The Shame of Puns
By RABBI BOB ALPER
Confession can be cleansing. Cathartic. Rehabilitative. And public confession can be even more powerfully purifying.
Here’s mine: I used to make puns.
Punning is a disease with an alarmingly high incidence among Jews, who love to toy with language. And it reaches epidemic proportions among rabbis, who have opportunities to toy with language more often than many others, in front of what the rabbis hope is an appreciative Jewish audience but is usually, at best, a forgiving Jewish audience. Frequently the orators telegraph the upcoming intellectual twists and turns by announcing, “No pun intended” which means, quite simply, “pun intended.”
I no longer use puns. Too dangerous. Puns are interactive, transforming. Instead of the simple chuckle, laugh or guffaw other humor elicits, puns beget groans, and suddenly the audience thinks it has permission to continue the interplay, offering comments, suggestions, and, of course, increasingly dramatic groans as the presentation continues. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that somewhere, long ago, a truly foul pun started a full-scale revolution.
So no more puns from this fellow. But I confess, I was formerly addicted.
Even way back during elementary school days I can recall how I admired the neighbors who named their dog “Timex” because, they declared, “he’s a watch dog.”
But aaah, congregational life allowed me to hit my full stride, and the years at the beginning of multi-year contracts found me more relaxed and unafraid to plumb the depths of my affliction.
An example: Gentile visitors often joined us for worship, and following the service I enjoyed greeting them and setting aside time to answer their questions. One night a teenage member of a church group asked about “cabbage.” He had heard the word “cabbage” repeated often, and didn’t have a clue what it meant. I was puzzled for a moment, wondering if possibly the kid had wandered into a recipe swap for prachas, but then it dawned on me: The word wasn’t “cabbage” at all. It was “Shabbos.” “Good Shabbos” is what his unaccustomed ear had picked up.
I quickly set him straight. But (forgive me) I couldn’t resist adding, “Of course, maybe what you heard wasn’t ‘cabbage’ or ‘Shabbos’ at all, but actually some version of ‘Lettuce pray.'”
Bar and Bat Mitzvahs afforded a wickedly delicious opportunity as I encountered a sea of mostly strange faces, guests of the families, people who’d never before benefited from my clever wisdom. And so, near the end of the service, just before the recitation of the motzi, the blessing over the challah, I would remind the participants of the Talmudic rule that a little crumb won’t do, that for the blessing to be valid, they must eat a piece of challah that is at least the size of an olive. “That’s why,” I’d conclude, “when one asks if you’d like some challah, it’s appropriate to respond, ‘Sure. Olive a piece.'”
(It gets worse. Read on, if you think you can take it.)
Other examples abound. Here’s a final one, of which I’m least proud – or most proud -depending on my current sense of shame.
Our synagogue met in an old mansion that had been adapted to our needs. The addition of a new space meant that we ended up with two decent size pass-through rooms suitable for smaller receptions. Since we had no big givers after whom the facilities could be named, we just called them “the religious school foyer” and “the sanctuary foyer,” and following B’nai Mitzvah ceremonies, the two families would head off individually, one to each room.
Announcement time, my moment of true glory. “Please join with the families for kiddush. The Goldenbergers will gather in the religious school foyer, and the Settlemans will assemble in the sanctuary foyer. And visitors, kindly note: ours is the only synagogue in the world through which you can run yelling “Foyer! Foyer!”
Well, those days are all behind me. No more puns. On to better humor, new avocations, less dangerous hobbies. Like skiing.
And by the way: you do know how Jewish skiers greet one another, don’t you? They say, “Sla-lom.”
(Rabbi Bob Alper is a stand-up comic and author. Visit him at www.bobalper.com.)