the schmooze

Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe
Syosset, New York

Gene Wilder, the hilarious star of classics such as “Blazing Saddles,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “Young Frankenstein” and—my favorite—“The Frisco Kid”—has passed away at the age of 83.

Who can forget “The Producers,” where Wilder played the hysterical Leo Bloom, an accountant (“khezhbn-firer”) lured into a money bilking scheme.

Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  His father was a Jewish immigrant; his mother  was of Russian Jewish descent.  His dad, William  Silberman, manufactured miniature whiskey (“schnaps”)  and beer (“bir”) bottles.

 He changed his name at age 26, choosing the   professional name out of admiration for the character Eugene Gant in “Look Homeward Angel,” and the playwright Thornton Wilder.  He had a B.A. from the Univ. of Iowa (1955), and enrolled in the Old Vic theater school in Bristol.  Here he learned acting technique and fencing.  When he returned to the U. S., he taught fencing and did other odd jobs while studying with Herbert Berghaus HR Studio and at the Actors Studio under Lee Strasberg.

“The Frisco Kid” was a 1979 film starring Wilder, Harrison Ford (Tommy),  Leo Fuchs (Chief Rabbi), Ramon Bieri and Val Bisoglio, as Chief Gray Cloud.   A quick summary:

A Polish rabbi wanders through the Old West on his way to lead a synagogue in San Francisco.  On the way, he is nearly burnt at the stake by Indians and almost killed by outlaws.

The movie was filmed in Old Tucson, Arizona.  When we meet Avram (Wilder), he is called in before a group of rabbis and is told, “I want to talk to you in private.  “Speak only English.  And no matter what I say, don’t smile. Look sad.  Sha!”

“Some meshugeneh suggested your name to become its rabbi…I am the Chief Rabbi and I have to decide.  So I am sending YOU to San Francisco.”

“Where’s San Francisco?” Avram asks?

“Near New York.”

What are some of the most memorable lines from the movie?   Note:  The Yiddish terms have been added.

Tommy:  You sure talk funny.  Where you born at?
Avram:    Poland.
Tommy:   Oh.  Is that near Pittsburgh?
Avram:    No, that’s near Czechoslovakia.

[to Tommy]
Chief Gray Cloud:…And you, who speak to Indians as if to little children:  Your heart is big.  Not as big as your mouth, but you have good feelings inside.

Tommy:  [points to his horse’s rump]:  What do you call this in Jewish?
Avram:    Uh, a tuchas.
Tommy:   Well, you keep your eyes on this took-iss, and don’t take them off ‘till I tell you!

[Tommy and Avram are in a saloon (der bar”), where Tommy is sawing away at a huge steak (“bifsteyk”), but Avram is too depressed (“dershlogn”) to eat]

Tommy:  Now, look.  You go up and change, and then we’ll go together and we’ll tell your people that the new rabbi’s arrived.  All right?

Avram:  I told you that I can’t be a rabbi.

Tommy:  [Tommy hurls a piece of bread (“broyt”) at him]
Don’t you tell me that.  Just don’t say that again.  Not after what I’ve been through to get your goddamn ass here alive.  If you hadn’t shot that man, then we’d both be dead (“toyt”).  Do you understand (“farshteyn”) that?  He was gonna kill you and then he was gonna kill me, am I right?
When you shot that son of a bitch, that was not a sin (“zind”).  Then what the hell are we talking about?

Avram:  When those men were shooting at you, I ran to save the Torah.

Tommy:  So?  I understand that.  You’re a man of God.  I understand that.

Tommy:  I wasn’t thinking about God. I didn’t do it because of God.  I don’t know one thing about God.  I was thinking about a book (“bukh”).  I cared more for a book than I did for my best friend (“fraynd”).  I don’t know if you can understand that.  I don’t want to insult (“baleydikung”) you.
But do you understand what I mean?  I chose a piece of paper (“papir”) instead of you!
Tommy:  But I forgive you.
Avram:    I know  that you do.
Tommy:  But you’re a good man.  I am.  But I’m not a rabbi.
Tommy:  Don’t say that.
Avram:  Tommy, I’m not a rabbi.
Tommy:  Don’t say that!  You are a rabbi.  I’m a bank robber.  I’m a card player and a whoremonger.  That’s what I am.  You are a rabbi.  You can fall in the mud (“blote”), you can slip on your ass, you can travel in the wrong direction (“rikhtung”). But even on your ass, even in the mud, even if you go in the wrong direction for a little while, you’re still a rabbi!  That’s what you are!

Avram:  [Trying to catch a wild chicken (“hun”] Chicken, chicken!  Chickle-chickie-chickie-chicken!  Come here.]

Avram:  I don’t want to hurt you.  I just want to eat you.
[repeats in Yiddish, ‘chicken’ flies away]
Avram:  Come here, wait!  I don’t want to hurt you!  I just want to make you kosher!

Tommy:  [Tommy sees Avram coming out of a Wells Fargo
office]  You did it, didn’t you.  You give ‘em back the money?
Avram:  Yep!
Tommy:  Well, now what’cha gonna do?
Avram:  Dunno.  (“Ikh veys nisht.”)
Tommy:  You don’t know.  Well, I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do.  I’m gonna get me a bath (“vaneh”).  Then I’m gonna get drunk (“shiker”).  Then I’m gonna catch me a whore
(“kurve”)…….Then I’m gonna get drunk again.  Then I’m gonna rob that Wells Fargo office and get me my money back…….”

[Samuel Bender, his daughter,Rosalie, and other members of the Jewish community (“tsibur”) enter the saloon looking for their new rabbi.  Rosalie points out the table where Tommy and Nvram are sitting.  Since Tommy is wearing a fine new suit (“kostyum”), Bender approaches and begins welcoming him to town, in Yiddish]

Tommy:  Huh?
[Bender continues in Yiddish; Rosalie gazes dreamily at Avram]
Tommy:  What’s he talking about?  What’s he talking about?
Avram:  He wants to know if you’re the rabbi.
Tommy:  [amused]  Me?
Avram:  I’m the rabbi.
Samuel Bender:  [looking him up and down with contempt (“bite”) and disbelief]  You’re the rabbi?  Funny, you don’t look like a rabbi.
Avram:  I just traveled three thousand miles across this country. [He pulls his bandanna from his neck (“kark”)]
Avram:  And I was thanking my best friend.
[he pulls off his dusty coat]
Avram:  for getting me here alive.  My name is Avram Belinsky, and I came from a small village in Poland.
[He pulls on his black (“shvarts”) rabbi coat]
Avram:  And don’t you judge people by their appearance!
[He yanks off his cowboy hat (“hut”), revealing his yarmulke]

Chief Gray Cloud:  [in reference to Avram’s god]  What does he do? 
Avram:  He..He can do anything (“abi dos”)!
Chief Gray Cloud:  Then why can’t he make rain (“regn”)?
Avram:  Because he doesn’t make rain.  He gives us strength (“koyakh”) when we’re suffering.  He gives us compassion (“rachmones”) when all that we feel is hatred.
He gives us courage (“mut”) when we’re searching around blindly like little mice in the darkness (“finsternish”)…but He does not make rain! [thunder (“duner”) and lightening (“blits”) begin, followed by a downpour.]
Avrum:  Of course…sometimes, just like that, he’ll change his mind.

[Avrum teaches some Indians how Jews dance (“tantsn”)]
Avram:  Watch that lady.  I think that lady’s a Jewish Indian.

Avram [voiceover]  In the Talmud, it ways “find thyself a teacher (“lerer”) and this I have done.  However, there were times I feared that he would find another pupil (“talmid”).

Avram:  [Avram and Tommy are cuddled together (“tsuzamen”) under a blanket (“koldre”) during a blizzard (“zaverukhe”]
We are doing this too keep warm, aren’t we?
Tommy:  Uh-huh.
Avram:  In that case, you can put your arms around me.
Tommy:  Come here, darling.

Avram:  [to Matt Diggs]  This is a very big country  I’ll tell you what I think is the best thing.  I’ll take San Francisco;
you take the rest of America.  And if you ever come back to this place again (“vider”), I don’t think you’re gonna get off so easy.

[Tommy and Avram look out over the Pacific Ocean (“yam”)]
Tommy:  Well, cuz, we made it.  It was just like I told you.
Right at that big tree (“boym”); then left for a couple of days; sharp right; and then straight as piss till you come to the ocean.

Avram:  Who would have dreamed it could be so simple?
Tommy:  Yeah.  You don’t know me the next time you see me.  I’m gonna kick your ass all the way back go Poland.
Avram:  Why wouldn’t I know you?  You going away someplace?
Tommy:  Well, yeah.  This is where we say goodbye, Avram.
Avram:  What do you mean?
Tommy:  “Well, you follow that beach for a day and a half, you’ll be in San Francisco.  You don’t need me no more.
[Avram can’t believe what he’s hearing]
Avram:  Where are you going?
Tommy:  Well, I’m going that way.
[He points]
Tommy:  Sutter’s Mill.  That’s where the gold is.
Avram:  But I don’t want you to go.
Tommy:  Well, I gotta go.
Avram:  Why?
Tommy:  Well, I got people to see.  Banks to rob. You know, I gotta make a living.
Avram:  Who’s going to be the best man at my wedding?
Tommy:  What do you mean?  That’s for one of your Jewish friends.  You gotta pick your best friend for that.
Avram:  [getting weepy] You…you “are” my best friend.
Tommy:  I’m your best friend?
Avram:  You’re my ONLY friend.
[Avram points to the back of his horse (“ferd”)]
Avram:  Now, listen to me, cuz.  You keep your eyes (“oygn”) on this tuchas, and don’t you take them off till we get to San Francisco!
Tommy:  I never had a best friend.

[Avram creeps up to the home of Mr. Bender, where Avam’s intended fiancee (“kale”) lives, to leave the Torah at the door and sneak away.  The younger (“yinger”) daughter, Rosalie, unexpectedly opens the door]

Avram:  Oy!
[She exclaims in surprise as he tumbles to her feet (“fis”), then scrambles to stand up]
Avram:  Howdy!
Rosalie:  Hello.  Uh, howdy.
Avram:  [stunned by her beauty, he repeats himself]
Howdy.  How do?  Uh, hello there.
Rosalie:  Do you want something?
Avram:  Uh, well, um,do I want - No!  Well.  Golding it, ma’am, my name is Tommy Lizard and I come from the Texas.  Uh, I come from Texas!  And, um, excusing me if I gave you a little startle there.  I was a little startled there for a second.
[Rosalie finds his clumsy attempts to hide his Yiddish accent (“aktsent”) rather endearing, so she plays along.]

[Avram lifts Rosalie’s veil to kiss (“kushn”) his bride]
Avram:  [voiceover] I’ve crossed rivers, and I’ve climbed high mountains, and I’ve, I was captured by wonderful (“vunderlekh”) Indians.  I did so many things.  God has truly blessed me. And what’s more, how many rabbis can say that they had a bank robber for a best man?

[Avram steps aside, and Tommy steps in to kiss the bride.
Mr. Bender pushes him out of the way, laughing]

Samuel Bender:  Mazel tov.  Music, maestro, please!


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Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe is the author of
two books:
yiddish for dog and cat loversbook
"Yiddish for Dog & Cat Lovers" and
"Are Yentas, Kibitzers, & Tummlers Weapons of Mass Instruction?  Yiddish
Trivia."  To order a copy, go to her

NU, what are you waiting for?  Order the book!

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