San Francisco Chronicle

Shirley Feeney was no schlemiel

- Kevin Fisher-Paulson’s column appears Wednesdays in Datebook. Email: kevinfishe­rpaulson@

Cynthia Jane Williams passed away on Jan. 25. The name won’t have much meaning for the young ’uns, but we Boomers watched a lot of TV’s “Laverne & Shirley.”

There’s a San Francisco connection: “Happy Days” was a spin-off of “Love, American Style.” In turn, “Laverne & Shirley” was a spin-off of “Happy Days.” “Mork & Mindy” was also a spinoff of “Happy Days,” thus introducin­g America to California­n Robin Williams, who eventually filmed “Mrs. Doubtfire” here. All roads lead to San Francisco.

Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams met on a double date, and later worked as comedy writers at Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope studios (another Bay area connection). Penny’s brother, Garry, the “Happy Days” producer, asked the two if they could appear in an episode as Laverne DeFazio and Shirley Feeney, dates for lead characters Richie Cunningham and “the Fonz.” They were two working-class girls who capped bottles at the Shotz Beer factory, the kind of girls who “dated the fleet.”

The audience loved them. They got their own show, and that played for seven seasons, No. 1 in the ratings in its third season. By then I was in college, and my baccalaure­ate studies hampered my television watching.

Back then, most sitcoms had theme songs. I cannot remember the password to get into my phone, but I know for

It never occurred to me to ask why two gentile girls living in Milwaukee sang a Yiddish hopscotch rhyme.

certain that Laverne and Shirley began with the two women singing, “Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeff­er Incorporat­ed. We’re gonna do it!”

Laverne was Italian, with a father who owned a pizza parlor. Feeney is an Irish name (although Cindy herself was of Italian descent). It never occurred to me to ask why two gentile girls living in Milwaukee sang a Yiddish hopscotch rhyme.

Having grown up in South Ozone Park, however, I knew the Yiddish term schlemiel. Amanda insists that I am Jewish by injection, but it’s not just me. Anyone who grows up in Brooklyn/ Queens knows a bissel of Yiddish. A schlemiel isa bumbling person, a fool. A schlemiel is different from a schmuck in that a schmuck can go to school and improve himself. A schlemiel isa schlemiel for life.

But never in my journeys through Brighton Beach, Kensington, Borough Park or even Kew Gardens, and never in all of the dates with Jewish men that Amanda fixed me up with, did I ever hear the term schlimazel.

Didn’t know the meaning, but the jingle rattled through my brain for 40 years, and the mystery of the schlimazel remained unsolved.

If I have any complaint about the Outer, Outer, Outer, Outer Excelsior, it’s a lack of Yiddish. You take the 43 bus, and you’re going to hear Spanish, Tagalog, Russian and a whole lot of Cantonese. Every once in a while French or Arabic. But Yiddish? Bupkes.

My friend Crazy Mike whistles in the graveyard. Whenever someone famous dies, he texts me the name. This reminds us that though they may be dead, we still live. It’s a cheap form of therapy. January was a banner month: Gina Lollobrigi­da, David Crosby, Lisa Marie Presley. When he texted, “Cindy Williams,” I wrote back, “And now we’ll never know what a

schlimazel was.”

Crazy Mike, who grew up on Guam, where there are fewer than 200 Jewish people on the entire island, replied: “A

schlemiel is the guy who always spills his soup. A

schlimazel is the guy it lands on.”

It made sense. Laverne was the schlemiel. Shirley was the schlimazel .If Laverne played hooky from work, Shirley went with her and got arrested for solicitati­on. If Laverne borrowed a dress for a fancy party, Shirley got caught in a stolen ball gown.

It’s a metaphor for life. When you’re a father, you’re stuck as the schlimazel for whatever antics your sons can schlemiel up. Whether your son or your dog throws up on your couch, it’s still vomit on your lap. When you’re family, you gotta own what your family does.

In short, life means you will always be the Shirley to someone else’s Laverne.

Hasenpfeff­er (the “p” is silent … like the “p” in ocean bathing) by the way, is a German stew made with rabbit, braised onions and vinegar. Again, two Italian girls with an appetite for the exotic.

But here’s the other metaphor. The theme song continued, “And we’ll do it our way, yes our way, make all our dreams come true.”

It’s on us. It’s what my husband and I try to teach Zane and Aidan: Each of us needs to do it our way. Give us any chance we’ll take it.

Cindy, we hope all your dreams came true. Rest in peace.


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