My Yiddishe Santa
Cartoonist Milt Gross’s 1927 visit from a Yiddish-accented St. Nicholas
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.
Stanley Moss is either the most religiously profane or profanely religious poet around
Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180
WAIT, WHY DO I HAVE TO PAY TO COMMENT?
Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.
I NEED TO BE HEARD! BUT I DONT WANT TO PAY.
Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at email@example.com. Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.
We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.