My late father, Abe Jaffee, never uttered the choice words that grace the headline of this column. But he would have loved it if he had.
They are, rather, the product of a clever marketer of baseball caps, looking for customers with a taste for irony. I know. I bought the cap around four years ago and wear it “religiously,” (that is, over my yarmulke) from Pesach till the end of Sukkot, after the “spring rains” and before the “winter rains,” when we are permitted only the modest request for dew (as if it makes a difference in Seattle).
Even though Abe Jaffee (better known as Abenyu, Abele, or plain Abie) was not the author of these words, he might as well have been. I chose the cap, after all, because it was the kind of thing he’d have said with a wry, ironic grin. That is my way, some 23 years after his death, of hanging on to him. I look at the cap and I can hear his self-congratulatory chortle at coming up with yet another vitz that deftly probes the inconsistencies and illogicalities of human nature.
In fact, in recent years I’ve taken to quoting some of my dad’s one-liners, and the most apparently absurd the better. His granddaughter Aviva (whom he never, alas, met) sagely points out: “They sound ridiculous until you think about them!” Would you expect anything else from a man who delighted in announcing, “I love humanity! It’s people I can’t stand!”
In order to appreciate the fullness of Abe Jaffee’s wit, you have to realize the physical plant that generated the whole production. Standing perhaps five-foot-three, barrel chested with school-girl-thin legs, and delicate, dainty size-7 feet, he resembled nothing so much as a miniature hybrid of William Bendix (TV’s “Riley”) and Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden. At least that’s how I thought of him — until his true archetype took on cultural flesh and bones in the form of Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker.
Dad’s “smallness” was in fact the source of his strength and his humor. He learned, as a boy growing up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, how to deflect a beating with a joke, as well as how to stand up for himself when he needed to.
That’s the message I got, when as a perennial “short kid” in seventh grade, I complained to Dad about being “stunted.” His reply was perfect: “You’re never too short as long as your feet reach the ground.” Which I translate, perhaps less colorfully, as: “If you respect yourself you’ll gain the respect of others.”
Later, as a 20-year-old, I’d complain about Dad’s driving (after all, he did have glaucoma!): “Dad, you’re all over the road!”
He dismissed me as follows: “Don’t worry. I take my half of the road out of the middle!”
Which means, of course: “When you’ve been on the road for 50 years, you little pisher, you can give me driving advice.”
During the decade we now call the ’60s there was, of course, a good deal of tension in our house. I used to think it was tough then to be a kid. Now, I realize how much tougher it was to be my father.
Dad’s eldest son (me) would come home from college filled with scarcely grasped ideas but plenty of slogans: “God is Dead!” “Power to the People!” “We want the world and we want it... NOW!” The boy would feel discomfited by the “exploitative prosperity” he enjoyed by virtue of Dad’s hard labor; he was filled with dismissive disdain for the “white picket fence mentality” that, incidentally, supported what Dad called “the lifestyle to which you deny you’d like to become accustomed.”
Could he possibly have passed up the opportunity to dismiss all this hot air as the callow rantings of a shallow ingrate? Is it any wonder that he’d shut me down with the backhanded swipe — “Listen to the rebel without a clause!”
Not a chance! You see, by now, why I love my cap with its acerbic motto! I start wearing it during the sefirah period that witnesses both his yahrzeit and that of my mom. Somehow it restores me to an earlier place; a better one in which I can still hear the down-home wisdom of my father and the voice of my mother.
I’ll leave you with one characteristic story. Dad ran his small refrigeration business out of a beat-up van. One of his favorite employees was “Big Bob” Oglesbee, a 350-pound Alabaman who’d never met a Jew until he was hired by Dad. Bob still may have thought of Flatbush as “Jewtown,” but he adored Abie.
One day, on their way to a job, Dad and Big Bob were T-boned at an intersection by a guy running a stop sign. It was pretty bad. The van was turned on its side and its two passengers were suspended by their seatbelts, bleeding from cut glass, and surrounded by seeping canisters of Freon gas.
As the ambulance siren approached, Dad leaned over to Big Bob. Here is what he said: “Bob, why don’t you take the rest of the day off.”