[[[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.” (more…)