Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & The New Land
[[[Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & The New Land]]]
edited by Harvey Pekar & Paul Buhle with Hershl Hartman
Abrams Comicarts, 240 pages
It always seemed to me like mine was the last secular “Jewish generation” in America. Born in the mid-1950s, in the depths of Brooklyn in a neighborhood adjacent to the heavily Orthodox neighborhood of Crown Heights, surrounded on all sides by three generations of family, including grandparents and great-grandparents born in the old country, the entire world seemed Jewish. Even when my family moved (briefly) to West Virginia (population 5,000, only seven of which were Jews), then back to Brooklyn, to Canarsie and East Flatbush, the feeling of Jewishness never went away. The neighborhoods were now a mix of Irish, Italian, and Jewish, even a sprinkling of Afro-Americans, but when the family gathered, Yiddish was still spoken among the adults when the topic wasn’t fit for kinder, children. As a result, der kinder learned to understand, if not speak, just enough of the mamaloshen (the mother tongue) to get the gist of what we weren’t supposed to hear.
Popular entertainment was Jewish, too. The producers and writers behind many of the sitcoms were Jews and even if the characters weren’t Jewish (with the exception of The Goldbergs), the comedic sensibilities sure were. Ditto for the variety shows, where in addition to everything else, many of the hosts were Jewish as well. Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis (although not Dean Martin), Sid Caesar. Allan Sherman sold millions of comedy albums in the early-1960s with song parodies that were flavored by schmaltz (chicken fat). Today, when he’s remembered, he’s remembered for his (mostly) WASPy “Hello Mudder, Hello Faddah.” Song-writing in the mid-20th century was so Jewish that according to ASCAP’s list of the top twenty-five most popular Christmas songs, twelve were written by Jews.
Even the Italians were Jewish in Hollywood. In The Detective, a 1968 mystery starring Frank Sinatra, Jack Klugman co-stars as one of Frank’s police colleagues who has a brief exchange with his wife in the sing-song cadence of Yiddish about whether or not he wants her to make him a “nice glass tea.” My great-grandmother drank hot tea out of a glass (never a mug), sweetening it with a cube of sugar between her teeth as she sipped.
Jewishness, if not Judaism, was everywhere. Hollywood is still a Jewish town, but the entertainment it now produces is far less so. Even the language of the Jews, Yiddish, has become somewhat catholic in appeal; every schmuck on the street thinks he’s a big macher because he knows a bissel Yiddish. And as the Jews have long known, there’s really nothing like Yiddish to make a point. As Neal Gabler (author of the excellent An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood) says in his introduction to Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & The New Land, “Yiddish is the most onomatopoeic language ever created. Everything sounds exactly the way it should: macher for a self-appointed big shot, shlmiel for the fellow who spills the soup and shlmazel for the hapless one (as in “poor shmuck”), shnorrer for a freeloader, nudnick for a pest. The expressiveness is bound into the language, and so is a kind of ruthless honesty….Yiddish has dozens of words for imbecile, a tribute to Jewish lucklessness…. There is no decorousness in Yiddish, nor much romance. It is raw, egalitarian, vernacular.”
Yiddish is an “amalgamated language, borrowing freely from German and Polish and Hebrew with its own unique constructions and confabulations,” and the people who speak it are the Yiddishkeit, or the Yiddish culture…although as Gabler points out, what the word encompasses is “so large, expansive, and woolly a concept that culture may be too narrow to do it full justice. ‘Jewish sensibility’ comes closer,” but, in the end, “You can’t define Yiddishkeit neatly in words and pictures. You sort of have to feel it by wading into it.”
Editors and writers Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle, along with an impressive roster of accompanying artists and writers, wade into this hard to define Jewish gestalt through an exploration of Yiddish literature, theater, and popular culture. Yiddish (the language is derived from German but written using the much older Hebrew alphabet), evolved centuries ago among the Jews of Eastern Europe, a constantly evolving language that picked up words from whatever countries the Jews found themselves. The earliest written evidence of Yiddish dates back to a prayer book from 1272; the earliest known piece of Yiddish literature, from 1382, was found in Egypt.
The golden age of Yiddish literature was, according to Yiddishkeit, from the 1860s to the Holocaust, when “Yiddish newspapers, along with Yiddish novels, plays, and poetry, had a global readership; Yiddish books and periodicals flourished from Kiev to Buenos Aires to Los Angeles (as well as the most important cultural center, New York City).” The output and scope of these authors was astonishing, largely secular, mostly men (with rare exceptions in such women authors and poets as Esther Singer Kreitman, Chava Rosenfarb, and Kadya Molodowsky) who wrote not just about Jews and the Jewish way of life, but the Jewish way of thinking as well, a sort of optimistic fatalism that accepts that while this is the way things are, things will get better…and, if not, well, this is the way things are! Mel Brooks, as always, best summed it up in the lyrics from the title song of his film, The Twelve Chairs: “Hope for the best, expect the worst.”
If contemporary readers remember Yiddish writers at all, it is likely to be one of the trio of 20th century Yiddishkeit to cross over to a non-Jewish audiences; Sholem Aleichem (his story of Tevye the Dairyman was the inspiration for the Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof), Sholem Asch (who wrote about tough Jews who fought back against their oppressors), and Isaac Bashevis Singer (from which came Barbra Steisand’s inspiration for Yentl, and about whom Pekar writes, “There are worse Jewish writers, but perhaps none so overrated. The fact he won the Nobel Prize shows how little it’s worth.”).
Yiddishkeit is an introduction to dozens of lost or forgotten Yiddish authors, and a compelling overview of just how influential the Jews and their particular way of seeing life were in shaping American pop culture (from MAD Magazine to Woody Allen). Once believed to be a dying language, Yiddish has of late been experiencing a revival, especially among secular Jews looking to recapture their lost Yiddishkeit, while modern Jewish authors ranging from Philip Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint) to Michael Chabon (The Yiddish Policeman’s Union) write about the new, American Yiddishkeit, albeit in English.
Pekar, best known for his American Splendor autobiographical graphic novels, was also a critic of literature and music, brings that same sense of conversational ease to his scripts for Yiddishkeit, which are illustrated by the likes of Dan Archer, Peter Kuper, Gary Dumm, Sharon Rudahl, Barry Deutsch, Spain Rodriquez, and others. Co-written with Paul Buhle, Hershl Hartman, and others, Yiddishkeit was Harvey’s last project before his death earlier this year, reminding readers once again why we will miss his unique voice, one shaped by his own experiences as a Jew tapping into the Yiddishkeit.
Paul Kupperberg is the author of Jew-Jitsu: The Hebrew Hands of Fury (Citadel Press), which has been credited with setting back the revival of Yiddish by at least eighteen years. Visit Paul at Kupperberg.blogspot.com.