Understanding Our Common Humanity Through Other People's Cultures

Two seemingly unrelated things come to mind whenever I read and re-read In One Era and Out the Other, the timelessly humorous and poignant memoir of growing up in turn-of the-century America by the iconic Jewish humorist Sam Levenson. These two essential ingredients are mixed in Levenson’s special brew of celebrations of being alive.

One is 700 Sundays, Billy Crystal’s ground-breaking and critically acclaimed one-man Broadway play. It is about growing up and coming of age with his father – from the eyes of a real comic genius and the heart of a true artist.

The other is the Martin Nievera classic, Miracle, a song about a father’s love to his son, that indestructible bond that will help them both to find the answers to the puzzles of existence.

With sardonic twists, of course.

Sam’s father taught him to be his own man. “Remember, son, if you ever need a helping hand, you’ll find one at the end of your arms.”

That’s for immediate and short-term projects, and as for long-term goals: “And if you want your dreams to come true, don’t sleep.”

Apparently, those advices were sound. Eventually, “My dreams did come true. I met all the challenges, reaped the rewards, and found myself with everything a man could ask for – including an outstanding collection of doubts, misgivings and ambivalences of al sizes.”

Sam became a most sough-after after-dinner speaker. On one occasion, he was introduced as thus: “Our only speaker today is Sam Levenson. The rest of the program is entertainment.”

During his childhood, kids under five years old get to ride free in the trolley – so he never became six. “When will I become six, Pa?” he asked. The answer: “When you get off the trolley.”

But dishonesty is never encouraged in his family. His father made that crystal clear: “You mustn’t lie, but you don’t have to tell the truth either. Just keep your mouth shut.”

It makes you wonder why Sam never became a politician, but at any rate, the trolley conductor approached and asked him how old he was – and he refused to answer.

His loving father, needless to say, came to his beloved son’s rescue: “How old could he be? He can’t even talk yet.”

Another unforgettable episode with his inimitable father was the visit of the agent from the Internal Revenue Service. The Levensons are fist-generation immigrants, and they put up a tailor shop in Brooklyn. Sam says that the government “could not believe that a man with so many kids could live on so little. We knew that Papa had not evaded the income tax; he and the income tax had evaded each other.”

Sam, the good son that he is, told the IRS agent that his father could not speak English. Actually, “Papa knew enough English to get along, but he had no intention of getting along with this man.” His father’s rationale was, in a way, logical: “Let them learn Yiddish! How could anybody live in this country so many years and not know Yiddish?”

So Sam became the interpreter. On his father’s earnings: “My father says that his worst enemies should earn what he earns.” On his father’s rent: “My father says the landlord should have so many boils on his neck how much too much he pays.” On the previous owner of his tailor shop: “Tell him some other poor shnook with a house full of loafers.”

Every time Sam asks his father for money, he would receive quotable sound bytes, like “You mean I have to pay you for living with us?” Or “You mean you want your inheritance now? You can’t for me to die?” One time, it was “Just because you asked you’re not gonna get.” Sam replied, “Papa, I’m not asking.” His father said, “Good. If you’re not asking, I guess you don’t need it.”

His father loves them all unconditionally and treats them equally. When Sam’s brother Joe said he wanted to go to college, their father asked, “Somebody’s stopping you? Another brother, Jack, wanted to be a dentist, and their father said, “Good, I could use one.”

One of the cherished traditions in Jewish life is the Bar Mitzvah, a boy’s rite-of-passage when he turns 13. Sam remembers his initiation with pride for his heritage: “I came into my ethical inheritance. I was presented with the rights of manhood. I had to accept these rights in a speech written not by me, nor by my elders, but by tradition.”

It goes like this: “I now have the right to do right, to do justice, to do good, to serve humanity, to help the needy, to heal the sick. To look after my country, to seek after truth, to liberate all mankind from bondage…”

Sam realized the deeper significance and the universal meanings: “What tradition was telling me was that responsibilities exercised by all guarantees the rights of all.”

After his speech, little bags of candy were showered to him, as was customary. “The symbolism was clear. My manhood was going to be full of responsibilities – but they can be sweet.”

Photo courtesy of GRE.AC.uk. This story originally appeared in Philippine Panorama, July 12, 2009

Your comments and blog links are welcome


Lydia said…
I have *always* wished I could have seen the Billy Crystal broadway show. I saw vignettes of it in a tv special one time and it just blew me away. He is marvelous!
JonathanAquino said…
How about this one, Lydia: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OdRgaNTDTr4 There's no MTV of Martin Nievera's "Miracle," so here's the next best thing: his live version of "You Are My Song" -- the sound of original Filipino music -- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pyXzYenPM6o