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August 12, 2004

One Tough Room

http://www.jewishjournal.com/personal_voice/article/one_tough_room_20040813

As a Los Angeles Unified School District teacher of world issues for seniors in Los Angeles, I began yesterday's class by playing a taped interview of Michael Moore talking about his movie, "Fahrenheit 9/11." I had suggested that the class go see the film, so we could discuss it.

Tillie seemed particularly interested, nodding her head up and down as she listened, so I thought I'd start with her.

"Tillie, dear, what do you think?"

"She can't hear you," said the woman next to her. "She's deaf!"

"Then what did you think?"

"I ain't saying. I don't have to say."

"Anyone else?"

"Excellent!" Fred said.

"OK. And...?" I asked, hoping for a more lively discussion.

"That's it. I liked it. Period," he said, with finality.

A hand goes up. "Yes, dear?"

"It left me disheartened,"

"OK. Can you say more?"

"I've said enough."

Great -- 10 minutes gone, one hour and 50 to go. I changed the subject. "Where's Margaret today?"

"She's in the hospital."

"Why?"

"She fell down yesterday and broke her hip." I changed the subject again. "Where's Matilda?"

"She died."

"She died? She was here last week! When did she die?"

"Two days ago."

"So what are you telling me? She won't be coming back?"

"Not unless she's a Buddhist."

I change the subject again. "Who has some good news for us?"

Ethel raises her hand.

"Yes, dear?"

"A man comes up to me yesterday, sits at my lunch table; I can tell he's a goy and he says, 'You're Jewish, right?' I says to him, 'I don't like you either, go to hell, I spit on you.'"

I try to use this as a discussion point. "Well, all right, that's a nice thing to do...what could she have said to this gentleman, instead?"

Silence.

"So?" Ethel demanded. "What should I have said to him?"

"Well, you might have asked why he felt that way, you know, open a dialogue, maybe make a new friend?"

"With that goy?" sputters The Diplomat. "To hell with him!"

The woman next to Ethel raises her hand. "Can I ask a question?"

"Please!"

"What's the problem with the Palestinians?"

Ethel answers: "I spit on the Palestinians! I am a Jew!"

"Yes, Ethel, we know that," I say, "and I'm a Jew myself, but don't you think we need to find a way to live together?"

"They blow themselves up!"

"Yes, darling, but that's because they watch too much television."

"Who watches television?"

"He said we should watch television?"

"No, I didn't. That's just a joke gone awry."

"Rye bread? It's dinner time?"

"No Fred, not yet," I say. "I was just saying, what about the Palestinians who are doctors, lawyers and merchants and just want to raise their families and live in peace?"

"Lawyers are the problem!"

"Shut up, Murray! The teacher's talking!"

"Actually, we're all supposed to be talking here about world issues and I'm doing all the talking...."

"That's what you get paid for!"

Suddenly, the distinct sound of snoring.

"What's with Mary here?" I ask. Mary is asleep in her chair, her head thrown back, her mouth wide open, snoring.

"She takes Darvicet for her arthritis," says Olga. Apparently Darvicet eases Mary's pain but knocks her out. I have a microphone in my hand because half the seniors are hard of hearing so I put the mike by Mary's mouth and from the public address system now comes the rumbling of Mary's snoring. Two old wiseguys wink at me and giggle. One old gal's mouth drops open in horror. The rest are oblivious.

Quality shtick. One tough room. Oy.

"Look, I've been talking nonstop for over an hour. I'm supposed to get you guys to talk!"

"We don't want to talk. We want to listen to you."

"But I'm tired of telling you bad news. Who has some good news for us? Yes, Martin?"

"I heard today the interest rates are going up."

"And how is that good news, sir?"

"I don't know."

"I have some good news." It's The Diplomat. "This goy says to me, 'You're Jewish, no?' So I told him, I says, 'I don't like you either.'"

"You told us that already, Ethel!" Ann reprimands .

"Leave me alone!" Ethel pleads. "I was in the camps!"

"Maybe you could share with us some of your experiences under the Nazis, darling," I say. "What camp were you in? Auschwitz? Buchenwald?"

"I don't remember. I want to forget." Her voice trails off.

Who am I to pry into something like that? Especially if she doesn't want to talk? The room is silent, except for the air-conditioning.

"What time is it?"

"It's six past three."

"We're supposed to be done at three."

"We know," Sophie laughs. "We like being with you."

"I like being with you, too. See you next week."

Wildman Weiner is credentialed teacher of older adults.

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