A wry autobiography traces the tragicomic odyssey of a Polish-American Jew whose search for identity equally embraced both self-reliance and absurd humor.
If Rais’ autobiography were adapted for film, Woody Allen would be perfect for the starring role. Like the filmmaker, Rais transforms actual life experiences into poignant comic vignettes that touch on everyday absurdities. Unlike Allen, Rais was born in 1940s Poland, where his family was forced to flee their Eastern Polish homeland for Russia just in advance of Nazi troops. After experiencing political persecution, his family fled Russia, ending up in a DP (displaced persons) camp in Germany. Rais describes the six years he and his family endured the many privations of the DP camp. However, it was in this place where his bountiful ingenuity and sense of offbeat humor began to thrive. After finally being able to immigrate to America, Rais again used his humor to help him adjust to the savage inequities facing a Jewish youth in the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of blue-collar New York City. Peppering this Jewish Horatio Alger story of a self-educated, strong-willed, high-tech engineer who transitioned to careers in construction entrepreneurship and teaching are clusters of hilarious tales focusing on Rais’ obsessions. He’s constantly delighted and mystified by the sexual wiles of women and consistently skeptical about the reality of a “just God,” and he affirms the healing power of laughter in the face of stress and loss at every eventful turn in his life. His obsessions never become tiresome to read, however, as Rais writes in a folksy, conversational style bordering on inspired comedic improvisation. The author’s odyssey dramatizes his sense of Jewish identity through Jewish culture and ethnic heritage, rather than through any spiritual devotion to Judaism as a religious practice.
Anyone charmed by the humor of Woody Allen or Mel Brooks will be entertained and heartened by Rais’ autobiography.