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The quietest guy in the room

As someone who makes a living telling jokes, losing the ability to speak is my nightmare. But that's what happened to my friend's dad.

On most Passovers, I’m fortunate enough to work at various programs at hotels that cater to those who can afford to turn the holiday into a vacation. Aside from luxurious locations, worrying about all of the food restrictions associated with the holiday becomes an afterthought. If you’ve never experienced a Passover program at a hotel, imagine eating phenomenal kosher for Passover food at every meal, then doing it again in between those meals, and then complaining about eating too much, but doing it again anyway, for eight days straight.

As a comedian, one of my jokes up front about making sure people are OK since they haven’t eaten in 12 minutes usually evokes a good laugh. While the programs themselves are great for those who go, my experience at them is a little less exotic. It sounds nice, as I’m usually hopping from location to location, (this year was Miami, to the Bahamas, to Phoenix, back to Miami), but my experience is usually: Do your show, and get out. I often have to catch an early morning flight so if there isn’t anything I can eat in the morning at the resort, the holiday can turn into Yom Kippur for me, as I only eat Kosher-for-Passover food on the holiday. In transit, that’s basically impossible to find.

All of that aside, the programs are usually great about making sure I won’t starve the morning I leave and usually prepare something before I have to go. The end of the holiday, the last two days, is when I can usually relax knowing I have no show to run to. As it’s still similar to a Shabbat, I do, however, have to make sure my holiday meals are taken care of, and this is where my neighbor and friend, Max came in.

We’ve both known each other for over 20 years and when Max heard I had no plans the last days of the holiday, he suggested I join him and the rest of his family as they go old school, and have a condo in Miami that has been in the family for generations. Max grew up going there almost every Passover. Years ago, my old roommate, Jason told me how crazy Miami can be over Passover, and we both split a room at a cheap hotel in the area just to experience it. He introduced me to “The Scene” at the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc hotels. It felt like every Jew in America showed up and I honestly found it hilarious.

Over the years, things have calmed down as far as “The Scene” at those hotels, but Max and his family still go to Miami pretty much every year. He also introduced me to Tower 41, which is basically a Jewish building. How many condos have not only one, but two synagogues at the bottom? For a guy who grew up in Houston, all of this was surreal. A third friend of ours, Dan, was also going to be there and Max insisted that I should come and it would be fun having the three of us there. I had met his family over the years and was already a fan of his parents and siblings, so I was looking forward to it.

Since I had first met Max, one thing put a bit of s shock into the family, and that was when his father had a stroke. Thank God, he recovered from the point of anything remaining life-threatening, but it left him unable to speak. Outside of that, you would never know anything had ever happened. While it’s obviously a glaring thing, losing your ability to speak, if you walked into a room and saw his father there, you would simply think it was another grandfatherly figure reading a book, having a meal, or anything else that seemed normal.

Once Max’s dad began to communicate though, that’s where it got interesting. Max’s mom was by far the best at deciphering what he wanted to express. We would all be having a conversation around him, and then he would chime in as if he was clearing his throat, or smile at some joke made, or simply point at someone he thought had made a good point. Max’s mom and other family members would guess what he meant, and when they’d get it right, he’d point with a big smile. If they kept guessing wrong, he would still smile, and after the continued wrong guesses, move his hand as if he was swatting a fly and make the universal “forget it” face, and we’d all laugh about it.

The interesting thing is that he’d laugh too. He wasn’t frustrated or angry, just accepting and amused. I was impressed at how well he handled it. Max told me that he still goes to synagogue every day and, to quote Max, the guy “is a machine!” In his 80s, he keeps chugging along. When I went to Tower 41 for synagogue, the service I went to finished before the larger one so I went outside and just found a chair in the hallway to hang out. All of a sudden I look up and there is Max’s dad giving me a big hello. I said I’d follow him back to the condo for lunch, and even though a word wasn’t exchanged, it felt like it wasn’t necessary. The time felt complete even though a word was not spoken.

Max would jokingly say that if it were me who couldn’t talk, I’d kill myself. While I hope I wouldn’t go to that extreme, it made me think of just how frustrated I’d be, as opposed to Max’s father. He displayed a calm and patience that I can only hope to achieve one day. Here I am, a guy who gets frustrated when I have to wait in a line more than five minutes, and Max’s father maintains his calm when he can’t communicate through speech. It put into perspective how much I need to work on myself when it comes to being patient.

While many of us listen to those who teach, I only had to watch to learn more than anyone may be able to ever say to me. Sometimes we learn the most by listening to those who don’t even talk.

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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