What is with the Wandering Jew?
By Steve Brynes
[Note: Rodney Dangerfield's birth name was Jacob Cohen. His father
worked small clubs in Brooklyn as a comedian. Before Rodney became
nationally known, he sold house siding in New Jersey. All other
details are pure speculation.]
The spring and summer of 1975 were gloomy times. Nixon had been
kicked out of office the year before, and America had been kicked out of
Vietnam in April. A Christian fundamentalist preacher on a local radio
station was talking about the end of the world. And I was a very self-
centered 20-year-old kid was worrying about tuition for the next term. I
was majoring in philosophy and compulsively reading self-improvement
My parents were in the middle of a divorce. So during the weeklong
Easter vacation I went to see both of them.
"Jimmy, don't talk about money," my mother said. "Look at me. At
your age I was cleaning a parrot's cage to put that selfish bastard of a
husband through medical school. No matter. He is forgiven. I have
forgiven everything, and have renounced the world and found true faith."
Formerly an atheist, she was now a follower of the Baghwan Shree
Rajneesh. Yes, *the* Baghwan who was featured on "60 Minutes." The one
with a commune in Oregon, 14 Rolls Royces, and a different woman every
night. Carefully, I never asked whether she slept with him. (She would
have denied it anyway.) That was my family's only brush with celebrity.
I concluded once again that she was a certified fruitcake. Her
line of patter had changed, but underneath everything was the same. Ours
had been a "two-career family," and I had been an only child and a
"latch-key kid." Even so, I had never been as self-involved as she was.
Nothing could penetrate the shell. After an hour of eating buckwheat
groats and listening to her ramblings, I fled to the phone and booked the
earliest flight back to the east coast.
Then on to my father, for whom I at least felt a few vestiges of
affection. (Maybe because he had paid for the plane tickets.)
Separation from my mother had left him in a good mood. In that spirit
I hit him up right away for tuition. He refused at first. "All medical
people are bastards, Jimmy," he told me with a wink. "The unwashed public
thinks we're loving and caring, and we get away with it!"
"Yes, father." My voice was trembling on the verge of emotion. "But
your son needs money for college."
"Humpf!" That brought him up short. I could see his mind spinning
like the rotors of a slot machine. "Your mother and I are at war, Jimmy.
She brought suit. She wants to pick me clean to the bone for a few lousy
bucks. You don't know lawyers. They slice and dice. All the money's
locked in escrow until we get a settlement.
"Hey," he continued. "Here's a W.C. Fields joke." Like Fields, my
father was fundamentally a mean man. His great frustration was that,
Fields, no one ever thought he was funny. But he kept trying to retell the
comedian's jokes in moments of embarrassment. "What did W.C. say to the
I shook my head sullenly.
"Very sorry, dear fellow, but all my money's tied up in currency."
"That's not funny."
"O.K., Jimmy, O.K." He took out his wallet and handed over five
$20 bills. "This should tide you over. Appointment in surgery ... very
busy these days." And he was gone.
I was too angry to say anything. Didn't know who was lying about
money and didn't care. My family had been barely functional for long
time, and now it was gone. A bitterness remains when thinking about my
parents. They were both uninterested in children. Why did they decide to
have me in the first place? But here I was in the big world, and there
was nothing I could do about it.
* * *
I was a junior at a small liberal arts college some 30 miles from
Boston, just off Route 1 North Shore. For a low rent, they would let me
stay in my dorm room over the summer. Moped around for a couple of days
after my last final and then decided to look for a job.
The placement office staff was unhelpful. I wanted some kind of
assistantship, but most of the professors were away for the summer. Aside
from cutting grass and running errands, my experience was very limited.
there was a muddy yellow sticker on the bulletin board that caught my eye.
"Carriers wanted. Work all you want. Earn all you want. Deliver
for Mercury Advertising Distributors!" Then a phone number and a crude
drawing of Mercury, known to me from a mythology course as "trickster of
Gods and God of Commerce and Market," with wings on his helmet and
Delivering what, I wondered. I called the number and a voice
answered, "This is MAD. Get you MAD bag now!"
"I'm not mad at anyone," I said. "Just looking for a summer job."
"Ah ha! Very cute, boychick. Very cute. That's a capital M,
capital A, capital D. Mercury Advertising Distributors. Do you read,
Houston, do you read?"
"Yes, an acronym, just the first letters. And I don't want to
an astronaut either."
"Mumm ... you've got a mouth. Must be a college boy. Come by
tomorrow, about this time. Ask for Mr. Berkowitz."
The town was compact enough for me to reach his office in 15 minutes
on my rusty old Schwinn balloon-tire bike. His office/residence was a
two-story New England "salt-box colonial" with garish purple vinyl siding
and a large sign with the same ugly logo I had seen on the bulletin board.
A short skinny kid with shoulder-length hair, probably a high school
student, was coming out the door.
"Is this the place to apply for the delivery job?"
"Yeah," he said, walking on.
"Wait a minute ... what's the job like? Do I need a car?"
"Nah. You deliver these." He was holding a yellow plastic MAD bag
filled with coupons and advertising circulars. "Bike's fine."
"What do they pay?"
"Ten cents a house. Make 35 bucks on a good day. It's OK. Too
hard, though. I just quit."
"So what are you going to do?"
"Goof off ... I guess. Family's got a place in Maine."
"What's Mr. Berkowitz like?"
"Kind of weird. Checks up on you all the time. Doesn't trust
Jewish, squeezes the money." He rubbed thumb and forefinger together.
Walked in the open door and saw a fat, bald-headed man with a beard
looked a little like the "Mr. Natural" character in Zap Comix. He
passed a form to me which I filled out and handed back. "O.K., Mr. James
Folsom," he said with mocking formality, "you are now an independent
contractor. Company not liable if you fall off your bike, get run over by
semi ... whatever. Come back tomorrow about 9 in the morning. Oh yeah ...
you got a bike?"
"Yes. And my name's Jim."
"We'll give you saddlebags to carry the stuff. You related to Big
"Big Jim from Alabam? Two-term governor. Suds Bucket Campaign of
Every time he gave a speech I went around with a mop and bucket collecting
money. Fund-raising gimmick," he went on, apparently impatient with my
befuddled stare. "Promoting clean state government."
What did that have to do with anything, I wondered. "Come back
tomorrow," he repeated. The interview was over.
So the next morning I set out on my rusty Schwinn balloon-tire
bicycle loaded with those ugly yellow plastic bags.
We were supposed to loop the handle of each bag over a doorknob,
homeowners or their dogs often chased us away. Next to the mailbox was
second best, but never *in* the mailbox or the Post Office would complain,
Berkowitz emphasized. But for the homeowners themselves he had only
contempt. "Throw the bag down and get the hell out," he said.
I later learned that many people in town had tried to put him out
of business. It was one of those quarrels that go on endlessly. The City
Council had never passed the necessary ordinance. "I've got connections,
boychick," Berkowitz said self-importantly.
Maybe he did. Jews were indeed mysterious and a little sinister to
me then. My maternal grandfather was Jewish, my mother said once, adding
that he was "the black sheep of the family." I had never met him. Why a
"black sheep"? Where was he? No one would tell me.
When setting out, my bike heavily loaded with MAD bags, I awkwardly
peddled away and turned on my transistor radio. The fundamentalist
preacher came on prophecying the end of the world:
"The mountains shall fall,
And the valleys shall rise,
And great shall be the tumult thereof."
Oh hell! Twisted the dial and landed on the country and western
"Jus' pickin' it up
And puttin' it down.
I'm jus' a rodeo-deo clown."
That was reality, that was life. Back in high school a personality
test had stamped me as an "subjectively oriented intuitive feeling type."
Perhaps a poet or philosopher thinking soft, vague, and comfortable
thoughts. I was dreamy, absent-minded and often forgetful -- not good
qualities for deliverymen or airline pilots. But there were many more jobs
for deliverymen and pilots than for poets and philosophers. On with the
"tortured finality of right/wrong and yes/no" as the poet E. E. Cummings
would say. The Twenties were different times. Unlike Cummings I would
have to struggle with it.
So all through June I strained and sweated, building muscle strength
and memory for details. A couple of times I saw Berkowitz driving by and
guessed he was checking on my work. By the middle of July I was working
7 days a week and finally became top carrier. "Very good, boychick," said
Berkowitz. "You were kind of slow getting started, but you've got it now.
You can show Joe here the ropes."
Joe was a new hire. Together we rode along the route and I pointed
out the surly dogs and surlier people.
Two weeks later he quit. "Too hard," he said. But Berkowitz and I
knew the real reason was hostility. He couldn't take it. Most of the new
hires couldn't and quit after a couple of months. Many people, probably
the majority, just didn't like what we did.
Once, after only a few days on the job, I rode up to the door of an
imposing house with an immaculately kept lawn. A large dog came out
snarling ferociously. Threw the MAD bag on the lawn and peddled furiously
"Hey you -- stop!" An elderly man had collared the dog and chained
it to the door. Now he was stamping angrily on the bag.
"Goddamn piece of crap! Never come here again, you hear. Never,
never, never!" On the bike, I watched from a safe distance.
"Get out!" he sputtered. "You people have ruined this country with
your garbage -- MacDonalds, Coca-Cola, Kentucky Fried ...." He was too
hoarse to speak and could only sputter as I rode away.
Told Berkowitz about it that evening. To my surprise, he just
laughed and laughed in his long giggling chortle. "That's Himmelstein," he
said. "The kike deserves what he gets. Wants to put me out of business,
but I showed him."
In Berkowitzian language a kike was a Jew who had converted to
Christianity. And Himmelstein, who had married a "shiksa" and become
Episcopalian, was especially obnoxious to him. Berkowitz thrived on
hostility and reveled in it. No business is run for money alone, and
for him the psychological satisfaction of lashing back at the world
and surviving was enough to keep Mercury Advertising Distributors alive.
He claimed, for example, that the ugly yellow color of his bags was to
make them more visible. We both knew better. When dropped on
Himmelstein's lawn they were like a red flags to a bull.
Though uneasy at first, I grew to like working there. The pay was
good, and I could work as many hours as I wanted. Above all Berkowitz
was fun to be around. Having dogs snarl and people wave their fists
enlivened a dull day. More and more, he and I would sit down after work,
drink and swap stories, his about the "old days" and mine of the last few
"Fifty cents off a liter Pepsi, Mrs. Jellieby."
"Go away, young man! Why don't you find a decent job?"
And so it went. The theme of hostility echoes throughout the entire
coupon business. Hundreds of billions of coupons are printed each year,
but less than 1 percent are ever redeemed. Why do the companies bother? For
marketing information. If people can overcome their hostility and
take a coupon to the supermarket, then the product is worth promoting.
"A secure business, boychick," Berkowitz said. "Good times, bad
times, coupons go on forever. Hey, if a goofball like me can make it,
It was now September. He was angling for me to work full-time, and
I was resisting. I still wanted to become a philosopher, something that
struck him as utterly incredible. Finally a compromise, strongly loaded
in his favor. I would take two courses that fall and spend the rest of my
time working for him, handling paperwork, training new hires, only
when no one else was available. I was like some wandering asteroid which
had been sucked into the orbit of a heavier planet.
It was "Jim" now, no longer "boychick." and he was "Obie," his
contraction of Old Berkowitz. Together we met at the office after work and
drank "Obie's Private Stock," a beer he made himself. "Can't get anything
with a bang like this in a supermarket," he said.
"Why not?" That was long before the coming of the "microbrews."
"Light on the hops. They're expensive. Damn brewing companies are
run by accountants, that's why." Bit my lip to keep from laughing as he
launched into a denunciation of "corporate America" that might have come
from Himmelstein. Even funnier, I knew he never used coupons himself,
preferring to buy "no-name brands" at warehouse sales.
"Obie," I asked, "why do you like to piss people off? Purple house,
yellow bags on their lawns, all that stuff."
"Do I? Maybe ... they're more *human* that way."
Then I blurted out, "My grandfather was Jewish."
"But not your mother?" He eyed me curiously.
"I knew it!" He rubbed his forefinger along his nose. "This is a
Jew-sniffer, Jim. Can smell 'em a mile off." He lapsed into silence
again, but soon resumed. "You'll never make it as a professor. Wake up!
Look at Barry Goldwater."
"What does Barry Goldwater have to do with anything?"
"How old were you when he ran in '64? Maybe 10. Poor ol' Barry
could never get respect. His staff made up this dumb slogan, 'In your heart
you know he's right.' Then the goyim media jumped his ass. 'In your guts
you know he's nuts.' And a thousand shrinks signed a paper saying he *was*
nuts. Barry lost by 16 million votes."
"Did you vote for Goldwater?"
"Hell no. I never vote ... in national elections anyhow. But the
point is Jimbo, other people have Jew-sniffers too. The goyim media saw
that Barry was part-Jewish and stomped his ass. And if you make it as a
professor, the rest of that chickenshit crew will stomp your ass too!"
It all seemed paranoid, but I liked him too much to argue. Shifting
the subject slightly, I asked, " ... never get respect, have heard that
"Arrgh! That SOB! Jake Cohen, alias Jack Roy, alias Rodney
Dangerfield. Some other time, Jim. My bum ticker won't take it." And so
we adjourned our drinking session.
* * *
"You were going to tell me about Rodney Dangerfield," I reminded him
at our next drinking session.
"Oh Jake ... that bastard. "I could get arrested for talking about
him." Suddenly Obie seemed very old and tired. But he continued.
"My old man sold hotdogs at Yankee Stadium. Had a pushcart. Then
the war came -- the Big War. He got a job in a war plant in Birmingham.
"Didn't want to go to college. Then came Big Jim Folsom and the
'Bucket o' Suds' campaign. Jim was a good guy, but, hell, the South is no
place for a Jew."
"What did you do?"
"Back to New York, looked around. Then ... don't remember the
particulars, became a shingleman."
"Shingleman. Sold siding for houses -- vinyl, aluminum, that stuff.
Sometimes put it up. You see this house? 'Purple Passion' they called
it. Cost nothing. Stupid factory couldn't give it away. I think it
"A slight disagreement," I said laughing. "But what about Rodney,
ah, Jake rather?
"We were business partners. We had our own company, 'Windsor
Estates.' Our slogan: 'Real homes have vinyl siding.' Coke stole that
from us when they started the 'real thing' crap. Maybe sold a thousand
tons of siding together. The late 40s. Crazy suburban goyim. If they
couldn't afford Levittown, nail siding on the house.
"That was the best time of my life. Went up and down New Jersey
selling siding. Know that state like the back of my hand. Jake and I
called ourselves the 'Wandering Jews.' We were both divorced. Get drunk,
get laid -- the hell with tomorrow.
"Jake's father was a small-time comedian. Used to play the Brooklyn
clubs on weekends, and Jake was sometimes part of the act. Yeah, he was
ambitious, you could tell.
"We had a really bad week once. Couldn't sell squat. So I
said, 'You know Jake, we just can't get respect. That's the problem.'
And a light goes on in his eyes and the wheels start turning. Didn't
think anything of it.
"Then I hear -- two weeks later -- he auditioned for the Ed Sullivan
show. Used my line and blew everybody away. Kapow! He's a celebrity, and
I'm still a jerk selling siding. Very sneaky, he comes by the office one
night and takes all his stuff away."
"Didn't you ever hear from him again?"
"Wrote a couple of letters, no answer. Then almost a year later I
was in Vegas and caught his act at Caesar's Palace. Watched him getting
laughs, and all the hurt, the tsoures, comes back. Went backstage later,
looked him straight in the eye and said, 'You know Jake, I'd like a credit
"He looks back, cold as ice, and calls me a dirty name. So I belted
him. Right on the side of the head. Went down like a sack of potatoes.
Two rent-a-cops come running in and jump me. Spent the next two weeks in
jail arguing with lawyers. Coulda been put away for a long time. But I
got out of it?"
"Jake was scared I'd spill my guts to the 'National Inquirer' or
some damn tabloid. No one would have believed me anyway, but he's still
paranoid. So I signed this damn paper promising I'd never catch his act
again, never say anything to anybody. My lawyer said it was
unconstitutional, but, hell, I was getting tired of jail."
Was thinking of what to say when he slapped me on the knee. "OK
boychick, the old man's going to bed." Then he went into the bathroom
and passed out. He was a big, fat guy and it was an effort for me to haul
him to his room and put him on the bed. Took off his shoes and left him
* * *
"What title do you want?" Obie asked me a couple of days later.
"We're a corporation, Jim. You can be President, and I'll be
Chairman of the Executive Committee. A committee of one," he added
"No. I'll be manager. But how about a raise?"
That was it. No more college. Taking care of the business, and of
him, now took all of my time. He was a sick man with diabetes and a
history of heart attacks. Twice divorced, no children, alienated from his
relatives -- if I didn't look after him, who would? He had pulled me
out of a period of confusion and depression and given me a livelihood.
So I owed him.
At the same time, he was often either evasive or deceptive, both
about the business and his past. The company seemed to be at least
breaking even, but he refused to show me the books. I doubted if the
Dangerfield story was true. Even if it was, had anything of value
been taken from him? Although often funny, Obie was not a comedian.
He did not have the quick wit that Dangerfield has. That's the whole
point of Dangerfield's act -- he comes on stage looking like an unmade
bed, then jabs and maneuvers to at least get respect for his intelligence.
I don't think Obie could ever have done that.
Winter passed, then spring. In the summer we had an argument. I
wanted to redesign the MAD bags and make them more acceptable. Anything
was better than that hideous yellow. "At least try it, Obie," I said
adding, "if we don't, I'm thinking of quitting."
He looked at me to see if I was serious. "O.K," he said finally.
The new bags were light beige with just enough "earth color" not to
clash with a green lawn. The printing was silver, and a new picture
of Mercury was copied from an old engraving I'd found at the Harvard Art
Library. "A class act," Berkowitz conceded reluctantly. Coupon
redemptions went up 7 percent in the first week.
After that he seemed to lose interest in the business. Some days I
would come to the office in the evening and find him sitting in the
backyard, staring into space. Asked for a second raise and got it, but
still he refused to show me the books. And contact with the companies
that issued the coupons, the real core of the business, remained in his
Then he did something stupid. He car broke down, and he walked three
miles to the office in a cold rain. The next day he was sick and the day
after that couldn't get out of bed. I called an ambulance. The doctors
at the hospital told me he had pneumonia and would require a stay of at
least two weeks. That Saturday as I was preparing to visit him, they
called again. He was dead.
I cried most of the night. He was not yet 60, and I had never
expected him to go this way. Now I had to arrange the funeral, taking
care of all the conventionalities for a man who scorned conventions.
There was no synagogue in town, so I called a rabbi in Boston. Obie was
buried in the local cemetery. Besides the rabbi and myself, only four
people showed up.Three were carriers I'd pressed into coming, and one was
the local marketing representative of a national food company. Obie's
relatives had been invited, but none of them came.
"Do you expect to stay in business?" marketing man asked.
"Of course we do."
But figuring things out was tough. Brought in an accountant to go
over the books. Yes, as I suspected, the company was just breaking even.
But there seemed to be no debts of any kind, not even a mortgage on the
purple house. Two weeks later a lawyer called from Boston. Obie,
formally named Moses Elkanah Berkowitz, had left a will.
This time, a couple of the relatives showed up for the reading.
Obie had left me the business and the house -- almost everything in fact.
The relatives got nothing but a couple pieces of furniture and clothing.
A real "f--k you" type of will.
* * *
So what remains to be said? I'm still running the business,
although moved from frosty, staid New England to the warmer climes of
central Florida, just a few miles from Disneyland. Great place for a
coupon business. I direct a squad of fresh-faced high school kids
distributing MAD bags to tourists every day. Have even acquired a
new wife, a divorcee with two small children. She has never been
outside Florida in her life.
My wife and I are members of the Hosanna Baptist Church. Sunday
mornings we sing hymns and listen to boring sermons. For me Christianity
is only emotional. The music is wonderful, but the words fail. For
example, this is something my wife thinks is cute and whimsical:
"Baptist I was born,
"How dumb can you get? Totally ridiculous!" I storm after
leaving. "Never want to go back there again!"
Baptist I shall die.
When I get to heaven,
I'll eat that Baptist pie."
"Don't you believe in God?" she asked with a hurt expression.
"Yes, but not your God. My God was born 18 billion years ago in the
Big Bang. Impossibly old, impossibly big. The galaxies churn, the DNA
replicates, and genetic errors are punished to the 4th and 5th generations.
Most important, He/She/It does not have children!" It was only later that
I realized this might have been a modern version of the Old Testament God.
She said nothing, but next Sunday we were back in church again. It
wasn't worth fighting about. An hour a week won't kill me. She has never
caught on to what I said. She doesn't care what I think, only what I
*do*. The rest of the congregation hasn't caught on either, and probably
never will. I am a stealth Jew, flying under Christian radar.
Sometimes I dream about Obie. He is dressed in a long black cloak
just as in Medieval woodcuts of the Wandering Jew. Alone, he plods
doggedly along a high mountain pass through a raging winter storm. Then
he disappears in a flurry of snow and is gone. I awake with a start. It
isn't Obie. The Wandering Jew is myself.
from the December 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine