September 16, 1999
Kol Nidre on the Nightclub Floor
My father was a song-and-dance man of the first order. He loved to tell jokes and he had a million of them. Singing, dancing, being funny, and a sometimes even more important semaphore, winking, were simply his preferred form of communication, almost obliterating the act of talking itself. A lawyer by profession, he confined his talking to court, where words were the only thing that mattered.
One of my best memories is of my father singing "Bungalow Built for Two" while we danced, with 6-year-old me on his feet. He had a voice not unlike Dean Martin's -- smooth, sure and boozy.
I remember the time my father taught me my first joke. "What has four wheels and flies?" he asked, winking so that I knew not to take it too seriously. I told him I didn't know. "OK," he said, "you wanna know what has four wheels and flies? You're gonna love this. A garbage truck!" He waited to see if I got it. He said, "Flies? You know, buzz, buzz," and made like wings. Suddenly, I got it -- "Too much!" he said -- and I spent the next few days telling the joke to my friends.
As the years went by, my father passed on many a joke, some of which were quite lengthy and elaborate, the kind that Marvin Cohen or Buddy Hackett used to tell down in the clubs in Miami, all for my entertainment, imprintable me, a rapt audience of one.
I got older and wearied of this method of communication; I wanted to have talks that involved more than jazz standards and stand-up comedy, especially after my parents had gotten divorced. On the few occasions that I would see my father, I longed for something more than a wink and a yuk. But that was all there was, and so I went my separate way.
Years later, I began to watch the old stand-by, Johnny Carson. I found comfort in Johnny. He was so square, he was cool -- I guess he reminded me of my father. One night, the featured guest was Danny Thomas. He was sitting on Johnny's couch. Johnny said,"What is the weirdest thing anyone ever asked you to do in Las Vegas?" Of course, this triggered a round of snickers. Then the crowd settled down and Thomas said, "Someone once asked me to sing 'Kol Nidre' on the nightclub floor." Kol Nidre on the nightclub floor? Had the ancient chant become a Jewish "Danny Boy," sung by drunks in pubs and public squares?
This was the most absurd thing I had ever heard. We weren't highly observant Jews, but I did find myself staying home from school on Yom Kippur and occasionally attending a service. Long before I had experienced the death of anyone in my family, the Kol Nidre -- with its haunting melody and sad yearn for forgiveness -- would transport me to another place in time -- the world of the sacred. Throughout the rest of the year, just the thought of it would do the same. And now this strange blasphemy!
I immediately called my father. We had not spoken in some time, but he was the only other person who would appreciate this story, and also one of the few who would still be awake, listening to Ella or Louis, I figured, and I was right. He picked up the phone , and I blurted out the whole crazy thing. When I got to the punchline, he cracked up too -- "Kol Nidre on the nightclub floor? That's too much!" Too much, he had said; I knew I had gotten to him, and it felt good. We conjured the moment in the Sands, with Danny Thomas letting the "Kol Nidre" rip, how it wafted over the comped platters of shrimp diablo, the mournful notes pouring out onto the Vegas strip, nullifying the sounds of Wayne Newton and therefore all sound everywhere, and how it must have comforted the person who asked for it on the nightclub floor that night. For how could it not, no matter where it came from? Then we hung up the phone, our father-daughter vows renewed in the oddest of ways, both of us promising to keep in touch. But it was easier not to, and so we didn't very often.
Several years ago, my father appeared to me in a dream. He was wearing a top hat and tails. He was under a spotlight, alone. His chest filled, his arms spread and he began to sing. I instantly recognized the terrible, awesome sound of the first air flowing across his windpipe -- the first ancient tone of the "Kol Nidre." The sound continued in its mournful way, my father delivering his best performance, singing his own dirge, warning me of his own death, from a nightclub floor in the dreamtime.
A year later, he called me and said, "It's goodbye, Charlie." He had cancer. I had expected the news; he had tipped me off in the manner that I had for so long found so wanting -- singing and dancing, by way of an anecdote from a Las Vegas showman.