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Joan Rivers’ gift: Wicked humor with a Jewish touch

By Cathy Lynn Grossman, Religion News Service

Published: Thursday, Sept. 4 2014 5:30 p.m. MDT

Updated: Friday, Sept. 5 2014 10:08 a.m. MDT

In this May 14, 2014 file photo, TV personality Joan Rivers attends A Celebration of Barbara Walters in New York. Melissa Rivers announced Thursday, Sept. 4, that her mother Joan died Thursday, in New York. Rivers was hospitalized Aug. 28, after going into cardiac arrest at a doctor's office.

Charles Sykes, Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

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Joan Rivers, 81, the acid-tongued survivor of popular comedy and entertainment, died Thursday. Who could possibly find it funny?

Joan would have.

Humor, she said, was how she dealt with all life’s triumphs and defeats.

She once said, “I knew I was funny and I knew it was powerful” as early as 8 years old.

Born Joan Alexandra Molinsky in Brooklyn, the daughter of Russian immigrant Jews, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Barnard. (“My mother wanted M.D. to stand for Make Dollars.”)

But she couldn’t get a door opened to the stage until she started making the gatekeepers — the agents’ secretaries — laugh.

She worked her way up through New York comedy clubs, over into TV and finally, after seven auditions, onto a stand-up stint on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” By 1983, she was Carson’s regular guest host until a bitter feud over her competing TV endeavors brought their friendship to an end.

Rivers’ first marriage ended in divorce; her second ended in tragedy when her husband killed himself. Even so, she said, “I enjoy life when things are happening. I don’t care if it’s good things or bad things. That means you’re alive.”

She moved on to a series of shows, including the 1990-Emmy-winning “Joan Rivers Show” and ultimately her stint as the sheriff of “Fashion Police.” On that show, and in her @Joan_Rivers Twitter feed, she was merciless about celebrities’ style and foibles. Her favorite compliment: “You say what I think.”

She was slinging smart lines at Beyonce, Solange and Jay Z on Aug. 27.

“A man reportedly got his finger bitten off at a Beyoncé concert! The shocking twist: It wasn’t Jay Z’s finger and it wasn’t by Solange.”

That was just days before a heart attack during an outpatient medical procedure left her silent. Her final days were spent in a coma in Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan.

She always wanted to be a good-looking corpse, she said, in one of her frequent digs at her own plastic-surgery-enhanced self, she tweeted:

“I am definitely going to watch The Emmys this year! My makeup team is nominated for ‘Best Special Effects.’”

But she had a giving nature. Her philanthropies included Jewish causes, AIDS charities and foundations that benefited animals.

She made Jewish culture a touchstone of humor with quips such as:

“I’m Jewish. I don’t work out. If God had wanted us to bend over, He would have put diamonds on the floor.”

Rivers would say, “Comedy is truth. … You’re going to get what I think is the truth and it’s going to be raw.”

How raw? Last year she was called out for making a Holocaust joke at the expense of German supermodel Heidi Klum.

Admiring Klum’s Oscar gown, Rivers said, “The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens.”

Later, she told CNN: “It’s a joke. … That’s the way I remind people about the Holocaust. I do it through humor. … My husband lost his entire family in the Holocaust, so let’s just start with that. Your generation doesn’t even know what I’m talking about.”

Go after the real anti-Semites, she said. She was equally fierce in support of Israel.

In one of her last interviews with Israel’s Channel 10 two months ago, she tore into young celebrities who were supporting Hamas in the Israel-Gaza conflict.

“These girls should shut up, put on pretty clothes and get themselves off of drugs and leave me alone. … No matter what Israel does — and we are so right and so honorable — you want to shake people and say, ‘Have you lost your minds?!’”

As accolades poured in from her “Fashion Police” co-hosts and leading lights of comedy and entertainment, Rivers still seems to have had the last word. A quote that outlives her: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is God’s gift, that’s why we call it the present.”

You may also be interested in these stories:

5 facts about Lauren Bacalls Jewish life

8 lessons Robin Williams taught us

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