Mishna commentator meets Prince Albert’s fate
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Mishna commentator meets Prince Albert’s fate

For a few days in the Ford administration, David, my next door neighbor, convinced me that making prank phone calls was the height of humor. I’m not sure whether I ever made a call myself, but I do wonder how much of my fear of making unsolicited phone calls might stem from that experience.

In any event, I, or David, would dial a number at random and ask: “Is your refrigerator running?” And when the person on the other end would answer yes, we’d reply — or try to reply above our giggles — “Then bring it back.”

We had another question. We’d ask, “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?” Usually the answer would be an immediate hang-up instead of the answer we wanted. We hoped for a “yes,” so we’d have a chance to say “Then let him out!”

They say that if you have to explain a joke it’s not very funny, and possibly I would have enjoyed those pranks more if I actually did understand the joke. But I didn’t, and I doubt that 11-year-old David did either. Only much later did I discover that the prank call referred to Prince Albert brand tobacco — named after King Edward VII, Queen Victoria’s son, who was called Prince Albert before he took the throne. When the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company introduced the brand in 1907, the monarch was seven years into his 10-year reign. Prince Albert tobacco was sold in a can. Hence the prank phone call, dating back to at least the 1930s and quite possibly earlier.

It is a testament to the enduring power of childhood traditions that the joke had passed from child to child for decades, until its meaning was long forgotten. Who smoked pipes? Well, my grandfather did, but I never asked about his tobacco brand and never made the Prince Albert connection.

I’m thinking about this now because, thanks to Royal Wine, a new, more rabbinic variation on the joke is possible: “Do you have Bartenura in a can?”

Yes, Bartenura Moscato, the kosher wine that shares a name with Rabbi Obadiah Bartenura, now comes in cans. (Rabbi Bartenura was a rabbi in 15th century Italy who moved to Jerusalem to lead the Jewish community there. He wrote a widely published commentary on the Mishna).

Not that you need to be pranking to ask your liquor store if they have Bartenura in a can.

As Gabriel Geller of Royal Wines reminds us, the popular Bartenura “is the perfect summer drink — delightfully refreshing, sweet but not too sweet, slightly effervescent and with a lower alcohol content then typical wine.”

Actually, it’s probably the wine I would have most tolerated at the Shabbat table back in my elementary school days. That said, Bartenura Moscato, like Prince Albert Tobacco, should be consumed only by adults 21 or older.

Rabbi Bartenura’s Mishna commentary, however, is perfect for all ages.

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