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Richard Belzer was a Jewish comedian. Why didn’t his obituaries say so?

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(JTA) — Ever hear Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” sung in Yiddish dialect? It used to be a regular bit performed by comedian and actor Richard Belzer, who died this week at 78. He also used to do a routine about Bob Dylan’s bar mitzvah in which he recited a Hebrew prayer in the singer’s distinctive tone. A similar Elvis bar mitzvah bit was also part of his routine. 

Surprisingly, Belzer performed these niche routines in numerous comedy venues and even on the nationally televised “The Late Show with David Letterman.” In addition to a variety of other Jewish references embedded in his act, Belzer also performed Yiddish-inflected parodies of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” and “When Doves Cry.” 

But like so many American comedians of the Hebraic persuasion, Belzer didn’t really work Jewish. The bulk of his act was general and observational. To be sure, there were bits and pieces of Jewish material that can be found scattered about his comedic oeuvre, though to have the broad appeal he achieved, he understood that he had to deal in comic generalities. But to have thrown bits like Dylan’s bar mitzvah into routines for venues as broad as Letterman is an indication that he was truly dedicated to his Jewish material.

Moreover, he enjoyed it. Around 2003, after he’d snagged a contract to do a special on a cable network, he approached Letterman’s legendary bandleader, Paul Schaffer, and told him he wanted to do something “Jewish” for the show. Schaffer suggested The Barton Brothers’ risqué Yiddish radio ad parody song “Joe and Paul.” Belzer loved the idea. The duo learned the Yiddish lines and performed the tune, which, in veiled Yiddish tones, talks about masturbation and going to a prostitute named “Cock-eyed Jenny.” It was so well-received and the two enjoyed it so much, they began to do it in other venues. It eventually wound up on a 2008 album titled “The Jewish Songbook,” together with songs sung by Neil Sedaka and Barbra Streisand.

Which is why it’s been strange to read obit after obit in outlets like The New York Times, The Guardian and The Hollywood Reporter, among others, that didn’t bother to mention that Belzer was Jewish — even when, as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency pointed out, the character for which he was best known, Det. John Munch on “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” identified as Jewish. Obituaries, after all, are meant to be the final stock-taking of a person’s life. They should include the basics of who they were. And one of the basics of Richard Belzer is that he was a Yid. 

Moreover, according to Paul Shaffer, he was a proud one. I should also point out that I don’t mean Jewish in a religious sense. Belzer, after all, appears to have been an atheist, so what is meant here is Jew as an ethnic category, one that apparently confounds a lot of people and which results in many Jewish artists being described as anything but Jewish.

To call Burt Bacharach an “American composer” or Barbara Walters a “pioneering woman newscaster” is accurate, but misses a significant ethno-cultural aspect of these people, one that was integrally responsible for making them who they are and influencing their creative choices. The notion that “Jewish” is something more than a religious denomination — that it’s a wide-ranging culture that includes art, literature, music, food, folkways and languages — is terribly difficult to grasp for some people.

One case in point is an excellent book by Kliph Nesteroff that appeared in 2015 called “The Comedians,” which richly details the history of stand-up comedy in America. Assiduously researched, it’s become the definitive work on the topic. The book, however, deracinates the history of the field. From reading it, you would never know that 20th-century American comedy was largely a Jewish enterprise. In fact, you’d hardly know that Jews were involved at all. You will read about comedians such as Milton Berle, Joan Rivers, Lenny Bruce and Jerry Seinfeld, but you’ll have no idea that any of them are Jews, or that Jewish history and culture might have had at least a nominal influence in their work and in their field. It’s like a history of opera that doesn’t bother to mention Italians: They weren’t the only ones involved, but the field would have been far poorer without their distinct contributions.

The matter of the mysteriously disappearing Jew occurs in other industries as well. It’s particularly egregious in the art world and popped up last year at the opening of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, a lavishly funded new institution that celebrated the diversity of Hollywood, touting the contributions of minorities involved in the film industry. However, the one minority they initially left out was the one that was instrumental in building that very industry. It’s all part of a phenomenon comedian David Baddiel describes as “Jews don’t count.” They’re not considered a minority among the many others and have apparently become white people who don’t believe in Jesus. As such, they’re not worthy of distinction.

History, however, tells a different story. When Jews began to come to this country en masse at the end of the 19th century, the culture they met often mocked and derided them. Suffering discrimination in multiple realms, they were excluded from certain neighborhoods, clubs and a variety of occupations. Universities placed quotas on them. Many hotels denied them entry, a fact that led to the creation of hundreds of Jewish hotels in New York’s Catskill Mountains. While American attitudes toward Jews eventually changed, a fact that allowed them to become full participants in society, they still find themselves victimized by Jew-hatred. Even though it’s often denied, the mystery of Jewish difference, apparently, is still a thing.

And for Richard Belzer, it was a thing he obviously enjoyed. Comedy writer and novelist Seth Greenland, who worked on numerous projects with Belzer and whose first novel was based on him, told me, “Something about Richard was quintessentially Jewish. He was kind, disputatious, intellectually curious, and hilarious. Although he wasn’t at all religious, he was proud to be Jewish and embraced that identity.” 

Alan Zweibel, a comedy writer who worked with Belzer beginning in the mid-1970s on “Saturday Night Live,” added, “Belz made no bones about being Jewish in his act or in his life.” Zweibel once took Belzer to his parents’ Long Island home for a Friday night dinner, over which the comedian bonded with Mr. and Mrs. Zweibel over milchig and fleishig issues, the minutiae of keeping kosher. Alan’s father pointed to Belzer and told his son, “You could learn a lot from this guy.”

“Belz and Gilbert Gottfried would always do Jewish shtick and saw themselves in a long line of Jewish comics,” said author Ratso Sloman. “And one time I was at Catch [A Rising Star], probably in the mid ’80s and at the end of the night, Belz and Gilbert went on stage and did dueling old Jewish weather forecasters. It was so hilarious, I almost pissed my pants.”

Paul Schaffer also recalled how Belzer once accompanied him to say Kaddish for Schaffer’s father at the Carlebach Shul on the Upper West Side. “I didn’t know what kind of Jewish education he had,” Schaffer told me, “but the cat could daven [pray].” Paul added that he and Belzer once bonded over old cassettes of Friars Club roasts. One of the tapes was of a roast emceed by DJ and Sinatra expert William B. Williams (born Velvel Breitbard), who, whenever someone’s joke bombed, would begin to utter the Jewish prayer for the dead — “Yisgadal, yisgadash, shemey rabo….” — and  get big laughs. Belzer loved it so much, he stole it and would recite the prayer onstage at subsequent roasts whenever a comic bombed, and even when his own jokes died.

Yisgadal, yisgadash, Belz. You will be missed.


The post Richard Belzer was a Jewish comedian. Why didn’t his obituaries say so? appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Obituaries

PHYLLIS POLLOCK

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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.

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Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary

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By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”

Raquel Dancho (left), Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St.Paul, and Nikki Spigelman, President, Gwen Secter Centre


Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)

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Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station

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This is a developing story.

(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.

An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.

Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.

The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.

The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to  transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.

Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.


The post Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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