I remember, as a new immigrant in New York, how delighted I used to be at having a Gentile politician or policeman quite proudly come out with an occasional Yiddish expression. Where else, after all, but in Columbus’s country did a servant of the state actually bother trying to please a Jew?
By now, the novelty and thrill have worn off a bit. Our community is already celebrating the onset of its fourth century in these parts, and it is hardly likely that such elementary forms of flattery as the studied use or misuse of a Yiddish phrase still succeed in swaying Jewish votes, or in producing that warm glow of feeling that one is liked by the goyim.
Yet here are two little books currently in print which derive from the assumption that a Gentile still cannot get by without a welloiled stock of Yiddish idioms, if he wants to (a) sell soap, or (b) get the full benefit of television humor. Yiddish, it almost appears, has begun to join Latin as a language useful as professional adornment—though in this case not to law or medicine, but the arts of commerce.
Quite beguiling in its attempt to induce this sort of “real appreciation for the ‘other fellow’s way of life’ ” is the introduction to The Joseph Jacobs Handbook of Familiar Jewish Words and Expressions, distributed to the initiate “With Compliments of Your Colgate-Palmolive-Peet Representative,” or “Calvert Representative,” etc., as the case may be.
“Here’s an easier way to collect your parnosse,” says Marshall S. Lachner, manager of soap sales for Colgate-Palmolive-Peet, in his introduction. “Yes, sir, we’re all looking for that easier way to do things and to get more fun out of life. . . . Here at Colgate-Palmolive-Peet, we consider Jewish merchants the very best in America. . . .” Perhaps to soften this starding outburst of philo-Semitism, he quickly adds, “and we are always anxious to do more gesheft (see page 32) with them—to our mutual profit, of course!” And signs off, rather perplexingly, with, “Abi gezunt! (see Page 32).”
Now the Joseph Jacobs organization has been, as the booklet indicates, a “Public Relations and Marketing Counsel to Manufacturers and Advertising Agencies since 1919.” Such an agency must have accomplished much in interpreting the preferences, requirements, and limitations of the Jewish housewife as a shopper.
This little handbook, however, paints a rather weird picture of the Jewish merchant, and of Jewish family life as the Gentile soap or liquor salesman is asked to see it.
“Speak a Jewish Word and Make an Extra Sale,” is the tide of Mr. Jacobs’s own introduction, a sentiment some Jewish shopkeepers might conceivably take as an insult to their intelligence. But: “Try it . . . it works!”
Among the tactics which “work” are (Part I) “everyday words and expressions . . . loaded with the keen humor for which the Jewish language is famous.” (“You’ll soon become very adept with the word or expression. Try it . . . it works!”) I suppose no student of Yiddish will deny its quota of “keen humor,” and it is therefore with understandable eagerness that he will examine the samples cited by Mr. Jacobs:
Selling Sam a bill of goods is as easy as alef bais!
A moid is what every young man should know.
His actions show that he’s grub.
You’ll laugh till you plots at the jokes he tells.
It doesn’t pay to marry the business. You can borrow mezumah and buy it cheaper.
His favorite tzedakah is himself.
The price that ganef charges should include the right to a free kvitch.
Sam will leck his fingers at the wonderful deal you offer.
Other expressions Mr. Jacobs considers useful for the alert soap salesman’s repertoire as he ventures into Jewish territory include yahrzeit, mikveh, frosk in pisk (for encounters with the man from Procter Gamble?), ungeblozzen, neshomeleh, mach schnell, Eretz Israel, rebbe, tzaddik, goy, oy gevalt, paskudnik, yichus, kappora, tfillin, shlepper, sheitel.
And if he should be calling on his Jewish customers before yom tov, there is Part II to help him make that Extra Sale. This contains brief, straight descriptions of the major holidays. (“Greet your customers with the proper salutation at various holiday seasons . . . for extra good will. Try it . . . it works!”)
Part III again is devoted to greetings, “for making real friends out of your Jewish customers. Try it . . . it works!”
Examples include gut Shabbos, abi gezunt, le’chayim, and: “Howdy, Sam, is epes new today?”
Mr. Jacobs does not offer any tips on how Jewish shopkeepers who keep open on the Sabbath will respond to a hearty greeting of “Gut Shabbos.”
A final division contains expressions “added by popular request,” such as:
Es passt nit . . . but I’ll stand on my head for the order”; vert farblunjet, krechts, tzu tcheppenesh, and mach a leben.
In illustration of the last expression, “Sam,” who all through the book has been used as an example of the presumably typical Jewish storekeeper, suddenly decides “There must be an easier way to mach a leben,” and sells his store for the two dollars needed to marry his competitor’s widow. Thus, you might well conclude, fares a merchant who buys his goods purely on the basis of how much Yiddish the salesman has memorized.
But Mr. Jacobs’s advice, I am certain, has been tested in the field, and is probably far less likely to get salesmen thrown out of Jewish grocery stores than you or I might think. Yankee Yiddish (published by Greenberg, and also available as cocktail napkins), on the other hand, is a book of cartoons which merely offers to provide a general introduction to Yiddish, “a rich and spicy tongue,” and thereby help you understand certain TV comics, “some of whose ad-libs are plucked directly from the great lexicon of Yiddish humor.”
Lawrence Lariar, its author and illustrator, former cartoon editor of Collier’s, explains, in the introduction to his rather obvious imitation of Fractured French, that his book has been conceived “out of the more common elements of the Yiddish idiom—the little expressions you hear from day to day.”
Among these “more common elements” the author bends to his humor are A Shvigger, represented as a drunken mother-in-law, Gehockte Laber, a pawned diamond (Love’s Labor Lost), A Shvartz Yor, a man named Schwartz giving a necklace to his doxie because he had a good year, and Far-fallen, illustrated as “A Broad Jump” (girl eluding elderly wolf by jumping out of window).
Lariar’s drawings, inspired by “the little expressions you hear from day to day,” include such scenes as:
A dishevelled young couple, emerging from the woods with a detached car seat, find that their car is gone (A Missa Machine) .
A woman named Mrs. Gantz, top heavy with a grotesque bosom (A Gantzer Knocker) .
A bosomy blond baby-sitter (A Sidder) .
A drunk at a bar (Bar Mitzvah) .
Some of the other cartoons use such reasonably far-fetched derivations as “nude” in nudnick, “bust” in bala-busteh (the picture on the cover), “Schick” (shaver) in shickseh, “Goya” in goyeh, “chippies” in tsoo tcheppienesh, “killer” in killeh (hernia), and “pitcher” in pisher.
It’s almost enough to make a soap salesman wonder whether he shouldn’t just continue to rely on that good old Colgate smile.