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George Burns' Watch
By Yosef Y. Jacobson

"My promises are not promises, my prohibitions are not prohibitions and my vows are not vows"
-- "Kol Nidrei" prayer, opening service of Yom Kippur.

In 1896, Nathan Birnbaum was the ninth of 12 children born to Louis and Dorothy in New York City. His father was a substitute cantor at the local synagogue but did not work very often. During the flu epidemic of 1903, Louis had his chance to earn some real money but contracted the flu and died. Nathan, or Nattie, as he was known to his family, started working after his father's death, shining shoes, running errands and selling newspapers.

Nathan -- later to become known as George Burns, arguably the greatest straight man of 20th-century American comedy -- was 7 years old at the time. He and three buddies on the Lower East Side of Manhattan formed a singing group called the Pee Wee Quartet.

At the time, there was a big department store in New York called Siegel & Cooper that sponsored an annual picnic, and the highlight was an amateur contest with talent representing all the churches in New York City.

Around the corner from George Burn's home was a little Presbyterian church, and it had no one to enter the contest on its behalf, so the minister asked these four kids to represent his church.

That Sunday, in a New York park, these four Jewish kids, sponsored by the Presbyterian Church, sang in the competition and won first prize. The church received a purple velvet cloth, and each of the children received an Ingersoll wristwatch worth 85 cents.

Young Gorge Burns was so excited he ran home to tell his mother. When he arrived there, she was standing on the roof hanging out the washing. He rushed up to her and said, "Mama, I don't want to be Jewish anymore."

His mother looked at him calmly and asked, "Why not?"

He said: "I've been a Jew for seven years and never got anything; I was a Presbyterian for one day and I got a watch..." And he held out his wrist to show his mom.

Wise in the ways of the world, his mother glanced at him and calmly said, "Nathan, my bubbale, first help me hang up the washing, then you can be a Presbyterian."

George Burns concluded the episode: “While I was hanging up the washing, some water was dripping from the wet clothes, running down my arm and penetrating inside my watch. It stopped working, so I decided to become a Jew again.”


This anecdote captures in my mind so much of the modern American Jewish story.

How many Jews living today feel that their Judaism has given them nothing significant in their lives? That their basic needs in life -- success, health, money, love, power, enjoyment -- were not met through Judaism?

How many of our people have neglected their Jewishness for "watches" and all forms of prizes that seemed so much more promising, fulfilling and exciting than a 4,000-year-old religion?

This country, the United States, was good to George Burns, who died 10 years ago at the age of 100 as a legend. This country has been so good to many of us as well. Never in our long and horrific exile have we, the Jewish people, felt as comfortable and safe as we have on these blessed shores, in a country founded upon the unyielding faith in the dignity of human life and liberty granted to every individual. America's powerful support to our eternal homeland, the Land of Israel, is something that makes us proud to be citizens of this moral and kind country. 

Over the past 150 years, many of our kin successfully integrated into the great American Dream. The culture and lifestyle of the "goldene medinah" (the golden country), as the U.S. was described on the other side of the Atlantic, deeply impacted our own lifestyles and self-definitions. Over time, many Jews rose to positions of power and prestige that their grandparents never dreamed of attaining. We replaced our grandparents' humble shops on the Lower East Side with lucrative careers in business, politics, academia and the arts.

But have we lost something in this process?

In "Avalon," Barry Levinson poignantly depicts the tragic disintegration of his Baltimore Jewish family when the secular culture of America infiltrated a once unified, loving and vibrant family. It is a gut-wrenching story, one that has recurred, in one way or another, among countless Jewish families. The outer lure and temptation of American culture and progressiveness proved to be more powerful than, say, a weekly Sabbath gefilte fish dinner. The promise of full integration and success compelled so many to turn away from values and traditions that had defined us for thousands of years. We have become alienated from that which once mattered most to us.

Going to the movies was far more fun than celebrating the holiday of Sukkot in a little outdoor hut. Enjoying a baseball game Saturday morning was far more exciting than going to the synagogue to hear a boring sermon from a rabbi. Running off to the gym and the therapist in the morning often seems far more useful than putting on tefillin and studying Torah.

Yet, just as in the George Burns story, as we get older and wiser, it often emerges that many of the "watches" for which we gave up our Judaism prove to be of little value. While we may have enjoyed the luxuries of modern life, have we not lost our compass, our inner wholesomeness, that deep sense of what it means to be human and Jewish?

And, as our children grow up, we wonder: Have we not, at the expense of momentary needs and gratifications, deprived our children from an eternal foundation, from a direction in life, from roots that will help them navigate the tumultuous waves of a difficult and ever-changing world? Have we failed our loved ones in having them appreciate the sanctity of a Jewish home, the blessings of a wholesome marriage, the value of self sacrifice, the power of a mitzvah, the nobility of the Sabbath, the depth of Jewish thought, the quality of a life permeated with the presence of a living G-d?


*) My thanks to Rabbi Nir Gurevitch, spiritual leader of Serfers Paradise, for his contribution to this article. And to Shmuel Levin for his editorial assistance.

Posted on September 30, 2006
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