As You Like It: Spring LaughterBy Joan Florek Schottenfeld
A spring day can’t possibly be lovelier than this. The sun is warming the temperature up to the 70s, the few clouds in the sky are the fluffy cotton candy kind, and the birds haven’t even stopped for a breath. And I am lucky to be sitting in my favorite place: my back porch. Snoopy is lying in a patch of sun, having given up begging to be let out. Spring drives him crazy. The moment the air hints of warmth and the light grows lighter, his only desire is to be out and running, chasing anything including the smells of spring. Unfortunately, he has to wait for someone to walk him.
I swore that I would not write a spring column. I do it every year, first the swearing and then the capitulating. Every year I make myself crazy trying to find new words to explain why this season awakens every hope that I bury during the winter, every desire I thought I had tamped down, every longing that I was certain I had very maturely shed. And then the warmth stirs the air and I crack open my window at night. The tree frogs pipe continuously and the birds return to my feeders. And the light — oh that light — expands and stretches and disappears later and later each evening, and once again I’m hooked.
No other season makes me want to be 7 again the way spring does. It stirs up pools of memories, bringing them to the surface. My senses remember everything, jostling and crowding each other for attention. I smell the woods after a rain when the salamanders would creep out to sun themselves on the moss. I taste the grass that we would blow as whistles. I feel the slight chill riding on the warm air and watch trees grow thicker and greener every day.
But last week, for the first time, thanks to something I read in the morning paper, I finally understood why spring now leaves me not only restless and hopeful, but also aching for the past. Spring was always the prelude to summer when, unknown to my parents, I would leave my bed in our bungalow colony bedroom in the Catskills to creep outside so I could listen to my parents and their friends talk and hear my dad telling one of his wonderful jokes.
Last Sunday I read the obituary of a man I had never met, never even heard of, yet I felt like a member of my family had died. His name was Lou Goldstein. According to Joseph Berger of the New York Times, Goldstein was the “consummate tummler, one of a zany species of entertainer who kept them laughing … long ago in the borscht belt hotels of the Catskills.”
Berger goes on to explain that a “tummler (pronounced TOOM-ler) — the job title comes from a Yiddish word for someone who stirs up tumult or excitement — was a jack-of-all-trades social director who was supposed to amuse the hotel guests with jokes, songs and shtick … as they sat by the pool, emerged from lunch or headed for bingo.”
One of Goldstein’s favorite jokes, according to the article, was the “one about the mother whose son excitedly announces that he has been picked for the part of the Jewish husband in a school play. The mother replies, ‘You tell the teacher you want a speaking part.’”
Goldstein, the son of a tailor, was born in a small town outside of Warsaw, Poland. He and his family immigrated to Brooklyn when he was five years old. Eventually he ended up living and working in the Catskills near a town called Liberty. From everything I’ve read about him he was a very funny man.
My father was the son of a tailor from a small town outside of Warsaw who immigrated to Brooklyn when he was a young man. He was also a very funny man. But unlike Goldstein, he didn’t live in the Catskills. He just vacationed there with his family every summer.
My dad wasn’t a tummler, though. He was a quiet comedian. He and my mom would be sitting with their friends when he would say a few words, and suddenly everyone would be holding their sides. When I was older I would be one of the group that could no longer breathe because I was laughing so hard. But when I was younger most of what I heard was my father’s voice and the inevitable laughter.
Goldstein worked at Grossinger’s, the premier Catskills resort, from 1948 to 1986, when it closed. But our family couldn’t afford to spend our summers at Grossinger’s. Instead we went to bungalow colonies in the area from June until September. Summer was wonderful, but spring was anticipation — the best part of everything. Spring meant that in a few weeks I would leave the city, where grass grew in small squares, trees popped up one at a time, and squirrels were the only native wildlife, and live it the way it should be felt — bursting in the woods, across stretches of lawns — and if I was really lucky, in the early morning hours as a doe and her baby nibbled the grass outside my window.
Now every spring I listen for my dad, the quiet tummler, regaling his friends with one of his many jokes, while I still try not to laugh but always fail. And I’m so grateful that my dad always had a speaking part.
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