One of Sam Gordon’s favorite one-liners was, “The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.” Well-loved by his Bexley community and well-known at the Jewish Community Center, the local jokester used humor to brighten people’s spirits, ease difficult times, and bring cheer to his friends and family’s lives.
“He had a great heart and was very empathetic. It gave him a lot of joy to give joy to other people, and he did a lot of that through humor. When he passed away, at the shiva and through letters and contributions, it was amazing how many people said, ‘Your father touched my life in so many ways,’” remembered his daughter, Lisa Schwager.
So, to pay homage to the man who shared his shtick with just about everyone he encountered, the JCC will host Old Columbus Jews Telling Jokes, a karaoke-style joke-fest where anyone with a joke to share is invited up to the microphone.
At 8 pm this January 18, the Columbus Jewish community is welcomed to the College Avenue location to remember their dear friend, “Smiling Sam,” who passed away in March 2013. The one-night only open mic event honors Gordon but was inspired by the nationwide phenomenon and off-Broadway hit, Old Jews Telling Jokes.
Gordon’s daughter, Jody Scheiman, explained how Old Columbus Jews Telling Jokes is just the kind of event her dad would have wanted to be a part of. Once, when she told her late father about the off-Broadway show, he said, “Oh, I have the Old Jews Telling Jokes CD. I listen to it all the time. I know all those jokes.” Scheiman recalled, “That was his era.”
Fred Luper, who is organizing the January 18 event with the JCC, first had the idea to use Old Columbus Jews Telling Jokes as a way to honor Gordon’s memory. When Luper reached out to the Gordon family, Scheiman added, “We thought, ‘Wow, my dad would love this!’ This is something dad would have been involved in. He would tell all of his jokes at this.”
Gordon grew up with humor, as one of 10 children. “He would use humor to break the ice,” Scheiman explained. “There were a lot of Don Rickles and Henny Youngman kind of jokes. For instance, he’d go to restaurants and order ‘snoo.’ The waitress would ask, ‘What’s snoo?’ Then he’d say, ‘Not much, what’s snoo with you?’ We’d go to leave the restaurant and it would take another half hour because he’d have to walk by every table. He knew the wait staff wherever we went. Everyone adored him and his antics.”
Gordon came from a family of jokesters, where humor was just as much a Jewish value as observing Shabbat or helping one’s neighbors. Gordon’s father passed away when he was 11, and his mother died when he was 18. It was humor, his daughters explained, that helped the family through the dark times. “Humor got him through a lot of that. He used humor to get people laughing and bring people together. He loved people and did things because it was the right thing,” said Schwager.
Old Columbus Jews Telling Jokes will also bring out the comedic talents of Marcie Golden, who will MC the event while telling a few of her own jokes in between introductions. Just like for Sam Gordon, humor for Golden is a tool to get through uncomfortable situations. “Humor and compassion go together. I use humor when I’m dying inside, when I’m devastated. That’s where humor comes from. …Jewish humor…in the darkest times, it’s survival,” said Golden.
Marcie Golden’s father, Dick Golden, was a fellow jokester and good friend of “Smiling Sam” Gordon. He shared his memories: “If a perfect stranger met Sam Gordon at the Bexley Panera, that person would have to accept Sam’s warm hand shake and sit down with him. ‘Smiling Sam’ would then reach into his pocket, pull out a wrinkled paper written in Chinese, and if folded properly, the Chinese words would appear in English as a ‘dusty’ Yiddish word. I still see him sitting in the Bexley Panera restaurant waiting for some old timer to sit down with him and engage in a kibbitz. We miss him and his wit and old, Jewish jokes!”
Old Columbus Jews Telling Jokes event organizer Fred Luper also remembers “Smiling Sam” fondly. “He was always a joke-teller. He was always handing out stuff. I have a business card from him that says, ‘If I’ve said anything that hurt your feelings, then BELIEVE ME.’ But he was a very loving person. He would call on my aunt who was house-bound. He was a friend of her husband’s, and when her husband died, he kept going over and visiting her, and she was very grateful for that.”
“It was all about doing the right thing. Dad was an incredible man of integrity. And he instilled the importance of honesty in us,” Schwager said of her father. And as a man of integrity and strong Jewish values, who attended Shabbat services every Friday night at Temple Israel for nearly 75 years, Schwager added, he was invited to be the catcher for the African-American semi-pro fast pitch softball league.
“This was shortly after he returned from serving in the Navy during World War II. The league was called the All-Negro Fast Pitch League at the time, and he played for the 740 A-Cs. He was the only white man in the whole league. His team members just brought him into the fold and adored him, and it was a great experience. He didn’t care if you were black, white, rich or poor, it was the kind of person you were that he cared about,” Schwager explained.
Gordon’s daughters believe that it was his strong faith as well as his sense of humor that made him who he was. “Judaism was very important to my dad. Even though he did a lot in the general community, he was a Jew first,” said Schwager.
As such, Gordon has strong ties to the Jewish community, going back to the Jewish Center’s earliest days, when he would play for the Sunday morning softball league, even before the Center on College Avenue had been built. An athlete who excelled at virtually every sport, Gordon was one of the first inductees into the JCC’s Sports Hall of Fame (in 1982) and worked on the Sports Spectacular committee well into his later years.
“We grew up here at the JCC. We went to preschool here, day camp, and we used to bowl here. My uncle and aunt, Dr. E.J. and Reva Gordon, were like his second parents. Dr. Gordon was chair of the Center’s Board back in the ‘30s and ‘40s. For them, it was a social outlet. When dad was inducted into the Sports Hall of Fame, he had a whole shtick for the speech he gave. He would say stuff like, ‘I’m here to address you, not undress you. I’m here for your welfare, not your car fare.’”
At the January 18 event, Lisa Schwager plans to take the stage, as well, to honor her father. “There’s nothing they could do better as a tribute to dad. This is like the pinnacle. He’d be so thrilled. It will be very emotional for us and bring back a lot of memories. I just want to share with everyone what an incredible man he was,” said Schwager.
Friends of Sam Gordon’s, guests looking for a night of entertainment, local comedians, and everyone in between is invited to the Jewish Community Center, where, on January 18 beginning at 8 pm, a cash bar and refreshments will be served in celebration of the life of Sam Gordon. Tickets are $30 each and $25 for groups of ten or more. For tickets or more information, call 614-231-2731 or visit www.jccgalleryplayers.org.