Behind the Kvetch

A guy gets a Labrador and he can’t wait to show him off to his neighbor. So when the neighbor comes over, the guy calls the dog into the house, bragging about how smart the little guy is. The dog quickly comes running and stands looking up at his master, tail wagging furiously, mouth open in classic Lab-smile position, eyes bright with anticipation. The guy points to the newspaper on the couch and commands: “fetch!”

Immediately, the dog sits down, the tail wagging stops, the doggie-smile disappears; he hangs his head, looks balefully up at his master and says in a whiny voice, “Oh! My tail hurts from wagging so much. And that dog food you’re feeding me tastes absolutely terrible. And it’s so hot in here. And you’re not giving me any treats. And I can’t remember the last time you took me out for a walk….”

The neighbor’s jaw drops.

“Ah,” the dog owner explains, “he’s a little hard of hearing. He thought I said ‘kvetch!'”

Jews have a reputation for kvetching. It’s a type of catharsis for many of us — a release valve built into a gene pool that has weathered the worst of the human condition. Many people think that this only indicates that many Jews are pessimistic doomsayers, and that we’re just waiting for the next pogrom to surface. This, they say, proves that Jews tend to see the cup not half-full, but half-empty. I say otherwise.

Our Torah portion this week spends just 11 verses on all the blessings that will befall our people if we follow God’s mitzvot. The bulk of the portion, however, graphically details all of the terrible retribution that will befall us if we fail to hearken unto the Lord. Why is this? Shouldn’t God be keeping up with modern psychology that tells us to accentuate the positive? Why isn’t God offering us more positive incentive, instead of terrifying us with all the calamities that will befall us if we don’t listen?

The simple explanation is that, despite conventional wisdom, negative incentive is far more effective than positive incentive. If I want to make sure my little 4-year-old won’t run into the street, I stand a better chance of success by threatening her with a serious penalty than if I promise to buy her a toy for staying on the sidewalk. When it comes to the really important, life-and-death issues — gloom and doom works.

Because God realizes how vital the Torah is to our lives, he uses scare tactics more than rosy guarantees. God, more than anyone, knows that our flawed, human nature is most influenced by negative incentives.

But I think there’s another reason why there are so many more curses than blessings in the Torah. Consider all the blessings that we already have: our health, our families, food on the table, a roof over our heads, all the things we tend to take for granted. God comes into the picture and says: If you listen to me, not only will I let you keep everything you already have, I will increase the blessings in your life from an 80 to 100. But, if you don’t listen to me, here’s a list of all the things that you already enjoy that I will now take away from you, and you’ll go from an 80 to a zero.

It’s thus no surprise that the list of things we stand to lose is much longer that the list of things we stand to gain, for the simple reason that our list is already so long. We’ve just forgotten how rich our lives already are. The list of curses in the Torah is only there to remind us how blessed we are, and how much we stand to lose if we don’t appreciate the Giver of those gifts.

Maybe the Jewish stereotype of kvetching stems from the Torah’s emphasis on the negatives in life. But that emphasis is only there to remind us how rich our lives already are. Kvetching is good if, after a good whining session, we then finish off by saying, “But, kenahora, I still have my health,” or, “I still have my spouse,” or, “I still have my family,” or, “I still have my _____.” Putting life into this perspective allows us to sit back and enjoy the overlooked blessings of life.

May we be blessed to recognize what we’ve already been blessed with, and enjoy those blessings everyday.

Rabbi Daniel N. Korobkin is spiritual leader of Kehillat Yavneh.


The Joy of ‘Oy’

Richard Lewis is a comedian who has perfected the art of the kvetch.

In his act, he paces the stage, plastering his palms to his temples to express the universal oy. Clad completely in black, he laments his hypochondria, his "dates from hell," his Jewish family. "My grandparents were ‘depressed-again’ Jews," he whines. "They had a bumper sticker that said, ‘I’d rather be weeping.’"

Lewis’ mother had a satellite dish that must have been Jewish, because it "picked up problems from other families," he suggests.

His family was so assimilated, their Chanukah menorah was on a dimmer.

But during a recent Journal interview at the Argyle Hotel, the "Prince of Pain’s" anxiety seemed to have been turned down a notch. After almost seven years of sobriety, Lewis, a recovering alcoholic, has published a collection of autobiographical essays, "The Other Great Depression," and has a new comedy CD, "Live From Hell: Before and After." He is playing himself in a recurring role on Larry David’s HBO show, "Curb Your Enthusiasm," in which his touchy-feely, nervous Jewish persona is the perfect foil for the prickly, dyspeptic David.

Best of all, Lewis says, he had a Jewish spiritual reawakening during the blessing of a friend’s adopted baby at a Los Angeles shul last year. "I felt like it was the 41st year in the desert, and all the other Jews had gotten out, and I was still wandering around like some poor schmuck looking for a rabbi or a decent pastrami sandwich, anything to make me feel like a Jew again," he wrote in his book. "I was hugging my tallis for dear life," he told The Journal.

Lewis jokes that he was "born and lowered" in New Jersey, where his workaholic father was "the king of kosher caterers," and his actress mom played most of Neil Simon’s Jewish mothers in the community theater. Because his dad was booked solid the weekend of Lewis’ bar mitzvah, Richard’s coming-of-age simcha took place on a Tuesday night: "It was like an affair catered by Cecil B. DeMille," he recalls.

Nevertheless, he quips, his parents made him so crazy, he used to take his M & M’s one at a time, with water. "Kennedy was just assassinated," his mother once said. "Go clean your room."

Young Lewis found relief at the local Jewish community center, where he was the star of the youth basketball team. At sports camp in 1963, 12-year-old Richard met a tall, sly, gangly kid who would become his arch-rival: future "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David. "Larry had hair then," Lewis marvels. The two became fast friends a decade later, after they recognized each other as struggling young comics at New York’s famed Improv club. Lewis says he became a comedian to fill the void left by his father’s death in 1971. The more he talked about his neurotic family onstage, the more popular he became. When a drunk heckler yelled, "He’s a Jew!" during an early gig, Lewis embarrassed the man so badly that the heckler apologized profusely from his seat.

While playing dives during his broke, early years, Lewis took solace in knowing that a memento of his father’s — a tiepin in the shape of a cat — was "in a little box in a drawer in [my] s—– little apartment in New Jersey … meowing quietly to itself.’" Also helpful were the group-therapy sessions he continued even after moving to Los Angeles in 1976.

Every week, an audiocassette of the group’s latest session arrived in the mailbox of his hole-in-the-wall Hollywood apartment, whereupon Lewis would race up the rickety stairwell, pour himself a glass of cheap white wine and listen to his old pals complain about their lives. Then came the day he heard the therapist say to a distraught group member, "Could you please sob closer into the mic

for Richard?"

"That was the end of my group therapy career," recalls Lewis, who went on to spend more than a quarter-million dollars on private psychotherapy.

Yet his feelings of self-loathing did not dissipate, even after he had completed several well-received TV comedy specials and landed a coveted role on the TV sitcom "Anything But Love" in 1988. In fact, Lewis was so convinced he had failed his audition that he was shocked when actress Jamie Lee Curtis jumped up after his reading and yelled, "That’s my Marty!"

The show featured an interfaith romance between Lewis’ character, Marty Gold, and Curtis’ Hannah Miller.

By the 1990s, Lewis was so addicted to alcohol that he quit therapy rather than turn in the weekly journal suggested by his doctor (a sample entry: "Monday morning, 7:45 a.m., five glasses of Moët & Chandon with a little orange juice"). He quit stand-up comedy, too, and in 1994 was wheeled through the doors of a hospital emergency room, hallucinating as the result of a cocaine overdose. A compassionate doctor brushed back the hair from his sweating brow and said, "You’re so funny, Mr. Lewis. Why are you doing this to yourself? What are you going to do about it?" The comic says he replied with a one-word vow: "Live."

These days, Lewis is sober and back onstage; the famed commitmentphobe even has a longtime Jewish girlfriend, a dark-haired babe he playfully calls Gina Lolamatzobrie. She has urged him to attend her Torah classes and bought him a mezuzah that now hangs on his bedroom door.

The comedian still gets to dwell on his neuroses, however, especially on "Curb Your Enthusiasm." In a hysterical recent episode, he and David came to blows over a bracelet coveted by both characters’ significant others. "All that rivalry from basketball camp came back to us, and we were really fighting," Lewis says of the ad-libbed scene. "I broke Larry’s glasses, and I hurt his arm, but it was so funny he didn’t mind he couldn’t move his shoulder.’"

Looking for the Genius in

One of the strangest anomalies in thetheater is that of the successful turkey — plays that areessentially trivial, gauche and insubstantial, but still manage toachieve a certain kind of notoriety and even commercial success.”Shear Madness,” which has been playing for 15 years in Boston, issuch a play; so was “Kvetch,” which completed a seven-year run in LosAngeles, the same city in which “Bleacher Bums” ran for 11 years.”Abie’s Irish Rose” racked up 2,854 performances on Broadway –although it’s depth could be measured with the first digit of one’spinky. “No Sex Please, We’re British,” which was the closest the WestEnd theater could came to eroticism, had a phenomenal run in London.”Ten Nights In a Barroom” started in 1858 and was a staple of stockand touring companies for decades afterward, and one of Hollywood’slongest recorded runs was a crude melodrama called “TheDrunkard.”

Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” nowrevived at the Wilshire Theater, does not yet qualify for the PrimeTurkey Award, but it is strongly in the running. It is a play inwhich mindlessness pays homage to mind and is essentially a testamentto Los Angeles’ slavish devotion to celebrity hype — not only SteveMartin’s but, in this case, Pablo Picasso’s, Albert Einstein’s andElvis Presley’s as well. It is the kind of entertainment thatcomforts nonthinking people into believing they are indulging in highintellectualism.

From left, Paul Provenza asPicasso and Mark Nelson as Einstein in “Picasso at the LapinAgile.” Photo by Joan Marcus

In 1904, at the legendary Lapin Agile, anassortment of geniuses and would-be geniuses gather to celebrate thebirth of modernity and the unbounded promise of the 20th century.(The great irony of this convocation is that we, at the end of thecentury, know just how ruinously it will end.) It is a time whengeniuses loom behind every glass of absinthe. Einstein is whimsicallyphilosophic; Picasso, fervently artistic; and Schmendiman, thepseudo-genius, ebulliently effusive. Each character has his littleturn and then cedes the stage to the next, belying the adage that onegood turn deserves another. In Martin’s play, the quality of the turnis irrelevant; the main thing is its ability to pass the time anddispense lighthearted patter.

It is a world very reminiscent of Saroyan’s “TheTime of Your Life,” in which a different set of bar-habituésgo through a similar round of unconnected episodes, alsophilosophizing about the vagaries of existence. But since Saroyan issomething of a genius and Martin only a jumped-up gag writer, thecomparison collapses about 20 minutes into the piece. The play,without being wired into some kind of developing character structure,is simply at the mercy of its gags, and no matter how surreally cutesome of them are, rootless comedy — like rootless drama — witherson the very bough from which its finest blossoms sprout.

To take seminal figures such as Einstein andPicasso and proceed to demonstrate how their influence affected theartistic and scientific character of the 20th century is atantalizing subject for a play — as is a dramatic exploration intothe nature of genius (both the real and the specious variety), butsuch a task assumes a philosophic grasp and intellectual edge, whichis wholly lacking in Martin. Failing to make any relevant connectionsbetween genius, art, science and postmodernism, the play dwindlesinto high-class graffiti — a doodle around ideas that the authorhasn’t the skill either to develop or to focus.

As if dragged down to his natural level, Martin,at the close, introduces a time-traveling Elvis Presley, and,although irrelevant to the play’s premise, his appearance is relevantto the author’s inescapable show-biz orientation. He is much morecomfortable in Elvis’ society than he ever was in the Left Bank worldof French bohemia. After the singer’s arrival and the detonation of afew striking special effects, the play stops, rather than resolves,like a man so confused by his own circular argument that he finallyopts to jump off the merry-go-round because even he has hadenough.

Randall Arney’s production is, if anything, moreintolerable than the one I originally saw at the Geffen (thenWestwood) Playhouse in 1995. Then, the piece was chewed, aerated andpopped like the squiggly wad of bubble gum it actually was. But, now,after engagements in Boston and New York, it returns to Los Angeleslike a minor masterpiece, full of meaningful pauses and strainedattempts at sentiment and pathos. Originally a protracted “SaturdayNight Live” sketch about geniuses, it is now convinced that it isitself a work of art and, unfortunately, treats itselfaccordingly.

Mark Nelson, as Einstein, confers more comicnuance and subtle characterization than the piece deserves; he’s asterling example of how a chewed-up sow’s ear, in the hands of atalented actor, can be turned into a silk purse. Paul Provenza seemsto feel that the only way to express the gem-like flame of Pablo’sPicasso genius is to use it to launch flares. His performance, likethat of Michael Oosterom’s Schmendiman and Ken Grantham’s Sago, theart-dealer, are monotonously exuberant throughout. Susannah Schulman,in three contrasting roles, mercifully manages to vary and refine hergusto.

Ultimately, the play is another prime example ofLos Angeles’ unique alchemy — the city’s unfailing ability to turncrocks of manure into crocks of gold.

Charles Marowitz, a regular contributor for In

Theater magazine, writes fromMalibu.

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