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Are We Funny or What?

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Submitted by Joe Dorinson Brooklyn produced a bumper crop of comic artists. Many of the nation’s premier humorists–Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Buddy Hackett, Jack Carter, Joan Rivers, Fanny Brice (and her avatar, Barbra Streisand),  Alan King, Lenny Bruce, Danny Kaye, Abe Burrows, Phil Silvers, Phil Foster, and Henny Youngman–mined their Brooklyn past and Jewish roots for comedic nuggets. Starting in local candy stores, they honed their… Read More »Are We Funny or What?

Sandy Koufax

Sandy Koufax

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Sandy Koufax 1961 Just in: Koufax was a baller of more than one kind Apparently Brooklyn Jewish baseball legend Sandy Koufax had short legs but also ups. He played basketball for Lafayette High School in Bath Beach, Brooklyn in the early 1950s, setting himself apart as an extraordinary player on the court before going on to his career as an all-star pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers. As an early teenager… Read More »Sandy Koufax

Danny Kaye, A Mentsh for All Seasons

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Danny Kaye

by Joe Dorinson

“My father took me on his knee and said: ‘Kolya, my little gypsy. It is time you vent out into the verid and learen the facts of life.’ So, I packed my little karzink, wandered over hill and dale, small villages and pretty cities. Then I saw her–my first womansk. She was gorgeous and sassionately beautifuly. And her voice–was the voice of angel. SOFT AND MELLOW! Deenah! Is there anyone feener in the state of Caroleena? If there is and you know her, please show her to me! Kack de byerna sertzer”
Nestled in the hallways of our low-income housing project, my friends and I slid up and down the scat scale in emulation of our idol. Danny Kaye. We loved the slow build-up, oozing shmaltz, the mad riffs and the blast off into stratospheric heights. Kaye represented the triumph of energy over matter–the fantasy triumph of every spirited kid. It is hard to believe that this elemental comic force no longer graces our world. To be sure, Kaye aficionados have various films to sustain them–but these Hollywood vehicles do not convey Danny Kaye at his best.
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Marvin Miller

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Marvin Miller
Marvin Miller

On Tuesday,November 26.2012, a great Bronx-born but Brooklyn-bred American Jewish hero, Marvin Miller died. The Malach Hamoves (Angel of Death) claimed him at age 95. His daughter Susan cited liver cancer as the cause but, denied elevation to Baseball’s Hall of Fame, Miller, an outstanding economist and labor leader, may have succumbed to a broken heart.

Several years prior, at the Workmen’s Circle building, I shared a podium with this protean figure. Deeply honored and almost speechless, I greeted him in Yiddish. Why? According to my late mother, at the Workmen’s Circle — home of mame loshen (mother tongue) –one must speak Yiddish. Moreover, I pointed out that baseball’s peerless union leader, Marvin Miller owes his success to the Golden rule, that is to say the Harry Golden rule.  Dress British.  Think Yiddish.

To this paradigm, add a social conscience, rooted in trade union culture, grounded in prophetic tradition, and leavened with core values — and you have an unbeatable force. Marvin Miller recalled that his father worked in lower Manhattan dispensing tsadaka (charity) and wisdom in Chinese, English, and Yiddish.

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Brooklyn Dodgers, The Ghosts of Flatbush

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When Walter O’Malley—author Pete Hamill’s choice for the third most evil man in history—pulled the Dodgers out of Brooklyn with the bibulous Horace Stoneham in tow, this baseball tycoon drove a dagger deep into our city’s heart. Our borough minus the Dodgers is like Romeo bereft of Juliet, corned beef on white bread, Abbott less Costello, and Steve Lawrence sans Edye Gorme. As the poet wrote: “After such knowledge, what… Read More »Brooklyn Dodgers, The Ghosts of Flatbush

Joan Rivers: ‘Yente-In-Chief’

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The ‘mouth that roared’ is silent, but in her life Rivers gave voice to outsiders and women.

by Joseph Dorinson, published in The Jewish Week, Fri, 09/05/2014 Joan RiversBorn in Brooklyn in 1933 to Russian immigrant parents, Dr. Meyer and Beatrice Molinsky, Joan grew up in the shadow of an older sister and with many complexes. “I was so fat; I was my own buddy in camp.” Despite her carefully crafted comic persona, she actually was a brilliant student, a graduate of Barnard College with high honors in 1954. Ignoring her parents’ pleas, Joan pursued a career as an actress, dancer, and singer. But comedy provided a better fit. A long apprenticeship that included performing in the Catskill hotels (because she had a car and agreed to drive her male peers there and back), a stint with Chicago’s Second City ensemble, many night clubs, and some “toilets” ultimately led to success capped by a brilliant ten minutes on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show in 1965. Billed as a writer, Rivers, who changed her last name at her agent’s suggestion when she entered show business, was 32 when she vaulted into stardom. Her early shtick, with shades of traditional Jewish humor, featured self-deprecation, especially about her allegedly “ugly duckling” appearance. In fact, before multiple cosmetic surgeries, she was actually quite pretty if not drop-dead gorgeous. For example (from critic Sarah Blacher Cohen’s essay “Unkosher Comediennes”):
“On our wedding night, my husband said: ‘Can I help with the buttons?’ I was naked at the time.” “You’ve heard of A Cup, B Cup and C Cup. Well, you’re looking at demitasse.” “Dress by Oscar de la Rental; body by Oscar Meyer.”
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Cal Abrams

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CAL ABRAMS On November 20, 1980, Eli Wohlgelernter interviewed Cal Abrams and his wife, May. Now housed in the Jewish Division of the New York Public Library, the record of this interview goes beyond statistics, to which British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli disdained in a pungent remark, often quoted and wrongly attributed: “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” With regard to Calvin Ross Abrams, whose lifetime batting average of… Read More »Cal Abrams

Brooklyn in Film

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On The Waterfront – 1954

by Prof. Joe Dorinson

Coney Island, a special place for “R and R,” beckoned to moviemakers. In many ways a freak show in the early years of mass entertainment, it became a vital part of popular culture–and, of course, fodder for the movies. A 20th Century Fox movie starring Betty Grable capitalized on both name and association. Perhaps, the best film inspired by Coney was a semi-documentary, The Little Fugitive about a little Bensonhurst boy, Richie Andrusco who runs away from home and school. Made in 1953, it won rave reviews among the cognoscenti.

Coney’s Brooklyn neighbors invited cinematic treatment too. The Brooklyn character answered deep-rooted needs in the kaleidoscope that is American culture. Often pegged to the lowest common denominator, shades of Phineas T. Barnum, Hollywood moguls offered national audiences a proliferation of dumb blondes, laconic cowboys, precocious children, refined Englishmen, and a host of other gargoyles. They took certain recognizable traits and magnified them as the Brooklyn New York type.

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Sam Levenson

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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.

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Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskill Resort

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by Joe Dorinson

kutshersAs I write, an excellent film, Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskill Resort is playing in the background. It is the third time today that I have watched this wonderful if ultimately sad saga. In 1963, during Passover week, I ended my career there as a waiter. The $270 that I earned that memorable week helped to underwrite my graduate school education at Columbia University. Subsequently, I returned to Kutsher’s Country Club for various alumni reunions and stimulating conferences in 2001, 2003, 2005, and 2007: all organized by Phil Brown, a former student at Long Island University, currently a distinguished Sociology Professor at Northeastern University, and a vital participant as “talking head” in your film.
The film’s opening sequences provides a mixed message. A news anchor announces that a wrecking ball will demolish the main buildings. Then, to dull the edge of sadness, Freddy Roman offers much-needed comic relief. Along with Roman, Phil Brown and Larry Strickler, former social director qua tumbler convey historical and cultural context. A kaleidoscopic cornucopia of food and entertainment follow. And this viewer was hooked so to speak. Roman deplores the anti-Semitic road mayvens who confine Jewish travelers to a single lane minus the promised improvements. While he astutely frames the Catskill experience as the third act of that hairy-dairyman Tevye, the farmer, in a minor miscue, Strickler refers to the surge (rather than scourge) of tuberculosis on the Lower East Side that prompted a mass summer exodus to the “Borscht Belt.” He more than atones with luminous commentary and a song at the film’s end that breaks your heart with a poignant rendition of “What I Did for Love.”
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