The Joke's on Irving Howe


Here's a question, Jewish book lovers: What would Irving Howe have thought about books such as Yiddish with Dick and Jane (2004), Yiddish with George and Laura (2006), and Yiddish for Dogs (2007)?

Answer: They would have driven the revered literary critic absolutely meshugge (comme on dit). Remember that Howe, author of the magisterial, 714-page World of our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made There, tried to assassinate, in the New York Times, Leo Rosten’s classic, The Joys of Yiddish, when it was first published in 1968. Rosten’s work, a relaxed, usually funny lexicon of Yiddish words and phrases, is a wonderful volume that sparked a renewed interest in the mameloshn (mother tongue) among 1960s Jews who could spell “assimilation” but had no idea what “Ashkenazic” meant.

“Something about the Broadway-cum-TV tone of Mr. Rosten’s book,” Howe wrote, with what Washington spy novels refer to as “extreme prejudice”—“the tone of elbowing, [and] backslapping ‘local color’ gives me the chills.” Behind Rosten’s tinsel, Howe wrote, was more tinsel.

It's safe to assume, therefore, that the bestselling 104-page volume, Yiddish with Dick and Jane, would have given the late critic a conniption fit of epic proportions. Which is too bad: Yiddish with Dick and Jane is good fun. In it, co-authors Ellis Weiner and Barbara Davilman take the noted grammar-school icons and transport them to an alternate world in which Dick and Jane grow up and spout Yiddish words in modern situations. Jane, for instance, now sells real estate, and she lugs her open-house signs to and from her car. “See Jane schlep. Schlep, Jane, schlep. Schlep, Schlep, Schlep."

While our contemporary Yiddish joke books are admittedly light and fluffy, they are also gut fur di yidn—good for the Jews. They are especially helpful for those with no sense memory of Jewish heritage (kids, say, whose grandparents were not born in Eastern Europe). They're for people who march for Darfur but can’t spell “Dachau. ” These books are approachable reads that initiate young, ignorant, and/or curious people into Yiddish, the sui generis language of magic and loss. They're also good for people who like to laugh. Who can’t appreciate the word for freeloaders—shnorrers—and smile at how they shamelessly come to Jane’s open-house with no intention of buying, all the while happily noshing for free?

Shnor, Shnorrers, Shnor. Shnor Shnor Shnor.

Weiner and Davilman successfully hit for the fences again in Yiddish with George and Laura (the Bushes, of course). Here there are true lessons of realpolitik. Why listen to Obama rail on and on about the president, when this volume points out with great succinctness that Dubya is a “shmegegge” and his pearl-smothered mother is a "farbissineh."

Now, it’s said that the biggest failing of der ganzer macher Bob Dylan (who’s Yiddish-filled high school notebooks sold for $80,000 at Christie's a couple years ago) is the approixmately 1,789,000 would-be Dylans who still clog subway stations and French streets playing bad harmonica. So it goes with Yiddish joke books.Take the copy-cat Yiddish for Dogs, by the apparently well-intentioned Janet Perr. This book is apparently not good for the Jews, or dog lovers, or most members of the human race, and will probably go the way of Laugh, Jew, Laugh (1936). Filled with pictures of dogs that only treacle lovers could love, Yiddish for Dogs make the questionable claims that dogs can kvell or recognize a mentsch.


But this silly volume is ultimately gut fur dem yidn because unlettered, sentimental Jewish dog-owners—and the books they read—still belong in our family. Jewish peoplehood is a knot that can't be undone.

Speaking of which: why exactly did Irving Howe get his gottkes (underwear) all knotted up over The Joys of Yiddish? In the Joys, wrote Howe, “Yiddish is torn out of its cultural context, its integral world of meaning and reference.” Perhaps Howe, a true member of the Yiddishist pantheon, may have temporarily forgotten his Yiddishkeit here. This “cultural context,” allegedly missing from The Joys of Yiddish, made little sense at a time when most Jews considered expressing their religion tapping their toes to “Sunrise, Sunset,” then eating at Mama Leone’s. And that was 1968.

But maybe the best explanation of why Yiddish joke books still matter came in a 1946 volume by Sammy Levinson (later “Sam” of Everything But Money fame) entitled Meet the Folks: A Session of American-Jewish Humor. Why was it important, Levinson asked, a year after the Holocaust, to include in a Yiddish lexicon words such as koved, the Yiddish term for honor, which he glosses as "Allowing the other guy to pay the check."

Said Levinson: "[Today’s] grandchildren speak very little Yiddish. Generally speaking, they know less of Yiddish than their grandparents knew of English. This dictionary contains remnants of grandpa’s Yiddish which still circulate among the younger of American-Jews. They are retained because they are sweet and colorful. They are richly idiomatic and ‘hit the spot.’… They ‘belonged’ to our people. They are precious because the places like Jewish Poland where people used them most as their very own are fewer and the people who sang to their children in Yiddish and worked in Yiddish and made love in Yiddish are nearly all gone.”

The Emes, Sammy, Emes. Emes, Emes, Emes.