Millennium Countdown Israeli Style

Israel has never seen anything this glitzy. True, there have been neon menorahs for Chanukah and light bulbs outlining Israel’s numerical age on Independence Days. But this is another ball game altogether. Hundreds of thousands of people driving on the Israeli freeway this week have looked up at an electric millennium welcome reminiscent of Times Square.

A high voltage millennium countdown is being beamed over Tel-Aviv in lights visible 20 miles away. High up on the side of the glass Azrieli skyscraper in letters several stories tall: “New — Millennium — 1999 – 2000.” Then the message switches to tick off number of days, hours, minutes and seconds until the fresh century blasts off.

As befits Tel-Aviv’s new internationalist image, the sign alternates between Hebrew and English. So far so good. But as high tech as Israel has become, it is comforting to see that some of the old provincial Israel remains. Remember when an English menu offered “sandvich”, “omlit” and “coren flakes”? Well, in the country used to winging it, they still haven’t learned to spell. A week before the new year, it was pointed out that the Azrieli tower sign had left out one of the two n’s in “millennium”.

Embarrassed officials claimed that there was no room on the building to fit in that extra letter. At first they planned to just leave it, in the hallowed Israeli tradition that says approximate is good enough. They soon realized this might be bad press for a country trying to project an image of scientific and technological precision, a society which every day sees new corporations listed on international stock exchanges, a land which routinely pats itself on the back as stiff competition for Silicon Valley. So what was Azrieli’s proposed solution? Erase the English message altogether.

Those who had enjoyed their brief new year’s greeting in English sadly prepared to see it disappear.

But like so many things in Israel, people here didn’t take “no” for an answer. A no parking sign? So leave your car on the sidewalk. No dogs allowed on the beach? Then wait until the lifeguards go home. No cellphones permitted in hospitals? Even the doctors ignore those signs. No smoking in the airport? Just try to point that out to returning Israelis lighting up as soon as they clear customs. No talking in the library? The librarians don’t consider themselves covered by the rule.

“No” in Israel is a relative term, not an absolute. Even when a teacher says no to the class, it’s actually the first step of a negotiating process. From kindergarten on, an Israeli child knows that “no” is flexible. Parking lot posts a “no vacancy” sign? There is always room to squeeze just one more car in on the intake ramp — never mind that it partially blocks the elevator. If people can find space to squeeze through, that’s good enough.

In short, every “no” in Israel has a foam rubber penumbra, and every red-blooded Israeli knows it.

Anglos (short for the former misnomer “Anglo Saxons” meaning anybody from an English speaking country) have earned the derogatory term “soaps” — meaning excessively complacent and gullible. An Anglo will naively leave the ticket line in disappointment when the cashier says tickets are all sold out. The Israeli in line behind him is pleased as pie — he knows that if he stands his ground, argues, cajoles and begs, eventually a pair of “returned” tickets will turn up miraculously in the inside drawer.

This mindset also brings its societal correlative: it is much easier to shoot off a “no” right off the bat — nobody takes it too seriously anyway. When you say “no” in Israel, “yes” is always the fall-back position.

Lo and behold, when darkness fell the next night there was “Millennium” up in Latin letters lighting the Tel-Aviv skyline once more. A little scrunched together, but intact and spell-checked.

The 24-Hour Jewish 911

Help has arrived. Thanks to a special program funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, callers can get immediate personal and family crisis assistance, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A social worker at the Jewish Family Service (JFS), a Federation agency, will be on call to give information and assistance at any time.

Callers who reach the Federation’s main number after business hours will receive a recorded message with referral numbers for 24 hour emergency assistance. Aside from the JFS number, there is one for Cedars Sinai Medical Center in case of medical emergencies, and a number for urgent press inquiries. It’s not 911 — there’s already one of those — but it truly is the Other 911.

From 8:30 am to 5:30 pm Monday through Thursday, and until 3:30 pm on Friday, the JFS can be reached at (323) 761-8800. After hours, the JFS number is (800) 284-2530. The Federation’s main switchboard is (323) 761-8000.

Now, for quick refrigerator magnet reference:

Jewish Federation 24-Hour Line:..(323) 761-8000

JFS Business Hours:………………….. (323) 761-8800

JFS After-Hours:…………………………(800) 284-2530

Rob Eshman, Managing Editor

Where Korbel Meets Manischewitz

Okay, let’s just get this out in the open. The marking of the second millennium since the birth of Jesus is, well, not a Jewish event. In fact, it doesn’t take a theologian to figure out that it’s pretty much a Christian way of chalking up the years.

Nevertheless, Jews will most likely be celebrating Y2K along with rest of the world, not as a Christian holiday, but as milestone that is part of the society in which we live.

“Jews don’t write 5760 on checks,” says Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. “You can’t stick your head in the sand and pretend it isn’t one meaningful way of marking time. It’s not a meaningful way of marking time as Jews, but is a meaningful way of marking time, and that has an impact on people.”

Of course, there are ways of celebrating the New Year that are in keeping with Jewish values.

“If a Jewish value is being expressed in the millennium it’s the awareness of time, the sanctity of time and optimism in the future,” Leder says. He contrasts January 1 with Tishri 1, the Jewish New Year.

“Jews don’t celebrate time in a frivolous or careless way, they celebrate the passage time with introspection,” Leder says. With New Years Eve coinciding with Shabbat this year, some shuls grabbed the chance to infuse some Jewish flavor into a secular celebration.

“I did not want Shabbat to be forgotten nor relegated to a position of secondary importance,” says Rabbi Mordecai Kieffer of Temple Beth Emet in Anaheim. “There are plenty of rabbis who decry the incursion of the secular world into the sacred, so I say it is about time that the sacred begin to influence the secular.”

Kieffer decided to combine Korbel toasts with the Maneschewitz kiddush, putting together a “Shabbat in Two Centuries” program for his Conservative congregation. It will begin Friday evening at 8:45 p.m. with a late Shabbat service and Torah study, followed by dinner, games and a midnight toasting of the New Year. The next morning, services will begin at 8:45, there will be a champagne brunch at 10 a.m., followed by Musaf and then a luncheon. For more information call (714) 772-4720.

The Happy Minyan, a Shlomo Carlebach-style group out of Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills, thought it would be a great week to team up with Rabbi Shlomo “Schwartzie” Schwartz of the Chai Center for special Shabbat services and dinner.

Schwartzie, a legend for attracting the unaffiliated, is always looking for a good hook, so he’s letting the Y2K event replace his usual “Not-A-Christmas Party” for this time of year.

“I think it’s just the right mix of ‘aha!’ when you’re looking for what to do,” he says, giving a good alternative to those who don’t want to be in on the club or party scene.

Plus, he adds, “everybody has in the back of their mind, ‘I’m going to go to a Jewish thing, mother will be happy.'”

Services will be at 4:30ish p.m. at the Holiday Inn Select at 1150 South Beverly Drive, north of Pico. Schwartzie will conduct Shabbat services in English, with members of the Happy Minyan leading songs. Dinner and a game of “Stump the Rabbi” will follow, till whenever. The evening is $26; call (310) 391-7995 for more information.

As for Rabbi Leder, he will celebrate Friday, Dec. 31 the only way he knows how.

“How am I going to celebrate? I am going to celebrate around the Shabbat table, with my family, and do what we do every Shabbat: Express our hopes and love for each other. That is a Jewish way of recognizing the passage of time .”

Is Y2K a Jewish issue?

Is the change of the secular calendar from 1999 to 2000 a Jewish issue?

Some insist that the change of the millennium doesn’t take place until the calendar rolls over to 2001. But no matter when they think the current era comes to a close, people on both sides of the overall philosophical divide are taking firm stands.

“Jews should butt out of the turn of the millennium,” said Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a historian and visiting professor of the humanities at New York University. “It’s not our calendar. We are not at the turn of our millennium.”

Many in the Jewish community share Hertzberg’s perspective.

Two prominent kosher restaurants in the New York area canceled planned Shabbat-oriented New Year’s Eve parties. The prominent kosher supervision agencies that supervise them prohibited Mendy’s in Manhattan, and strongly discouraged Noah’s Ark, in Teaneck, N.J., from holding such celebrations.

Others, however, say that although the millennium isn’t an intrinsically Jewish occasion, it still provides an opportunity — much like Rosh Hashanah — for Jews to reflect on our experiences and goals.

“This next millennium, replete with all its hype, gives us an opportunity to look out at the world and to try and make sense of what we see, to attempt to clarify what we want the future to hold,” Rabbi Rachel Sabath, an associate at CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, wrote in a recent essay.

“Particularly in a time when the world seems upside down, it becomes even more essential to have an orientation, a sense of time, core values that transcend all interpretations, all religions, and all political parties,” she wrote.

Still others say that no matter what our personal feelings about the change in the Christian-created calendar, it would be naive for Jews to ignore the turn of the millennium.

Jews should be prepared for possible technological problems, they say, and should be concerned about a potential backlash by right-wing Christians whose messianic aspirations remain unfulfilled when the calendar rolls over and Jesus has not returned to earth.

“Though apocalyptic expectations have always been proven wrong, wrong doesn’t mean inconsequential,” Richard Landes, director of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, warned at a recent symposium on the millennium, which was sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League.

“The more wrong people are, the more passionate they are,” he said.

Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interfaith affairs for the American Jewish Committee, is also concerned.

“A lot of my fellow Jews take the turning of the millennium as a joke, but I don’t,” he said. “For some Christians, Dec. 31 is just a night for a great party. But a lot of other Christians take it very seriously.”

“There’s the wise, prudential jubilee approach of introspection and atonement for what we’ve done wrong, which is the Catholic approach,” he said. “Then there’s the prophecy crowd from among extreme evangelical Protestants who make apocalyptic claims for the second coming of Jesus.”

Until recently, prominent conservative evangelical leaders — including the Revs. James Dobson, Jerry Falwell and James Kennedy — were predicting mass upheaval and warning their followers to prepare by stockpiling dried food, water and weapons in advance of an apocalyptic scenario recounted in the Christian Bible’s Book of Revelation.

Christian broadcaster Dobson even gave each of his 1,300 employees an extra $500 to prepare for Y2K, according to a report in the Religion News Service.

Several who had predicted widespread social crisis have in recent weeks largely backed off such doomsday scenarios, wrote the news service, but other Christian fundamentalists and extreme-right hatemongers remain a threat, according to “Y2K Paranoia: Extremists Confront the Millennium,” a report published recently by the Anti-Defamation League.

Inherent in Christian theology is the belief that Jesus will return to earth, ushering in the messianic era.

There are some, primarily right-wing evangelical Christians, who believe that the historical stage has now been set for that chapter to begin, since conditions prophesied in their Bible have been fulfilled: The State of Israel’s creation in 1948; Jerusalem’s reunification under Jewish control in 1967; and the ingathering to Israel of oppressed Jews, particularly from the former Soviet Union, since the 1980s.

When there are high expectations “and then nothing happens, there could be a backlash,” Rudin said.

“If Jesus doesn’t come back, who can they blame?” Rudin asked. “Historically, Jews have often been blamed for not cooperating in this Christian end of the world plan.”

Others are more concerned about technology than theology.

They say that a failure of computer systems worldwide to recognize the change of the millennium could have disastrous consequences for individuals, communities and the environment.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center, which is a division of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, says that the whole problem stems from an over-reliance on computers, which he has dubbed “techno-idolatry.”

His concerns range from the potential interruption of crucial supplies of oil, food and medicines to what he believes is the worst case scenario: “a chemical plant or nuclear plant going haywire, releasing massive amounts of poisonous chemicals. Most nuclear plants require electricity to shut down, so not being able to do so could make serious trouble,” he said.

To prepare, he and his wife have stockpiled two weeks’ worth of supplies for five people: bottled water, cans of tuna, vegetables and fruit, as well as flashlights and batteries, and a radio powered by turning a crank. They are keeping lots of books, especially a Bible, close by.

Waskow may be one of a small number of Jewish voices calling for other Jews to take such precautionary measures, but he’s not alone.

“How scared do you want to get?” Rabbi Jeff Glickman, spiritual leader of Reform Temple Beth Hillel in South Windsor, Conn., asked referring to the several examples of potential disaster that he could cite.

Glickman, too, is preparing for Y2K by stocking up on non-perishable food and filling a lined trash can with fresh water for each member of his six-person family. He is also taking “a considerable amount of money” out of the bank to hold in cash, he said.

“Banks interact with thousands of other institutions every day. If any garbage comes in from any of them they may have to stop and verify every transaction. How long would that take?” he wondered.

What’s more, “there could be a horrible run on things at the end of December, like food and stocks, whether or not the computer glitch happens.”

Glickman and Waskow have both tried to use their pulpits — Glickman at his synagogue and Waskow through seminars at the Jewish Renewal retreat center Elat Chayyim in New York — to convince Jews that the real solution to millennial concerns is to work toward a greater sense of community by increasing personal contact between people rather than continuing to rely so heavily on technology.

Glickman tried to organize his congregants into “family groups” of several people who live in the same area, with the idea that they would look out for each other and develop closer relationships.

Both the rabbis, however, have gotten a weaker response than they had hoped.

When speaking about it from the pulpit, Glickman said, “I feel like I’m in a Dunkin’ Donuts, with the amount of glaze on people’s eyes.”

Still, the two rabbis aren’t the only ones hedging their millennial bets.

“I for one am not ready to give up the batteries and bottled water in my kitchen cabinet,” said Pam Schafler, an ADL lay leader who introduced the millennium symposium there last month.

For his part, Landes said that even if the calendar changes over from 1999 to 2000 without incident, debate and fear will not end.

“I don’t think it’s intelligent to assume that this will all decrease next year,” he said.

Disney’s Dangerous Course

Just last month, Walt Disney World appeared to be right in the path of a bona fide hurricane. Hurricane Floyd was headed for Florida’s eastern coast, and Walt Disney World was forced to close its doors for the first time in its 28-year history. But Mickey’s luck held out. Floyd veered north, and Walt Disney World was saved from potential devastation.

But the Walt Disney Company has now found itself right in the eye of a political storm that is stalled smack dab over Orlando. How Disney has chosen to weather this storm may tip the balance of power between political pressure groups and the entire entertainment industry for years to come.

First, the back story: In 1998, Disney invited 24 nations to participate in a millennium celebration at its Orlando-based Epcot Center. Israel was invited to join in this hoopla that celebrated cultural diversity. Israel contributed $1.8 million to the reported $8 million project. In the last several weeks, the media has been reporting that Jerusalem would be depicted in Israel’s exhibit as the capital of the Jewish state. Clearly, Disney was not prepared for the controversy that these stories would bring.

The status of Jerusalem is a highly sensitive issue between three of the world’s major religions — Judaism, Islam and Christianity. In fact, until 1967, the city was divided between Israelis and Arabs. During the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel captured Jerusalem’s eastern portion and declared the entire city to be its eternal, undivided capital. Palestinians have insisted that East Jerusalem be the capital of any future Palestinian state.

Once the Arab world got wind that the exhibit was intended to portray Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, many of its leaders called for a boycott of the entire Walt Disney Company. Unlike other entertainment conglomerates, Disney has been the frequent target of boycotts from several interest groups, including the American Family Association, the Southern Baptist Convention, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the National Federation for the Blind and the Catholic League. In fact, the Arab-American community has protested or boycotted Disney in the past, objecting to the depiction of Arab characters in the Disney films “Aladdin,” “Kazaam” and “Father of the Bride 2.” In most of these instances, Disney has tried to weather these storms and not buckle to the pressure of these interest groups, by issuing brief statements and waiting for the headlines to pass.

Hoping to dodge Hurricane Jerusalem, Disney has taken a different course. Instead of laying low, the company actually ceded to the demands of the Arab community. Bill Warren, a Disney spokesman, recently announced that while Epcot would proceed with the Israeli pavilion, “the exhibit contains no reference to Jerusalem as the capital.” In the final analysis, this decision may prove to torment Disney and other entertainment conglomerates for years to come.

In response to the “Aladdin” flap, Disney altered two lines in a single song at the behest of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination League. Playing on negative stereotypes of any group is wrong, but making these changes did not touch on the political agenda of the Arab community. On the other hand, when Disney officials declared that the Israeli exhibit would not refer to Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state, they inserted the Happy Kingdom into the debate over the fragile Israeli/Arab peace process.

Most distressing, however, is a statement issued by the president of the Walt Disney World Resort upon the Oct. 1 opening of the exhibit. When Al Weiss was asked what changes were made to appease Arab detractors, he responded: “The process we go through to develop entertainment, exhibits, attractions and shows is a process we hold near and dear to our hearts. It is a proprietary process that we go through, so I’m not going to comment on anything as it relates to that competitive advantage.”

This refusal to answer demonstrates that Disney could have adopted their standard strategy — issue a brief statement and wait for the headlines to pass — without declaring under threat of boycott that they would cave to the demands of a political interest group.

Now that a leader in the Hollywood community has acquiesced to political pressure, other interest groups may feel emboldened and take Disney’s action as their cue to pounce. These pressure groups will surely try and manipulate other studios’ creative decisions by waging an all-out media assault against the studio they subjectively believe has offended their sensibilities.

For example, the Parents Television Council recently targeted Fox for broadcasting what it deemed to be the least family-friendly programming during the 8 to 9 p.m. “family hour.” Taking solace from Disney’s recent inability to withstand political heat, this interest group may now intensify its efforts — hoping that Fox will similarly buckle under political pressure.

Whether you support or reject any one interest group’s view of the world, exerting political pressure on the creative community will only hobble those gifted with the ability to make us laugh and cry with the written and spoken word.

While Disney may believe that it has dodged Hurricane Jerusalem, in return, it may have spawned other hurricanes surely to make landfall on the Hollywood coast in seasons to come.

Brad Pomerance is the entertainment and media correspondent for Los Angeles- area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-89.3 FM. The views expressed in this article are solely the author’s. His column, “The Industry,” will appear in this space bimonthly.

Jewish Covenant

As we approach the new millennium, we often discuss the unity of the Jewish people, seeking those aspects of Jewish life that will hold our diverse communal elements together after the year 2000. Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchek has referred to our Jewish covenant as including our shared history, shared suffering, shared responsibility and shared action.

These components take an added significance and even urgency when we consider Jewish unity in the area of Israel-Diaspora relations. Can Soleveitchek’s model of a shared covenant hold us together as a Jewish people in a period of increasing fragmentation? And how do we build lasting bridges that encourage us to explore our common goals and concerns?

In a small way, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has been at the forefront, asking these questions and pursuing answers. We should never take for granted that what has held us together in the past will do so in the future. Our societies and cultures are different, so we need to create the means to talk together, share together and act together.

It was in the context of shared concern and action that a group of Jewish Angelenos, representing our Jewish communal services, higher education and the public sector, came together this past summer with their counterparts and colleagues in Israel to establish another aspect of our partnership as a concerned Jewish community.

We tend to ignore or deny that we, as Jews, suffer from the woes of the broader society. Yet we are not immune to the stresses of modern society, either here or in Israel. That is why, more than a year ago, this community, through its Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Foundation, began to explore some of the less attractive elements of Israeli society, specifically domestic violence. Let’s face it, the problem of domestic violence has been with us for years. But not until recent years has it been addressed at home or abroad. Yet we all recognize that a battered Jewish spouse or abused Jewish child are part of our shared responsibility wherever the domestic violence might occur. For this reason, we have participated in an analysis of domestic violence in Tel Aviv, our sister city, through the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership.

Drawn from the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, the USC School of Social Work, the County of Los Angeles, the corporate sector and the Jewish community at large, seven representatives from Los Angeles spent a week in Tel Aviv to understand what we might learn from each other and what we have in common in response to domestic violence. The visit was a reflection of an amazing process now under way — the development of a volunteer committee in Tel Aviv that parallels our efforts at home.

The trip exposed the visitors to the problem of domestic violence and the creative efforts Israel is making to address it. Vivian Sauer of the Jewish Family Service, who was part of the Los Angeles group, said that looking at the faces of women and children who have been victims of domestic violence made it clear that human suffering is the same all over.

The visitors found that Israel has addressed the challenge head on through the creation of state-of-the-art shelters for abused and battered women and children. They were interested to note that the Israeli shelters are often integrated into the community. In Los Angeles, shelters are often far away from our Jewish communities, and, for confidentiality or security reasons, those being assisted are cloistered from ongoing communal life.

The Los Angeles group observed a highly integrated approach to addressing domestic violence. The mutually reinforcing concepts of community and societal pressure have a major impact in Israel on treating domestic violence. In Israel, police officers are being trained as specialists in recognizing the necessary sensitivity to the needs of women who are being abused, a concept now also being used here.

During two days of intensive workshops, the Americans and Israelis exchanged opinions and techniques. They realized that we have something to learn from each other and something to share: things such as creation of a sophisticated public awareness campaign; the creation of a domestic violence council, like we have here; or the need to increase early intervention where child abuse exists.

This small link between our community and Israel is a wonderful example of the future opportunity to share our responsibilities and to solve problems together. We are truly establishing a covenant , Tel Aviv and Los Angeles, with shared action as part of our relationship in a diverse Jewish world.

John R. Fishel is executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.



Toward the Millennium

The 2000 Year Old Man is alive, well and still doesn’t touchfried food

By Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor

Before Carl Reiner invented the “Dick Van Dyke Show” and thetemperamental, toupee-clad Alan Brady, before Mel Brooks was aYiddish-spouting Indian chief in “Blazing Saddles,” indeed, beforethe dawn of Christianity, there was The 2000 Year Old Man.

Any Jewish baby boomer who ever dipped into his or her parents’album collection can still recite sizable chunks of Brooks andReiner’s now-classic routines about the discovery of a Jewishmethuselah. From that first album in 1960 onward, the bit hasremained one of the most inventive and enduring in American comedy.Brooks is the old man, a dapper, salty and haimish ancient who hasmanaged to live for two millennia without losing his Eastern Europeanaccent. Reiner is his nimble straight man, a reporter who probes theloquacious alte kaker’s memory for everything from insight into thebubonic plague (“Too many rats, not enough cats!”) to the scoop onJoan of Arc, his one-time girlfriend (“I told her, ‘Look, I gottawash up; you save France'”).

For Jews, Brooks’ funny, free-form and topical observations had anadded appeal. The humor and jazz-like attention to language andrhythm were deliciously recognizable — mined from the same stuffthat made the listeners’ own family gatherings and privateconversations so…well, Jewish.

The truth is, none of it was ever intended for the public. Thatfirst recording session, in 1960, was done mainly at the prodding ofcomedian Steve Allen. Brooks and Reiner had already been doing wildlyimprovisational riffs on The 2000 Year Old Man for 10 years by then,but it was a strictly private shtick — batted around playfully forfriends, done at parties and for co-workers on Sid Caesar’s “YourShow of Shows,” the place where it all began.

As Carl Reiner remembered it during a 1994 interview with SaulKahan, “I came in and sat down next to Mel on the couch in [producer]Max Leibman’s office and said…’I understand you were at the sceneof the Crucifixion.’ And Mel said, ‘Oh, boy!’ and we were off. Thewhole office was laughing for 10 minutes…. Any time we’d get bored,we’d ask Mel questions.”

(It’s worth noting that Woody Allen, in those days a writer onCaesar’s staff along with Brooks, created his own historicalcharacter purported to have been everywhere. The 1983 movie was”Zelig,” and it came out 33 years after The 2000-Year-Old Man wasborn.)

The resounding success of the pair’s first comedy album spawnedthree more. The old man got a second lease on life when Rhino Recordsreleased the “2000” recordings as a four-CD compilation in 1994. Andnow, as a new millennium approaches, Brooks and Reiner are back incharacter for “The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000,” a brand-newCD on the Rhino label. This one has a book of the same name to gowith it, a companion volume that’s subtitled “Including How Not toDie and Other Tips.” It contains some material from the new disc andhighlights from past routines, including the world’s first nationalanthem (a prehistoric cheer written by The 2000 Year Old Man’smother: “Let ’em all go to hell except Cave 76!”).

My favorite part of the book is the “Two Thousand Year Old Man’sSeven-Day Diet.” It should be hung up in every deli in America as thedefinitive weight-loss regimen for Jewish binge-purge eaters.

But, of course, it’s the CD that best captures the humor of thepair’s question-and-answer format. Reiner lobs a question, then stepsforward to play net — methodically edging Brooks back into a corneruntil he has no way to score except via his own quick-wittedness andinstinct for the absurd.

A lot has changed in the 24 years since The 2000 Year Old Man’slast “interview.” These days, he tools around the informationsuperhighway with a cyber girlfriend named “Dot Com” (short forDorothy Comsky). He marvels at the proliferation of silly mall stores(“The Athlete’s Foot…. Look at that — they named a store after afungus”). And like the rest of us, he’s peeved about theimpossibility of reaching an actual human being on the telephone (“Ifyou’re bleeding from your eye, press two. If you’re bleeding fromyour tushy, press four…”).

Old fans will be delighted by this latest addition to the Brooksand Reiner oeuvre. For the uninitiated, this disc offers a freshchance to discover what the rest of us have been laughing about foryears.

“The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000” (CD or cassette) and thebook (HarperCollins, $20) are widely available at local record shopsand bookstores.


The Wild Man

A conversation with Mel Brooks

Jewish Journal: You did an interview recently with The NewYork Times’ business section about your own conservative investinghabits. That story ran the day before the market crash. You must havehad some interesting feedback.

Mel Brooks: People in the financial community thought I wasa genius. (Laughter.) I do only buy bonds and real estate. I don’tbuy stocks. The market is up 500 points, it’s down 500 points. Whoneeds that emotional ride? I whistle no matter what the market isdoing.

JJ: Is your friendship with Carl Reiner a lot like what wesee onstage?

MB: Oh, it’s even more intense. We hang out on weekends.He’s my best audience, and, therefore, he’s my best friend. He getssome of the more insane and arcane things I fling at him. Andsometimes we end up lapsing into Yiddish. How many people can youtalk to in Yiddish these days?

JJ: This material is still so popular, even though there’sa whole new generation that probably doesn’t know what vildachaya (wild animal) means. Does it surprise you?

MB: It does. I’m still amazed that anybody is in tune withsome of those jokes that have Yiddish in them. There’s a scene in”Blazing Saddles” where I say, “Luzim gayen” (let him go). Atthe time, I thought, “I’ll put that in so four old Jews watching inthe back row will get a kick out of it.” Then I start getting theseletters from 23-year-olds, saying, “Luzim gayen was the line thatdestroyed me.” How did they know? At the time, I just figured I’d putYiddish in a Western. Why not? Who the hell knew Cherokee?

JJ: For Jews, there’s this great shock of recognition witha scene like that, or with The 2000 Year Old Man. Yet everyone findsthis stuff funny. Does the humor work on two levels — Jewish andnon-Jewish?

MB: Yes. The Jews, of course, understand all the words andeven recognize people they know in the material. I think, fornon-Jews, they may not understand all the words, but they know enoughto know it’s Jewish, and it tickles them.

JJ: Are you consciously calling up certain members of yourfamily in your comedy?

MB: Oh, yes. I’m calling up my uncle Joe, my mother and,certainly, my grandparents. They were very outgoing and vivacious.There was a radio program, “The Yiddish Philosopher,” and mygrandfather was like that. He would make these pronouncements aboutanything and everything, much in the same way The 2000 Year Old Mandoes. It was a way of talking that certain Jews his age had. Heoffered an expert opinion on any subject, as if he was Schopenhauer.He’d say things like (with a thick Yiddish accent), “As far as thenew cars are concerned, [pause] they’re all good.” What is that? Hefelt compelled to make these incredibly insane pronouncements. Theyhad an air of profundity about them for a moment, and then youthought, “What the hell does that mean?”

JJ: Which comics in the generation that came after you doyou admire?

MB: I like Chris Rock. He’s adorable. And I like Seinfeld’sshow, although I don’t particularly like sitcoms. Most of them areinane. I like “Mad About You.” Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt are verysmart, very talented. I appear on that show every so often as acharacter named Uncle Phil.

JJ: What do you think of Albert Brooks?

MB: I love him. I often say he’s
my son. Actually, I saythat when he has a good picture. When he has a lousy picture, I goaround telling people that he stole my name.

JJ: After creating the TV series “Get Smart,” you ended upmaking “The Producers,” one of the funniest movies ever made. It waslike Jewish surrealism, incredibly funny.

MB: God bless you! How old are you?

JJ: Could a film like that get made today?

MB: No. It’s not politically correct.

JJ: It had this manic, edgy energy, like the Marx Brothers.

MB: Well, I was really influenced by two brother teams –the Marx Brothers and the Ritz Brothers. They were my gods. I likedBuster Keaton and W.C. Fields and the others, but they never touchedme emotionally. It was the same with Laurel and Hardy. I thought theywere funny, and I was able to appreciate them, but they didn’t touchmy soul like the Marx Brothers and the Ritz Brothers…. It’s funny,because David Geffen has been after me lately. He loves “TheProducers,” and he said to me, “Why don’t you do this as a stagemusical, and I’ll produce it?”

JJ: That could be wonderful. It’s too bad Zero Mostel isgone, and Dick Shawn is gone.

MB: Yes, but who knows? Maybe we’ll still do it. I couldsee people like Nathan Lane in it.

JJ: What’s the most tiresome thing that fans of yours dowhen they see you?

MB: They give me things. They come up to me and hand me 300pages and say, “Here, you gotta read this script by my first cousin.He’s a comic natural.” Or they give you a cassette and say, “Here,this is my son. He’s in an improv group, and you gotta watch it.” Imean, you want to be nice, but who needs it? Don’t give methings! It happens a lot. Carl and I were in a restaurantrecently, and a woman from Israel came up to me and stuck a cassettein my hand. So, later, we went back to Carl’s and we tried to playit, and it didn’t work. It turns out it was on the PAL system, notVHS. So, now I have to go find a PAL system…. Enough already.

JJ: Is it the worst in Los Angeles?

MB: Yes. In New York, they don’t give you things, but theyget in your face. Someone will come up and slap me on the back sohard, it knocks the breath out of me, and he’ll say, “I love ya,kid!” Or they’ll call out, “Mel, one joke! You’re gonna love thisone.” Then they tell me a joke that I know is going to be terrible.And it is.

JJ: When you were starting out, you were a tummlerin the Catskills. Was that a good experience?

MB: It was very good. Nurturing. The Jews were brutallyhonest. I’d finish a show and then go past the coffee room, wheresome old ladies were eating sponge cake, and I’d say, “Howya doing,girls?” And they’d say, “Melvin, you stunk, but we love you.” –Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor

The Straight Man

A conversation with Carl Reiner

Jewish Journal:How has the reaction been to your newrecord?

Carl Reiner: Great. You know, we hadn’t done it in so long,and Mel thought we shouldn’t. Of course, I knew that we could stilldo it. On my last few book tours, particularly among Jewishaudiences, the one question people kept asking us was, “When are wegoing to hear from The 2000 Year Old Man again?”… So the feedbackhas been great. Steve Martin called me after listening to it twotimes to tell me he thought it was hysterical.

JJ: Given that Yiddish is slowly dying out, are you alittle surprised at The 2000 Year Old Man’s continued popularity?

CR: Mel kept saying that — that the accent isdisappearing. But I think there is a new thrust among people to learnYiddish…. Also, there’s a second and third generation of kids andgrandkids, people whose fathers and mothers taught them theserecords. A lady came up to us with an 8-year-old and said, “Listen tothis,” and the kid started doing our routine. (Laughter) So we have alot of salesmen out there.

JJ: I’ve read that one of the reasons you two didn’toriginally consider The 2000 Year Old Man as something commercial wasbecause it was too insider-ish, too Jewish.

CR: For 10 years, it was just something we did forourselves…. The reason we didn’t record it was because we thoughtit was too anti-Semitic. If you’ll remember, after Hitler, there werea lot of comics who stopped doing their Jewish accents. It felt veryuncomfortable. A lot of them lost their careers over that because itwas the centerpiece of quite a few acts — Lou Holtz, Dave Chasen. Inthose days, people called them Jew comics. Chasen was doing it inmovies, but then he opened a chili stand, which eventually becameChasen’s restaurant. There was always Myron Cohen, of course, who hada very elegant way about him.

JJ: So what persuaded you to make the record?

CR: By 1960, we were convinced by Steve Allen that everyonewould enjoy it. He was right. It did cut a wider swath than wethought. At that time, I had a bungalow on the Universal lot next toCary Grant, and he used to come in and ask me for two dozen recordsat a time. That startled me. He even took them once on a trip toEngland, and when he came back, he told me, “The Queen loved it!” Hewas quite a character. I remember every time I’d pass him and ask howhe was, he’d say, “Jaunty jolly!”

JJ:How much of the material is ad-libbed?

CR: We really did it on a wing until 1973. After that, webegan to prepare a little bit. Now, it’s 24 years later, so we wrotesome questions down and sort of talked about them before we startedad-libbing. But there are always surprises. Those little addenda thatMel puts at the end of things, those little throwaways, arespontaneous and they’re hilarious.

JJ: Are there any contemporary comics you particularlylike?

CR: Oh, there are so many, I’m afraid to leave anyone out.Well, the older ones, even though some of them don’t really dostand-up anymore — like Robin Williams and Steve Martin, BillyCrystal, [George] Carlin and Dennis Miller. Chris Rock, who has justexploded on the scene, is also wonderfully funny. And there’s [Jerry]Seinfeld, [Paul] Reiser and Ray Romano. Always, with a tip of the hatto Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce. And there’s nobody better than SidCaesar and Dick Van Dyke.

JJ: Are you two working on anything else together?

CR: We’ll take it as it goes. We do have a lot of stuffthat we didn’t put on this record, mainly because of length.

JJ: Privately, does your friendship with Mel Brooksparallel what we see on stage?

CR:Yes, absolutely, except that, privately, he doesn’t mindwhen I’m funny. He appreciates it. You know, onstage, it’s incrediblyhard for him to think about where he’s going next if I’m competingwith him for laughs.

JJ: What does it take to be a good straight man?

CR:To be interested in what is in the mind of the personyou’re interviewing. To glean knowledge that you didn’t have before.With Mel, I always knew that the harder I pressured him, the funnierhe would be…. Originally, I interviewed him to make myself laugh. Istill do. I use him as an entertainment. –Diane Arieff Zaga,Arts Editor