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Max Roytenberg

Max Roytenberg: Passover: Laughing Out Loud!

by Max Roytenberg, March 2014, Mesa Arizona

Sid Caesar died this week. That makes us sad. We are sorry he's gone because he did so much to make us happy. Happy? We laughed so hard we almost burst our sides laughing.


I try to be a funny guy, looking for the funny quip that will get a laugh. It's something I try to do, and I do it without thinking, even at my own expense. Maybe it's just a way to get noticed in a crowd, in my crowd. It gives me great satisfaction when I get people laughing.


Humour does a lot to ease tension, doesn't it. It makes everybody relax and lower their defences. At least most people. For some of us dispensing humour is a conscious strategy on the way to achieving some other goal. But for most of us its just a way of getting some fun out of whatever the situation is. God knows there is plenty of stuff in our world to be serious about.


I don't remember, as a kid, that I found there was very much in life to laugh about. Life was deadly serious. Forget about the outside world, I had to negotiate my interpersonal relations with the group I found myself with, my family. I had to try and understand where they were coming from, and they sure were coming from different directions. My parents never got any instruction into doing the job they were doing and they were making it up as they were going along. I just concentrated on keeping my head down to avoid the flak. Oh, I took sides, but I did not do anything to express my opinions. Looking back, I can see by my later behaviour that I played out my loyalties in my actions, fostering some of my deepest regrets to this day. How foolish we can be under the secret spell of childish emotions that, perhaps unknowingly, guide us in our adult lives without our thinking things through. In retrospect, I am amazed at the wisdom, courage and strength of my parents, coming wholly unprepared out of the Eastern European chaos, that they so clearly succeeded in launching their children on a rewarding path in life, with little in the way of neuroses. We have so many examples when this was not the case even with parents of families on whom were lavished brighter opportunities.


My siblings, of course, were another matter. I was the filling in the sandwich between two sisters. Being the male in the group, I had certain advantages. Like it or not, being a male in the Jewish culture carried certain advantages. They were unspoken, but they were there. Why did my older sister have to be the one who always had to help with the cleaning? And I was the one who had to do well in school, because,  even when we didn't have two pennies to rub together, it was understood I was the one who was going to go to University. And for a long time, I was the youngest. I sure hated it when my sister came along and dethroned me from my position as the baby. I am mad at her about this even to this day because she was always ready to ask for things and get them. I was too proud, given my favoured state, to even ask.


The outside world-well, did that even bear discussion? My Dad had to struggle, so I knew I had my work cut out for me. I had to be thinking all the time how to develop independent means to ensure freedom of action. On the world scene, there didn't seem to be a lot of justice around for those who didn't have the muscle. And then we found out about the Holocaust and how little was done to try and save the doomed.


So where did the good stuff come from that we put in our kit bags to draw on as we set off on our individual journeys? Where did we find our laughter?


Well, there was definitely a sense of family, of us and them. We were partners in our common fate, so what hurt one was a hurt to the other. We fought and argued and competed for our parents attention, but we had a common front against outsiders. I remember to this day my smaller older sister standing in front of me when a bully rushed over to do me violence on my way to school, waggling her finger in his face, insisting, “don't you touch my brother”, and the bully just went away. We had our private world that did not include our parents, where we shared our grievances, and some of the horrors of our life experiences with our parents. But we never had an instant's doubt that our welfare was of the highest priority to our parents. They never talked about it, but we knew.


Then there were the things that we did as a family. There was never much going out together-we didn't have the means for that. If we went out, it was mainly at the invitation of relatives, for a holiday or special occasions. My young sister and I had some playtimes but it wasn't like I had a friend who was a boy. For me the highlight was always our celebration of the Jewish holidays as a family. Sometimes it was all about that special feeling when we were all around the table at the Sabbath, and the candles were lit and we made a blessing on the challah, the Sabbath bread. I remember once my mother waved a chicken over my head as part of the mysterious process of transferring my sins to the chicken.  I remember surreptitiously eating chicken legs in a corner of the synagogue before I reached the age when I had to fast on the Day of Atonement. I remember my Bar Mitzva when, for an instant in time, I was a big wheel and wore a fedora. Imagine, hundreds of people were there listening to me perform. Is that when I learned I wanted to act out and be a ham? I got a taste of what it was like to be a star and I was hooked?


Particularly enjoyable was the celebration of the Passover. I remember the preparations. Some years I had to dig a hole in the front lawn for the cutlery so they could be made kosher for the meal. We didn't have a second set just for Passover.. There were always some special foods at this time that I really loved . Matzabai, anyone? The meal could go on for hours. The four glasses of wine, and reading the whole book, the Haggada, telling the story of our liberation from slavery. I always found it very emotional. It seemed so now, like it was happening to us that day. (Then came the creation of Israel. I was over the moon.) The competition around looking for the piece of matza, or unleavened bread, that one of us hid, without which we could not end the meal and proceed to the part where we could sing all  the Passover songs, that added some colour. How I loved that! Shouting out the songs as loud as we could. Gosh, that was the funnest time we had all year.  I tried to ensure we had those good times in my home when my kids were growing up.


Looking back, those were my laughing times, to balance all the stuff that was grim, that we all had to get through, growing up. I'm sure my siblings, and maybe some of you out there, will remember. L.O.L.



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