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Up Front

December 11, 1997 | 7:00 pm

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Brooks Unbound

As a fan of Mel Brooks, I make no claims to objectivity. So it washeartening to discover during an hour-long conversation with him thathe's not only funny but also charming, unpretentious and disarminglycurious. In between elaborate, comic anecdotes and some pricelessfree association, he inquired about my age, the indecipherableorigins of my married name, what my mother thought of "TheProducers," the shtetl origins of all four of my grandparents("Vitebsk? Oh, yes. Missouri? No kidding!"), prewar conditions forJews living in the Pale, and the ages of my two young children.("You've got to just hug them and kiss them and love them so thatafter they go away, they'll come back.") Below, some random outtakesfrom that interview:

On show-biz friendships:

"I don't think the kind of long-term friendship Carl and I have isthat rare. People who went through a lot of stuff together in the olddays...Mel Torme and Donald O'Connor have been best of friends for 45years. Jack Benny and George Burns had a legendary friendship. Thenagain, maybe today it is rare just because we've outlived so manypeople."

On working with his wife, Anne Bancroft:

"We did one project, and we enjoyed it. It was "To Be or Not toBe." We played a Polish acting couple. It was a remake of the oneJack Benny did with Carole Lombard, and I think we did justice to[Ernst] Lubitsch. Anne was also one of the stars of "Silent Movie."But we're not the Lunts. If we find something that we really want todo together, maybe we will."

Jews & Comedy:

"I think Jews are drawn to comedy because we have so much geneticparanoia. It eases those pools and pockets of insecurity that liedeep within us. We use comedy to vent.

On Rob Reiner:

"I love Robbie.... When he was a kid, he used to nudge usconstantly. One time, when he was 11, we were working on the 2000Year Old Man at Carl's house, and Robbie kept wanting to come intothe room to tell us a joke he made up. Finally, we said, 'All rightalready, tell us the joke.' It was the one about how applause wasinvented. We loved it, and we used it that night on TV."

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

"What was good about the Catskills is, you never got fired. Youhad a chance to do a lot of different things, and you performed allthe time. But you had to work your way up. I was a rowboat captain,then I was a busboy, a waiter, and, finally, on the social staff. Iremember one time, when I was just a kid, they were doing a play andthey needed someone to play this character who was a districtattorney in his 60s. They grabbed me and gave me a wig, makeup, amustache, the whole thing. It was a serious play about someone whokills his sister. I had one line. Something like "There, there,Harry." I thought I'd add some business, so I filled a glass of waterand took it with me on stage to give to the guy when I said my line.So I'm standing there in the middle of the play, but the glass waswet, and when it came time to say my line, it slipped from my handand crashed to the floor in a thousand pieces. Then there was justthis total silence. So I walked to the front of the stage and yellout to the audience, "WHADDAYA WANT FROM ME? I'M 14 YEARS OLD!"Everyone burst out laughing, but I took off, with the owner runningright after me. I think we ran past eight hotels. The audiencecouldn't stop laughing. They never did finish the play, but probablyno one ever forgot it either. I knew I had to go onstage after that."--Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor

Above, Mel Brooks (right), with Carl Reiner

Teach your children well. Illustration from "The NormanRockwell Treasury," 1979.

Ready, Set, Read

Today, there are grade-schoolers who will probably surf theInternet before they ever try the ocean. Yet even in this age ofendless and easily accessible electronic information, there is stillno better way to teach literacy to young children than to sit downand read to them. After the Tamagatchi has been "fed," after theCD-ROMs have been put away and the TV has blasted its lastNickelodeon promo of the evening, it's the good old "unplugged"bedtime story that rates highest among educators and parents as thebest way to turn children on to the world of reading.

In Jewish tradition, young boys get a taste of honey along withtheir first page of the Alef-Bet. As "people of the book," Jews havehistorically had an intense connection to the written word. The placewhere it all begins is with a parent, a child and a good story.

In an effort to promote the parent-child literacy connection, AdatAri El Day School in North Hollywood stages a unique program everyyear called a "Read-In." It's kind of a mass, intergenerationalpajama party for bookworms. Weeks before the big day, parents andkids receive notices that remind them to bring their blankets,pillows and the books they plan to read the evening of the event.Kids are encouraged to wear their pajamas. Reading material rangesfrom pop-up books to The Wall Street Journal.

This year's Read-In was held last month. It dovetailed with theschool's book fair and kicked off Jewish Book Month. Some 300 parentsand children gathered for a buffet-style pizza and salad dinnerbefore settling down on a patchwork sea of blankets and pillows thatcovered the auditorium's floor from end to end. After a brief skitstaged by parents and staffers, the signal to begin was given. Theparticipants cracked open their books for 20 minutes of silentreading. (Parents who needed to read aloud to toddlers departed to anadjoining area.)

A library-like hush instantly descended on the room, as parentsstretched out and children flopped onto their stomachs. For 20minutes, the only sound was the flick of pages turning. The effectwas powerful. The atmosphere created by hundreds of people sprawledhaphazardly on the floor with their noses in their books combined theintimate quiet of family reading time with a strong communitystatement about literacy.

"The Read-In gives families a wonderful way to reinforce theimportance of reading," said Adat Ari El Vice Principal IleneReinfeld, who is also the mother of a student at the school. "Thehope is that they will continue reading together for at least 20minutes each day."

One second-grader who surveyed the room before the signal wasgiven seems to have already gotten the message: "This," she said, "isso cool."

For more information about the Read-In program, call Adat AriEl's Day School Office at (818) 766-4992. --Diane ArieffZaga, Arts Editor

Yiddish for Tots

If you've ever waxed nostalgic for the Yiddish of your childhood(or your parent's childhood) or wished you could share a few choiceYiddish words with your own kids (no, not those words!), a newseries of books may be of interest.

"My Zeesa Jessica, My Sweet Jessica" ($14.95, plus shipping andhandling) is the first in what promises to be a warmhearted serieswritten and self-published by Lili Steiner, a Russian-born,Australian-raised Jew who has lived in Los Angeles for the past sevenyears.

Yiddish was her first language, Steiner said during an interviewin her 11th-floor Century City apartment. She spoke it with herbeloved bubbe in Belorussia until she was 3 and moved with herfamily to Melbourne. After that, Aussie-accented English was herchosen tongue until a few years ago, when, on impulse, she joined theWorkman's Circle in the Pico-Robertson area, mostly to reconnect withthe warmth of Yiddishkayt that she had known as a child. Whilespeaking Yiddish with the members, many old enough to be her parentsor grandparents, the language of her childhood began to come back --as well as the haimish feelings that connected her with thattime in her life.

Steiner, who, among other things, has taught elementary school andproduced and directed educational TV programs, was inspired to putout a series of books with "a bissel Yiddish" for children.The main character in the first book, Jessica, is her niece, and theillustrations -- by local artist Debby Epstein -- are based onSteiner's relatives.

Although the words seem directed at a baby or toddler ("Jessica!My shayne ponim! My beautiful little face.... I'm yourZaidah! I'm your grandfather."), Steiner believes that olderchildren -- as well as their parents -- will also enjoy the book. Heraim, said Steiner, who considers herself more culturally Jewish thanreligious, is not to resurrect Yiddish "but to introduce a little bitof Yiddishkayt." "Zeesa Jessica," part of "My Jewish Family Series --With a Bissel Yiddish," will be available in time for Chanukah, andthe next books, "My Bubbe, My Grandmother" and "Jewish GrandparentsAround the World," are slated for early next year. To order, call(800) 953-8887. -- Ruth Stroud, Staff Writer

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Lili Steiner (left) and an illustration from her self-publishedbook "My Zeesa Jessica, My Sweet Jessica,"the first in a series ofbooks with a "a bissel Yiddish" for children.


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