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by Lou Charloff
My parents and I came to America in 1923. In only a very few short months, my father became a member of the Workmen’s Circle and remained a dedicated member for the rest of his life.
The Workmen’s Circle still exists, but it was at the peak of its power and significance from the early 1920s to the late 1940s. It was a nationwide organization with branches in almost every city that had a Jewish population. Its membership consisted almost entirely of Jewish immigrants, and its meetings were conducted in Yiddish, as were, in fact, all of its activities.
It had local schools in almost every city, where children could learn to speak, read, and write Yiddish. It had summer camps. It provided funeral services and also had some medical facilities. The Workmen’s Circle had men’s choirs, women’s choirs, and mixed choirs, as well as mandolin orchestras. It held many concerts, which were very successful and popular. It had an association with the Forverts, which, even today, is the largest Yiddish-language newspaper in the world. It participated in local politics, supported many candidates, and got some of them elected.
My father’s intense membership included many tasks as well as elected leadership positions in his capital Branch 224, which met in Manhattan. He was its best singer and one of its best public speakers.
One day when my wife and I were visiting Pop, he said to me, “Leybl, you should know that the branch is throwing a party to celebrate my forty years of membership. I would very much want for you and Gertrude to come to the party.”
“Absolutely, Pop! We wouldn’t miss it for the world. To be with you on such an occasion would be for us a great honor and make us enormously happy. However, Pop, there is one thing. I don’t want to have to make a speech.”
“You won’t have to make a speech.”
“I’m serious about this, Pop. I don’t want to have to make a speech.”
He shouted at me, “I already told you. You won’t have to make a speech!”
So I went home and started to write a speech.
I knew that the speech would have to be in Yiddish. Were it in any other language, my father would feel extremely humiliated.
The night of the party, Gertrude and I arrived early and were seated at the main table together with other special guests. The room was crowded and apparently every single member of the branch and his wife were present. My father was an extremely popular member of the branch, and everybody wanted to be part of the celebration. We were served a lovely meal. We ate and drank. We sang. We joked a lot. And we laughed – oh, how we laughed! Then it was time for the speeches and I was the third speaker to be called.
And this is what I said, in Yiddish:
My dear friends, I have known some of you people since I was three or four years old. It is a great privilege and honor to be sharing this celebration with you and I have a tremendous feeling of happiness. However, that happiness is not unmixed. Indeed, it is mixed with great fear. Every man who is served a beautiful meal, as was prepared by the lovely ladies of Branch 224, and is then asked to make a speech, is flooded with fear. He is afraid that he will make a fool of himself and does not know words he should speak.
I feel the same way, and therefore, ask you to help me. Help me by coming back with me through time for two thousand years, back to the days of ancient Rome, back to the streets of ancient Rome.
One day, on those streets, a small tailor began an argument with a city official. He screamed at the official so violently that he was arrested for disturbing the peace, brought before a judge, tried, found guilty, and was sentenced to unarmed combat against a ferocious lion.
On the day of the combat, the Coliseum was jam-packed with people. The only seat not occupied was reserved for Caesar, who had not yet arrived. The people were impatient for the combat to start.
Caesar finally arrived, took his seat, and proclaimed, “Let the game begin.”The multitude erupted into a mighty roar as the little tailor was led out to the center of the arena. He stood on the sand, quivering in every part of his body.
The multitude erupted into an even mightier roar when the attendants opened the gate that led to where the wild animals were stored. Joining in the roar, a huge, ferocious lion bounded through the gate into the arena. He was obviously in a fury and very hungry, since he had not been fed for over two days.
He focused on the little man standing alone in the arena and ran forward at a furious rate. He stopped within five feet of the tailor and crouched low, his tail twitching back and forth as he prepared to spring upon the tailor and tear him into tiny pieces and to devour him. At that point, the tailor ran forward and said something in the lion’s ear. The lion glared at the tailor, turned around, and then ran very fast through the gate to disappear from view. And the crowd went wild, “He vanquished the lion! He vanquished the lion! He must be set free! He must be set free!”
Caesar said to his guards, “Bring that man to me.” And they did.
Caesar then said, “Tailor, you have faced a ferocious lion in unarmed combat and have vanquished him. The laws of Rome demand that you be set free and you shall indeed be set free. However, I demand first that you reveal to me what it was that you said to the lion.”
The tailor replied, “Oh, mighty Caesar, fabulous emperor, I want to express my gratitude for your kindness in setting me free. And I will, of course, comply with your request and tell you what I said to the lion. I said, ‘Lion,’ I said, ‘Do not eat me — because after you eat, you’ll be called upon to say a few words.’”
My audience applauded and several voices said, “Very good, very good.” I finished my speech, thanking them again for the honors they were bestowing upon my father and which were so richly earned.
As I took my seat, they were still applauding. And my father was very proud of me. He told me that, in my Yiddish speech, I had made not one mistake in grammar.
Lou Charloff is featured in Old Jews Telling Jokes, the website and the book.