We’ve all heard the jokes stereotyping American Jewish men when it comes to Do-It-Yourself projects. What Do-It-Yourself projects? Unless a contemporary Jewish guy in America was born in some other country, and particularly Israel where the men and women are by necessity ﬁxers and builders, rumor has it you won’t ﬁnd a JAP(rince) rewiring a lamp, painting his bathroom, installing new hardware on his windows, changing the locks or ﬁxinga leaky faucet. I come from a small town in Southeastern Pennsylvania called Phoenixville…the only synagogue in a town of 10,000 was our Conservative shul, B’nai Jacob. Although Dad was a doctor, ours was a typical, blue collar iron and steel town. (The joke: the women would iron and the men, steal.) Phoenixville’s claim to fame was that the nuts and bolts to the Eiffel tower were made at Phoenix Steel, right down on East Bridge Street, not far from Benny Gross’ haberdashery. So, I was surrounded by (predominantly non-Jewish) kids whose Dads taught them to do it themselves ... and my pals taught me. Once I remember building a soap box racer with David Anglemoyer. This little dangermobile was a mechanical concoction of wheels from a little red wagon, a soap box, steering wheel from a junked car connected to the front wheels with laundry line rope. Earlier versions featured shoe leather brakes. How did I live through that? (No, I won’t be teaching you how to do that in this column.) I remember taking apart my Schwinn Roadmaster bicycle on several occasions, with very few parts left over when I was ﬁnished. My father ﬁxed stuff around the house and was an avid gardener when he wasn’t at the ofﬁce, hospital, or making house calls. Grandpa Abe, one of twelve farm kids, taught me all about farm life and how to grow vegetables. These skills - and believe me, I am no expert - these skills came in handy when I moved to New York City and found an apartment that needed, to put it mildly, a major facelift. Then there was the charming, 1930s house up the Henry Hudson Parkway. I didn’t do the ﬂoors, but thanks to my acting pals, we repainted the whole place; a handsome, woody abode on Mapleshade Avenue in Pearl River. Come Spring, I planted thirty hills of tomato plants that yielded a bumper crop by mid-summer.
Flash forward to Los Angeles, 1992, and my ﬁrst house here - this one a 1924 ﬁxer in the Hollywood Hills. Oy! That was big work - contractor type stuff - and yet I was always there looking over their shoulders and saying “Show me again how you do that, will ya?” Always in the back of my mind I was plagued with negative thoughts… “I’m an American Jewish guy. This is too hard for me. It’s not in my genes…OR jeans.” Then I’d overcome it and do a little here and a little there.
I know plenty of American Jewish men who are not only “handy,” but several are licensed contractors. In this column, I aim to show you how you can “Do-It-Yourself,” as I encourage you to dive into the chicken soup and swim… one stroke at a time. Assume you are going to call in an expert once in a while…. like the bee removal specialist a few months ago who climbed up on our roof and pulled out a ﬁfteen pound honeycomb full of killer African bees and honey from deep inside the eaves. I’ve worked on roofs, but this was ....um…none of my beeswax. NO thanks! Here’s the money. Nice job!
People are so quick to throw things out instead of repairing, restoring, reﬁnishing. (We live in a 1913 Arts and Crafts home, and it has been a haven of every kind of project imaginable.) Start with the easy things to build your conﬁdence. And this blog is certainly for women, too. I regularly encourage my ten-year-old daughter to learn how to do as much as she can, and not to sit by helplessly waiting for a man to “ﬁx it” for her. Thoreau’s “Self Reliance” made a great impression on me as a teenager. Women: Check out Apollo Precision Tools DT0773N1 135-Piece Household Pink Tool Kit on Amazon - very pretty, and no doubt quite functional! Check reviews ﬁrst. Everyone: If you can handle the hub-bub at Home Depot, you may wish to attend their many “Do-It Yourself” workshops that cover just about anything you’ll need to learn in keeping your home in good repair.
Before I go, and because we are commanded to be “a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6), let’s take a look at a simple task known as “replacing a light bulb.” Last week I asked a rabbi how many rabbis it took to change a light bulb. The answer was. “It depends.” He’d have to refer to the Talmud to see if there were any discussions between Hillel and Shammai regarding the number of rabbis that would be required to change a light bulb ... and get back to me in a few days. Believe it or not, my rabbi friend couldn’t ﬁnd anything in the Talmud about changing a lightbulb, so he decided to consult with go-to Jewish commentator Rashi, whose extensive writings shed no light on changing a bulb. Finally, the rabbi assembled a Beit Din, which included a Cantor, a Rabbi and a kosher, licensed electrician. They needed some additional information. How many watts was the bulb, was it indoor or outdoor, would there be use of a ladder, what kind of ladder - how many rungs and would it be aluminum or wood; if on Shabbat they had to change a light bulb to save a life, how could they determine if it would really save a life, and besides, no one had mentioned if this was an incandescent bulb or a ﬂorescent. Was it an energy saving bulb? The Jewry is still out on this one… and next week…. whether the rabbi and his Beit Din have an answer for us or not, I promise to explain just how I change a lightbulb - seriously - and how to solve some of the problems that may unexpectedly arise. Feel free to write me with your questions and comments.
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