Bridging Troubled Water
By Neal Milner
Eddie Fisher got it all wrong. First of all, he jumps the line. No one eats supper at the Forest Trace Retirement Community until 3:30 PM earliest. That’s the rule. Before that, you can mill around outside the dining room, schmoozing about today’s gossip or tonight’s menu, but you can’t go in. Meanwhile it’s only 3:00, and Eddie is already eating, courtesy of some toady who thought Fisher deserved special privileges, that he was some big shot just because he recorded “Oh, My Poppa” and married all those famous, beautiful shiskes.
Second, he’s doing this in plain view, stuffing himself, fressing away like it’s going out of style. Even though it’s early, there are more people outside the dining room than usual because they have come down to see Fisher in the flesh. And he is late. It’s not enough Eddie is eating in front of everyone as they watch him with lunch counter stool impatience. He has to take so long that he’s already cut into the time when he is supposed to be making a personal appearance.
And speaking of appearance, that’s another thing Fisher gets wrong here. He’s gotten very old looking but still tries to dress like a sharpie, like he’s still doing the Copa. He’s showing off a two-toned gold and brown sport jacket with matching two-toned tie and shoes. He looks like he’s wearing a rug even though he’s not.
“What is Fisher, maybe 73, 74?” says a short guy wearing seniors wraparound shades to protect every millimeter of his eyes from the Fort Lauderdale sun. “I’m ninety, and I look better than he does.” People laugh in agreement.
And another mistake Eddie makes: When he finally gets down to work, he does not sing a word. In fact he barely talks, and when he does, he mumbles so badly that he is hard to understand even for those few with normal hearing. Guided by the afternoon’s hostess, who happens to be the daughter of the famous Jennie Grossinger of Grossinger’s Resort in the Catskills, he uses the elegant white piano in the middle of the lounge only to lean on. Eddie says a few words in English, tries out a little Yiddish with that cute grinning style that a sports agent who knows maybe ten Yiddish words would use on his old great-aunt from Lodz. Then Eddie the poor schmuck tells an anecdote about Jennie that suggests that at one time he had the hots for her and that maybe they even, you know. This of course embarrasses the daughter, who firmly pulls at Eddie’s elbow to get him off stage, which he does after a show biz wink and wave. He does not even remember to say, “You’ve been a beautiful audience! God Bless you!”
No one minds his early exit. The place empties fast. The early bird eaters make their move toward the dining room, which is now serving its salt-free soup, baked tilapia, nova omelets, and non-fat frozen yogurt to everyone, not just to a Mr. Big-Shot-Who-Stuffed-Himself-Early-and-Didn’t-Sing-a-Note. The later diners, the ones who dare to eat supper after five o’clock, decide they would rather go upstairs and watch “Three’s Company” reruns than hang around the has-been.
This puts a crimp on Eddie’s real objective, which was to sell his recently published memoirs. He brought maybe two hundred copies along with him to sign and autograph. Five minutes after he finishes his little talk, one hundred ninety-seven books are still left, and the room is deserted.
What was Eddie thinking? Judging from the way he walked and talked, not much, but his real mistake was to take these sophisticated, tough old people for granted. To Fisher, they were simply an “audience” or, more like it, a dim memory of an audience from years gone by. He did not bother to get to know the place. He went out, did hardly any of his shtick, and expected people to fall all over themselves for him. If he had taken five minutes off his illegal dining to get to know these people, he might have connected with them. To him, they were just generic alte kakers, old folks.
But, then, what was Art Garfunkel’s problem? After all, he knew Forest Trace. His mother lives there.
The recreation director had hired Art’s wife to do a show in the complex’s Jennie Grossinger Entertainment Center, Forest Trace’s regular concert room and a larger and more formal venue than where Eddie appeared. Garfunkel himself decided to do one song. He sang “My Yiddishe Momme”, that straight-out, teary tribute to Jewish mothers that Sophie Tucker made famous three-quarters of a century ago.
The audience hated Art’s choice. In fairness, a Grossinger Entertainment Center audience is a tough crowd. If they do not like a performer and it’s their bedtime, they get up and leave. In fact if they do like a performer and it’s their bedtime, they get up and leave. But the complaints against Garfunkel were more pointed.
“Why didn’t he sing one of his own songs?” my mother in law said in her review of his performance. “Every entertainer who comes here sings ‘Yiddishe Momme’”, she went on to say with the same disdain she uses to describe food that’s too spicy. “Another one, a Broadway singer, was just here. That one started with a nice, snappy show tune and then she blended it into ‘Yiddishe Momme’”.
To such entertainers, “Yiddishe Momme” may seem to be the generic song for a category called Old Jews, but they have the wrong generation of old Jews. Sophie Tucker made the tune famous in the 1920s. It became the song of the Eastern European immigrants who had come to the US only a few years before. The song reminded them of their own mothers, many of whom were far away in the Old Country. It was also these immigrants’ song because it reflected, at least in their most frustrating parental moments, the way they wanted their smartass modern, first-generation American-born children to think of them-- as their Yiddishe Mommes, da di da di da da.
But the people at Forest Trace are not these immigrants. They are those smartass children of these immigrants. The Forest Tracers were the kids busy becoming modern, first-generation Americans when Sophie recorded the song. They were drinking bootleg whiskey, eating treif, learning American slang, and dancing to hot American music maybe even with a shikseh if the room was dark enough and they were far enough from home. They were the ones changing their names from Lipshitz to Lipton and from Bornstein to Barnes.
Tucker’s song made those young adults uncomfortable because it made their mothers cry like, well, like old Jewish mothers. These children did not always want to be reminded that they had Yiddishe Mommes. The song made the children feel guilty for not sharing Sophie’s sentiments about parents who, to tell the truth, were often a greenhorn pain in the tuchus, which often got Americanized to ass. The song made the kids a little edgy. It reminded them just how shaky and vulnerable their new, blended-in status was.
By the time Simon and Garfunkel came along, these children of immigrants were in their fifties, maybe too old to smoke a joint or be a Dead Head, but certainly not too old to know what was what. Their own children bought the Simon and Garfunkel LPs and listened to them at home. The whole family, including the old grandma from the Yiddishe Momme generation, watched the gawky Jewish boy with the frizzy hair and his cute little Jewish partner with the dark, twinkling eyes sing on the television. And maybe these parents thought that Mrs. Robinson was a slut, a nafkeh, for coming on to Dustin Hoffman, but still they saw “The Graduate” or at least knew the song.
Like Fisher, Forest Trace “Yiddishe Momme” singers did not bother to see the difference between old people as flesh and blood and old people as a stereotype. But Garfunkel’s reason for choosing that song was different, just the opposite. He chose it because his mother was there. “Yiddishe Momme” was a love song to his mother. It was really a song only for her.
Simon and Garfunkel's own songs were as thoughtful as they were beautiful, with elegant metaphors and words that were surprisingly profound for young men, boys really, in their twenties. Even at that age, they sang in “Bridge Over Trouble Waters” about the power of being there when someone needs you:
When you’re weary
And feeling small
When tears are in your eyes
I will dry them all
I’m on your side
When times get rough
And friends can’t be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down.
But still this is a song about youth, not about old age and death. The “Silver Girl” who “sails on by” in “The Bridge Over Troubled Waters” is not a gray-haired woman whose time has diminished. She is someone whose life lies ahead of her, whose
...time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way.
And their love songs are about young men’s lusty, horny love.
Making love in the afternoon with Cecilia
Up in the bedroom,
I got up to wash my face
When I came back to bed,
someone’s taking my place.
She loves me again,
I fall on the floor and I’m laughing.
The songwriter and art critic Dave Hickey was only partly right when he said that there are so many love songs because “it’s hard to find someone you love, who loves you—but you can begin, at least, by finding someone who loves your love song.” It’s not just about finding love but keeping it, as the chasms of time and distance get larger. There are so many love songs because the nature of love changes as you go through life. The problem is not only finding someone new but holding on to someone old. You may love the same person you always did, but that person’s links to your life change dramatically. So you need new love songs.
For Art Garfunkel, “Yiddishe Momme” was a new love song. When he sang at Forest Trace, Garfunkel was a middle-aged man past his prime singing to an old women who sees him only once in awhile on those quick visits to Florida. When a son reaches middle age, both he and his mother realize that they are both in a “hazy shade of winter”.
Time, see what’s become of me
While I looked around for my possibilities.
Former pop star or not, a sixtyish man is a rickety bridge over troubled waters. No bridge, no matter how sturdy, protects a person forever from the roiling, bottomless whirlpools of death. A middle-aged man looking at his mother puts death in stark relief. When Art Garfunkel sang “Yiddishe Momme” at Forest Trace, he knew that this was possibly the last time he would ever see his mother.
In a room full of strangers, Art Garfunkel was a solitary son singing to his mother alone.
The two of them are together in her small, neat apartment. He puts his suitcase down next to the sofa where she is watching ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”.
“So soon?” She says.
“Yeah. The cab will be here in five minutes.”
“When are you coming again?”
“I don’t know for sure, Ma. Probably in a couple of months. I’ll call you.”
“Ma, why don’t you come up to visit us?”
“Ach, it’s getting too hard. All that walking in the airport.”
He starts to argue. He wants to say it’s no problem. We’ll get you a wheelchair, meet you at the gate, but he stops himself. Instead, without thinking, he takes her hand and begins to sing to the smallest audience possible:
My Yiddishe Momme,
I need her more than ever now
My Yiddishe Momme
I long to kiss her wrinkled brow
I long to hold her hand once more
As days gone by
And tell her to forgive me
For things that made her cry.
Oh, I know that I owe what I am today
To that dear little lady so old and gray.
To that wonderful Yiddishe Momme.
from the November 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine