Students ask seniors: Does humor cushion lifes blows

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WASHINGTON — Louis Pollack, a jovial and talkative 89-year-old resident at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington in Rockville, Md., eagerly awaits a documentary film interview on a subject close to his heart: Jewish humor.

Two student documentary filmmakers asked Pollack to share his thoughts on Jewish jokes and wit recently, and to explain how humor may have cushioned some of life's blows.

The students, Yale University juniors Scott Kirschenbaum of Phoenix and Aaron Krinsky of Laguna Beach, had just put on a comedy performance for fifth floor residents at the home. The show is a journey through Jewish humor with routines from Groucho Marx, Al Sherman, Jack Benny and Mel Brooks, among other legends. Jewish mothers and rabbis are familiar fodder for the routines.

Kirschenbaum and Krinsky spent the rest of the day going to residents in their rooms or lounges for one-on-one interviews recorded on digital videotape.

As much as residents like Pollack enjoy sharing their insights on Jewish humor, they especially relish the attention of these two 20-year-olds.

During the summer, the students traveled around the country for six weeks to perform their Jewish comedy sketches and interview residents at 15 Jewish nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. A third Yale student, Michael Ellis, was in Europe learning Yiddish for the project.

The threesome earned a $4,500 grant from their campus Hillel to cover their travel expenses along the U.S. route that took them from New York to California and points in between. They hope to launch a nonprofit organization to distribute the film to Jewish federations, nursing homes, schools and youth movements.

In filming the residents, the thin line between humor and disappointment, travails and sadness emerges. Humor serves as a starting point for conversation that quickly turns to deeper matters of religion and illness.

Kirschenbaum seats himself close to Pollack's wheelchair, while Krinsky sets up a camera tripod and reassures Pollack, "Everything we move or change in your room, we'll put back."

Pollack starts talking even before the equipment is ready: "If you can't makes jokes, you can go crazy living" in a nursing home, he offers. "You've got to have a great sense of humor and a willingness to be alive."

When the filming begins, Pollack talks about his day so far. "At 3 a.m., I woke up, and they gave me my medication and stuff like that," he says. "Then I tossed and turned until 7," when he needed assistance to get up for the morning. "I'm handicapped," he explains matter-of-factly. "I wish I wasn't, but I'm stuck."

He talks about going to morning services and is asked about his religious beliefs. "Physically, I'm not so religious, but mentally, I'm bound to it, no matter what!" He believes that "95 percent of the Bible is true" and with the "other 5 percent, I raise hell and make trouble to get some smiles and some liveliness in the place."

He likes to laugh, he tells Kirschenbaum. "Not a belly laugh, but an intelligent laugh." Humor "lightens up the heaviness in the heart and body and lets you relax more quickly," says Pollack, who has outlived a daughter, Myra. "Frankly, humor is what keeps me going. I've seen too much sickness. I fight it with humor."

Throughout the interview, Pollack tells the students that the essence of Jewish jokes is "making fun of [ourselves]." The core of being Jewish is "to be an honest, very decent person, a mensch," he says.

Like Pollack, Hebrew Home resident Frank Sim believes the essence of living Jewishly is to "live honestly," he says. "Do not lie. Don't steal. And if you are married, stay with your wife and children."

But the similarity ends there. Jewish humor is a topic almost alien to Sim, a survivor of Auschwitz-Buchenwald and numerous slave labor camps. A native of Monrovia, Czechoslovakia, he says, "Humor. I didn't have too much humor. Life is not funny. For me, it was not funny."

By war's end, only Sim and a sister in England survived out of 30 relatives. "I went back and I didn't find anybody from my family. So I was a little bit out of normal. It's not easy coming home and having nothing." Later he says, "A concentration camp was not a circus. Every day, you didn't know whether you would be living."

How did Sim manage? Krinsky asks. "I never gave up," Sim responds. "I didn't want to make pleasure to Hitler that he gets me down. I beat him."

Although Sim's grim story does not support the film's treatment of Jewish humor as a coping mechanism, his interview will be included anyway, say Kirschenbaum and Krinsky after the filming.

"We're not trying to defend a thesis. We're here to discover," Krinsky adds. "Humor is a starting point down a road to more serious discussion."

The two say the comedy shows have been a good vehicle for connecting with the Jewish seniors around the country. "In every [performance], you're going to have someone who has heard the joke or a variation on it," says Kirschenbaum. "We love the fact that the people know the jokes, and they want to tell us their version of the jokes. They have a unique style and timing. And they laugh through the punch line."

All the while, Kirschenbaum realizes, "the people try to impart some sort of message for us to take with us."