Congratulations to my University of Pennsylvania classmate, Melissa Rivers, on her new book, Lies My Mother Told Me: Tall Tales from a Short Woman! Enjoy the excerpt below about celebrating the holidays with the Rivers. Hag Sameach! Happy Passover!
Excerpt from Lies My Mother Told Me by Melissa Rivers. Courtesy of Post Hill Press.
My mother loved holidays. I’m not sure if it was the giving or the receiving, but any time a major holiday was coming up, my mom would get so happy and sweet and excited, she practically became another person. Instead of worrying about work and becoming resentful of those people who were getting the jobs she felt she should have gotten, she’d think about buying those people gi!s—like nooses or cyanide pills or cars with faulty brakes.
According to her, holidays are the main reason we’re Jewish. “Melissa, there are like a gazillion religions in the world—Christianity, Islam, B’hai, Shintoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Animism—and they all have something good to o”er.
“Take the Sikhs, for example. They wear turbans. Perfect religion if you’re having a bad hair day. You should speak to one of them about how to wrap your hair if you’re between colorings or your stylist is out of town at a pride parade. I realize there are not many people of that faith in our neigh- borhood, but my advice is Sikh and ye shall find.”
“Same as the Muslims. They’re very big with the head coverings too. Like the Sikhs, they mostly live in hot, arid deserts where it’s very hard to hold a perm or a curl, and split-ends are the norm. Those hijabs come in very handy in July and August.”
“What about the burkas? They cover everything.”
“Again, Melissa, it’s about the hair. I heard that Muslim women are extremely hairy. Their legs get five o’clock shadow. But throw on a burka and, BOOM, just like that, smooth as a pageant winner.
“You know, all of this hair talk makes me realize that a lot of religions are very hat-oriented. And it’s trending.”
“Is that why our neighbor, Mr. Jones, started wearing a cap? Is he going B’hai?”
“No, B’hald. Mr. Jones is getting hair plugs, but they haven’t grown in yet. He looks like that Barbie doll you had when you were six. Remember? You got mad at me for making you cut your bangs, so you shaved Barbie’s head in protest. It was so embarrassing. I didn’t want to tell people you were being bratty, so I said that Barbie had alopecia, like Mike Nichols, and we were going to bring her to a doll hospi- tal for experimental treatments. Actually, it turned out very well. Rather than have them think I must be a lousy mother to have driven you to disfigure your doll, they’d say, ‘Mike Nichols has alopecia? Does his wife, Diane Sawyer, know?’
“I’d say, ‘Does she know? She loves it!’ Mike has no body hair whatsoever. When Mike gets out of the bathtub, he looks like a giant toddler or Baby Huey.
“One time I was at a girls’ lunch with Barbara Walters, Joy Behar, Whoopi Goldberg, and Diane. The food comes and Diane yells out, ‘Omigod, there’s a hair in my soup! Where did it come from?’
“I said, ‘Not Mike Nichols.’ Everyone laughed and laughed. Except Diane.”
“Is that why Diane hasn’t spoken to you in years?”
“Who knows? I’m sure she has plenty of other reasons. You know who really loves hats? The pope. The man is obsessed; he’s the Imelda Marcos of millinery. He has an entire floor of the Vatican devoted entirely to his hat collec- tion. Just like Elton John has for his wiglets.”
“Elton John has a floor at The Vatican?”
“Of course not, Melissa, I’m making an analogy. This explains your SAT verbal scores. Elton’s not Catholic. I’ve heard that Elton refers to his wigs as ‘the girls.’ How fabulous is that? They all have names. One is Maxine, one is Jenni- fer, one is Michaela, and so on. He wears a di”erent girl for each concert. Except for Fridays; he always wears Miriam on Fridays, you know, to honor the Sabbath.”
My mother must have noticed my look of incredulity (I was rolling my eyes so much I made myself dizzy), so she shi!ed gears.
“Oh…the pope. Remind me to come back to the Sabbath. So, the pope is quite the hat aficionado. You know, if he wasn’t the pope, I’d think he was just a very pious hoarder. Most o!en we see him with a beanie, but every now and again, depending on his mood, he’ll throw on a ni!y fez or a sassy little cloche. He says they’re fun to accessorize.”
“Really, Mom? When did he say that?”
“A few years ago. He told me. We wound up sitting together at the theater.”
“On Broadway. We were seeing Agnes of God. Do you know he knew all the words and sang along to every song?”
“Mom! Agnes of God is not a musical.”
“Well, he was moving his lips during the entire show. Maybe he was praying, or maybe he was just muttering to himself about the woman sitting in front of us with the huge bou”ant that was blocking our view. She must have been from Jersey.”
“And in the middle of the play, you just leaned over and said, ‘Excuse me, Pope, what’s your favorite hat?’”
“Of course not. What’s that matter with you? First o”, I called him Your Eminence, and second, it was during inter- mission. He was in line for the men’s room. Apparently, that Blood of Christ really runs through ya. I o”ered him a Kit Kat and said, ‘I love your Beanie. It’s like a yarmulke with a nipple.’
“He laughed and said, ‘I hear that all the time. Mostly from the Jews. You’ll never guess what my favorite hat is. G’head; try.’
“He laughed and said, ‘Pork, ha-ha; again, the Jews! No, the miter. I love my miter.’
“‘I love it too, Your Eminence. It’s like a dunce cap with rubies!’
“‘Oh my God, Joan, you kill me! I love it because it sits high and elongates my face. Gives me length and makes me look less stocky and stooped. So much cheaper than having work done.’
“‘Now, you tell me. Where were you twenty years ago when I was having my chin done?’”
We went back to our seats and exchanged numbers. I was going to ask him if he wanted to go backstage and say “hi” to the cast with me, but he had to leave before the bows. Something about blessing orphans or bringing relief to famine victims, who the fuck knows? Anyway, he was quite lovely.”
For what seemed like forever, I sat there and stared at her. Finally, my jaw unfroze, and I said, “Mom, do you expect me to believe that? That not only did you meet the pope in a Broadway theater, but that you remembered your entire conversation with him, verbatim?”
“Well of course I did, Melissa. I’m pretty sure if you were ever lucky enough to meet a pope, you’d remember every word too. He’d probably say, ‘So nice to meet you, Melissa. What’s up with the bangs?’”
“Really? You think the pope would take time out of his busy day to comment on my bangs?”
“If he has time to go hat shopping, he has time for your bangs.”
“Fine. Here’s your reminder: Sabbath.”
“Ooohhh, thank you sweetheart. I love you. Even with your bangs. You know, it’s not really about the Sabbath; it’s about why we’re Jewish.”
“I’m guessing because Grandma and Grandpa were Jewish?”
“No, but good guess. It’s because the Jewish religion has lots of holidays, that’s why. Think about it—everyone gets o” from work or school on Christian holidays, like Christmas or Easter, so it’s no big deal. It’s the same as national holidays, like the Fourth of July or Presidents’ Day or Columbus Day. Everyone is o”. But Jews get a lot of extra days o” because we have so many holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Purim, Tisha B’Av, Chanukah, and Passover. Put all those holidays together and we’ve got at least a month’s free paid vacation! And because nobody ever questions the validity of a religious holiday, we can make even the flimsiest of hol- idays into a ‘day of remembrance,’ or some other bullshit.
“Don’t scowl at me, Melissa…”
“I’m not scowling at you.”
“But you were going to. I know you; I’m your mother. I
gave birth to you. Or so I’m told.
“I wasn’t finished what I was saying when you began
scowling. And if you don’t stop scowling, I’m not going to finish. I think most Jewish holidays are really, really good, especially if I can celebrate them without having to go to synagogue. Anytime a major holiday rolls around, and I already have important plans for that day, like washing the feet of the poor, or curing cancer, or shopping, I always tell the rabbi I can’t make it because I have a sinus infection and he never quibbles, because a) name one Jew who doesn’t have a sinus infection and b) I’ve had so many nose jobs, he’s happy I still have sinuses.”
For those of you reading this who are not Jewish, not familiar with our holidays, or live in Iowa, most of our holi- days are similar to yours: Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, and we celebrate it like a regular New Year with lots of food and lots of fun. The only di”erence is, we don’t hang around Times Square getting drunk or flashing our tits while waiting for a ball to drop.
Purim is the story of Mordecai, Haman, Queen Esther, and evil King Ahasuerus. I know what you’re thinking: sounds more like a reality show on BET than a Bible story. I concur.
A week or so a!er Rosh Hashanah is Yom Kippur, our annual day of atonement. We observe this holiday by fasting for twenty-four hours to atone for our sins. We break the fast with lots of food, most of it very high in fats, carbohy- drates, and starch. Which explains why it took us forty years to cross the desert. Jewish food is so heavy, we had to stop every half mile to rest or look for a bathroom or buy some ex-lax.
Which brings me to Passover, which was my mother’s favorite Jewish holiday (mostly because it lasts for a week and she could milk extra days o” from whatever it was she was being paid to do). Passover is the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, which is chronicled in Book 1 of the Bible, “Exodus.”
At our last Passover together, my mother thought we could make a new cable TV movie of the story and change the title from Exodus to Fi!y Shades of Schlepping.
The main part of Passover is the Seder, in which family and friends from all over gather and have a huge dinner that includes songs and prayers and the telling of the story of the exodus. It’s like a Christmas dinner without presents, ham, or Jesus. My mother hosted Passover Seders every year, and it became an annual tradition, like the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona.
One of the highlights of the Seder is the Four Questions, which is the Cli”sNotes version of the history of Passover (not to be confused with the self-help book, The Four Agree- ments, because Jews don’t do self-help; we do expensive therapists, who not only walk us through our anxieties and problems, but also serve as ni!y tax write-o”s). The Four Questions are always asked by the youngest child at the table, and answered by one of the wisest, most sage adults. One memorable year, with about thirty people at the Seder, I was the youngest one there, so I asked the Four Questions. And my mother, who liked to be referred to as The Oracle of Bel Air, answered them. Not truthfully, of course.
“Okay, question one: Why is this night di”erent than all other nights? And why do we dip twice?”
“Well, Melissa, it’s di”erent because your Aunt Barbara isn’t here, and she usually is—I think she hurt her back pow- er-shopping at Neiman Marcus. That’s what you get from doing cardio. And we dip twice because it makes dancing more fun. Okay, next question.”
“Why on this night do we eat only unleavened bread?”
“According to the Haggadah, it’s because the Pharaoh’s soldiers were coming to kill all the Jews, so we had to take our breads out of the oven before they were done. We wound up with matzah, which is, quite frankly, tasteless, unless it has caviar on it. That story is such BS. When is the last time you saw a Jewish woman hunched over an oven, baking? Never, that’s when. That’s why God invented Saltines.”
“I know this isn’t one of the questions, but why did the Pharaoh want to kill the Jews? What did we do?”
“We didn’t do anything, Melissa; your great-great-great- great-great-great-uncle Elliott, did. There was no one specific thing Elliott did, he was just unbelievably annoying. All the time. He was whiny, he was twitchy, he chewed with his mouth open, and he had BO and dandru”. Even the other Jews wanted to kill him. Next!”
“Okay, question number three: Why on this night do we eat bitter herbs?”
“Melissa, I work in Hollywood. Bitter is my middle name. Time for question four; go!”
“Okay, why on this night do we eat while reclining instead of sitting up?”
“Melissa, have you ever had post-partum depression?” “Mom, I’m eleven.”
“When a woman gets depressed, particularly a!er she
gives birth…to a baby she loves, even though the baby has ruined her figure and stretched her vagina so wide Chilean miners could get stranded in it, she o!en gets depressed. And she lies down in bed, flat on her back, and eats nothing but Fritos, ice cream, and Klonopin until she feels better. Six months later, when she finally gets up and looks in the mirror, she is so repulsed by what she sees, she gets back in bed.
“As for the men, they eat while reclining because the food is so binding, they can’t get up. Did you know that one year, your Uncle Allan ate so much matzah he didn’t shit until October? True story. I hope that answers all the questions!” The other twenty-eight people at the table sat there aghast, with their mouths open, like that scene from The Producers where the audience is horrified watching the musical number, “Springtime for Hitler.”
My mother didn’t notice. She put down her Haggadah and said, “Dessert, anyone?”
In hindsight, I think another reason my mother loved Passover is that since she was hosting—it was her house, her food, her Seder—she could lie with impunity and never get called out on it.
PS: One year my mother had a Passover Seder for all of her gay friends. It was so much fun. Two of the Four Ques- tions involved Liza Minnelli.
PPS: If you want the real answers to the Four Questions, Google “Passover.”
PPPS: Imagine my surprise when the pope showed up at our house that year for Thanksgiving.