When I think of things funny, thigh-slapping, fall-down funny, my thoughts inevitably turn to two women, my grandmothers Bella and Rachel. As the years have passed, they seem to have blended and resemble one another more and more, becoming my generic imprint for that wonderful word… grandmother. The woman I see is about five feet three inches tall. She has steel gray hair caught in a neat bun, soft and round body, low-heeled black shoes, belted flowered dress and always a cardigan sweater. Her delicious aroma is that of baking bread and lavender. The laugh lines are deeply etched and her accented English peppered with Yiddish idiom was the music of my childhood.

There is a flavor and persistence to Jewish humor which weaves its way into our everyday livesWhen I think of things funny, I also think of being Jewish and, although I am profoundly aware of the history of my people, I never cease to marvel how, along with the terror and the misery, we have produced a multitude of comics who set the groundwork for courage through humor. The list is endless of the funny Jewish men who filled the theaters and resorts with laughter. I remember when, as a teenager, I would race to the home of my uncle on Sunday evenings where I could watch famous comedians on the only TV set in the family. No one dared interrupt while Uncle Izzy, in his big easy chair would laugh so hard his face would turn bright red. It became a rite of passage to say you had seen the show.

I was never quite sure of how much my grandmothers understood of the dialogue, but they understood the action and the gestures, and they understood laughter. History has immortalized incredibly clever comedians who were performing not only in this country during WWII, but also overseas for the troops. In the early 1900's, they appeared in resorts and theaters and the Yiddish theater, with its plays and burlesque, was a huge draw for newly arrived immigrants from Europe. Radio and television brought them into our homes. I used to marvel at the sight of tears rolling down faces which may have been tears of sadness only hours before when they learned of relatives denied entry into this country or families torn apart during the efforts to eradicate our people. Down through the centuries, history repeated itself… and down through the centuries, music and laughter were thriving and becoming part of our identity.

Of course, other ethnic groups can rightly claim to have their comic heroes as well, but somehow there is a flavor and persistence to Jewish humor which weaves its way into our everyday lives, our language, and our interaction with each other. It makes harsh events softer and bad things bearable. How can one remain angry or hopeless when, with a giant shrug of the shoulders, and a frown turned upside down, there is no place to go except ahead to prevail against adversity.

I still laugh when I remember how, one very hot day at the beach, my two cousins and I decided to play a trick on Grandma Rachel. She was wearing what seemed more like a heavy black short dress than a bathing suit, and she had her cardigan sweater on over her shoulders. We generously offered to walk with her to the water's edge and each placed a steadying arm around her back. We had noticed earlier that the very-worn sweater had a loop of wool hanging down and the plan was to give gentle tugs to it as we walked. We kept up a light conversation to distract her as the back of the sweater became shorter and shorter. The sharp cold of the water on her toes brought the joke down on us. The silence as we stood there staring at one another was loud. Grandma Rachel pulled the tattered sweater down, took a long hard look at it and began to laugh. She scooped up handfuls of water, doused us thoroughly, and somehow we all wound up sitting in the wet sand.

I have never forgotten how to laugh because of these two womenVisits to the other funny and deeply loving woman in my life meant walks to the corner deli, being allowed to drink coffee-flavored milk, curing my poison ivy with pickle juice, and sitting up late into the night drawing pictures and learning how to read the headlines in the Jewish newspaper. On one of these nights, something I tried to read struck her funny. Her laughter shook her from stem to stern and the bed itself. Just as Grandpa came down the hall to see what was happening, the mattress caved in, leaving us caught in the middle. If it had been a summer night, with the windows open to carry our helpless screeches, I'm sure it might have caused the neighbors to come running.

I have never forgotten how to laugh because of these two women. And, yet, it was to them that I also came with my most serious of problems and sadness.

When they embraced me with sage advice and encouragement, there was always a kiss and a pinch on the cheek, as well as the ever present hope and humor in her tone. As a woman, I found that I emulated them with my own children, and they with theirs. To this day, it causes raised eyebrows, but it's too late to change the heart of this woman. I am funny.