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David Steinberg speaks fondly of his Winnipeg roots in autobiography

Twitter photoBy MARTIN ZEILIG When asked why he decided to write this entertaining and insightful book comedian/director/writer/producer/actor David Steinberg provides a concise and reasonable response.
“Money,” Steinberg said in an email response to a series of questions sent to him by this reporter.

He seems to be following, at least in part, the wise words of Samuel Johnson (Dr. Johnson) the 18th century English writer, moralist, critic, editor and lexicographer who famously said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”

 

 

 

with brother

David Steinberg in Israel 1958 while on a scholarship to the Hebrew University

Basketball

 

David as a youngster in Winnipeg

Left: David (right) with his older brother Fishy, in 1946

Top right: David in Israel while on a scholarship to the Hebrew University

Bottom right: David playing basketball at the YMHA on Hargrave, 1953

 

 

 

 But, to be fair, there was more to Steinberg’s reply: “And I have a lot of memories and information about comedy and comedians I wanted to share.”Steinberg grew up in Winnipeg, where he studied theology at yeshiva at the age of fifteen, and went to the University of Chicago, leaving to become a member of Second City, notes his bio.
He appeared on Broadway with Elliot Gould in Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders and Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights, directed by Sidney Poitier. During Steinberg’s almost three decades as a stand-up comedian, beginning at the Bitter End, he released four comedy albums and received two Grammy nominations. Steinberg has directed many TV shows, among them Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Designing Women, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Golden Girls. He lives in Los Angeles and New York with his wife, Robyn.

This writer has known David “Duddi” Steinberg for decades. His sister, Tammy Lazer, and her (late) husband, Harry, and their two children, Hart and Shelley, lived next door to the Zeilig family in Garden City for a number of years.
I have vivid memories of Hart and me playing football catch on Primrose Crescent with “Uncle Duddi” whenever he used to come visit the family. David drove a blue 1959 Plymouth Valiant.
On at least one occasion, he even visited my parents, Lillian and Morrey, and played his guitar and sang a folk song while sitting on the orange shag carpeted living room floor of our five room blue bungalow.
While watching David on a television comedy special from Hollywood many years later, my mother reminisced about that special time when the young “still undiscovered” Duddi Steinberg had serenaded her.

I recall a standup comedy show Steinberg gave at the Centennial Concert Hall back in the late 1970s. Afterwards, he invited some friends, including my mother, and family members backstage to visit him in his dressing room for a while.
As someone said afterwards, “Fame and success hasn’t changed him. Duddi Steinberg is still a real down-to-earth mentsch.”
My late brother, Ken, worked as a radio arts correspondent for CBC in London, England for many years back in the 1960s and ‘70s. I recall him telling me that he and his first wife, Gillian, saw a play in the west end, which had first appeared on Broadway, starring Steinberg.
“The play wasn’t memorable,” Ken said. “But, David is an engaging actor. He’s very good.”

Steinberg writes that it took him a few years to write the book—all the stories, reminiscences, tales of directing, performing and related anecdotes and incidents—to get it “where I wanted it.”
The list of comedians in the book seems endless, from Sid Caesar and Mel Brooks, to Don Rickles, Lucille Ball, Rodney Dangerfield, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Lily Tomlin, Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Martin Short, Steve Martin and so many more.
“We didn’t have TV in Winnipeg while I was growing up,” the author writes.
“I watched every movie as a kid and listened to every radio show. Radio was so exciting. It was all about your imagination. You were creating pictures in your head from what you were hearing. I always applied that to my stand up. Second City (the Chicago comedy and improvisational troupe) was one of the best things that happened to me early on.
“I learned from seeing Lenny Bruce perform at the Gate of Horn that a comedian could be dapper and still be funny (rare for the time). Lenny was a genius. He was soft-spoken and never pandered to the audience. He was never afraid of being controversial. He was my comedic hero. He was everyone’s comedic hero.”

He also considers being on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson for over 30 years as a major highlight of his career.
“Johnny asked me to host it when I was 26,” Steinberg says. “Looking back, being on that show with Johnny was everything to me. I love comedians and I love my life in comedy. I loved directing all the shows from Bob Newhart to Curb Your Enthusiasm. And I’m so proud of this book.”
Yet, in looking back at his long and illustrious career, Steinberg says that “Getting the Order of Canada (presented by former Governor General Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette) was one of the most important moments in my life. Remember, my father (a rabbi/grocer) and mother were Russian immigrants, with very little. My only regret is that they were not there to see me get one of the highest honors of my beloved country.”

Some notable excerpts: “Insecurity combined with arrogance is good DNA for a comedian. So is anger, aggression, and sadness. If you’ve had a great life and a wonderful bar mitzvah and you’ve been given a lot of money, you’d make a lousy comedian. You’re better off being the comedian’s lawyer.
“…I may be the only comedian to have made Elie Wiesel laugh; that I was admired by the great New Yorker writer S.J. (Sid) Perelman, and by Philip Roth, Kenneth Tynan, and Harold Pinter. And that I was virtually adopted by Groucho Marx and many of the legendary old-timers (such as Jack Benny and George Burns) at Hillcrest Country Club. I also directed Burt Reynolds at the height of his considerable fame, before he self-destructed.
“It’s a funny thing about comedy: when you give your life to it, it can become a serious business. I spent my life in and outside the comedy world, and it is a world, a universe unto itself.

“But this book is not just about my life in comedy—it’s about my life and comedy in the last half century. I lived through a time when stand-up comedy was a poor relation to other forms of entertainment, when being on a successful sitcom was nothing to write home about. But, I think I was one of a group of people—along with Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and a few others—who pushed stand-up forward as an art form and made comedy an important part of the culture.
“Comedians ‘steal’ from each other all the time—not material, but ideas. There’s no good comedian that hasn’t stolen ideas from someone. And you don’t really ‘steal’ material. You do your own version of it. And so that’s a bar code. So Shelley Berman on the phone—I guarantee you Nichols and May had their comedic ‘on the phone’ piece before him. Bob Newhart was on the phone in a way no one else was.”
Then, there was the time Steinberg was best man at the wedding of the notorious Mafia kingpin Joey “Crazy Joe” Gallo.
He writes: “Joey Gallo was about forty years old when we met and about as famous in his own high-visibility field as I was in mine.”
Caption under a photo— one of many photos— in the book: “I hadn’t known Joey Gallo that long, maybe a year or so, but I arrived at Jerry and Marta Orbach’s house for a party, and when I got there, I was told that Joey and Sina were getting married right then.When Joey insisted I be his best man, the priest was so excited I froze, surprised and shocked, as you can imagine. (I thought it should have been Jerry, who had known him for many, many years). And here I am right after the ‘I do’s’ with the happy couple. March 1, 1972.

“I remember, as a child, sitting in my neighborhood Winnipeg movie theatre all day, every weekend, watching the same Marx Brothers movies over and over again, and laughing and laughing and laughing, worshipping this great, odd, funny man with the funnier name, Groucho.
“Cut to eighteen years later, meeting my childhood hero, my new friend, Groucho. He could still make me laugh, but this time I could reciprocate the gift of laughter.”
David Steinberg’s life has, as he admits, been a dream built on laughter.
A legend in his field.

“Inside Comedy: The Soul, Wit, and Bite of Comedy and Comedians of the Last Five Decades”
By David Steinberg
(Knopf 335 pg. $40.00)

   Captions for above photos, as supplied by David Steinberg:

Left: “On set with Jordan Peele (left) and Keegan-Michael Key (center). Many years ago, I directed Keegan in the pilot Frangela and subsequently became a big fan of Key & Peele. I was lucky to have Keegan and Jordan on Inside Comedy and to get to know these two amazingly talented people.”
Credit: Ty Watkins

Centre: “On the set of Inside Comedy. These are all people I love. They light up a room. Mel Brooks and Tim Conway are always buoyant, Jon Lovitz is so smart and just finished doing a perfect imitation of Woody Allen’s moose story, which he said inspired him into comedy. And my good friend Alan Zweibel, who is every comedy writer’s matzo brei. (Left to right: Brooks, Lovitz, Zweibel, me, Conway.) “
Credit: © Nicholas Rowan Adams

Right: One of my favorite birthdays with Don Rickles, Marty Short, Bob Newhart, and of course my wife, Robyn, who threw the party at E. Baldi restaurant in Beverly Hills, August 9, 2014.”
Credit: Courtesy of the Author

 Montage 2

Captions for above photos:

Left: “Sharing a cigar with Groucho, as we always did. He was reluctant to come on as my co-host, but I’m so glad he did; it really meant everything to me, and the audience loved him.”
Credit: The Music Scene

Centre: “John Candy and his family lived in my guesthouse in Los Angeles for a year while we were writing and shooting the cult classic Going Berserk, circa 1982. John wrote most of the script on a napkin. That should tell you something. That was the whole script.”
Credit: Courtesy of the Author

Right: “This is Kong (short for “King Kong”). Kong was my monologue go-to. Sometimes I would talk about current events, and I also would do a Dietrich-like rendition of “Falling in Love Again.” One of the many places Kong and I went was on The David Steinberg Show, the CBS summer replacement for The Carol Burnett Show, 1972.”
Credit: Courtesy of the Author

 

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Features

A Backwards Family Tree

author Janice Weizman/cover of "Our Little Histories"

By ILANA KURSHAN
The following review first appeared in the February 15, 2024 issue of Lilith Magazine. Reprinted with permission.
What does Jennifer Greenberg-Wu, an American-Jewish museum curator working on a reality show in rural Belarus, have to do with Raizel Shulman, a Russian mother desperate to save her triplet sons from being drafted into the czar’s army? The answer spans three continents and nearly two centuries, and it is the spellbinding tale that Janice Weizman weaves in Our Little Histories (Toby Press, $17.95), a novel that unfolds back-wards to tell the story of a family’s history one generation at a time.
Each of the book’s seven chapters focuses on another branch of the family tree that connects Jennifer back to Raizel. We witness the encounter between Jennifer’s mother Nancy Wexler, a young feminist hippie from Chicago, and her distant cousin Yardena, 25 years old and happily pregnant in Tel Aviv in 1968. In the next chapter we meet Yardena’s mother, Tamar, who, while smuggling guns for the Haga- nah, engages in a fateful act of betrayal with a visitor to her home on Kibbutz Hadar, where she has made her home ever since her parents sent her off on a train from Minsk in 1927. In the next chapter we meet Tamar’s distant cousin, Gabriel Schulman, a literature teacher in Vilna, who is attacked in a dark alley in Tamar’s impassioned letters pleading with him to come to Palestine before the situation in Europe gets worse for the Jews. “To be a Jew in Vilna, or Poland, or perhaps anywhere, is to find courage where you thought you had none, to feel it flowing through your veins like blood,” Gabriel thinks in the seconds before he is attacked.
Set one year earlier but thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean, the following chapter focuses on a third branch of the family—not those who stayed in Europe or settled in Palestine, but those like Nat Wexler, a first-generation American journalist in Chicago who is also Tamar and Gabriel’s cousin. Nat understands Yiddish but cannot speak it, and prides himself in his assimilation into American culture; he dreads bringing his fashionable, light-hearted Jewish-American girlfriend to the Yiddish theater with his mother, who is eager to meet her. The penultimate chapter takes us back forty years earlier to turn-of-the-century Belarus, where Gabriel’s father Yoyna is sent on a mission by his own father to reunite with his father’s two brothers; all three brothers were separated at a young age. In the book’s compelling, heart-wrenching final chapter, we meet three triplet boys, one of whom is Yoyna’s father, and we learn the reasons for their tragic separation by their mother Raizel in the shtetl in 1850, where “every year, right around the short dark days leading up to Hanukkah, the boys of Propoisk become scarce…gone for weeks or even months at a time.”
Like A .B. Yehoshua’s Mr. Mani, which follows a Sephardi family back in time, Our Little Histories is a book that demands re-rereading, backwards, from the last chapter back to the first. Connecting threads link one generation to another, and serve as leitmotifs through out the book, like the poem in three stanzas that Raizel Schulman pens just before she parts from two of her triplets so as to spare them from the czar’s army; each son receives one stanza, and the poem is published in a 1914 Yiddish anthology which Yoyna gives to Gabriel, who mails it to Tamar, who donates the slim booklet to the Yiddish library in Tel Aviv, where Yardena and Nancy find it; Nancy will give that booklet to Jennifer to take with her to Belarus for her reality show. When Jennifer’s mother hands her that booklet, she is convinced she has seen it before, and her deja-vu mirrors that of the reader, who will encounter and re-encounter the anthology, and Raizel’s poem, in each of the book’s seven chapters.
Our Little Histories is masterfully constructed, such that the book’s final chapter is both inevitable—it couldn’t possibly have been any other way—and yet impossible to predict. The three branches of Raizel’s family, who make their homes in Europe, Israel, and America, offer us an intimate window into aspects of Ashke- nazi Jewish history—pogroms and Zionism, yeshiva culture and the assimilation, the kibbutz and the shtetl. We have all tragically witnessed how the legacy of persecution has reverberated even in the Jew- ish homeland, a reminder of the unbear- able sacrifices and the acts of raw courage that continue to forge us as a people.

Our Little Histories is available in paperback and kindle on Amazon.

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Features

Chuck & Carol Faiman – a “Fien” team

Carol & Chuck Faiman

By GERRY POSNER Take two Jewish kids – a boy and a girl from the north end of Winnipeg, have them grow up in the 1950s, and you would probably be well familiar with their following the well-worn path of marriage, raising a family, professional success, and a continued connection with Manitoba. That pattern would well describe Charles or, as he is better known – Chuck, and Carol Faiman.

Carol was a Fien, daughter of Sophie and Harry Fien. Chuck was the son of Bessie and Max Faiman. Carol was a graduate of places well known to Winnipeggers, as in Champlain and Luxton Schools, St. John’s High School and the University of Manitoba, where she received a B.A. Later, she did post-graduate work in vocational rehabilitation counselling. As well, Carol has a well-known passion for art, stemming in no small part from classes she took in art history at the University of Winnipeg and later at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Chuck’s parents, Max and Bessie Faiman, were part of a core group who founded the Talmud Torah Hebrew Day School, which Chuck attended. He was also a student at Machray School and, like so many other north enders, St. John’s High School. Hard though it may be to believe, he graduated high school at 15. By 22, he already had an M.D. degree.

He trained in endocrinology at the University of Manitoba Medical School, the University of Illinois, and later at the Mayo Clinic. Returning to Winnipeg in 1968, Chuck Faiman’s career took off as he became a Professor of Medicine and Physiology and later the head of the Endocrinology Laboratory. During his tenure at the hospital, one year Chuck took a sabbatical leave with his family at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel.

In 1992, Chuck Faiman accepted an offer to become Chairman of the Department of Endocrinology at the Cleveland Clinic. At that time, all the family knew about Cleveland was that it was in Ohio and that they had a baseball team there. Five years later, the Faimans became US citizens and, to this day, hold dual citizenship. During the time when Chuck was growing the department, he had the opportunity to look after heads of state, crown princes and the Sheikh of the United Arab Emirates, where he also provided medical consultations and teaching. (It occurs to me that given Chuck’s connection, maybe he can persuade the Sheikh or his colleagues to consider taking into The United Arab Emirates some of the people floundering in Gaza.)

Chuck was an active player in his field, and is still involved in teaching and as a consultant in the department. He was honoured to receive an award as a Master of the American College of Endocrinology.
Carol also had careers, both in Winnipeg and in Cleveland. In Winnipeg, she worked as a vocational rehabilitation counsellor and ergonomist for the Society for Manitobans with Disabilities. She did not miss a beat when she moved to Cleveland, where she worked in physical therapy at the Cleveland Clinic with patients suffering from occupational injuries. She is now retired.

Now, not be overlooked is that the Faimans are a team. They just celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in June 2023. They have three sons, all of whom were raised in Winnipeg: Barton, an MBA graduate of the Asper School of Business and his wife Michelle are still residents of Winnipeg. Gregg, a graduate of the University of Manitoba Medical School, trained with his father in endocrinology at the Cleveland Clinic – sort of a medical version of Gordie and Mark Howe and Bobby and Brett Hull in the hockey world. He and his wife Karrie have three children. Matthew, another U of M Medical School graduate, trained at the Cleveland Clinic in Internal Medicine. He and his wife Beth have one son. All the Faimans remain staunch Blue Bomber and Jets fans.

The Faimans were, and are still, very active in their community, both in their synagogue and other areas. For those readers who can go back that far, Chuck Faiman was largely involved in the amalgamation of the Talmud Torah and the Peretz Schools, not to overlook his term as president of Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate. That active participation continued in Cleveland with the Cleveland Federation.
Carol served on the Board of Rosh Pina Synagogue, as it was then known, and then in Cleveland as a board member at Park Synagogue. Moreover, Carol initiated a programme, which she ran for 14 years, for the National Council of Jewish Women at the Cleveland Museum of Art. For over 15 years the Faimans have also been regular attendees at courses offered by the Siegal College of Jewish Studies, a division of Case Western University.

What also keeps the Faimans very happy is the renewal of their Winnipeg roots each year when they return to the family cottage at West Hawk Lake. There is also a Winnipeg reunion of a different sort each winter in Florida. Likely what sets the Faimans apart from many other people who have moved away is that, although they do maintain strong connections to their history and friends back in Winnipeg, they have integrated well into the Cleveland community, even at an older age when they moved there.

So, for anyone who knows them, the recognition and success the Faimans have earned is well deserved.

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Features

Debut novel from Montreal’s Ben Gonshar follows in the mould of Phillip Roth

Ben Gonshor/cover of The Book of Izzy

Ben Gonshor is an award-winning writer, actor, musician and entrepreneur. His play, “When Blood Ran Red,” won the David and Clare Rosen Memorial International Play Contest at the National Yiddish Theatre in New York. 
Now, with his debut novel, The Book of Izzy, Gonshor follows the likes of Phillip Roth in how The Book of Izzy is a captivating modern take on Jewish cultural touchstones and heritage.
“The Book of Izzy is a story about a man trying to find his own place between two worlds as he reckons with letting go of his painful past to focus on creating a fulfilling present. In the process, Izzy embarks on a fanciful, romantic voyage that not only forces him to come to terms with his Jewish identity, but to also confront the mystifying bird that holds the key to preserving the past and ensuring the survival of his heritage.
“Izzy is a writer who’s found himself in a series of downward spirals; between his recently failed love life, his faltering career as both a wedding planner and a novelist, and an ever-looming mental breakdown, he’s at his wit’s end. 
“Filled to the brim with wit, candid discussions about navigating life with a mental illness, and an engaging cast of characters, The Book of Izzy is a captivating modern take on Jewish cultural touchstones and heritage.”


Following is an excerpt from The Book of Izzy:
“Hi, I’m Sue-Ann,” the twenty-something waitress said to me, extending a hand forthrightly and with the other lifted a shot glass, clinked it with Luba’s and downed it with a “L’khaim” that made you pay attention.
“Doubtful,” I thought to myself and immediately began calculating that the combination of brown bottle curls and olive skin combined with breasts and hips that curved in a way my bubbe would have approved of, didn’t add up to Sue-Ann. Then again, the piercing blue eyes and nose that would have survived a Gestapo roundup, suggested I could have been dead wrong.
I wasn’t.
“Sue-Ann, shmuann!” Luba admonished her, then looked to me while pouring herself another shot. “Her name’s Soreh,” she said while pointing insistently to her new friend then drank, ripped a piece of bread from the loaf and tossed it in her mouth and proceeded to introduce me.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t get that?” Sue-Ann said re Luba’s unintelligible attempt to say my name in mid-chew.
“I’m Isaiah,” I introduced myself. “Friends call me Izzy.”
“Itzikl,” Luba offered with a giggle.
“ALubable!” Sue Ann said in that patronizing way common among dog-lovers when inquiring about a breed they’ve never seen around the run. “And so Jewish…I like that,” she purred then knowingly struck a pose that emphasized her personalities, while simultaneously resting her right palm on the flesh of its adjoining hip that now introduced itself into the conversation, teasing a hint of color that I imagined made for something interesting further below. She then capped it off with a smile that revealed two perfectly formed dimples on either side, the kind so charming as to inspire a Rumshinksy tune.
“You didn’t drink your shot,” she reproached me playfully, pointing at the offending glass on the table that I knew better than to touch. “How about a beer?” she suggested with pride, “we brew in house.”
“Sure,” I answered, still somewhat sensory overloaded. “But nothing too hoppy, I’m not into drinking flowers.”
“Double IPA coming right up!” she said, clocking my narishkeit then brushed her hand expertly on my shoulder as she turned to leave. “You’re right, he’s cute,” she said to Luba, then winked in my direction before heading off toward the bar.
“Let me guess,” I began to ask Luba, who looked at me with a Cheshire grin on her face that told me everything I needed to know: “She’s Leah,” I said, referencing the lead female character in The Dybbuk.
Her giggle this time was more of an outburst of joy, as she clapped her hands near to her face and rocked back and forth happily, like another bet she made was about to pay off.
“Where’d you find her?” I asked, gazing in the direction of the bar where Sue-Ann and her pals were huddled and looking right back at us.
“I didn’t, she found me,” Luba answered and waved in their direction. “I like her. We’ve been spending a lot of time together.”
“Clearly,” I said and returned my attention back to the table. “She’s an actress?”
“Nope.”
“So why is she playing Leah?” I asked somewhat incredulously. Mind you, not that that it was any of my business but, knowing full well the chops required for the part, it seemed a fair question.
“She read for me, she feels the character deeply.”
“She speaks Yiddish?”
“Nope,” Luba answered again, with not an iota of concern in her voice.
“I don’t get it,” I said and continued, dumfounded: “You want me to play opposite someone who doesn’t speak Yiddish and on top of that you don’t even know if she can act?”
“I don’t know if she can act?!” she guffawed, repeating my question back to me aloud as if to make me hear how dumb it sounded. “What she just did naturally in that moment,” she continued, now more earnestly while gesturing with her finger in a circular motion as if to summarize a scene that had just played out at the table, “is more than some actors learn to do with a lifetime of training.”
“What do you mean?”
She didn’t answer, but cocked her head to the side instead and threw me a look like, again, I should have thought before I spoke.
“What?!” I said incredulously and could feel my cheeks starting to flush.
“She had you mesmerized,” she answered with a smile then drank another shot and tossed a piece of bread in her mouth.
“No she didn’t,” I lied.
Luba said nothing as Sue-Ann had now returned with my beer, a basket of gluten free tortilla chips and an assortment of cheeses, each of which she proceeded to describe as an award winning artisanal creation sourced from her friends at farms nearby, without specifying whether the pals she was referring to were the farmers or their animals cuz these days, you know, it could go either way. Regardless, as she side-straddled a chair that she’d pulled in from a nearby table and invited us to dig in, I thought better than to comment on the fact that without a quality goat on the cutting board, which admittedly was artfully presented along with an assortment of dried fruit and a delightfully sweet onion tartinade, what she put on the table was a whole lot of lactose intolerance.

The Book of Izzy

By Ben Gonshor

AOS Publishing

Publication date: May 2024

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