Yizkor for Lenny Bruce

Shlomo Carlebach used to say that Yizkor is a brief prayer because it is said when the borders between this world and the other world are so open there is no need to linger with words before crossing.

Because God is in Pittston, Pa., as surely as in Jerusalem, then one of the gates between this world and the other is in this obscure town sitting atop old and abandoned coal mines.

Pittston is home to Kitty Bruce, 48, daughter of Lenny Bruce, the martyred comedian who was pardoned last year by New York Gov. George Pataki for an obscenity conviction. It is the place where the soul of the father will be spending Yizkor with the daughter he last kissed when he was 40 and she was 11.

He’d say, “I am not a comedian. I am Lenny Bruce,” and in the world of souls, that line is all the more true. Yizkor and yahrzeits presume souls in motion, with souls having a higher consciousness than in life, for the soul is all the more certain of God’s existence.

Kitty doesn’t doubt for a second where her father is: “Oh, I know it. He’s in heaven,” she says in a phone interview. “Believe me.”

“I know it, my dad’s looking out for me. I believe in life after death, and life before life, and that when we die we move on to someplace, when God decides we’re finished here.”

Lenny Bruce died of a morphine overdose in 1966, as God wrote in the Book of Life the previous Yom Kippur.

“Ah, the yahrzeit,” says Kitty. “I like the yahrzeit. I light the candle every Aug. 3 at sundown, but according to the Hebrew calendar I know I should do it on another day,” a day she later learned was Av 17.

“Since I was little, my grandmother had me lighting that candle,” she says. “I light it and pray. And that candle just doesn’t burn out. You ever notice that? I refuse to blow it out.”

When she was 12, her father was dead after years of legal harassment for being obscene on stage. Her mother, Honey, a stripper, was in jail on a narcotics charge.

For a tribute album to her father, 12-year-old Kitty sang “Yesterday” by The Beatles: “Why he had to go, I don’t know, he wouldn’t say.”

Kitty, who now runs a gift shop in Pittston, says her father looks out for her, and she looks out for father.

“There are so many people who have different projects and licensing issues,” she says, but her favorite one is the just-released “Let the Buyer Beware,” a six-CD boxed set featuring her father’s recordings, some famous, some previously unreleased.

“But,” Kitty adds, “we don’t want him on coffee mugs or boxer shorts. We don’t want Lenny Bruce Bobble Heads. I try to keep my father’s dignity, and what I think he would think is hip. That comes with being his child. Who else is going to do it?”

She learned to say Kaddish several months ago.

“It was pretty intense — and wonderful,” Kitty says. “It was soul touching. I just really wish someone had instructed me on how to do that all these years for Daddy. I felt like I was doing the right thing. It felt right.”

“I do remember that my father took great pride in being Jewish,” she says. “Back then, that wasn’t thought a particularly hip thing to be. He didn’t care. He was proud.”

Proud, even though Kitty says that when he was growing up on Long Island, N.Y., “there wasn’t any money for his bar mitzvah. My grandmother couldn’t get anyone to give her a break [for a hall or a rabbi]. From that age on, he was very angry” at organized religion.

Lenny’s mom, Sally, a wise guy herself, wasn’t going to let her bar mitzvah boy sulk. Kitty says her grandmother told him, “‘Hey, you want to be a man? I’ll take you where men go,’ and she took him to a burlesque house. She told him, ‘These are beautiful women with beautiful bodies. This is what God made. It isn’t a bad thing.’

“That was his rite of passage,” says Kitty. “I don’t think too many people knew that about Daddy.”

After that, he was angry, but not at the God who created women and everything else that filled him with wonder. He later did a comedy bit, “If the bedroom is dirty to you, then you are a true atheist.” He didn’t understand those who “qualify the Creator’s creativity” by not expressing awe at what lies between the neck and the knees.

If Elvis brought black music out of the segregated South and onto the Hit Parade, Lenny Bruce brought “Jewish” into the world of cool at a time when other Jewish comedians never used Jewish words or topics. It was a time when even Jewish newspapers were afraid of “talking Jewish,” using words like phylacteries instead of tefillin. But there was Bruce on stage, on TV, saying shul, emes, bubbemeyseh, goyish, rachmonis, and he wouldn’t bother to translate. He made his audiences feel hip, and if you were hip, you got it.

To Bruce, to be Jewish was to be real, soulful, downtown; “goyish” was ersatz, sold out, suburban, as in his famous Jewish/goyish routine in which Ray Charles was Jewish, lime Jell-O was goyish and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster was “so Jewish he’s an Orthodox Jew … Dick Tracy is an Orthodox Jew who is always ready to go to shul with his hat on. He’s always going to shul.”

Bruce didn’t like Reform rabbis with pompous, affected accents that turned the word Israel into “Is-roy-ale.” He did a riff on Jews who were ashamed of being Jewish: “No one hates Jews more than the Jews. That’s the true liberal,” he said.

Long before Hollywood discovered the Holocaust, he spoke in a German accent as Adolf Eichmann, “I made soap out of them … I, Adolf Eichmann, watched through the portholes” of gas chambers. He would speak of Jewish mothers hiding their babies, who were then found, and then he’d sing a quiet, slow, dignified, wordless El Malei Rachamim all his own that he also didn’t bother to translate.

Kitty says, “My soul would not have rested if these tapes did not get out. It’s a mitzvah. I know it is,” the Fifth of the Ten Commandments.

“A lot of people have no idea who my father was,” says Kitty. Who remembers?

“Let the Buyer Beware,” six-CD set of Lenny Bruce’s recordings (Shout! Factory, a division of Rhino Records, $69.98).