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My Yiddishe Santa

Cartoonist Milt Gross’s 1927 visit from a Yiddish-accented St. Nicholas

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From Is Diss a System? A Milt Goss Comic Reader (Courtesy NYU Press)

For many immigrants and their children in the era of mass Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe, the ubiquitous Yiddish accent was a source of shame and a barrier to upward mobility. For the cartoonist and animator Milt Gross, that accent was the funniest thing he had ever heard.

In his cartoons, Gross, born in 1895 to a couple from Russia who’d moved to the Bronx, created a cast of tenement dwellers who spoke a heavily accented English, full of malapropisms and Yiddish grammatical constructions, which Gross rendered in inimitable, and sometimes almost indecipherable, phonetic spelling. His work, which included large helpings of the ethnic caricature and vaudeville-style slapstick popular in the 1920s and ’30s, had a popular following, and he ultimately published several collections of his comics and book-length cartoons. The journalist H.L. Mencken was a fan, and The New York Times ran glowing reviews of his work.

Some Yiddish-speakers who wanted to present their community in a more respectable light—including Gertrude Berg, creator of the radio show The Goldbergs—found Gross’s hapless greenhorns offensive. It’s easy to see why. Here’s a recurring character, Mrs. Feitlebaum, complaining about a quarrelsome couple in her building: “By dem is going on a lengwidge?? I tut wot dey lookin to be sotch a idill copple!” The Feitlebaums aren’t so perfect either; in the next scene, her husband, Mr. Mow-riss Feitlebaum is beating their son Isadore again.

Gross also parodied a number of American classics, including Poe’s poem “The Raven” and Longfellow’s poem “Hiawatha,” in the diction of the Feitelbaums. (The Yiddish-accented Native Americans in his “Hiawatta” predate Mel Brooks’ version of the same joke by almost 50 years.) Much of his work has now been reissued in Is Diss a System?: A Milt Gross Reader edited by Gross enthusiast Ari Y. Kelman, who wrote the book’s introduction. Here, we present Gross’s take on “The Night Before Christmas”—“De Night in de Front from Chreesmas” (1927)—narrated by the New Yiddish Repertory’s Allen Lewis Rickman.

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Robert HOFMAN says:

Very entertaining – the cartoons makes me think of Will Eisner (whom I met in the late seventies)

will this book rank as one of my favorites alonG with Leo Rosten’s *EDUCATION OF HYMAN KAPLAN* ( PUT IN YOUR OWN ****’S)?

Wow, that reference to Honckle Tom the elevator operator was definitely a sign of the times. It was like “Don’t forget to tip the shvartzes!”

Shaurain Farber says:

Disgusting.

Simply delightful!

rich padnos says:

dat vas mine gaga unt her familie. it is to bad that we have gotten so tightly wound and can’t enjoy some borscht belt humor.

john p kemp says:

The reading of this Yiddish version of The Night Before Christmas was standard yuletide fare at our house in the late 40s and early 50s. I have no idea what ever became of the book. I certainly enjoyed this trip down memory lane this 16th day of November 2010.

Tenx a holl bensh

John P Kemp

Usual standard self-mockery of immigrant culture by children having troubles with it… What’s a pity, like all the “Rosten” stuff.

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Moishe Pupic says:

What no one seems to understand about my Jewishness is that it’s an ethnicity to me, not a religion. I was brought up agnostic and agnostic I will stay. But with the help of Milt Gross, I was also brought up to love and mock my Jewish heritage. In my family mockery was how we expressed love for something, which seems to me the most Jewish of traits. It might explain why there are so many great Jewish comedians.

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My Yiddishe Santa

Cartoonist Milt Gross’s 1927 visit from a Yiddish-accented St. Nicholas

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