As these middle-aged men gather to mourn their childhood friend, they begin to take stock—and make shtick—of their failed relationships, missed opportunities, questionable careers, and the underlying sense of dread that pervades their existence. Norbert takes the opportunity to make two important decisions: he will become a rabbi to save other Jewish souls, and he will start the Happy Hearse Funeral Parlor.
Despite growing up in the seemingly carefree America of the 1950s, Norbert and his friends still find themselves living in the long shadow of the Holocaust. Fearful children of nervous Jewish mothers, they were instructed to be wary of everyone and everything; to lock the doors, wear earmuffs and marry Jewish girls. Who knew, at age twelve, that there could be a direct link between little Mary-Anne Hamilton and Hitler? But there was. The innocent Sunday school cross around her neck may as well have been a swastika, to anyone who had survived the war, as my mother did. I saw a cute girl in pigtails; my mother saw Hitler Youth, saw ovens and smoke and her deadgrandmother.
A chance meeting with the eccentric Reb Miltie helps Norbert clarify his spiritual life. He begins to find salvation through humor, the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, and the camaraderie of lifelong friends as they passionately pursue meaning, marriage and the healing properties of brisket, men baffled by the affairs of the adult world, and the healing power of laughter and friendship.