2010-12-18 00:00

SO I pull in at Miz Chicken’s place to pay for my childrens’ music lessons, see. The kids call her that because the sign at the gate says Mme Eloise Cohen, Teacher of the Pianoforte, and such a name means she lives with the hens. I ring the doorbell, and as I stand waiting hum-te-tum for her to let me in I notice one of those little traditional Jewish mezuzah things nailed to the doorframe, there’s a wee rolled-up note inside laying a blessing on all who enter this happy home. What a kindly gesture. And as I reflect on this kindly thing I remember a story told me by my old friend Issy Heyman, about a young man ringing the doorbell at a Jewish home and waiting hum-te-tum to be let in, and after another ring, waiting and waiting and still nobody coming, he idly notices a mezuzah on the doorframe and just out of curiosity, to see what actually is inside these things, he takes out his pocket knife and prises the mezuzah loose and inside is a little note saying HELP! HELP! I AM A PRISONER IN A MEZUZAH FACTORY!

Well I thought this a pretty good piece of daft Jewish humour, and when next my cousin from Aberdeen came to South Africa on some sort of Presbyterian business I thought I might try it on him, just to brighten things up a bit, I mean I’d experienced the Aberdeen side of the family on their home turf, as it were, and they were not what you’d call a laugh a minute. Now here we sat at a dismal vegan luncheon of organic salad and cups of organic tea under a big umbrella in the rain at an outdoor restaurant, which made him feel at home. He gave me an explanation of his theological purpose which went straight in my starboard ear and straight out the port, as they say, I couldn’t comprehend a goddam thing he said, and when the conversation finally ground to a halt I thought the Miz Chicken bit might sort of bump-start it again. He slowly swallowed his mouthful of free-range nasturtium leaves and manure-grown seed loaf and slowly nodded his head. Then he changed his mind and slowly shook it. Och, said he. He shoodna hae done it. He didna hae the right tae use his pocket knife on ither folks’ property. Well, ja, said I, but that’s just background to the joke about the help-help message, you see. Och tha’s a’ nonsense, mon, aboot being a prisoner, said he, and it’s sinfu’ tae make jokes aboot damage tae ither folks’ property. Pitapat went the rain. I shook my head, slowly, changed my mind and nodded. Slowly. I smiled, graciously.

So I abandoned the mezuzah story and put my mind to remembering other useful Issy Heyman things. Issy and Bram and I were locked up in solitary, see, but for half an hour each morning we were exercised together in a small yard with a little patch of heavenly sky above, and Issy had decided to have a joke for each day. Good medicine, man. But jokes had to be brief, see, because we weren’t supposed to talk to each other, ever. Brief like the one about the Yiddishe mama running down the beach yelling HELP! HELP! MY SON THE DOCTOR IS DROWNING!

Now this concise little number, thought I, no miserable moralist can object to. And, just to make sure, I wouldn’t tell it to anybody of miserable goyishe culture. So when next I went to pay for the piano lessons I told it to Miz Chicken. The sweet smile slowly disappeared from her face, not angrily, because of … you know …the kids and the music lessons and all that, just firmly. Well you should understand you have to do your best professionally for your children, said she, give them the best qualifications in medicine, law, that sort of thing, so if there’s another pogrom they can quickly relocate taking their skills with them. Hmmm, said I, ja. I notice pogroms busting out on the West Bank and all, and henceforth I shall refrain from antisemitic jokes, and aha! Susie’s Mozart is coming along just so wonderfully. Sweetly she smiled again. I am so proud, said she.

Bloody Hell! I give up jokes entirely. There’s more to conversation than just trying to be funny. My cousin Foefie van Tonder is down from Gauteng, he’s made a bit of money and bought a piece of land there. Also a horse. How nice! say I, I once had a horse, a bay. For me a bay is the most beautiful colouration for a noble animal: a cafe-au-lait body and black mane and tail, and come to think of it, that’s the most beautiful in women too. Har! har! har! he cries, you so funny, you say women are like horses. No no, say I, I’m saying something like an Indian complexion, or just a good tan, with long straight black hair like a horse’s mane, that’s the most attractive in women. HAR! HAR! HAR! he falls about laughing. You so subtle, he cries, now you telling me my wife looks like a Indian, you killing me man! He clutches his sides and flops upon the sofa.

Bloody Hell! I think I’ll just give up conversation entirely.

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