By Joe Dorinson
“Today I am a fountain pen!” This mantra for Bar-Mitzvah boys in the 1940s, embedded in a mandatory speech thanking parents, relatives, and friends, was coined by teacher/humorist Sam Levenson. Before affluence enveloped our country, a fountain pen proved to be a welcome gift to eager students from frugal parents. Teacher turned comedian, Mr. Levenson captured that transformative moment with a funny observation or pun as in punim.
Today, comedians sling four letter words like old-time short order cooks used to do with hash, the kind you ate, not smoked. They hyphenate mother with a sexual act and offer little or nothing about social concerns. Don Imus, a “shock jock” trying to emulate Lenny Bruce, resorted to racist and sexist stereotypes and almost aborted a lucrative career. What a pleasure, therefore, for this writer to discover a mother-lode of wisdom and wit in the Sam Levenson archives housed in the library of his alma mater, Brooklyn College. What follows is drawn primarily from this archive.
After graduation from Brooklyn College (first class?), Sam became a teacher. For several years, Sam taught Spanish at Samuel J. Tilden and Abraham Lincoln High Schools. During the summers, the young pedagogue ventured up to the Catskills, here, there, and everywhere, when he discovered another vocation: “comedy tonight.” Among the hotels that Levenson listed in his resume were the Arrowhead, the Copake Country Club, Maud’s Summer Ray (where I worked in the summer of ’55), Fallsview, Kutcher’s, The Flager, Paul’s, The Pines, Raleigh, Windsor, Tamarack, and Klein’s Hillside. One Borscht Belt night featured a spoof on the Ballad for Americans, which Levenson called the “Ballad for Galitzianer” or “The Salad for Americans.” It starts:
In 1941 the sky was grey
Old man Slutsky couldn’t sleep in this hay.
And the vantzen, they did dance and prance
On vhity [?] virgin bed
Chorus: On virgin bed/Ah finster is mir
Solo: From 13 states they will all come
At Arrowhead they set up home
They drowned in grease, had to eat smoked fees
At Slutsky’s in the valley
Down in the valley
Oh, schmaltz, oh herring
And what about the beds, buddy?
Nobody who was anybody could sleep in them
Nobody who was somebody wanted to
But I did…
Voice: Who are you mister?
Solo: Don’t call me mister; I’m a vantz (bedbug).
Chorus: O Vermin, O vantzen
And the windows came down with a great big crash
Solo: Nobody who is any anybody believed it.
Seven days of rain and no fresh air.
Chorus: When will we hear our midday song?
When will we take to the roads again?
Then, switching gears sans tears, a voice intones:
I’ve been here long before you folks. I remember when Ellenville was a post office and Route 52 was an Indian trail. That was before the Slutskys came over those hills, bringing with them civilization replacing the single edged tomahawk with the double-edged knife—fleishek and milchik; replacing the war dance with the Russian Sher; boiling the Indian herbs into strange new food…”tschaf.” With civilization came the vices and diseases of the white man: heartburn, gas, diabetes, high blood pressure, and the host of other illness known as Ulcer County. But the old order changes.
At Arrowhead Lodge, Chester’s, and the Nevele, Levenson crafted skits and polished parodies. One routine featured Sam along with Moe and Henry Foner that went:
Henry: In your Easter bonnet/ With matzoh farfel on it
You’ll be the cutest lady at the Easter Parade .
Sam: Our sponsor Gloria’s Castoria.
Henry: Switch to Gloria’s Castoria
You can go twice a day, kinnahorya
It will change your complexion
And speed up your action
The Scott’s tissue boys will adore ya
Henry: Don’t fake it—make it…Listen to Dr. Kronkheit
Sam: A man came in “Save me Dr., I’ve been saving it for three weeks
Henry: What did you do for him?
Sam: I prescribed a double dose of Gloria’s Castoria/
Henry: Did he move?
Sam: He moved once before he died and twice after.
In another skit, they spoof a popular film, King’s Row involving a future president. The Ronald Reagan character bellows: “Cut off my leg and call me shorty.” Often a “class” collaborator with the four Foner Brothers, Levenson refers to them as the “Four Flying Foners.”
- Jack, BA, MA, PhD, authority on Neanderthal man, his cousin Benny and uncle, the Fuller Brush Man
- Phil, 23 degrees Fahrenheit, authority on the Punic war, Peloponnesian War, 30 Years War, and winner of the European Peace Prize.
- Morris Foner-author of that stirring novel, Transfer—Out of Night, Into the Day Session and Life with Foner, which brought plenty of Jack and “Four Sons,” who brought plenty of trouble.
- Henry, BBA 1939, magna cum difficulate at present indoctrinating stenography in the New York City high schools.
A better meat ball, he added, can found in Foner’s Fricassee Institute. Henry retaliated with this bit of doggerel in 1939 (as related in a phone conversation, 8/25/07):
Sammy tells us funny jokes
Some are nice and some are naughty
He is only 28 years old
The jokes are over forty!
Author/comedian Joey Adams paid homage to Uncle Sam Levenson in his book (Adams & Tobias, 13-14). Without bobbing his name, nose, or his identity, Levenson worked the mountains, which had everything: “girls, handball, bedbugs, chicken…and nature.” Sam remembers funny lines (Adams. 14):
Proud Bellhop: “You won’t forget me, Mr. Harris?”
Mr. Harris: “No, I’ll write you regularly.”
Mother: “My daughter won a cha-cha scholarship at the Nevele.
“The place is just what I expected: soft breezes, beautiful evenings
soft music—and no men.”
Sign in the bathroom: “Watch your children. Don’t throw anything in the bowl
Author Stefan Kanfer observes that “in Sam Levenson’s comedy, the words were in English but the melody was Yiddish, a gentle ironic strain….” (Kanfer, 226). From hotel lobbies he heard this secular nign:
“I don’t do exercises. Too old.”
“Just for the manager, make a little exercise. How can you go home and tell your friends you didn’t make any exercise?”
“All right, one exercise I’ll do.”
“Good. You see your valises down on the floor? Lean over and touch them without bending your knees. That’s the way. Now, while you’re down there would you mind opening the valises and giving back the towels.”
Levenson loved the Catskills because it conveyed a sense of immortality. While guests came and went, the teacher/comic seemed to stay forever. The Jewish Alps provided Sam with fresh air, college tuition, and excellent subject matter for a future career in comedy.
In his New York Post column “the Lyons Den,” Leonard Lyons noted, (BM=Before Murdoch) on July 25, 1941 that three CCNY instructors (the Foners) who were suspended “now are working in the Catskills Mountains resort. They call them ‘Suspended Swing.’” They worked at the Arrowhead. The levity turned sour when the Red Scare experienced a revival after World War II. Eleven years after the Foners were ousted from City College, Sam Levenson was summoned to testify before the McCarran Senate Sub-Committee on Internal Security (Series 12, Box 353). The red-hunting senators questioned Sam Levenson, than at the height of his career in television. They cited a story in the Daily Worker on September 22, 1946.
The American Labor Party (ALP) had sponsored a rally at Brooklyn’s Parkway Theater. Committee members wanted to know Levenson’s association, if any, with actor Sam Wannamaker, an alleged communist, who left for London in order to escape the Blacklist in America. Sam Levenson denied knowing the actor. He also denied membership in the ALP. “I am apolitical,” he asserted, and provided his registration record as proof that he voted Democrat. No doubt assisted by an able counsel, Levenson pointed out that a “friendly witness,’ Harvey Matusow had retracted his accusations.
Levenson conceded that he worked with Josh White but he insisted that is work was “purely commercial.” Hence, his relationship with the crimson-tainted People’s Artists had a simple rationale, namely, “I was eager to get ahead in my career.” On other occasions, Levenson was not aware of “subversive” sponsorship.” the entertainer did his “bit” to combat anti-Semitism at a Brownsville rally, collected his fee and left. Other agencies–William Morris and MCA–hired Levenson as well. To project a patriotic, rather than popular front, Levenson cited his presence at functions at VA hospitals, Holy Name Society, Red Cross and other mainstream venues.
Then, in a masterful move, Levenson cited an attack on him launched in the Communist press. A hard-line apparatchik, brilliant but pedantic, Louis Harap maligned Levenson, as the humorist claimed with some hyperbole, as a fascist, war monger, a preacher of anti-Semitism, and a reactionary. Wrested from context, Harap’s quote assails Levenson for being “like a Nazi storm-trooper…”I am called vulgar, uncouth, and generally anti-Semitic” clearly “not a favorite of the Communist Party.” Finally, Levenson pulled out another chestnut from the political fire, a letter from his former principal, Abraham Lefkowitz, an ardent anti-Communist who touted Sam’s patriotism, professionalism, and loyalty.
Fascinated by this turn of events, I decided to probe Louis Harap’s diatribe. I found the document in the Levenson Archive, Box 353. There, a copy of an article printed in a magazine, Jewish Life (precursor of Jewish Currents) in January 1949 offers in insight into Harap’s idiocy and Levenson’s escape. The pedantic scholar begins with a sneering commentary which castigates Jewish intellectuals for “separating” from their people. Erroneously, he excoriates the use and abuse of humor that leads to “the clubbing of a Jew” and “the lynching of the Negro.” He accused Sam Levenson, shades of Emile Zola, of supporting corporal punishment for children, the use of Yiddish curses, ridicule of immigrant parents’ aspiration to high culture (as opposed to sports and low popular culture). Citing the humorist’s alleged advocacy of “Anglo-Saxonism,” male superiority, and the vulgarization of Jewish folk tradition, Harap compared Levenson invidiously with Sholem Aleichem. He took strong exception to the humorist’s equation of a mikvah to a kosher aquacade. Harap posed the question, “Is Sam Levenson funny?” Yes, we affirmatively answer. And. clearly, Louis Harap, the not-so-grand inquisitor is patently unfunny.
In one brochure, I found the following take-off of Yiddish phrases.
Kreplach-The eternal triangle
Chrane—A Jewish eye opener
Tsibeles—All this and herring too
Mishpoche—Foreign relations committee
M’choten—Leader of the opposition
Naches—Something you get only from grandchildren
A Minyan—An orthodox stag
A Groyser Knocker—A man who does crosswords with a pen
A Fargenign—Front row seat at a burlesque show
A schnapps—Jewish antifreeze
Absolved, Levenson’s career continued in high gear. Senator McCarran, somewhat different from his Republican colleague from Wisconsin, tried a more moderate route: eschewing a blanket indictment based on guilt by association. He gave several artists a slap on their wrists and a sermon on proper conduct. Several artists had to eat humble pie. Judy Holiday, nee Tuvim, played the dumb blonde despite her genius. Blessed with a 170 IQ, she mea culpaed ad nauseum. She attributed her subversive activities dating from 1941 to sheer stupidity. Defended by former Judge Simon Rifkind and heckled repeatedly by Utah Republican Senator Watkins, she cut a pathetic figure in an era charged with absurdity.
Confronting overzealous parents posed a challenge. Sam offered a few examples (Box 44).
I’m giving Arthur a zero. He doesn’t deserve a zero but that’s the lowest mark I’m allowed to give.
Time will pass, but not Richard.
Not only is your Donald the worst behaved kid in the class, [but] he has a perfect attendance record.
Students had “savers” too.
That’s no zero, pop. Teach ran out of stars; so she gave me a moon.
F for spelling equals phenomenal!
I don’t wanna’ make trouble for you, teach but my mom says if I don’t get a better report card next time somebody’s gonna’ get killed!
Then there are euphemisms.
Richard is very relaxed. He sleeps all day.
In music, [your son] contributes nicely to group sing–by helpful
George is trying–very trying.
David will graduate with the lowest possible honors.
Levenson’s capacity for combing the past for words of wisdom coupled with wit endeared him to many admirers. Frugality dominated his early years. Asking poppa for one penny generated a third degree (Box 52). “You want what? Who gave me pennies? You’re a good asker. Maybe you should work for the UJA [an anachronism]. You mean I have to pay you for living with us? You mean you want you’re your yerushe (legacy) while I’m still alive? Just because you’re asking, you’re not gonna’ get.”
Momma used a more subtle technique. “Sure, find my pocketbook.” Not even the FBI could find her pocketbook. Even if found, there was never any money in it. “That’s life,” she philosophized, “an empty pocketbook, a cup of tea, a pebble in your shoe, or like an onion. You peel away layers and layer and come to—nothing.” Sam concluded that his parents were permissive, especially his father because he permitted the children to work. When his older brother Joe indicated that he wanted to go to college, poppa replied: “So, who’s stopping you?” Brother Jack said that he wanted to be a dentist. “Good! Poppa interjected. “I need one.”
The Levenson Archives (Box 54) contains a partial transcript of a television program hosted by Bob Lape on February 6, 1977 with guests Bel Kaufman, Joseph Landis, and Sam Levenson. The subject, “Jewish Humor” elicited pithy commentary. A Jewish joke, Sam asserted, contains certain salient features: consciousness, pride, linkage to the outer world, and an honest picture. Taking the long view, he cited incongruity as the motor force behind humor. Poverty, not wealth, powers the Jewish joke. He cited Bel Kaufman’s zeyde (grandpa) as the exemplar. Through his creation, Tevye, he took God to task. Even during the Holocaust, Jews resorted to humor as Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl revealed. Troubled by Yiddish crossover words to English that were primarily pejoratives, Levenson cited as examples: sheister, mezzuma, geldt, gonef, nudnik, chutspa, shtik, and tuchus. For Sam, a joke like “I owe God for my soul and a butcher for my meat” elicits either a “bitter laugh” or a “beautiful laugh.”
In this discourse, Levenson repeated his distaste for dialect jokes and humor that demeans. When moderator Lape asked why so many Jewish comedians, Levenson responded that this apparent paradox is explained by “democracy in action.” In a war of wit, Jews outsmarted their opposition (Box 54, 9-10). Swapping jokes, Lape’s guests wrestled with the import of Jewish humor. The last joke belonged to Sam Levenson. A dying rabbi calls for the town atheist. “Why?” his devoted congregants want to know. “Because,” the rabbi pontificated, no, reasoned “all the others I am going to see again; so I want to say goodbye” (Box 54, 20).
Near the end of his life, perhaps as a goodbye gift, Sam sent copies of his last book, You Don’t Have to Be in Who’s Who to Know What’s What to associates in the world of humor. One respondent, author Harvey Mindess commented: I am devouring it with relish (we ran out of mustard).” Nominated for 1980 Literary Father of the Year, Levenson received a letter from a teacher, Nettie Silver at Richmond Hill High School.
She thanked Sam for “capturing everyone you met and [leaving us with heart filled with laughter and love.” That big heart bursting with love and laughter gave out on August 27, 1980. Before his untimely death at age 69 when he crossed over the River Jordan, however, Sam Levenson bequeathed to his grandchildren “a prayer for peace.” It reads:
All the “aint’s will become “ises” and all the “ises” shall be for all, even for those you don’t like.
I leave you unpaid debt, greatest assets. Everything I own, I owe.
To America I owe a debt for the opportunity it gave me to be free and to be me.
To my parents I owe America. They gave it to me and I leave it to you. Take good care of it.
To the Biblical tradition, I owe the belief that man does not live by bread alone, nor does he live alone. This is also the Democratic Tradition. Preserve it.
To the six million of my people and to the 30 million other humans who died because of man’s inhumanity to man, I owe a vow that it must never happen again.
I leave not everything I never had, but everything I had in my life time: a good family, respect for learning, compassion for my fellow man, and some four letter words for all occasions, words like help, give, care, feel, and love
Love, my dear grandchildren, is easier to recommend than to define.
With these powerful and poignant words, Sam Levenson, champion of the “VUPs” (very unimportant people) left all of us a legacy of love leavened with laughter. Who, in the Gershwin groove, could ask for anything more?