While some knew him as Jonah and others as Mac, we all loved and respected him. And we miss him dearly.

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A Barrel of Monkeys

If you knew one thing about Jonah Maccabee Dreskin, you knew he loved humor. He loved to read it, watch it, listen to it and, as often as possible, to create it himself.

Larry Gelbart, who wrote Tootsie, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and M*A*S*H, is reputed to have said, “One doesn’t have a sense of humor. It has you.” How true that was for Jonah. From his earliest years, he enjoyed a good laugh, and he couldn’t help but allow his every fiber to be drawn toward funny moments.

Jonah's 1st sight-gag May 1992

Jonah’s 1st sight-gag
May 1992

My earliest memories of him laughing include, at the ripe old age of two, when we were living in Cleveland and had this fantastic front yard. We’d set up a sprinkler on hot days and two-year-old Jonah, along with his big sister four-year-old Katie, would jump in and out of the shooting water streams. Jonah couldn’t get enough of it. The wetter he’d get, the happier he’d be. And when there was no sprinkler, we just poured buckets of water over him. Buckets and buckets on top of his head, as he screamed and giggled with unrestrained delight. If no one was available to pour the water, little Jonah would just pick it up and empty it on himself. Apparently Jonah had been watching his mom watering the flowers and he decided that he wanted to be watered too. So began Jonah’s earliest adventures with creating laughter and smiles.

When Jonah was four, he learned that clothing can get a rise out of people. Ellen and I had to really work at getting him to understand that his teacher really was expecting him to wear more than just his underpants to school. “Well, if you want to be rude about it,” he would respond, a relatively good-natured signal that he had given in, and off he’d go to finish getting dressed. The exchange of glances and smiles on our faces were the only indication that we’d enjoyed this early comedic interaction with our son.

Where dad used to listen to Bill Cosby records

Where dad used to listen to Bill Cosby records

I readily admit that I played my part in corrupting Jonah’s sense of propriety. Having grown up listening to the recordings of Bill Cosby, Tom Lehrer, Steve Martin, The Smothers Brothers, Firesign Theater and Allan Sherman, I only too gladly made sure that Hanukkah and birthday gifts included some of these great laughs. When the three kids joined me (in 2006) to visit my childhood home in Cincinnati and we entered my bedroom, Jonah immediately walked into the closet and sat on the floor remembering stories of how I used to climb in there to listen to my Bill Cosby records. Why did I do this? No idea. But Jonah’s reenactment brought another smile and a bit of gratitude for his gesture.

Later, there would be gifts of printed collections from The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes, more opportunities to distract Jonah from dignified living — the sign of a dad just doing his job.

One more memory from Jonah’s earliest years. Ellen and I have always adored the stories of Robert Munsch (if you haven’t read Love You Forever, don’t deprive yourself one more day). When we learned that Munsch had recorded a collection of his stories – silly tales which were always funny but sweet – we soon had all three kids falling asleep to them at bedtime.

Dane Cook t-shirt Katrina Relief 2007

Dane Cook t-shirt
Katrina Relief 2007

In time, Jonah found his own sources of humorous distraction. Ellen and I weren’t invited to listen to the elegant stylings of Dane Cook but we knew this guy, ineffective as he was at bringing parents and children together, was one of Jonah’s favorites. Monty Python, on the other hand, was freely shared. Our family spent many a Saturday night working our way through the entire Flying Circus collection. And the British improv show Whose Line Is it Anyway? was required viewing most evenings after dinner.

Speaking of improv, there was a year that we held Whose Line Is It Anyway? Purim at our synagogue. The idea was to divvy up the different parts of the Purim story and have them acted out through the improvisational games of the television show. While all the other teams prepared every word beforehand, making it appear to be improvisation but it wasn’t, only 17-year-old Jonah’s group actually performed improvisational comedy. And they were very funny!

I don’t know how Garfield became one of Jonah’s favorite cartoon strips, but he somehow ended up with 29 volumes of Jim Davis’ visual musings. He also owned the Garfield Merriam-Webster Dictionary which, more than any other educational resource, may have been responsible for Jonah’s evolving smarts as he mined its pages for cartoons stopping to learn an actual word every now and then.

And we mustn’t forget Curious George. This little creature came into Jonah’s life when he was about 4 years old, and while George didn’t go to college with Jonah, he did go to camp and just about everywhere else. I daresay, George may have been one of Jonah’s most important role models, which may explain how one little boy could get into so much trouble. Also, while he never had a yellow one, this may also tell us something about why Jonah had so many hats!

Other tomes on Jonah’s bookshelf included: 750 Ways to Annoy People (‘nuff said), The Darwin Awards (paying dubious homage to people who die because of the truly stupid things they’ve done), and Bad President (a rather uncomplimentary ode to George W. Bush).

Jonah’s favorite musical may very well have been Avenue Q, the funniest send-up of Sesame Street ever. His favorite TV shows (well, at one time at least) were Family Guy, Hey, Arnold! and Doug (the collected 1st season of which was given to him by Aiden).

Jonah’s favorite movies included Rush Hour (all of them), Blazing Saddles and Animal House, which gives you a pretty clear idea what was shaping this guy’s mind.

He kept a You Might Be a Redneck If… calendar in his room, as well as an Oscar Wilde action figure and a Dashboard Monk. An eclectic array, to be sure, but if it tickled his funny bone it was likely to come home with him like a stray puppy (which may also explain the shark in a bottle).

BarrelOfMonkeys.04b

Dr. Wally, “Marvin’s Room”
Play Group Theatre, May 2007

Jonah learned that playing comedy is not nearly as easy as being comical yourself. Cast as “Dr. Wally” in Play Group Theatre’s 2007 production of Marvin’s Room, Jonah confronted his most challenging role, playing a somewhat inept and clumsy physician who makes the audience laugh while he engages in what’s certainly not a funny role of caring for a cancer victim. Knowing how much laughter Jonah was usually able to evoke, it was novel but not out of character to watch how hard he worked to try and tease the humor from his part.

Jonah tried his hand at writing comedy too. Unfortunately, at my expense. During his 10th grade Service of Confirmation, when each student addressed the congregation to share what they’ve come to value about being Jewish, my Jonah (who I knew valued his Judaism greatly but could never come at nearly any topic from an expected angle) began his presentation by describing an epic light-sabre battle taking place on the roof of the temple between me (the rabbi) and Adolf Hitler. Well, it was memorable. And I suppose great comedy has to begin somewhere.

In 2008, Woodlands Community Temple celebrated my Bar Mitzvah year (#13, that is) as their rabbi. Jonah was unable to be there, but he sent a few words to be read aloud before the gathered throngs. Here are a couple of choice morsels:

After 18 grueling years of service, you have convinced me that hair does not make the man. If it did, you would be much much smaller.

You are always a good listener and so many people trust you. No matter how bad a situation gets, you’ve always got a word or two of wisdom to brighten up the mood. Even when you’re angry, you rarely become irrational and you always handle the situation to the best of your ability. After being a witness to all of these great events in your career as Rabbi Dad, I have only to say, thanks for screwing it up for the rest of us Dreskins.

Sometimes, my kids worked as a team. Our home could be an outrageously funny place to spend some time, and I could just sit and watch my three kids be goofy for hours. Very little of it got documented but here’s one small snippet that survives on Facebook (from November 2007):

Katie: Why don’t you respond to my texting or facebooking?  It hurts my feelings.

Jonah: *Tosses Rabid Squirrel* Hold that for a second. *Runs away*

Katie: You are a sad, strange little man.

Jonah & Amanda B NFTY-NAR, Feb 2008

Jonah & Amanda B
NFTY-NAR, Feb 2008

One of my favorite Jonah-quotes appears beneath a photograph posted on Facebook. In it, Amanda Battaglia, one of Jonah’s closest friends from his NFTY days in high school, can be seen running across a room and jumping into Jonah’s arms. The caption she wrote expresses the feelings of many of the kids in NFTY who don’t get to see friends from other towns and states for long stretches of time: “I missed my big brother.” Jonah’s reply is deftly clever: “No, you hit him dead on.” That was the kid I’d hoped to watch, and to enjoy, for many decades to come.

Three weeks before Jonah died, I sent him (for his 19th birthday) a copy of Honi HaSakran, Curious George in Hebrew. I wrote the following inscription inside: “Dear JMac, as you embark upon this next segment of your life’s journey, carry within you all that has given you joy. This little monkey has held your hand an awfully long time. In any language, that gives voice to a whole world of goodnesses … those that have been and those that are yet to be. May they all bring you warmth of the spirit. With much love and admiration, Dad.”

Without a doubt, Jonah was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. I’d like to think he got some of that from me. But that golden soul of his, the one that used silliness to help others find their smile, he discovered that part all by himself.

Billy

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One Response to “A Barrel of Monkeys”

  • Ronni Schatz:

    Such tender beautiful thoughts about your son. So many of his favorites were also things that my youngest son liked. He is also a young man who “marches to his own drummer” as I see Jonah was. My thoughts and prayers are with you now, and during the coming High Holy day season.

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