My Grandfather Passed Down His Judaism — In the Form of Jokes

My Poppa didn't believe in God. But he did believe in the power of good humor.

When the doctor asked my mother if my grandfather would like to receive his last rites, she responded: “First off, we’re Jewish, so I don’t think so, but my father isn’t a particularly religious man, so he’ll take whatever you want to give him.” In the midst of the shock that came in the immediate moments after finding out my grandfather had passed, I heard about the doctor’s remarks and thought, “wow, that is so funny… Poppa would have thought that was so funny.”

I recently experienced my first major loss — the passing of my kind, generous and wildly funny grandfather. Since my Poppa is the first grandparent I’ve lost, I’ve had no rulebook for the immense grief that would come with losing a structural pillar in the foundation of who I am, both as an artist and a young adult. I grew up lucky to have four very active grandparents involved in my life and in the lives of my siblings; I can clearly mark the impact of each one of them on my sense of self. My maternal grandfather, my Poppa, impacted my comedic sensibility.

My Poppa passed pretty unexpectedly. It’s tough to watch those you care about struggle with pain and lose the vibrant energy they once had. But while my grandfather may have slowed down physically, his sense of humor remained quick and ever-present, always skewing towards the R-rated. He never failed to find a way to make me laugh, and as I grew into myself as a young adult, I would return his quips with jokes of my own. Comedy was in his veins, deeply intertwined in the fiber of his being.

From a young age, he instilled in me the idea that your sense of humor is your currency. Without realizing it, my grandfather set the framework for the way I operate on a daily basis. He passed down a philosophy and a way of life — even before I could comprehend what the word “philosophy” meant or understand the complexities of navigating my everyday life. He taught me the value in being funny and being confident in what I think is funny.

Once I got over the initial wave of tears and sadness, I think the first thing I did was crack a joke of some kind. I was too overwhelmed with emotion to remember it, but I know my response was “I cope with humor. I need to make jokes.” Laughter and tears live on the same plane; they are both responses rooted in the emotional life of human beings. I am not a psychologist, but I am an artist, which has afforded me the experience of living in a vulnerable state with great frequency.

I am also a Jew. I have a sense of humor and a way of being that is shaped by my culture. In the weeks after my grandfather’s passing, someone told me that “we’re Jews. We cry.” Not to generalize for the entire Jewish population, but our teachings emphasize the fundamental values of empathy, of repairing the world and of responsibility. We are taught to care. Generations and generations have been handed this indescribably massive undertaking. We must laugh our way through it, or we would cry all the time.

My Poppa was not a particularly religious man. Despite the fact that his grandfather was a Rabbi in Ukraine and subsequently very active in the Los Angeles Jewish community, my grandfather did not believe in God. But he did believe in the power of a good joke. He made people laugh as a way to fulfill his purpose. His kindness and gentle spirit made him respected by everyone around him, but it was his sense of humor that hooked people in and drew them in close.

In Judaism, we often hear the phrase “l’dor v’dor,” which means “from generation to generation.” My Poppa’s emphasis on sharing his sense of humor was his unintentional version of l’dor v’dor.

I am still in the process of navigating life without being able to pick up the phone and call my Poppa, and I am still figuring out the ways in which I uphold his legacy. In working through my grief, I have to understand that while I may cry, I will also find humor, both in my memories and in the aftermath of this great loss. I’ve already found it in the doctor offering last rites without knowing we were Jewish; in the fact that my final moments with my Poppa were spent with him forcing me to teach my Grammy how to use her air fryer; in his 33-year-old pet parrot perfectly imitating his voice whenever I stay at my grandparents’ house; and in returning items he ordered to his Amazon account days before he passed and selecting “item arrived too late” for the return slip (he would have found that one hilarious).

I keep my Poppa’s memory as a blessing through the sense of humor that he shaped and spent years helping me refine. I have enormous shoes to fill, but I can honor his life in the way that he lived his — with humor first.

Isabel Wynne

Isabel Wynne is a Los Angeles based actor, writer, and bagel enthusiast. A graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Isabel is a huge fan of both her dog and Nora Ephron films, and she is a Sagittarius middle child (which should tell you everything you need to know).

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