In my younger childhood — before the age of 11, my father had a small office at Jewish Family Services, in Rochester, NY, where he worked as a social worker. Sometimes I got to go there and visit with him. We’d go across the street to a tiny sliver of a diner. I still remember the taste of the food there — a burger and a coke — of all things — and the utter joy of sitting with my dad. I thought he hung the moon and knew the answers to every puzzle in the universe. He could always make me feel better, so it just made sense that he would counsel people if they were troubled. I had a vague idea of what he did. Whatever it was, I knew he was the fount of insight and wisdom. He was surely mine, back then.
On his desk was this little rubber statue — a small lump of a man — the melted opposite of the statue of David by Michelangelo. And the little man was shrugging. I thought the figure was a very funny thing for the desk of a wise man. I thought that he put it there so that people would feel relaxed in the company of such a wise man. I asked him what it was and he called it a “nebbish.” “What’s a nebbish, daddy?” “It’s a yiddish word. It means someone who is sort of a nobody. Kind of a shlemiel.” “Oh.” (like I understood.) And then “what’s it doing?” “it’s saying ‘nu’.” Nu, in Yiddish is kind of like “so” but more like so blended with oy, see what I mean, what can you do, can you beat that, and so-help-me-g_d, your answer is as good as mine, 6 of one…. And probably other things I am not thinking of.
I loved it. I’d pick it up and look at it. Many years later I thought about it. in retrospect, I liked its existential bemusement. The way that the little figure seemed to be saying “the universe is a question mark and not a period.” Here was the counselor ready to offer support and a shrug at the same time… the shrug — meaning — ultimately — it is your life and am I the fount of wisdom? Nu?
I remembered the word “nebbish.” Well, to be honest, my father’s Yiddish was less than accurate. I didn’t trust my memory. It occurred to me that he could have made the whole thing up. Nebbish — nu? But I looked it up on line and found that this nebbish was part of a whole series of nebbishes — poor shlemiels all too human and often expressing the ironies of life. The one on my dad’s desk surely was. The writer who originated the Nebbishes was Herb Gardner — a playwright and humorist. He wrote “A Thousand Clowns” — which I loved as a young person but grew to see the sexism in it. I loved it for its irreverence toward convention — the defiance of the expectation that we should all aspire to “grow up.” Spiritual maturity is good — groundedness, wide vision, depth of insight, having a center. Taking care of the details of life — that’s pretty good — I love to be able to take care of the people I love. Emotional responsibility is good — owning what you say and do and mean — realizing that you have an impact on other people and wanting to have a positive impact. But sometimes the absurdity of life deserves a good laugh.
Sometime I’d like write about the ways we both stunt people’s maturity and keep them in perpetual adolescence — but that’s no fun right now.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. — And the spiritual depth to laugh at self importance, at puffed up buffoons, at ironies, craziness, and myelf.
My father loved to dance and swing his hips to music. He loved to do a little shimmy if he was cooking or hearing an old big band number. He could lindy hop with the best of them. And he would sometimes say “I have an elfin quality.” He never looked elfin to me. But, in truth, we each have a little elf inside us. It wasn’t until I found this one of Herb Gardner’s nebbishes that I realized that he had not made up the phrase. Inside us all is some elfin quality — magic. We just need the space, encouragement, and courage to get up on our tippy toes and dance it out. Joy.
Sometimes we underestimate the reservoir of resilience and elfin bounce that can help us even in bleak times. Right perfect for hanging in our congregational bathroom. Credit at the bottom of the poster..
And this generator that allows you take your favorite songs and sing them while washing for 20 seconds..
It’s a precious human ability to take even gloomy things and and draw humanity out of them and, sometimes, even humor.
Which reminds me of the dentist I used to have as a little kid. His last name is lost in my grey matter somewhere — but his first name was Harold. He had this fabulous, huge fish tank in the waiting room that I loved to look at. And in his office right where your glance would be stuck, there were a cluster of cartoons taped to the wall. I was particularly fascinated by the Mona Lisa sitting serenely holding hypodermic needle in one hand. And there was a caption that read “why is this woman smiling?” I actually looked forward to seeing Harold and reading the cartoons. I think Harold had a profound impact on my sense of humor. He used to say — just before he began to work on one’s teeth (well– mine at least) “this is going hurt you more than it is going to hurt me” and I always appreciated his candor as well as his deft inversion of the patently false thing that people sometimes say when they are going to do something unpleasant to someone else and want to feign compassion. Somehow, my parents became friends with Harold and his wife.We visited at their house once that I recall. It was significant because their powder room made a lasting impression on me. It was papered entirely in New Yorker covers.
Anyway, that leads me back to Herb Gardner. The lead character in “A Thousand Clowns” Murray Burns, said, “If things aren’t funny then they’re exactly what they are; and then they’re like a long dental appointment.” (Not with Harold.)
So — Nu? I got to go. Not out — no one is going out.
Remember to keep your social distance.
And say this to yourself, while making the effort to live it …
Perhaps, that’s a nebbish evolved into a mensch.