I used to live in a high rise apartment building in Chicago, Illinois that had an overwhelmingly large population of Jewish widows. I ended up becoming quite friendly with many of them. Cookie, Thelma, Harriet, Eleanor. A veritable stable of adopted Bubbies. I recently finished writing a fictionalized short story of some of these ladies for issue three of Majestic Disorder magazine. They were and are darling yentas, who elevated matzo ball soup to pure delight. My favorite part of my days spent in that building was walking down a mezuzah lined hallway and happily bumping into one of them and getting involved into a long kvetch about some meschuga thing that had happened.
Perhaps because these ladies are on my brain, having just finished the short story for which they were the basis, but I keep thinking of Joan Rivers and the increasingly bleak reports of her health. It seems more and more unlikely that she will pull through this dilemma, and if she does, that she will be quite the same, her brain already having suffered some damage from the amount of time she was without oxygen.
A lot of people have quite visceral reactions to Joan, many can’t stand her. I’ve always adored her, for perhaps some obvious reasons. Her husband’s name was Edgar Rosenberg and in my mind, in a sense, I’ve always thought of her as Mrs. Rosenberg. She’s like those ladies I lived with. A yenta of a certain age. Mrs. Rosenberg, who happens to tell dirty jokes for a living.
Of course that’s not the image she always presented to the world. And for some, it’s impossible to see beyond her Borscht Belt brashness, which I think it could be said quite a bit of is rooted in anti-semitism or misogyny. Nothing quite so feared as an opinionated woman. And an opinionated old woman? Why didn’t she know her place?
Joan never knew her place. She was doing abortion jokes before Roe V. Wade. “I had this girlfriend. Wore white to her wedding. Wore white! Every usher went ha! I’m telling you this girl, she’d had 14 appendectomies, if you know what I’m saying. Back and forth to Puerto Rico.”
Even as recent as the last month or so she was doing Anne Frank jokes in promotions for her latest book, “Diary of a Mad Diva.” “Anne Frank, I know her quite well and god she never shuts up. ‘I’m an author, I’m an author. ‘One book, Anne, I say to her! I’ve written twelve books. Yours doesn’t even have an ending! ‘The Nazis are coming up the…’ The what, Anne?! Coming up the what?!”
To people who are offended by such jokes, Joan was asking them to be smarter. Think beyond their politically correct mindset. She made us laugh by being so outlandish, yes, but she was also trying to remind us of the Holocaust, remind us of back alley abortions, not let go of these topics. Not let go of the anger, the indignation. Her own version of “Never forget.” I passed a store the other day and in the front window was a coat, lined with wide horizontal stripes of black and gray. It was a rumpled looking material. In my mind, I immediately clucked, and thought to myself “Auschwitz chic?” And then I thought, “Joan would know what I mean.” She did much the same with jokes about the Iraq war.
And sometimes the jokes didn’t always quite land. She’s not afraid to bomb. Some comedians get to a point after however many HBO specials or selling so many tickets that they lose that ability to go to the scary place that stand up is. After doing stand up for fifty some years, she remained fresh by constantly trying, ever earnest in her attempts. to go to those places and talk about things that many people don’t want to talk about. Some would rather forget.
Her most well known phrase, of course, is “Can we talk?” Usually peppered after some punch line where she says something truly outrageous, “Oh please! Can we talk?” Meaning can we get real? Can we just be honest about this situation, people? My favorite thing that I’ve noticed she says quite often, but less conspicuously, is after landing a punchline, she does this conversational tick, where she says, “It is just…” drifting off, never finishing the thought. “My vagina is so dry, I took a bath the other day and all the water went whoosh! (audience laughs, she keeps going) It is just….”
Even though Joan still remains on life support and hasn’t left us, I’ve been thinking a lot about who she was and how she’s gone through life. It seems silly, perhaps even hackneyed to have to state the obvious, but there’s not a lot of acknowledgement of who Joan really was. That she was one of the few women to blaze that trail. Trailblazer, such a cliche. And she would hate the use of the word more than anybody. “I’m not ready to be thanked,” she said in the 2010 documentary on her. There seems to be a little more awareness of her contributions because of that documentary. Not enough in my mind.
I’m not a comedian but I’ll say thank you anyway because I’m grateful for her. Grateful for her existence. For going to those scary places, for reminding us about injustices and for making us laugh while reminding us. She was more than “Who are you wearing?” She was Mrs. Rosenberg too. The fearless Mrs. Rosenberg. And the thought that the world might not have her for much longer? It is just….