Jerry Cutler On Theater…
While in New York, I went to see My Name Is Asher Lev, based on the Chaim Potok novel, at the Westside 43rd Street Theatre. Downstairs was a production of Old Jews Telling Jokes.
Asher Lev is about a Chassidic family’s young son, a highly gifted artist whose eclectic artistic talents come into conflict with his strict ultra-Orthodox upbringing.
Downstairs, old Jews are telling jokes.
There is an inescapable dichotomy between the two plays that is not lost on me. I grew up in a strict Orthodox home, the second son of a highly respected, scholarly rabbi.
My head was not steeped in the sacred words of my people’s ancient sages, but rather to those of other Jewish sages in the karma of Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Red Buttons, Jack Carter, Norm Crosby, Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis, Jan Murray, Shelly Berman, Carl Reiner, Buddy Hackett, et al.
I desperately wanted to follow in their famous, funny footsteps…it was my fantasy. So, I became a Catskills comic without the full blessings of my father, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Cutler.
For the first month, I was doing okay performing at hotels and kochaleins Saturday nights and Sundays. And then, the booking I dreaded most, a Friday night performance at a large hotel in South Fallsburg.
Never in my life had I even transgressed on the Sabbath. I kept strict dietary laws; never coveted my neighbor’s wife; I didn’t steal, bear false witness or never rode in a car during that sacred day, let alone, drive one.
Asher Lev was being lectured by his father who travelled to far reaching countries at the behest of the world leader of Chassidic Jewry, for painting a nude woman. Asher’s foray into the forbidden was closing comfortable and welcoming doors as his fame as an artist opened new doors foreign to his upbringing and comfort zone.
Downstairs, old Jews were telling jokes.
I approached my show, that fateful night with heightened trepidation. I wasn’t so much worried about the audience, but was scared to death thinking of the wrath of the Almighty.
I got into my car and turned the switch. The engine started immediately. I let out a sigh of relief. I had passed my first test. Very carefully, I drove to the hotel in South Fallsburg.
Asher Lev was pleading his case to a very downcast father who could not accept the actions and reasoning of his only child. He exhorts his father “Painting is my religion,” he cries, “it’s my life.”
And, downstairs old Jews are telling jokes.
The dichotomy is exhausting. My father must never find out. I arrive at my destination. The opening act, a singing and dancing African American duo. They close with a rousing Yiddish number. The crowd goes wild. As they are taking their sixth bow, I am checking my clothes. Nothing askew except, my left shoe lace is untied. I bend down to tie it and half of the lace breaks off in my hand. It’s an ominous sign from an angry God. I break the Sabbath, He breaks my shoelace. I always surmised that, like Moses, God would appear to me as a burning bush or amidst a violent storm or as an angel, But, as a shoelace? Obviously, I think God really does work in strange ways.
Asher Lev and his father are standing face to face, neither giving up any ground. His father lamenting the fact that Asher has committed a grievous sin against God, the Rebbe, the Jewish people and his parents. Asher retorts that it was the Holy One, Blessed be He, who gave him this talent and not using it would be a grievous sin.
My name is announced by the emcee; I go on and do well. And, I continue to do well in the Catskills and Atlantic City before I entered rabbinical school for the next eight years.
A tearful father tells Asher that the rabbi has decreed that he must leave his family and community and move far away. And, downstairs, old Jews are telling jokes.
Jerry Ram Cutler, The Courier’s film/TV critic, is also rabbi at Creative Arts Temple