousin, and I felt the same.
As her cancer progressed, she never complained. It just made her sad that she would soon have to leave her son, her friends and family. She said she knew she was in God’s arms and would be protected. Although she told me she didn’t exactly know what that meant, it still gave her great comfort.
Little by little, as her pain increased, communication became less frequent. When she could talk, she apologized for not calling back sooner. I can honestly say that I felt nothing but love for Sarah since reconnecting with her. Without knowing it, she taught me that I needed to be much less judgmental, and that what you think you know about someone is not the whole picture. Sarah was deep.
Then one day I got a call from Sarah’s mom. She told me that according to Sarah’s doctor, Sarah had six weeks to live. I immediately made a plane reservation to go to New York the following week. I figured I’d see Sarah one more time. I figured wrong. Sarah died a few days later.
After her death, I asked one of my cousins about the funeral. He said there would be a wake and then a funeral the next day. I asked if she would be buried. Then I decided to shut my mouth before I started judging all over again because her burial wasn’t what I would choose or how Jews would do it.
Sarah was buried on her 34th birthday. I love you, Sarah. Please forgive me for judging you.
The Nearness of You
A few weeks ago I was at the funeral of a good friend. His wife and three children got up and spoke about their husband and father. It was a truly beautiful and moving event. They spoke of how much he meant to them and how he was a friend to all who met him. They spoke of his unwavering support for them and their dreams in life. They spoke of how they would not be who they are today without him. They spoke about how much they loved him and how much they missed him just one day after he was gone. They already missed not being near him. Almost everyone was crying.
My father died when I was 36 years old. He died before he met my future wife. He died before I got married. He died before he got to see his grandchildren. He died before he got to really see the type of husband and father I was to become. He died not really knowing who I was or what I was capable of.
Did I really get to know him? No. I had only a few facts about his childhood and adolescence. My father was a quiet man with a quiet soul. He didn’t say much and he didn’t get involved in any big events. He worked, came home, ate dinner, watched a little TV and then went to sleep. He did that five days a week, 50 weeks a year until he died.
“The main reason I go to the cemetery to visit my parents is to try one more time to be near them. Try all you want, it’s not the same. Do it now while you can.”
When I was a kid, I saw him only for about 1 1/2 hours a day. Sometimes we’d both sit in bed in our boxers and polish off a pint of ice cream while watching some TV. I felt so protected. Any time spent with him was very valuable to me. We really didn’t need to talk. He was Dad and I was Mark. That’s it. We just needed to be together. We needed to be near each other. My leg over his leg watching the tube.
And that’s what my friend’s wife and kids were saying at the funeral. That’s what I’m saying. The bottom line is sometimes you just need to be near the people you love. When one of my kids calls and asks me to go for a ride with him to get a haircut, I go. When the other kid asks me to go to a ballgame, I go. When my wife asks if I want to go to Ralphs with her, I go. Not because I think any huge event is going to happen or I’m going to get an answer to one of life’s problems that’s been plaguing me for years. Not because I need to find out anything new or different about them. I go for one reason and one reason only: I go just so I can be near them. I go so I can be the first to see the new haircut. I go to share a bag of peanuts at the ballgame. I go so I can hear a question like, “Do we need pickles?” I go because one day I won’t be able to go anymore. I know it and they know it. We don’t talk about it, but we know it.
The main reason I go to the cemetery to visit my parents is to try one more time to be near them. Try all you want, it’s not the same. Do it now while you can.
Oy Vey Iz Mir I’m Getting Old
I have a friend who told me he takes three pills a day to help him increase his saliva. His doctor said that as you get older, sometimes your saliva dries up. Nice; something new to worry about as I age — a saliva shortage.
My next birthday is big one. I pray I still have enough saliva to masticate my lunch that day. Now when I must add my age to an online form, it takes me 45 minutes to scroll down and find my year of birth.
When it comes to aging, people have a lot to say about it. For instance: “You’re as old as you feel.” “Age is in the mind.” “What’s the alternative?” And the funny ones: “Don’t let aging get you down. It’s too hard to get back up.” “Respect old people. They graduated from school without Google or Wikipedia.”
Recently, I noticed that my skin is slowly drying up, so I glob on Regenerist anti-aging cream every night. All I get out of it are pools of expensive cream stuck in the cracks of my wrinkles. And I’m still aging.
I found exercise and diet help keep my body looking young, but only if you don’t see me naked in the steam room. I meditate twice a day, but I once had to call 911 to unfold me out of the Lotus position. My kids constantly tease me about taking away my driver’s license. I tease them about taking them out of the will.
“My kids constantly tease me about taking away my driver’s license. I tease them about taking them out of the will.”
What really got me was my wife and I recently bought two plots in Simi Valley. Any further out of town and we might as well get buried in Norway. The lady who sold us our spots said we had one of the better views. I’m looking forward. You ever notice that the word fun is in funeral? Maybe a jazz funeral down in New Orleans is fun, but not the ones I go to. I’m at an age where every year a few people I know are permanently removed. Some older, some younger. As soon as you’re born, you’re in the lottery. The writing is on the wall.
So, what do I do now that I can see the big knockout punch coming? What I do is live my life as if all is going to be well. I just bought a new mattress and soon I’ll probably buy a new car (if my kids let me). I just bought my first-ever handmade suit. I’m going on trips with my wife before we can’t go on them anymore. I’m eating healthier than ever before and exercising more now than when I was 25. I’m trying to stay excited about life. Yes, I’m doing it for me, but I’m also doing it for my family. I believe that it would be better for them to have me around. How selfish of me to think that. But what happens if I get very sick and need to be taken care of? You know, when I’m almost out of saliva. Then what?
In the Mishnah, one rabbi says, “This world is like a lobby before the olam ha-ba. Prepare yourself in the lobby so that you may enter the banquet hall.” I hope if I get to olam ha-ba, it has vegan options at the banquet.
In her wonderful autobiography, “The Wheel of Life,” Elisabeth Kübler-Ross told her dying husband that it was his turn to let people help him. She told him that his lesson at the end of his life was to stop doing for others and let others do for him. Aging seems to bring many options. If you let yourself be open, the possibilities for growth are still plentiful.
About a minute ago, I stopped writing this column to phone a woman who booked me to perform at her Yiddish club. No, I don’t speak Yiddish. I called her this morning and did not hear back. I figured maybe she was out of saliva. So I called her again. When she got on the phone, she apologized for not calling me back sooner. She said her husband had died that morning. As my mother used to say, “Oy vey iz mir.”
Proof That There’s a God? I’m Still Married
“Before a man gets married, he is incomplete. After he’s married, he’s completely finished.” — Borscht Belt comedian
The fact that I got married and have stayed married is proof there is a God. When I asked my rabbi what God was doing these days, he said, “arranging marriages.” He also said that arranging marriages is harder than splitting the Red Sea.
To have continued marital bliss, all I have to do is forget most of what I saw and heard while growing up. My parents, aunts and uncles, though nice enough people, were not the best examples of happy and healthy marriages. I remember being at my aunt and uncle’s 55th wedding anniversary. I said, “Uncle Louie, congratulations.” He said, “I haven’t killed her yet.” She fired back, “Go ahead and try.”
I think I’m a very different person today than I was when I got married. Hopefully, a better one. I credit my wife and many other people with helping me make a lot of the necessary changes. For me to have stayed married for close to 30 years, I had to grow up. My mother warned me that I had a lot of work to do if I ever wanted to live with another person. She would say:
• You’d better grow up and grow up quick;
• You’ll shape up or you’ll ship out;
• One day you’re going to get married, and I’m telling you now, she won’t put up with your nonsense;
• You’d better marry a maid;
• Keep acting like you are now and you’ll be alone a very long time;
• (And my favorite) I’ve never seen anything like you.
After careful deliberation, here are some of the areas I believe I was deficient in before I got married: Taking care of my health, dress, neatness, attitude, cleanliness, clipping my toenails, paying attention, smiling, manners, washing and drying dishes, brushing all my teeth instead of just the bottom ones, barging into rooms unannounced, saying thank you, eating all the food in the refrigerator and not telling anyone when we were out of things, blasting my music, yelling across the room for things instead of getting up and getting them, controlling the remote control, grabbing food off of people’s plates without asking, releasing gas in bed and lying about it, putting my underwear on inside out and not fixing it, taking phone messages and not passing them on, taking the garbage only as far as the back door, finishing my dinner before the other people have even started, walking a block ahead of everyone, leaving the toilet seat up, not replacing toilet paper rolls, using the same face towel until it is as stiff as a board, constantly asking questions to things I know the answers to, etc.
You get the point. The good news is that God created women so that when they look at a man, they see an unfinished project that needs shaping. And women feel it’s their job to try to save this poor soul from wrack and ruin. It’s Torah: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
There are two types of married men: One who always wants to be right. God bless him for trying. He ends up divorced or murdered. Or one who realizes that the other person has your best interests at heart. That person surrenders and stays married.
My wife and I sent three boys into the world. They are in much better shape than I was when I was released. But to be quite honest, like all men, they still need a good overhauling.
Consult a Doctor Before Buying Another Gadget
Don’t get me wrong. I really like my iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, Dell laptop, smart TV and Alexa. I’m connected, baby! I recently took an EKG from my Apple Watch, downloaded it to my iPhone, and then emailed it to my cardiologist. After viewing it and consulting with him, he took a photo of my bill, downloaded it and emailed that to me. I almost had a heart attack.
It’s not unusual to see people davening with their iPhone and trolling eBay at the same time. Guilty.
Recently, while my wife and I were watching Netflix at the airport waiting to board our flight, I got updates on my watch that our flight was on time and our bags were loaded. Thirty seconds later, United Airlines let me know that it had a hummus plate on board for me. We were in Group 4 and, when we inadvertently tried to board with Group 3, the scanner that reads the bar code started to ding and we were busted. We were sneered at as we crawled to the back of the line, covering our faces like mobsters coming out of a courthouse.
When my son was in Cuba a few weeks ago, we chatted on FaceTime. When I was a kid, you had to stand next to a person for FaceTime.
While I was growing up, if a person needed to send a short message in a
hurry, there was Western Union. Now, using texting, I’ve probably sent half a million short messages. When I was a kid, people had limited access to world events. Now, I can find out about an earthquake in Bangladesh while standing at a urinal.
“I now know a lot more about the world and the people in it, and less about my family and myself.”
But am I better off with this global connection or was I better off before? Maybe both? My mother used to say, “What you don’t know won’t hurt you.” There’s wisdom in that. Is it good for my health that I find out first thing in the morning that 400 people died in a ferry accident in Tianjin, China, or 200 young children were kidnaped and tortured by Boko Haram while I was fast asleep on my new MyPillow?
I now know a lot more about the world and the people in it, and less about my family and myself. I used to spend more time with other people. Now I’m spending more time with devices. These devices don’t give a hoot about human beings. Devices don’t care about bettering the world, nor are they supposed to. But the amount of time spent with these devices is insane.
Good friends or family will tell you things because they care about you. When’s the last time your iPhone said, “You look tired” or “Go to sleep; I don’t want you to get sick” or “You should call your mother and apologize for yelling at her” or “Dinner’s on me tonight.” People tell you things because they sincerely care about you. Machines tell you what they are programmed to tell you.
Go to any restaurant and you’ll see people staring at their phones instead of their spouses, kids or friends. Even sitting alone for a few minutes doing nothing has become a thing of the past.
The other night I was out to dinner with my wife and, when she left the table, I thought, “I’m not pulling out my phone. I’m just going to sit and think and look around like I used to.” About thirty seconds later, I thought, “This is hard.” Then I thought this would be a great idea for a column. I would write about how hard it is nowadays to just sit and
So, I went to my Apple Watch and left myself a message. I then checked my email, went to Yahoo and saw that Trump again was going to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and that a whale had washed up dead on shore up north.
When my wife returned to the table, she asked me a question people never used to ask when they returned from a trip to the bathroom. “What have you been doing?” I told her something my watch or phone would never tell her. I told her, “I missed you.” And I meant it.
Jews, Non-Jews and Weight Loss
A little more than four years ago, I was walking on Cashio Street and I dropped something on the ground. When I bent down to get it, let’s just say it wasn’t easy to stand back up. I was almost 200 pounds with a big puffy face. I was really starting to feel old.
A day or two later, as I was being introduced to go on stage, Dom Irrera, a comedian friend, said to me, “Look how fat you are.” Soon after that, I was with another friend when he pointed to an old guy using a walker while crossing a street and said, “We don’t want to end up like that.”
OK, message received: Lose weight. So the next day, I decided to crawl out of my fat suit and do something about it. It took a year, but I lost 50 pounds and have kept those 50 pounds off for more than four years. Losing the weight was not hard. It was exciting. But keeping it off is murder. I now exercise seven days a week. That’s good, but the food is where it’s at. I have been an overeater my whole life — still am and always will be. I remember when I was 3 months old being breastfed and my mother screaming at me, “Enough already. Don’t you ever stop eating?” My problem is I’m never full. I could eat a 15-course dinner and on the way home, stop for popcorn and pie á la mode. I have an empty space inside of me that is very demanding and never satisfied.
In order to lose the weight and keep it off, I had to do just one little thing: change just about everything. For me, that means not eating things I used to enjoy and not having them ever again. And doing this one day at a time. I don’t eat pizza, pasta, bread (except on Shabbat) and my dessert is fruit (no more cakes or cookies). To the best of my ability, I’ve given up all sugar. My diet now is whole food, and plant based. I recently talked to my rabbi to see if he could somehow get rid of the 7,000-calorie-a-day holidays such as Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot. They are killers for a person like me.
As I was losing the weight, a funny thing happened. I noticed that my losing weight bothered my Jewish friends more than my non-Jewish friends. Jews get very worried when you lose weight. They all think they are doctors and diagnosticians. They say things like, “Are you OK?” “Why did you lose the weight?” “Did you want to lose the weight?” On the other hand, when my non-Jewish friends would see me, I’d hear, “You look great!” “How’d you do it?” “Bet you feel terrific!” “Want to go to the rodeo?”
A few of my Jewish friends called my wife to try to pry out of her how long I had to live. Sometimes they would walk up to me in the street and scream, “Enough already.” “Stop it.” “Don’t lose any more weight.” The crème de la crème was when I was in Glatt Mart supermarket and this woman I know looked at me, turned white and started running away. I quickly caught up with her and asked if she was all right. She was trembling right there in the middle of the store. She told me she had heard I was very sick and that I had died. And she always liked me and was very sad to get the news of my death. I thanked her for her kind words, told her I was all right and went back to eat some free grapes.
About an hour later, I thought: If she liked me so much, why didn’t she send a card or make a small donation in memory of me? Fooey on her.
A few months later, I was visiting my 85-year-old aunt, who offered me a piece of cake. I said, “I don’t eat cake.” She said, “Life is not worth living without cake.” I guess if I were married to my Uncle Louie like she was, I might feel the same.
One rabbi who wanted to lose weight called and asked me to meet him and tell him how he could do it. I asked, “Where do you want to meet to talk?” He said, “Schwartz Bakery.”
Keeping off the weight is a daily fight. It’s by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Everyday I am on the battlefield trying to stay alive. To my Jewish friends, I know you mean well. And when I do die one day while eating a bowl of broccoli, you can all have your laugh. What I’ve come to understand is that all the foods that I thought I could not live without, I hardly ever miss. And as I get older, I realize that almost everything in life is overrated anyway. Keeping off weight is a full-time job. My paycheck is getting my health back and wearing my kids’ clothes.
Two Jews Walk Into Israel
On Dec. 19 and 20, Jerry Seinfeld and I will be performing stand-up comedy at the Menora Mivtachim Arena in Tel Aviv. I have not been this excited about doing a gig in years. Jerry and I had talked about going to Israel to perform and, God willing, it’s now happening.
Jerry and I have been touring together for more than a decade. Touring with Jerry is a total first-class experience. We travel in a private jet, which is a lot better than an El Al flight, where every 10 minutes people wake you up to join a minyan or some woman with 14 kids wants you to hold the triplets while she tries to get the other 11 kids out of the bathroom. We stay in the best hotels and we laugh more in a day than most people laugh in a year. Plus, the people who come to see Jerry’s shows are, by far, the best audiences on the planet.
I expect Israel to be all that and more. For me, performing in Israel is different from performing anywhere else in the world. The people in Israel are more than just an audience. They are my brothers and sisters. They are modern-day heroes. And now more than ever is a perfect time for Jerry and I or anyone else to go and show support for the people who live there.
People ask me, “Aren’t you scared to go to Israel with all that’s going on now?” Not really. My job calls for me to go wherever people want and need to laugh. Bob Hope taught us all about that. Israel is under immense pressure on almost every level. Just having a Jewish mother is enough pressure for anyone. Now add to it all their other mishegoss and your head could pop off.
I love Israel and I love the Jewish people. In stand-up comedy, Jews have always reigned supreme. They set the standard for the art form, and have raised the bar pretty darn high. A question that comes up a lot is, “What keeps the Jewish people going? How have they survived when, in every generation, someone or some group is trying to wipe them out?” One answer might be laughter. Jews love to laugh. Jews like to tell funny stories. Jews don’t mind jokes at their own expense. In a rabbi, a priest and a minister joke, the rabbi is almost always the fall guy. And no one laughs harder than the rabbis.
So, on Dec. 19 and 20, two Jews will walk into the Menora Mivtachim Arena and tell some funny stories to the great people of Israel, who will listen and laugh. You know what? Not even terrorism can stop the laughter.