154: PASSOVER Joys of Yiddish from Marx Brothers to a Community Near You

     We’ve been touching on today’s topic for more than a week, but finally in our Passover series we’re proud to tell you about, “The Story of Yiddish: How a Mish-Mosh of Languages Saved the Jews,” by Neal Karlen. In Neal’s view there’s a name for some of the most enduring elements of Jewish community that have survived all manner of horrible attacks down through the centuries: Yiddishkeit.

    TODAY, we’ve also got lots of goodies for you as we conclude our special series for Passover 2008.
    First, if you’re just now savoring these gems from the past week, here are links to: 1. The Adventure Rabbi. 2. A 150-Year-Old Prayer. 3. The Return of Houdini! 4.  Discernment in the Holocaust. 5. Thankfulness for a Wise Rabbi. 6. Rabbi Harvey in the Wild West. 7. A Memoirist’s Nourish Cafe.
   REMEMBER: The Holocaust documentary we wrote about in Passover Story
No. 4 debuts on the National Geographic Channel at 9 p.m. on April 27. It’s appropriate for high-school-age young people and adults.

   ALSO: Click on the cover of Neal Karlen’s book or the DVD cover of
“Crossing Delancey” (below) to see our reviews — and you can order
copies via Amazon, if you wish.
    PLUS! Don’t miss the links to 3 very cool videos (below).

    So read on — and be prepared to walk away grinning today!!

    In his new book, Neal Karlen puts it this way:
    At various times in history, the Yiddish tongue — constructed from a “mish-mosh” of other languages spoken in Jewish communities — “was considered a jargon, a dialect, vulgar street slang, language, secret code, medium of high art, punishment, Jewish Esperanto, or even an embarrassment to its people. Yet it’s always been anything but trivial. …
    “During their Diaspora, in place of a spot on the map, Jews made Yiddish into an invisible homeland with unmarked boundaries, encompassing virtually any place on the planet where yidn lived, or were violently bounced, whether they were in a cluster of 3 million — or 3. With no place to turn as they wandered a world that largely despised them, Jews had to settle on the maame-loshn (mother tongue), wrote journalist Miriam Weinstein, as their borderless ‘nation of words.'”
    Wow. “A Nation of Words.” What a terrific cultural image.
    The moment I read this introduction to Karlen’s book, I knew I would be enlightened by his 300-page tour of this spiritual realm. As he says in his introduction, “This is not a history of Yiddish, but the story of Yiddish.”
    It’s a wide-ranging, often-funny and sometimes deeply stirring account of how Jewish communities resiliently formed and reformed themselves around the world — with the Yiddish tongue and cultural concepts embedded in Yiddish always helping to form the shape of home.
    From the gutters to the heights of prosperity, the community toggled itself together over and over again — just as Yiddish itself was toggled together from bits of Hebrew and European languages hammered and stitched together into what became an almost universal tongue by the 1930s.
    Of course, “by the 1930s” means: Before the Holocaust.

    Now, as Yiddish is an endangered language, sharp young writers like Karlen — whose A-list credits as a journalist include working for the New York Times, Newsweek and Rolling Stone — are calling on all of us to help save Yiddish. Karlen is doing all he can to touch off a renewed appreciation of everything that could be lost, if the larger memory of Yiddishkeit vanishes.

    “What interests me most about Yiddish is that it shaped the whole community — and the way people understood their community. There were all of these standard roles,” Karlen told me, when I interviewed him recently about his book. “In fact, I like to play this game with friends, now. The idea is to identify who each of us would have been if we’d lived back in an eastern European shtetl. What would our roles have been? Who would have been the village rabbi — or the village idiot? I like the role of the bodkin, which was a guy — and it always was a guy — who was given the freedom to speak the truth, especially at weddings. He could stand up and say things that nobody else could get away with.
    “He’d do the shpritz at a wedding, making fun of people. Shpritz is spray. It’s how Jewish comics for years delivered material. It’s a rat-a-tat-tat non-stop delivery. Groucho Marx did it — and he’d do it so fast that poor Margaret Dumont, who co-starred with him, could never keep up.”

    In fact, Groucho’s delivery was so fast in his prime that — after many years of enjoying Marx Brothers movies myself, I discovered in Karlen’s book that Groucho actually is dropping Yiddish jokes in the 1930 hit, “Animal Crackers.” I’d never even heard the lines until Karlen pointed this out. For example, as Groucho lands in the middle of Margaret Dumont’s mansion in the film’s opening scenes, singing a silly song, one of the lyrics he sings is, “Did someone call me shnorrer?”
    The shnorrer was an infamous figure in the shtetl, Karlen points out. He writes, “In the old country, the shnorrer was an accepted part of the community: He didn’t ask for alms, he demanded them.” In fact, Karlen explains, the name often was “bestowed upon the most forward shake-down artist in the shtetl.
    So, Yiddish served as a social guide as much as it was a language. It marked out helpful boundaries in the community — and made people aware of what to expect from each other.

    “People sometimes make the mistake of thinking of Yiddish as a dirty language, a gutter language. But it isn’t. Quite the contrary,” Karlen told me. “It’s a very sophisticated language built upon multiple layers of Jewish culture and learning. In fact, the language goes to great lengths to avoid certain topics that people might find offensive.
    Karlen gives some hilarious examples in his book. Among them is the Yiddish solution to explaining that someone has a sexually transmitted disease.
    In the interview, he explained: “That’s a great example of what a chaste language this really is. People went to great lengths to create these Yiddish euphemisms for what was happening. So, the phrase for someone having this particular problem — if you translate it literally — is: ‘He has a carnival in his pants.'”

    Karlen’s larger point is that Yiddish is a remarkably hopeful language, because of its practical, nuts-and-bolts approach to culture. There will be problems, Yiddish conveys, but people always will rebuild community.
    In Yiddish: Mentsh tracht, Gott lacht.
    In English: Man plans, God laughs.
    In Yiddish: Di tsung iz nit in goles.
    In English: The tongue is never in exile.

    One of the greatest Yiddish cross-over performers was Eddie Cantor, now almost forgotten but once a headliner on Broadway and briefly a very popular movie star. Cantor’s surviving song-and-dance routines, including some early stand-up material he performed, are full of practical Yiddish humor.
    In one of his routines, Cantor would come out into the middle of the stage and simply rattle off community news. “Yeah, they’ve had some hard times around here. They have,” he’d say.
    Then, as if someone had prompted him about a particular woman’s family. “Her father? Oh, he died of throat troubles.”
    Long pause, then he’d add: “Yeah, they hanged him!”
    And just as we’re chuckling at that bleak line, he’d already be on to the next joke. The community would continue — whatever disaster struck.

    SO, want to see and hear a taste of what we’re talking about?
    Here are several videos you may want to check out to catch a glimpse of the Yiddishkeit Karlen describes in his book.

    FIRST, someone has uploaded to YouTube the actual scene from “Animal Crackers” in which Groucho Marx gloriously poses as the African explorer, Captain Spalding. The humor revolves around the fact that he’s obviously a fraudulent shake-down artist — but the rich folks are so eager to rub shoulders with a celebrity that he’s able to get away with comic mayhem.
    You’ll need to visit YouTube to view this clip. It’s longer than the other 2 clips we’re providing today. If you’re on a slow Internet connection, this clip will take a while. But, if you’d like to try it, Click Here to go see Groucho Marx proudly singing about his role as a “shnorrer” putting one over on his snooty hosts in “Animal Crackers” (1930).

    SECOND, here’s a rare treat — and it may tempt you to Click on the cover of the “Crossing Delancey” DVD below and think about ordering a copy of one of the Joan Micklin Silver movies rooted in Yiddish-speaking Jewish communities in New York City.
    The following clip captures the bittersweet dilemma of immigrants fresh off the boats from Europe, trying to rethink the nature of community in this new world that seems — at first glance — to be free of all the old rules. In this scene, some immigrants who consider themselves seasoned Americans welcome a man who has just climbed out of steerage in an ocean liner.
    Click on the video screen below to watch this scene from “Hester Street.” If there’s no screen below in your version of this story, then you’ll need to Visit YouTube to watch this scene from “Hester Street” (1975) set in New York’s Lower East Side long ago.

    THIRD — and BEST OF ALL! Here’s a truly rare treat.
    Movie lovers like myself — and fans of Hollywood musicals in particular — rarely get an opportunity to glimpse Eddie Cantor in his prime. Cantor walked a cultural tightrope as he moved out of the Vaudeville circuit into big-time stardom. As a comedian, he mercilessly made fun of clever operators in the Jewish community — poking fun at figures like Groucho Marx’s “shnorrer” — in a series of routines he performed on Broadway and in a few early movies, as well.
    BUT, Eddie Cantor also had a soft, romantic heart — and, at his best, he created musical numbers like the one in this video clip below.
    Here’s the background: The musical is “Roman Scandals,” which starts with Eddie Cantor in a Depression Era town in Oklahoma, where the poor people have just lost their homes. Rather than weeping, Eddie convinces them to rethink the whole nature of community — and start rebuilding their homes under the open skies.
    None of the folks in this film — including Eddie himself — are cast as Jewish characters. But it’s clear that there’s a heaping helping of Yiddishkeit in this musical number. Click on the video screen below to watch it. Or, if there’s no screen in your version of this story, then Visit YouTube to watch Eddie Cantor in this opening number from “Roman Scandals,” called “When We Build a Little Home.”

    If you’ve got a pulse, you’re smiling after that video!
    You can’t help it! That musical was put together by some of the top talents in Hollywood, based on a story by the great George S. Kaufman.
    So, this brings us back to Neal Karlen’s book and let’s close this Passover series with a few more words from “The Story of Yiddish”:
    “Yiddishkeit‘s soul has always breathed on in the attempts of people, no matter what their religion, prejudices or limitations, to live life as a mentsh, a human being, not a vilde chaye, a wild beast. To even near becoming a mentsh is the greatest achievement one can reach in the Yiddish language’s understanding of the Sisyphean task of staying alive, while living honorably as just such a human being, not a nonconscious animal.”

    We agree entirely.
    Play that Eddie Cantor clip again!
    And build a little community wherever you are — as a sign of the hope we share.

     COME BACK on Monday for a new week of ReadTheSpirit! Readers have been asking about our popular Tuesday Quizzes — and they’ll return next week!

    We always want to know what you think! Tell us about your Passover this year. If you’re not Jewish, tell us what inspired you — or puzzled you — in these stories. Or, tell us what you’d like to see in our pages over the next few weeks. Click on the “Comment” link at the end of the online version of our stories. Or, you can always Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm.

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