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You Vant, Mebbe, 39 Vays to Say ‘Imbecile’?

I never heard such a book,” said the stout, 40-ish man in the black suit, black Kangol cap, and greying black beard, while passing my table in the Wrench Café and pointing.

To paraphrase the old Levy’s rye bread ad, you don’t have to be Jewish – an observant Jew, anyway – to enjoy Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land (Harvey Pekar & Paul Buhle, eds.  Abrams ComicArts), an anthology designed to acquaint the un- (or under-) informed with Yiddish culture. I would not have bought this book myself. If my father had given it to me during my adolescence or early adulthood in one of his efforts to increase my appreciation of my heritage, I would have coldly shelved it in favor of reading William Faulkner or Ernest Hemingway. But receiving it from two friends who, like myself, had surprisingly turned overnight into alte cockers, I popped it open. A paragraph or two in, a smile lifted my lips. A chuckle rose from my belly. I warmed.

Let me make clear from where I am coming. I suffered four years Hebrew school and know, maybe, four words of the language. (Only “boy,” “girl,” and “blessed” come to mind.) Memory of my bar mitzvah immediately evoke the modifiers “humiliating” and “hypocritical.” When my wife’s father died, she said, speaking for us both, “That snaps my last link to organized religion – his asking where we are having Passover and me saying ‘Nowhere.’”

While some of, if not all, my grandparents spoke fluent Yiddish, my parents and, I believe, my aunts and uncles knew only the odd phrase or word. I, my brother, and cousins know less. But I have never not thought of myself as Jewish. Even in my four-fifths gentile high school, where I most hoped to assimilate into a football-playing, beer-drinking, regular guy, I always knew I stood apart. I root for – though the number steadily diminishes – Jewish professional athletes. I have proudly outed Tony Curtis and Cyd Charisse, Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall. I have not read a book by any of the writers mentioned in Yiddishkeit, but when I can drop the occasional “bupkis” or “mishegas” into my own prose, I am pleased. I feel the ability to say “How ‘bouta schvitz” and not a “steam” links me to an earthier, more muscular time, plopping me down mentally on the hot tiles beside Lepke Buchalter, Longey Zwillman, or other exotics of their broken-knuckled milieu. (Such ruffians, I note, are absent from the editors’ view of Yiddish culture. So, come to think of it, are athletes.) Yiddish is among the matters I wish my parents were still here to discuss, since I now have the capacity and interest. It is one of many connections and formulating experiences never sufficiently explored.

Yiddish appeals because, as Neil Gabler explains in his introduction, it is “raw, egalitarian, vernacular,” even “subversive.” In sum, it represents “an outsider’s way of experiencing (the world).” The usage sets one aside, asserting – and calling attention to – one’s individuality. It is true that most of the words I know – “putz,” “schmuck,” “schlemiel,” “schnorer,” “shvartzer,” “schmeggegie” – assert with a connotation that could bring one a poke in the nose; but all those squeezed together, oddly combined consonants carry a comic, even affectionate tone too.

Humor and aggression. It is fitting that the first Yiddish expression one meets in Yiddishkeit is “Gey kek in yam” (“Go shit in the sea”).

ii.

Gabler makes the point that the inability to accurately describe or define “Yiddishkeit” necessitates the book’s “sprawling, kaleidoscopic, disjointed, eclectic, and just plain messy” nature. It is divided into four sections: “The Emergence of Yiddish Culture”; “Yiddish Theater & Film”; “Yiddish & American Popular Culture”; and “Yiddish Fadeout & Revival,” which make sense and suggest a measured, precise and logical controlling hand at work, such as might govern the coq au vin simmering inside a Michelin four-star French kitchen. But within each section, the mix is more that of an improvised, grab-a-fistful-of-what’s-at-hand Cajun roadhouse bouillabaisse. Ingredients include history lessons, biographies, film and song adaptations, and riffs on Klezmer music and summer camps. Of the more than two dozen contributors, the most prolific are Pekar, whose five stories occupy 53 of the book’s 240 pages, Buhle, who wrote three pieces (15 pages) and shared credit for a fourth (six pages), Joel Schecter and Spain Rodriguez, who teamed for 11 stories (13 pages), and Sharon Rudahl, who illustrated seven stories (30 pages), including two she wrote.

My favorite of them was the play “The Essence” by Allen Lewis Rickman. It told the story of Yiddish theater, from its origins in the 19th century to the present, via anecdotes, a lullaby, portions of a Yiddish New Testament, scenes from shtetl plays, as well as experimental Soviet drama, and, to illustrate Yiddish’s dramatic possibilities, over three dozen ways to say “imbecile.” Its content ranged from the eyebrow-raising instructive, to the hysterically funny, to the affectionately presented, utter “schund” (crap). And, I could not help noticing, the art was essentially irrelevant.

There were many artists whose work I enjoyed: Peter Kuper’s powerful, swirling expressionistic pages; Neil Kleid’s startling, black and blue compositions and connective faux “film strips.” Neil Thorkelson’s jokey, celebratory pictography; Barry Deutsch’s stripped-down, UPA-like approach; and Rudahl’s delicate, nuanced renderings. I enjoyed experiencing the ways this variety of approaches tickled and engaged. But the texts they accompanied too often seemed sketchy or unbalanced. Even with my limited knowledge of the subject, I was too frequently aware of omissions that concerned me. What else, I mused, was missing? And I was puzzled by how much attention some subjects received and how little others.

How, I wondered, could “Brother, Cay You Spare a Dime?” merit three pages, but Chaim Grade’s entire life only two?  How could the art of the barely known Marvin Friedman command five pages while Abraham Polonsky got six, Zero Mostel four, and Harvey Kurtzman two? How could you overlook Mostel’s performances in Rhinosceros; or, with Kurtzman’s links to Yiddish culture as tenuous as the narrative concedes, forget his elevating “furschlugginer” to public consciousness; and what purpose was served by omitting Polonsky’s semi-triumphant return to Hollywood with Tell Them Willie Boy is Here? Finally, what-in-Jehova’s name justified giving the adaptation of Edward Ulmer’s cliche-ridden, stereotype-populated screenplay “Green Fields” a dozen? Sure, it’s a historical curiosity, but its quality gives schund a bad name.

In only a few instances did I feel art and text worked well together. One was the Joe Zabel/Gary Dunn hyper-realistic treatment of Pekar’s equally hyper-realistic “President’s Day.”  But that story, while piercing in its authenticity and directness, is reprinted from American Splendor # 13 and only secondarily connected to Yiddish culture. Ostensibly, an evaluation by Pekar of I.J. Singer’s Yoshe Kalb novel, it is more revelatory of how an individual’s life influences that individual’s critical judgments. If you are, for instance, as Pekar renders himself, a depressed loner, with frustrated literary ambitions, a dead-end job, and a marriage where you would rather voluntarily walk to work through a snowstorm on a holiday than drive your sick wife to her doctor’s, you are unlikely to joyously celebrate successful, popular authors.

Yiddishkeit’s most successful contributions, in my opinion, were the Spain/Schecter collaborations. Basically, these were a series of illustrated anecdotes, one page devoted to each.  Mark Twain meets Sholem Aleichem (perhaps an apocryphal tale, since it seems suspiciously similar to Mary Pickford’s meeting with Molly Picon, reported elsewhere in the volume). Paul Robeson sings in Yiddish in Moscow to protest Stalin’s murderous anti-Semitism. Menasha Skolnick joins a chicken cutters’ picket line. These works do not attempt to track a life over decades or a movement across a century. Focused on smaller moments, their recountings, though usually black and white, sparkle diamond bright. Schecter clearly, cleanly hits the points his narratives require, and Spain punches them up, varying close-ups and long shots, single panels and doubles, utilizing commanding solid blacks to direct the eye to crucial figures, delivering gags – sight and verbal – to enhance the over-all spirit. My favorites: a powerful close-up of Robeson at his story’s conclusion; setting the Twain/Aleichem meeting at a party whose guests include Huck Finn, the celebrated jumping frog of Caleveras County, Teyve, and his daughters; and, in a tale about a play in which a rabbi attempts to expel a dybbuk, whose cast had included Mae West, having her inquire of the cleric, “Is that an excommunication in your pocket?”

iii.

At its conclusion, Yiddishkeit encourages readers to learn more about its subject. I did, carrying my discontent about its art/text fusings to the only other book I possessed which addressed Yiddish culture, Irving Howe’s National Book Award-winning World of Our Fathers. Howe’s 42-page chapter “The Yiddish Word,” covered the same subject as Yiddishkeit’s Pekar/Dan Archer 45-page chapter “Yiddish Modernists.” Comparing the two intensified my thinking about the role of cartoons/comics/illustrations in primarily informative books.

The balloons and captions in “Modernists” contain about 3,000 words – as opposed to 24,000 in “Word.” Seventeen writers receive a full-page portrait by Archer, and the lives and works of 16 of them are allotted an additional one panel to three pages (Mendele Mochar Sforim receives five) for a total of 151 illustrations. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but I still felt badly short-changed. The panels did a reasonable job conveying circumstances under which people lived, their dress, their housing, their surface emotions, the style of the authors’ beards, but they added little to my understanding of the writers’ influences, drives, desires, or to my appreciation of their artistry. Howe’s entire book – 646 pages, not counting his acknowledgments, reference notes, glossary, biographical notes and index – contained 78 photographs. Whether of shtetl or East Side life, individuals or sweatshops, demonstrations or theatrical presentations, they conveyed a gravity and power – the impact of the “real” – that the artwork in Yiddishkeit lacked. Its art seemed softening, soothing hand, an assurance that any reading will be easy and unlikely to disturb – a G-rated, fit-for-der-kinder schmooze.

Establishing the chapter’s bite was left to Pekar.  But most of his words were devoted to plot summarizations. The biographical information he provided made the backs of baseball cards look like the work of Richard Ellman.  Pekar rarely expanded his judgments beyond an “excessively sentimental” (I.L. Peretz), or “subtle…(and) insightful” (Abraham Riesen), or “an admirable novelist” (Joseph Opatashu).  Such evaluations seem simplistic, reflexive rather than reflected upon, and insufficient to establish Pekar as an authoritative voice.

When Pekar tried to express himself more fully, he seemed regularly cut short. He supported declaring Moishe Nadir “the major Jewish avant garde literary figure” by noting his cape, scarf and gentile “girlfriend,” but he said virtually nothing about the content or quality of Nadir’s work.  Pekar hailed Der Nister’s The Family Mashber as ”one of the finest Yiddish novels” but not a ‘masterpiece’ of world literature.” This may be accurate, but Pekar never explained what was “fine” about Mashber or why it failed to attain this higher standard. He wrote that “details” in David Bergelson’s novella Joseph Schur “are so intelligently chosen and placed that one feels… like he’s in the middle of a movie,” but leaves unexplained why being placed mid-movie is a good thing. Wouldn’t a novella be expected to cement one into the reality of its characters’ lives? He called Kadya Molodowsky “among the best Jewish prose artists” and praises her “great memory” and “great ear.” He does not reveal how he measured Molodowsky’s memory, but a writer’s “ear” usually refers to her ability to create dialogue; and the words Pekar places in the mouths of “Jack” and “Tsilie,” while retelling Molodowsky’s “A Fur Coat,” fail to prove his point. Here is Jack: “How much did that coat cost you?” Here is Tsilie: “Yes Tuesday would be fine” Here they are arguing: “I’m warning you” “I’m warning you.” No rhythm, phrasing or idiosyncratic usage captured by Pekar confirm Molodowky’s talent.

Pekar’s shortcomings are exemplified by his treatment of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the only Yiddish writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Pekar dismisses him in 170 words, encompassed within an Abrams portrait and six panels, as “clever” and “over-rated.” (Singer’s Nobel proved to Pekar only “how little it’s worth.”) Pekar offers no reasons to support his conclusions. He provides no aesthetic theory as a source from which his disapproval naturally flows. Later, in “Presidents’ Day,” Pekar expands upon his dislike of Singer. He faults him for filling his work with miracles, demons, sex, thieves, prostitutes, and holy fools, instead of “sober, no-nonsense, hardworking,” “law-abiding good family people.” He accuses Singer of writing about the “colorful” and “sensationalistic” because that’s what readers want. That may be – but taking Pekar at his word in hoping to confine writers to Waltons’ Mountain would deny readers Kafka, Dostoevsky, Miller, Gogol, and much of Latin America literature.

Howe gives Singer 1200 words. He notes – but rejects – criticism of Singer’s use of sexuality and sensationalism as “old-fashioned” and “ungenerous.” (“Ungenerous” seems a fair assessment of Pekar, whose view of the literature that deserves rewards closely resembles the type he writes.) For Howe, Singer’s stories “prey upon the nerves. They leave one unsettled and anxious” and seem “paradigms of the arbitrary injustice at the center of existence, offering instances of pointless suffering, dead-end exhaustion, inexplicable grace.” What Howe recognized as Singer’s “ultimate preoccupation” – and which Pekar unaccountably fails to mention – is the Holocaust. Singer’s stories, Howe writes, are born from “a world destroyed beyond hope of reconstruction” and written with an “inspired madness… as if the world of the past were still radiantly alive… the rabbis still pondering, the children still studying, the poor still suffering, and nothing yet ashes.”

The “ashes” and all they invoke – the showers, the chimneys, the voices that had transformed the words into plays and print and pleas for justice turned into soap and smoke – is brilliant. They represent the extinguished world from which Yiddish culture had emerged and to which its creators could never again return, literally or figuratively, for replenishment and regeneration. Howe’s page, unshared with cartoon or sketch, allowed him the freedom to tap into a greater poetry and passion with which to inform his language. It encouraged him to mine for rarer thoughts than Pekar and Yiddishkeit’s other writers unearthed. The borders of the panels within which they labors constricted them too tightly. They had pictures to prop up and duck behind.

But I have always been a word guy. My judgments are as much a product of my “me” as Pekar’s are his. It carried my writing down this prickly path instead of sticking to admiring the roses in Yiddishkeit’s garden. That delivered many bouquets of delight. It augmented my understanding of Yiddish culture by placing it within historical and social context. It introduced me to much I had not known. It had killer lines and sustained blocks of reading/viewing pleasure. I award it ears and tail of the gefilte fish.

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3 Responses to You Vant, Mebbe, 39 Vays to Say ‘Imbecile’?

  1. Matthewwave says:

    ” I have proudly outed Tony Curtis and Cyd Charisse, Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall. ”

    As this book points out, the great John Garfield was also Jewish. He’s the one to be proudest of, far as I’m concerned!

    I, too, found the slighting of Polonsky’s Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here to be utterly mystifying — and disappointing.

    Matthew

  2. Allen Smith says:

    “Gey kek in yam”

    I’ll have to make sure I remember that one.

    Allen Smith

  3. Alexandre Buchet says:

    For the general reader, Leo Rosten’s ‘The Joys of Yiddish’ is a fun jumping-on point.

    Growing up in New York in the ’60s, I — a goy — assimilated a lot of yiddishisms without being aware of it; ‘Schmuck”, “putz”, “ganef”, “like a hole in the head I need that”, and so on. But then, it was said in those days that if you lived in NY long enough, your foreskin (you should only pardon the expression) would fall off.

    It’s sad that in Israel, Yiddish was (until recently) actively discouraged in favor of Hebrew.

    BTW, some Yiddish expressions have also entered popular French, although transliterated differently — “schmuck” becomes “chnoque”; However, most French Jews were of Sephardic rather than Ashkenazi stock, so were more apt to speak Ladino than Yiddish.

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