Avi Liberman

The frozen bagel and the synagogue

Who would have thought that my breakfast routine would lead me to daily communal morning prayers?
Bagels and lox and cream cheese. (iStock)
Bagels and lox and cream cheese. (iStock)

It usually takes years to get to the point where you can make a living as a standup comedian. That applies to many other professions in the arts, but it’s widely known that you’re probably not going to be very good for a long time. Accepting that, and knowing you are just going to have to put in the time, the “Day Job” as it is commonly known is going to be a fact of life. For me, it was being an elementary school teaching assistant. Having gone to Orthodox Jewish day school, I taught Sunday school in college for extra cash and it seemed like a normal progression to keep a roof over my head while I struggled to get better.

I worked mostly with first and second graders in Jewish day schools, and getting up early to get to work became part of my routine over the years. As I got more work doing what I wanted to do, I went from full-time to part-time to eventually taking the plunge and telling the school I would not be coming back. While frightening not knowing where my next check would be coming from, I knew it was time.

Even though I could now sleep in, I still found myself waking up before 7 a.m., since my body clock had been adjusted to it for years. I also found it hard to go to sleep before midnight since I was also accustomed to doing my other job at night performing. That often involved hanging out late, and naps in the afternoon (when I could) to keep me sane.

The one bonus of still getting up early no matter what time I went to sleep was I finally had time to enjoy breakfast and not feel rushed. When I was a teaching assistant it usually consisted of a cup of coffee, and a danish, or oatmeal in a paper cup at my desk. Now that I had time, I was going to enjoy it, and watch whatever crappy reality show I had recorded on my DVR and just relax.

I became a big breakfast guy and thoroughly enjoyed taking my time making, and eating it. While I always had my staples of blueberries, strawberries, and cottage cheese, I’d rotate out every other day between a bagel with lox and cream cheese, and an omelet with cheese and salsa, which I’ve since added avocado to. I grew up in Texas so the salsa was a must. I had one problem though, I keep the bagels frozen (whole wheat everything in case you’re wondering) and on bagel mornings, needed time for them to defrost when I pulled one out of the freezer. Usually about 20 minutes in, I was fine, and a good knife could do the job before I popped it into the toaster.

I would end up bored though and needed to kill time waiting for the defrost. This is where my friend Adam came in and solved, and ruined, it for me at the same time.

Adam is what’s known as a “Baal Tshuvah,” basically the Jewish version of a born again. Adam did not grow up religious but became more traditional later in life. Nine times out of 10, they are more religiously involved than those of us who grew up with it, and generally have a much more spiritual approach. The rest of us were jaded early and don’t have as much of an appreciation for what we were given as far as Jewish education, religious practice etc. I like to poke fun at this group on stage when I do Jewish events, but I actually have a profound respect for people who take on a more traditional lifestyle that they aren’t used to.

I don’t remember how it came up, but the topic of my newfound defrosting problem came up in conversation with Adam and he had the perfect solution. “Come to minyan in the morning at the synagogue, Avi! Plenty of time for your bagel to defrost.” I remember thinking, “Is this guy nuts?” No way I’m getting up at 6 a.m. and doing that. Most guys go early since they need to get to work. When I protested and gave him the “Nice Baal Tshuvah try,” he told me there was a 7:45 a.m. service he attends. I smiled and said, we’ll see, but I honestly had no intention of going.

After a few days, no matter what I tried and how late I went to sleep, I kept getting up at around 7 a.m. or just before. If it was a bagel morning, I’d walk to the grocery store, maybe buy something I didn’t need, or procrastinate some other way. I didn’t like jumping online since that was sort of the beginning of my new workday and wanted to eat first.

One morning, I woke up early again, and was just lying there and thought, “I have nothing else to do and really have no excuse. I live across the street from the synagogue, I know how to navigate the service just fine, put on a tallis and tefillin (traditional prayer shawl and “phylacteries” as they are called) so I might as well go.” While I went on the Sabbath, going during the week was never really in my plans. I would say a few basic prayers in the morning, but never really the whole service. As it was an all important bagel day, I figured I’d head over and give it a whirl.

When I walked in, there was Adam, and he gave a big smile and hello. I simply replied, “I don’t want to hear it! This is your fault!” Adam laughed and said, “I’ll take full blame, and credit!” We generally make jokes about having to go to synagogue, getting out early, and all the other usual stuff. I’m told by many of my Christian friends the same stereotypical jokes are cracked about church as well. Religion is religion. Needless to say, after a few days it became a pattern even when it was an omelet morning.

There is a question the sages bring up. What is the greatest passage from the Bible? Is it the Shema? “Hear O Israel the Lord our God the Lord is one!” Is it the famous “Treat your neighbor like yourself,” etc.? Finally it was decided that the greatest line of all is: “They brought the sacrifice every day, twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon.” Really? That one? Routine in life is important. The Rabbis felt it was so important that they were willing to say it is the greatest thing we are taught.

I remember being on the road with another comic during my early years of when I first started working at clubs. We were staying at the infamous “Comedy Condo,” and I asked if he wanted me to wake him up the next morning if I got up first. He replied, “No way. I’m a comic, I don’t get up until noon,” as if there was pride in that. I remember thinking to myself, “Ya know, I’ll bet Drew Carey isn’t getting up at noon.” or any other successful person for that matter.

Rabbi Muskin, the rabbi at my synagogue, once gave a speech on Yom Kippur and gave examples of how great men valued routine. Beethoven would count out exactly 60 beans of coffee and grind that. It was exactly 60, no more and no less. It was the one thing he was very particular about, but nothing else as far as food or drink. That one routine was important to him. Darwin and Einstein were meticulous about their daily walks. The list goes on and on. There is even the famous speech by Admiral William H. McRaven about making your bed every morning. Routine, and getting something done is important. The admiral knows it, and the Rabbis knew it thousands of years ago. After not having to have a schedule, I know it too. I don’t have to get up early in the morning, but I try to anyway. Routine is important.

It’s said that, throughout the centuries, it’s not that the Jews kept the Sabbath, but the Sabbath kept the Jews. Or, more simply put, it’s not so much that I keep the bagel, but the bagel keeps me… or it at least keeps me from oversleeping.

About the Author
Avi Liberman is a stand-up comic who was born in Israel, raised in Texas and now lives in Los Angeles. Avi founded Comedy for Koby, a bi-annual tour of Israel featuring some of America's top stand-up comedians.
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