Norman S. Lipson
Norman S. Lipson

A Jewish Wink through Time

While in Hungary a number of years ago, our Jewish walking tour of Budapest, included the inside of the magnificent Hungarian Parliament Building, built in 1904 and overlooking the Danube River.  Jokingly, I asked our guide what was so Jewish about the building, and with a smile, replied:  “You’ll see.”

As we began walking up its magnificent red carpeted stairway, the guide began pointing out fascinating details within its interior.  Very surreptitiously, except for a large star in a stained glass window, were a number of six-pointed Jewish Stars, hiding in plain sight, in various corners and niches of the halls, placed there by its Jewish architect, Imre Steindl.   The guide explained that though Budapest society and culture had included many Jews, anti-Semitism had been pervasive and wide-spread.  Jews, as vital as they were to Hungarian life, at times, had to walk very gingerly, lest they draw too much attention to themselves, as Jews.

Once we started looking, the hidden, but now, very apparent Jewish stars, seemed to symbolize a message from Steindl, their creator:  “Yes, I’m a proud Hungarian, but also, “Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, Shalom Aleichem, to you who see us and know what we are.”

I call this a “Jewish wink” across the ages, a “Shalom” from a Jewish architect’s finished work, or an MOT’s live onstage or silver screen performance, to an unknown Jewish viewer or audience member.

Following that tour, I began remembering, as well as noticing “Jewish Winks” that I have seen and heard in the unexpected of places and the oddest of moments:

The 1957 animated science film, shown in my 7th grade class, “Hemo, the Magnificent”, explaining the blood system, began with Hemo, flying in and saying: “Shalom Aleichem” to all the body parts and their responding:  “Aleichem Shalom!”  I, and every other Jewish kid in the class went crazy and started cheering.  The teacher and other Christian kids, had no idea why…and we didn’t tell them.

The Three Stooges, posing as Chinese laundry workers, pretending to speak Chinese to an Irish cop and in reality, speak Yiddish, has never failed to bring the Jewish house down.  Included along with The Marx Brothers, cleverly placed shtick and Yiddishisms, all are classic “Jewish Winks” from Hollywood.

Leonard’s Bernstein’s 1942 symphonic work, The Jeremiah Symphony, incorporates traditional Jewish musical modes by which Jeremiah, or any Book of the Prophets, is chanted.   I’m certain that, listening to it in a formal concert setting, has brought a surprised smile to the lips of anyone who has ever had to struggle learning to chant the blessings and Haftarah for their bar/bat mitzvah, to hear those same notes flow so beautifully and smoothly from the pen of a Jewish master, giving each post-bar/bat mitzvah in the audience, a well deserved “Jewish Wink.”

One of my favorite “Jewish Winks” occurred in the 1981 Indiana Jones film, “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”  As the evil archaeologist, Dr. Belloq, dressed in the full regalia of Aaron the High Priest, dramatically and slowly has the cover of the Ark of the Covenant slid back, he begins mumbling some seemingly meaningless incantation.

After a few seconds, I, along with a few other people in the theater, started to laugh and cheer.  It wasn’t meaningless gibberish at all, but rather, the Aramaic meditation, B’rich SH’may D’maray, traditionally recited when the Ark is opened for the Torah service.

Thank you Stephen Spielberg for that very special “Jewish Wink!”

There is nothing quiet or subtle about any Mel Brooks production.  His films are so replete with overt Jewish references, that they are basically one massive Wink and Nudge!  Having had the pleasure of seeing his brilliant and highly politically incorrect 1974 film, Blazing Saddles, in both New York City as well as Hattiesburg, MS. has given me an opportunity to experience two extreme audience reaction to “Jewish Winks.”

The NYC reaction to the film was as overwhelming and expansive as was the film itself.

When I saw that Blazing Saddles was coming to Hattiesburg and knowing it’s stay would be brief, I quickly arranged a congregational field trip to the local theater to view it.  Ten Jews walked with my wife and me into the movie house, took our seats behind two elderly Mississippi matrons and waited for the film to begin.  Within minutes, our row, filled with Jews, doubled over in laughter, tears in their eyes with sheer delight.  And so it went, we laughing, the matrons, sometimes smiling.

However, the funniest line and loudest laugh, came, not from the movie, but from the two Mississippi matrons themselves.

When Brooks, as the Indian Chief, began speaking Yiddish, our people were beside themselves hysterically laughing.  When a brief momentary silence in our laughing occurred, one matron turned to the other, and in a stage whisper, said:   “They (us) must speak Indian!”

The final and probably most historic and chutzpadik wink occurred in 1497 Barcelona, Spain.

For five years, the Inquisition had held sway throughout the country.  Every openly practicing Jew had been exiled or forced to become baptized as a Catholic.  Many of those, known as the Forced Ones, Anusim, still attempted to practice their ancestral faith in secret.  If found out, torture and certain death, would follow.

A notice, by royal decree, stated that on the evening of Sept. 5, 1497, a special concert, music of the world and its instruments, would be conducted by the famous composer conductor, Don Fernando Aguilar, and that the Queen herself, as well as various royals and members of the High Inquisition would also be in attendance.

Though it was well-known that Don Fernando was one of the Anusim, was it also known by the Queen and Inquisition that the night of the concert, Sept. 5, was Erev Rosh HaShana?  That, we will never know.

Word spread throughout the Anusim community that they must appear at the concert to show the Queen and the Inquisitors that they were loyal Spaniards and now, loyal Catholics.

At a peak moment of the concert, blasts of a shofar rang out through the hall:  Tekiah, Shevarim, Terurah, Tekiah Gedola!  Rising as one, the entire assembly burst into applause and cheers for the magnificent ending to a wonderful concert.  Among them, with tears in their eyes and hearts stirring with secret pride and emotion, were the hundreds of Anusim of Barcelona, who, one last time, before the night of the Inquisition fell upon them for generations, the Shofar sounds reverberated within them.

A final and loving “Jewish Wink” that would never be forgotten.

About the Author
Rabbi Norman S. Lipson is Founding Rabbi of Temple Dor Dorim in Weston, Florida. Israel advocacy and education have been in the forefront of Rabbi Lipson's more than 50 years in the rabbinate. Having led numerous Pilgrimages to Israel, he teaches about Israel and Judaism through inter-faith and adult education programs in South Florida. A graduate of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, he holds a Master's Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. He is the author of two books: “How Many Memories Make a Minyan?” and “Rabbi, My Dog Ate My Shofar!” both available on Kindle Bookstore.
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