“On the Horizon” this month we find a fairly straight-faced discussion by Sam Levenson of the evils of dialect humor, and a report by Peter Gradenwitz on cultural activities in present-day Israel.
Henry Popkin, in his article “The Vanishing Jew of Our Popular Culture,” in the July COMMENTARY, laments the fact that hypersensitive people in considerable numbers have protested so vehemently against Jewish dialect humor that as a result it has had to go into hiding. I say that it should stay there. Jewish humor and popular Jewish culture will not be the poorer for it. As a practicing humorist, I have come to the conclusion that to mimic broken English is as painful to the immigrant as mimicking a limp is to the cripple. There are even worse implications.
Mr. Popkin feels that by rejecting dialect we are “sha-sha-ing,” Aryanizing, that we are dishonestly eliminating a section of Jewish humor which should be given free play. I admit that in my own work I have deliberately expurgated dialect stories. I’ll tell you why, too. I was in the audience of a night club while a famous “dialectician” was regaling a predominantly Gentile audience with stories of shrewd Jewish businessmen, of fat and uncultured Jewish women in mink coats, stories of Jews who outwit Gentiles—and the audience howled. Their laughter frightened me. The entire scene recalled the Nazi beer hall where comedians with derby hats and beards told the same type of story to those who later were to become the executioners of our people. This may sound extreme, but it is my belief that any Jew who, in humor or otherwise, strengthens the misconceptions and the prejudices against his own people is neither a good Jew nor a responsible human being.
I myself stood before an audience of pretty hard-looking Westerners out in Las Vegas, Nevada. When the name Sam Levenson was announced, there was a hush. A Jewish comedian was coming on. I could have broken the ice immediately by going into dialect, but I remembered my father and I considered my child and I said “No.” I told them stories about nice mothers, and doting grandmas, and kids with bad report cards who got hit, and daughters who were a problem because they would never get to be balabustehs. Now, I admit, Mr. Popkin, that I didn’t say they were Jews. I admit I consciously omitted the word Jew from the entire discourse. I was afraid that if I said they were Jews the audience’s prejudices might come into play and destroy the beautiful picture I had built up. Every story has a punch line—this one does, too. After it was all over an immense cowboy came backstage, gave me a wallop on the shoulder that almost floored me, and yelled: “Goddam, mah maw was just like that!” The moral of the story is that these people were bred on Potash and Perlmutter, Max Mefoofsky, Smith and Dale, Pierre Ginzburg, on such jewels of Jewish wit as “Did you hear? My brother is sick.” “Is he?” “No, Ikey!”
No one has a deeper sympathy for the struggles of the immigrant Jew with a new land and a new language than I do. I was raised in that kind of family, but the classic vaudeville “dialecticians” did not tell the truth about my father’s generation. If they had presented the whole picture, then perhaps there would have been room for some “dialectical” kidding, but when every Jew is presented as a pawnbroker or his next of kin, I say good riddance; I also would say good riddance to “Amos and Andy.” I don’t blame the Negroes for writing letters of protest to the networks.
The most powerful argument I can offer on this subject is another true story. I was vacationing in the country with my family when we came across a clambake held in the woods by a group from town known to be anti-Semites. We were in a rowboat at the time. I pulled up close to shore just to take a peek and found the group laughing like crazy, listening to a loud-speaker that was playing “Schlepperman” records.
Mr. Popkin mentions in passing “two Yiddish-American revues aimed at the Jewish market” as proof of the consoling fact that in spite of some supersensitive people there are those who are not afraid to present dialect on the stage. At least one of the two masterpieces of Yiddish theater, Bagels and Yox, was condemned bitterly by all of the Yiddish press as an abomination of Jewish culture. Even Variety felt that Bagels and Yox had set race relations back about forty years. The other opus, Borscht Capades, was milder, but still lacked any real sense of Jewish culture. Is it “misguided benevolence,” as Mr. Popkin says, to hide these monstrosities from the view of the Christian world?
Now that I have said Kaddish for dialect, let me sweep my thumb through the air like a Talmudist and say “on the other hand”—on the other hand there is Molly Goldberg, who speaks with an accent yet teaches love, kindliness, honesty, respect for culture, and decency on a high level, as does “Mama” in Scandinavian dialect. Which brings me around to this—that dialect may be permissible if the subject matter, the content in itself does not discredit the Jew. Unfortunately most of the history of dialect humor proves that such has not been the case.
And I should also like to ask this question: Why revive dialect today? How many American Jews speak in dialect? Is dialect typical of the American Jew? It is dated at best.
Let’s take another “on the other hand.” If we were living in an ideal world, a completely enlightened and genuinely democratic world, we could unhesitatingly present Mefoofsky and Albert Einstein in the same play, but the world being the unbrotherly mess that it is, I feel that deliberately to force the scale somewhat in favor of Albert Einstein or Mr. Emmanuel or Aubrey Eban rather than on the side of Max Mefoofsky is not an “excess of discretion.”
I am now going to leave myself wide open for a good left from some robust Yiddishist with this one: There are such things as “inside jokes,” comments, allusions, references, even self-deprecating slurs, which a people tolerates within its own ranks. These inside-isms are very common in Yiddish parlance, yet I would not use them in English before a Gentile audience, no matter how enlightened; simply because they have not been raised in the same family and cannot possibly have the complete and sympathetic understanding that derives from being born into and living with a people. For example: In Sholom Aleichem’s The Old Country (published by Crown), the author says on page 138: “. . . a Jew is not a thief by nature, that is, he may be a thief, but not the sort who will climb through a window or attack you with a knife. He will divert, pervert, subvert and contravert as a matter of course; but he won’t pull anything out of your pocket.”
I say frankly that I would have deleted these lines if I were the editor. I know the real and kindly meaning of these lines, but if I can pull them out of context as I have just done, can you imagine what could be done with them by an anti-Semite? I don’t believe in “between me and you” jokes. Between me and you I think we are a magnificent people and I prefer to talk about Ourselves that way.
Now, dialect being somewhat of a hybrid between Yiddish intonation and bad English, comedians sometimes slip into the error of thinking they are talking “inside,” but are actually shouting outside, where people are not loving, just laughing.
I know that interfaith propaganda has not proven itself to be as effective an instrument for combating prejudice as we all hoped it would be. Still there are indications here and there which are encouraging. In the preparation of my television material I have operated under an interfaith philosophy. I have tried to make my mother typical, not only typical of the Jewish mother, but the prototype of the universal mother. Whether I have succeeded will be proven by time, but I have a story to tell.
Last summer my wife, my son Conrad, and I were standing before Plymouth Rock. As I was telling my boy the story of the Mayflower, comparing it with the S. S. Cedric which brought his grandparents to America, pointing out the similarity of the dreams and ambitions that brought the Pilgrims and later the Jews to America, I felt a tap on my shoulder. A stately, gray-haired gentleman timidly asked me:
“Are you Mr. Livingston from television?”
“Would you do me a favor?”
“Come home with me, just for a few minutes, I want you to meet my wife.”
Out of sheer curiosity I got into his car. On the way over he told me he was a descendant of the Pilgrims and that his family had been living in Plymouth for generations.
When we entered his home he turned to his wife, a Barbara Frietchie type, and said, “Do you know who this is?” She put on her glasses and gasped, “Mr. Livingston from television. You have no idea how much your stories mean to us. Everything you say happened to us just the way you say, my goodness. . . .” I wonder whether Mr. Max Mefoofsky would have received the same welcome.