What Does “The Roof Is On Fire And He’s (She’s) Thinking About A Canoe" Mean?
Der dakh brent un er (zi) hot in zinen di multer.
There’s no mistaking the aim of this allegation: call out a fool who, like the gentleman (or lady) starring in this saying, doesn’t have their head in the game, so to speak. This expression’s meaning is undeniably clear thanks to a device of which we Jews are famously fond: exaggeration. After all, why say anything if you’re not going to beat someone over the head with it? Subtlety is overrated … and that’s an understatement!
We Jews artfully employ the most absurd embellishments to ensure:
- We’re not wasting our breath.
- A whole lot is said with very few words.
Still, a proclivity for such overstatements may seem superfluous—and my assertion about my culture’s inclination toward inflation unfounded—coming from a people who never appear to be at a loss for words; who in some peoples’ opinions carry a reputation for delivering quantity over quality where communication is concerned. But the truth is—with the possible exception of one’s proverbial Uncle Sal and the odd nudnik who ruins it for the rest of us—I assure you that we Jews, armed with our ability to amplify our oratory, are more than capable of keeping our comments concise.
Case in point, this unimaginable utterance:
The roof is on fire and she’s thinking about a canoe.
With less than a dozen words, a preposterous picture is painted and a piquant point is proclaimed; no elaboration needed! (Anyone still confused may need to get their head back in the game themselves.) But as silly as this scenario may seem, it would be a mistake to dismiss this expression (or any of our other overstatements) as arbitrary absurdity. Great significance lies within its seemingly-haphazard hyperbole. The roof is on fire and she’s thinking about … a canoe?! I assure you such a circumstance is not just universally untoward, the very thought of it is especially asinine when the subject is a Jew. Why? Well, 2 reasons. ...
Reason 1: “Don’t worry, be happy”? Worry makes us happy!
Our Jewish aptitude for aggrandizing may very well fuel the following fundamental forte: worry. We Jews are notorious neurotics, accomplished agonizers, famed fretters, well-worn wizards of worst-case-scenarios … OK, you get the point. Well, with such a renowned reputation for nerve-racking rumination, how truly inconceivable is the scenario employed by this expression? A Jew so rapt by reverie that he or she would turn a blind eye to their blazing abode?! Please! It’s far more likely that we’d find ourselves in a canoe coasting on the calmest of waters through scenic surroundings, worrying about (among other things) our house being on fire. (And that’s saying a lot! A Jew in canoe?! Hah! But more on that later. ...) Enjoy this glimpse inside this hypothetical Jew’s thoughts on such a truly hypothetical expedition:
“Did I triple-check the stove or just double-check? What about the toaster? Did I unplug it? I remember unplugging something but that may have been the coffee maker—wait! Did I have coffee this morning? … No, I don’t think I did! Great. Now I’m going to have a headache this afternoon—I do feel a slight pressure starting behind my eyes (mind you, the sun’s glare off this lake isn’t helping things). Wait, isn’t eye pressure an early warning sign of stroke? Where’s my phone? ... I need to google this. … Oh, but what if the phone gets wet? I have nothing to dry it on! If only I thought to bring an extra towel or napkins or a couple sheets of … oh no! I left the paper towel roll on the counter … what if Mittens jumps up, knocks it over, and it rolls near the toaster—or, worse, the stove!? That’s it! I’ve got to get out of this canoe! Wait—shhh!—are those sirens in the distance!?! … ”
Or maybe that would just be my inner dialogue? Regardless, we seasoned skeptics spend our lives constantly anticipating utter disaster (realistic or ridiculous), so we’re perpetually primed to spot even the slightest stirrings (real or irrational) of impending peril. So consequently the thought of us remaining ignorant of an outright inferno is as far-fetched as a French farmer forgoing le fromage in favor of a frankfurter with a side of flan! (Or maybe yours truly constructing a sentence without the use of alliteration. [Hey, look! I did it!])
And so it follows logically that our tendency toward anxiety-fueled prudent practices renders the potentiality of a roof fire perfectly preposterous; and any momentary distraction therefore irrelevant. Don’t you think we’d prepare for such a possibility? (And by “prepare” I of course mean “over-prepare.”) If the high-pitched harmony of the smoke detectors (and back-up smoke detectors) fails to tease us from our trance, surely the elaborate sprinkler system we insisted on installing (despite the Fire Marshal’s urging that such precautions were overkill would hamper Hades’ handiwork long enough for the firefighters to arrive—especially considering the fact that we made a point to purchase a property that abutted the fire station.
Reason: A brief intermission from reasons
Now before we move on, I would be remiss if I did not address the (very- and fittingly-rotund) elephant in the room: there is only one thing in this scenario that could possibly offset our observational skills—our Achilles heel, our Kryptonite, if you will—and that is food. Yes, if the author of this proverb had opted for a knish rather than a canoe, we’d be having a very different conversation. I mean, whose mind wouldn’t wander to the thought of a savory s’more at the first whiff of burning wood? That classic, comforting combination of chocolate, marshmallow, and graham cracker melding together over a campfire; the hurried act of attacking the sweet sandwich before its gooey contents completely escape the confines of the crunchy crackers. … Oh! And have you tried swapping regular marshmallows for sugar-coated Peeps? You must—what? Oh, I’m sorry. Where was I? Oh yes. ... my point is, this proverb did choose a canoe, and unless that canoe is constructed of kugel and covered in chocolate, the author made a wise and intentional choice to help prove the proverb’s point. Which brings me to my second reason. …
Reason 2: Sometimes a canoe is just a canoe. This isn’t one of those times!
Why the canoe? The answer to this question is critical because it proves that the details of this expression were actually very carefully thought out and chosen for a purpose. There’s a reason the author didn’t use a bagel, or a book, or even Bergdorf’s Bargain Basement to serve as distraction, and that reasoning is:
- Any other option might make the scenario plausible, thereby eroding its efficacy.
- One cannot pass up the opportunity to push the exaggeration envelope to make extra certain the proverb’s point won’t possibly be missed. (Perhaps our tendency to double-check appliances is somehow related to our doubling up on absurdity when trying to make a point. You know, just in case. One can never be too careful!)
Based on this straight forward logic, the canoe is the consummate choice and its effectiveness can be attributed to two factors; one universal, the other Semitic-specific:
Universal Factor: Oil and water? No, fire and water!
First of all, if your roof actually was on fire, ask yourself what some productive and relevant thoughts might be. Perhaps one or more of the following:
- “Call 911.”
- “Find the fire extinguishers.”
- “I need large and powerful hoses through which copious amounts of water could be delivered upon my smoldering ceiling.”
- “How soon until the handsome goys in dashing uniform come running (in slow motion) to my rescue?” (OK, so this last one, while not entirely helpful, is unquestionably relevant.)
If any or all of those would come to your mind, Mazel Tov! You’re neither insane nor a fool. Now, ask yourself what perilous problem, if not a roof fire, is likely to logically inspire thoughts of a canoe? Exactly! A flood! (OK, not if you’re Noah facing the task of saving all of G-d’s creatures, but a canoe would totally work for one’s everyday flood needs.)
And wouldn’t you agree that, in the disaster department, no two tragedies are more diametrically opposed than a fire and a flood? So when faced with the former, thoughts of a canoe would arguably be the most absurd anyone could have.
See? Brilliant choice! But if this first reason isn’t enough to convince you of the canoe’s credentials, there’s my second, more targeted theory.
Semitic-Specific Factor: It wasn’t Lewisberg and Clarkstein …
I propose the “Canoe Premise” proves powerfully potent because, for most of us Jews, any time (roof fire or not) spent pondering a pirogue (or any other paraphernalia of proportionate perversion) strikes us as particularly pointless. Let me explain. …
This expression plays off yet another widely-known Jewish stereotype: our aversion to outdoor activities of all kinds. Now, in the spirit of total accuracy, I must point out that while not the most renowned wildlife warriors around, we do enjoy a stroll beneath a branchy canopy as much as the next person! That being said (for the record), there does remain one activity in particular that ruins the bell curve and, by extension, our lackluster reputation for rustic relish: camping. For Jews, there’s a huge difference between “outdoors activities” and camping.
Fun Fact! A great respect and admiration for, and even enjoyment of nature is at the very heart of Judaism. Fartootst? Take the case of my own father. He was quite closely connected to the natural world and spent every possible moment he could outside. For example:
- His weekends (and some weeknights) were filled with skiing and hockey throughout the winter; and tennis, rollerblading, biking, and more as soon as the mercury broke freezing.
- As soon as the snow would melt enough for him to free the patio furniture from its icy anchor, Daddy was outside enjoying both breakfast and dinner in the fresh air. (The rest of us, not unlike spectators at a zoo with him the fascinatingly-alien specimen, observed this behavior from the safety and warmth of the indoors, often through still-frosty windows.)
- Even aside from eating, his downtime was spent outside: with an extension cord running through the cracked-open backdoor (allowing flies unfettered access to our abode) across the entire length of the deck (presenting an ever-present hazard to life and limb) to power his boombox, Daddy spent afternoons reading dozens of newspapers in his weathered hammock (very relaxing notwithstanding the odd rogue page needing to be chased across the lawn).
- Every evening after dinner, rain or shine, with greater reliability than the Post Office, my father would drag my thin-blooded mother out for their evening walk up Mont Royal.
But! As much time as he spent outdoors, come sundown it was back inside to civilization. There was no way in hell he’d have voluntarily popped a squat in the woods or spent a night in a tent. Many Jews draw the same distinct line in the lumpy, unforgiving earth. It’s no coincidence that Sukkot is among our least … über popular holidays, and, even when it is celebrated, the ritual for the most part only involves eating in the sukkat—and, keep in mind, even then the sukkat is erected in one’s own backyard, conveniently close to all the creature comforts—few actually sleep in it. Hey, like many of us tend to reason: 40 years in the desert is enough, thank you.
Yes, every stereotype has its exceptions (although I’m willing to bet your Jewish friend who “loves to hike” always sticks to day trips), but this expression succeeds at being incredibly inclusive … for its time. (Keep in mind it was coined long before the invention of Nascar and power tools, and the rise of the puzzlingly-popular practice of camping—trying to pick just one perfect example from a current, comprehensive list of antithetical Jewish lifestyle practices would not be so simple!)
Wait! you may be saying. Canoes and camping aren’t exactly synonymous! Yes, I’m quite aware, but don’t think for a moment I’m relying on such an ambivalent association to keep my argument afloat. (Ha ha!) You’ll notice from the above, otherwise extensive list of my father’s outdoor activities that all water sports are conspicuously absent. The reason is, like many Jews, my father preferred to keep both feet planted firmly on dry land. (It may come as news to you that the same, seemingly-inherited preference in addition to proneness to motion sickness keeps yours truly ashore as well.) You can’t really blame us considering:
- We come from an area of the world where water is extremely scarce.
- The Bible is proof that water was almost exclusively associated with death and danger.
How then could we possibly know from boating?! As a perfect example of what I mean, let’s examine Moses’ parting of the Red Sea. Don’t you think it would’ve been a heck of a lot easier to conjure a cavalcade of kayaks and just coast across the current? Sure, Moses may have had a flare for the dramatic, but I’d put my money on the fact that our dear prophet (whose own traumatic childhood incident afloat Adam’s ale surely shouldn’t require mentioning) chose to take the dry road because he knew that as much as we as a people like to avoid extra exertion, when given the choice we would much rather walk. And even when we are left no other option but to take to the tide, our last choice of vessel would be a rickety canoe! Pretty much the only circumstance in which we feel comfortable setting sail is aboard a cruise ship (the bigger the better). This doesn’t say much for our nautical knack since an ocean liner is basically a floating city equipped with every conceivable amenity, whose goal is to have its passengers forget that they’re on a boat. (I don’t think I need to point out the notorious 24-hour buffets. Could offers of free food bribe us to brave the briny boundlessness in a canoe? That would have to be one hell of a spread!)
In conclusion: a proverb as perfect as the Golden Ratio
With all that said, I hope I’ve not only successfully sold you on the conscientious creation of this expression, but also, true to form, went completely overboard with my overstatements. Just to be safe.
Let us once again take a moment to marvel at what a truly intricate insult is this remark: “The roof is on fire and he’s thinking about a canoe.” In this one pithy phrase, not only is its subject called out for being divergently and dangerously distracted, he’s censured even further with the implication that he’s so dim-witted and/or impractical that he’s become completely preoccupied by the most trivial of minutiae. It doesn’t get much better than that!
Stan is having brunch with his son, Joel. Joel’s wife, Marcia, is expecting their first child and her due date is fast approaching. …
Joel: “Dad, I swear, this pregnancy thing is weird! Marcia woke me up in the middle of the night last week so I could move a bureau!“
Stan: “No, no, no! What’s weird, my son, is pregnant women! As you know, your mother’s completely meshugga, but when she was pregnant with you, she really went off the deep end! Putting ketchup on everything and telling me I had to buy all new socks! The worst was when she went into labor. I was running around, tripping over everything like a shikker, and after I finally get the car all packed, I go back into the house to get her and do know where I find her? She’s in the bathroom clipping her toenails, huffing and puffing and everything! The roof is on fire and she’s thinking about a canoe! What did I tell you? Meshugga.”
Joel: “At least she didn’t make you stop for Jujyfruits on the way to the hospital!“
Stan: “Huh? Vos retstu eppis!? Who’s crazy now?“
Joel: [smiles to himself] “Forget it, Dad.“
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