- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 26, 2004

The following are excerpts from a recent High Holy Days sermon preached by Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek.

Humor happens to be a special interest of mine.

The very first time I discovered I could do impressions was in 1968 when I was watching a commercial for Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York, who was running for president. Next thing I knew, I found that speaking like the other candidates running for president — Bobby Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon — was a good means of entertaining my family and of impressing and making new friends.

The next year, when I ran for a student council office in my school, Pikesville Senior High, I concluded my campaign speech with all of these guys endorsing me. I won by a landslide.

Later in college, I wrote skits and performed in comedy clubs and coffeehouses in the area. I have always felt that my experience doing stand-up comedy was helpful in my training and eventual career path as a rabbi.

I have always loved and admired comedians, especially Jewish comedians, as there is a distinct Jewish sense of humor and that often reflects our outlook on the world. Of all these entertainers, the one I would most like to share Passover Seder with is Billy Crystal.

In a recent interview with the Jewish Forward, he said, “If it wasn’t for the laughs and loves of my relatives and friends when I was a little kid, I don’t think I would have ended up being a comedian.”

The love of family and friends can be a significant influence on how a person turns out.

He has spoken about his family gatherings and the role that laughter played and how he would crack up his family. I identify with this, because there were times I would play such a role. I remember coming back from a Bill Cosby show and doing almost the whole thing verbatim and delighting my mother, grandmother, aunt and other relatives. At the time, I wasn’t sure it was appropriate, as they were sitting shiva for my grandfather. But I came to understand that the laughter, coming on the last day of shiva, was therapeutic, and helped them go on living and return to their normal routines.

It may seem unusual to speak about a comedian and humor at a Yizkor memorial service, when we somberly remember those who have passed away. I mention this because Billy Crystal was recently blessed with the birth of his first grandchild, Ella. To commemorate the occasion, he wrote a children’s picture book: “I Already Know I Love You.”

On one of the pages, he writes something very profound: “I want to teach you about our family with pictures from long ago. You are the new twig on our tree, and I can’t wait to watch you grow.”

How beautiful a notion: recognizing that in order to nourish and nurture a child, it is necessary for this newest twig to know its roots. Remembering our heritage and where we came from — of those who gave us life and with whom we shared life — is part of the significance and impact of this day and this service. We gather together and acknowledge that we are part of all that came before us. We are all twigs. We come from a tree that was here long before us. To truly grow, we must be connected to our roots.

Crystal found out he would be a grandfather on the first anniversary of his mother’s death. He said, “The baby has filled up a great place for me that had been sad for some time because of the loss of my mom. When you see how life works, someone has to leave to make room for the new, it changes your whole point of view about life. I’ve been smiling ever since.”

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