November 19, 2018

A moment on silence for Don Rickles

I’ve had a lifelong fascination with people who can’t keep their mouths shut. I don’t mean that in a negative way. I mean it in the sense of the person who could always fill awkward silences in social situations. These rollicking social animals don’t fill awkward silences by waiting for them and then pouncing. Their style is to make sure the awkward silences never happen in the first place.

I never met Don Rickles, who passed away today at the age of 90, but if I had to guess, I would think he’d fall in that category of people who don’t mix well with awkward silences. He might even be an extreme case. His frantic style during his comedy acts and interviews on late night television suffocated any possibility of silence. If there was any awkwardness, it would be from the digs he would take at everyone and anyone around him.

This clownish quality is rarely given its due. I have a close friend who I love having over for Shabbat. He’s French. His name is Bob. He’s super high energy. His spirit never flags. He will sing, do a little magic, weigh in on someone he recently met, comment on the food, recite a few lines of poetry, engage with others, never bring up Trump, and, basically, elevate the whole spirit of the table. He’s Rickles without the digs.

He told me once that he feels a sense of responsibility in social situations. He has a gift. He can make people happy. He can entertain them. Why not use it? Whether he’s in a good mood or not is not the point. The point is to put others in a good mood.

I’ve never had Don Rickles over for Shabbat. I may be totally wrong about him. Maybe he clammed up in social situations and saved himself for the stage, as many comedians do. Maybe he made no jokes at Passover seders. Maybe he wasn’t the life of the party during meals at the Polo Lounge or in Vegas clubs.

I doubt it, though. If his public act is any guide, I’d be surprised if he didn’t enjoy being the life of the party.

But even if I’m exaggerating here based on ignorance and partial information, it’s worth raising a glass to all those people who take it upon themselves to elevate the mood and spirit of social situations. We need them. We have more than enough grouchy and moody people, or even just people who prefer to say nothing if they have nothing to say.

Because here’s the thing about rollicking social animals: Even when they have nothing to say, they come up with something. Their material may fall flat once in a while, but they prefer that to the coldness of silence.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with silence, especially if you’re at a yoga or meditation retreat. But when people gather to enjoy life, silence can wait. I say, bring on the clowns.

Don Rickles was one of the greatest clowns we had, and there was nothing awkward about that.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at