Excerpts from a Hilarious New Jewish Book: License to Kvell

            April 2013    
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License to Kvell

By Joel Samberg

(Author's note: There are many Yiddish words sprinkled throughout these essays. They would likely be italicized in other literary venues, but they aren't here because, as some of the pieces describe, they are an integral part of our lives and culture, and as such I decided to make them as common as every English word. Also, some of the spellings may differ from what you're used to, but you'll still know what the words are, what they mean and how to pronounce them. Anyone who complains about it is a schmuck.)

The Maternal Oy

I heard my mother say "Oy" the other day when she walked into my kitchen. I had no idea what she was oying about, but I knew it must be serious because her oys are few and far between, reserved only for those times when something really oyish deserves a strong maternal oy.

I was confused. It was a beautiful day. Everyone was getting along.

So I had to take her oy seriously. Even though oy is not in my Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary and is automatically underlined by Microsoft Word as being misspelled, I've always known what it meant. I grew up with it. It's part of me. I inherited it, like high cholesterol and an under-active thyroid. I'm sure it's the same for many of you. It's the kind of word that's just part of the wonderfully expressive world of Jewish words, along with vey iz mir, shep nachas and kinahura. You just know what they mean, even if you've never been formally taught. Magnificent, vivid, often comforting words.

Oy is one of the less comforting ones, however, simply because it can be used to follow anything from "Honey, the mortgage check bounced," to "Dad, I left my laptop on the plane."

The oy in question occurred just as my mother and my wife Bonnie walked into the kitchen together. There hadn't been any issues between them that could have created an oy situation. Bonnie was building her own custom cake business and was very excited about it. So that was far from an oy situation. None of our kids had unnaturally colored hair, tattoos or ungodly piercings. So what could it be?

It was the mystery of mysteries, and for the first time in a long time I was scared to walk into my own kitchen. But I was the man of the house, and everyone inside was my responsibility. So if there was an oy situation in the kitchen, it was my duty to go in there and check it out. I'd have to be a mensch.

Earlier that morning, before my mother had arrived, Bonnie began preparing several special cakes for new customers. The cakes, still unadorned, were in the refrigerator, but on the kitchen table, laid out on trays, were the individual design elements that would later be affixed to the cakes-all crafted by hand out of fondant and gum paste. Lots of them. Smooth and glistening. Most of the cakes were for religious confirmations, and what my mother saw splayed all over my kitchen table were dozens of large, robust, pink and white crucifixes.

So that's what prompted the scary maternal oy. But at least it was a sweet one.

Rapturous Memory

There has been a lot of talk in recent days about the coming of the rapture, and it made me think back to something my daughter Celia said when she was a little girl. (True story, as are all the essays in this book).

One day we were driving in the car and the radio was on. Someone on the air mentioned the messiah. Celia, who was about four or five and sitting in the back in a car seat, asked me what a messiah was, and I explained it as best I could. Then she asked me how the messiah is going to know that he or she is the messiah, and I said that God will speak to that person and tell them that they're the one.

"God spoke to me," Celia said, sweetly and innocently.

"He did?" I asked. "Well, what did he say?"

"He said, 'You're not the one!'"

Soup to Nuts

I was at the Chang-An restaurant in Avon, CT the other night picking up some Chinese kreplach (steamed vegetable dumplings) and grabbed one of those 'alternative' newspapers that they have on the windowsill. I'm always looking for editorial outlets, although this particular paper was not necessarily one with which I'd like to be professionally associated, what with its picture ads for more-than-just-massages and its no-holds-barred sexual advice columns. Flipping through, I stumbled upon the Personals section and scanned it just for fun. You never know when something will trigger an article idea.

Well, the only thing that was triggered was complete confusion. You have to have a damn abbreviation guide just to know what the hell you're reading. And if you can't find the guide, then you're on your own. I was on my own: SWF looking for SWM, SBM looking for SBF, DBF looking for SBM, DWM looking for DSWorBF, SWJF looking for SWJM...

It can drive you nuts.

And since I'm not looking for either a Single White Jewish Female or Divorced White Bisexual Male and have no patience for unfamiliar acronyms anyway, I put the paper down. But then I wondered if they are even enough acronyms for some people. If a single white conservative Jewish female, for example, were looking for a black Orthodox Jewish male, it would have to say SWCJF looking for BOJM. I don't think they have those categories. Not yet, anyway. And shouldn't there be separate categories for people who just want their date to be Jewish but not necessarily to be a practicing Jew? You know-for those who are not really religious Jews but recognize the importance of Jewish heritage.

It can get very complicated. Who has the time for all this? You might as well just let one of those computer services do all the work. Like J-Date, which is for Jews. Is there a CJ-Date, too? (Conservative J-Date.) Or an OJ-Date? (Orthodox.) How about an NRRJ-Date? Figure it out for yourself. My Chinese matzo ball soup is getting cold.

We've Got Mishugas, My Friend. Right Here in River City.

The other day I had to decide which of four important things to do right away:

1) Pay some long-overdue bills.

2) Catch a chipmunk that had somehow gotten in my basement.

3) Get the car ready to pick my son up at college later in the day.

4) Watch a musical.

So as "The Music Man" began, I was listening to the opening number in which all the traveling salesmen are on the train discussing their profession and the reputation of the enigmatic Professor Harold Hill. I know the show pretty much from the first line to the last note, so I knew one of the salesmen in that opening number (which, by the way, was one of the first rap songs) would talk about a Jew's harp, mentioning it as one of the only musical instruments that can successfully be sold by a traveling salesman. But I never knew the origin of the name. I never knew a Jew who played one. (Harpo Marx doesn't count, because that's a different kind of harp.) A Jew's harp is not mentioned in the Old Testament. Could it, I wondered, have some sort of negative derivation based on its shape, its sound, the myths and legends that surround it?

That wouldn't surprise me at all, skeptic that I am. And that might add a new element to my flawless admiration of the Meredith Willson classic.

So after many years of riding that train (figuratively speaking), I finally researched it, silently praying I wouldn't discover anything unseemly.

The result? A Jew's harp has absolutely nothing to do with Jews. The instrument has actually been referred to by more than a thousand different names throughout the centuries, including juice harp, jaw's harp, and gewgaw, which is a Middle English word meaning worthless trinket. There's even an organization called the Jew's Harp Guild, which holds its own annual convention.

I'd consider going to their convention, but that might be the time when I have to pay some more overdue bills, catch another critter in the basement, or get ready to take my son back to school.

Or watch "Bye, Bye Birdie."

These are just a few excerpts from the author's new e-book. For more, contact the author, Joel Samberg, at JoeltheWriter@Comcast.net.

Visit his website at http://JoeltheWriter.com.

To order copies of his print books and e-books, go to Amazon.com and type his name into the search bar:


from the April 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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