Wance oppon a time was leeving in de Halps Montains in Tsweetzerland a man from de name from Weeliam Tell—wot he was a champeen hotcher witt de bow wit de harrow—mmm, sotch a moxman witt a shop-shooter wot he was—batter ivvin from Babe Root.” Having trouble understanding these sentences? Wondering whether the typography has run amuck? Or whether what you see before you is a brand new language, a secret code cooked up by children to keep their parents at bay? Could this be Rybernian, the language spoken exclusively by Leonard Bernstein and his siblings well into their adulthood? Actually, it’s Milt Gross-sprakh, the made-up vernacular of the celebrated cartoonist and columnist whose singular books Nize Baby and Is Diss A System? were heralded by Americans of the 1920s as “one of the most distinctive and promising contributions to American humor of recent years.”
Moving from the vaudeville stage of the early twentieth century where dialect jokes were all the rage to the flat plane of the printed page, Gross put the linguistic exertions of Jewish immigrants at the center of his fictional universe. In it, Mrs. Feitlebaum, her hapless husband Mowriss and her nosey neighbor Mrs. Yifnif held forth on the issues of the day in a distinctive patois, yoo-hooing through a tenement airshaft that was their conduit to the outside world and to one another. Weird and funny in all the right places, even downright transgressive at times, Gross’s language imported the sounds and syntax of Yiddish into spoken English. The result was not quite English and not quite Yiddish either, but Yinglish—an often unintentionally hilarious mixture of familiar Yiddish and unfamiliar English. To get the full measure of Gross’s characters and their antics, let alone their awkward embrace of America, you didn’t so much read as read out loud. Aurality was the name of the game.
An acquired taste, to be sure, the language that Gross both recorded and concocted was wildly popular among those who prided themselves on both their linguistic sophistication and their receptivity to popular culture. H. L. Mencken, not known for being terribly sympathetic to things Jewish, thought that Gross’s contributions were a real boon to American slang. Meanwhile, R. Littell, writing in the pages of this magazine, fulsomely complimented Gross for his “endless and extraordinary ingenuity in caricaturing human speech.” Even Lionel Trilling, I’m told, had a copy of Nize Baby in his library. Milt Gross had lots of fans in high places.
Still, not everyone embraced Gross’s cast of characters and the distinctive way they spun a sentence. American Jewry’s cultural custodians, for their part, shuddered at every “wot,” “dot,” and “diss.” Fearful lest immigrant accents and misplaced modifiers got in the way of and clogged the process of Americanization, they saw nothing funny in Gross’s mangled use of English and his equally mangled use of Yiddish. From where they sat, speech was no laughing matter.
The cartoonist’s sudden death in 1953, rather than the caviling of critics, put an end to his characters. But chances are they would have fallen from grace and out of favor anyway, given the changing linguistic and cultural mores of postwar America, in which accents were deemed suspicious rather than funny. By then Gross’s humor seemed strained, outdated, corny, even cringe-inducing. Deemed a thing of the past, his characters and sounds eventually faded away.
It is Gross’s good fortune, and ours, that a most recent generation of Americans has reclaimed him as its own or, at the very least, brought his talents to the fore once more. Is Diss a System? A Milt Gross Comic Reader is a case in point, a showcase of his many gifts. Arguing for Gross’s centrality to American popular culture, Ari Kelman unstintingly sings his praises. He wasn’t just any old cartoonist and humorist, Kelman writes in his astute introduction, but the inventor of an “audible slapstick,” a parodist of an insistent, highbrow culture of reading and elocution, as well as a major voice in the nation’s buzz about the “sound of America.”
In his championing of Milt Gross, Kelman assumes his rightful place as a cultural archaeologist of American Jewry’s vernacular culture. He belongs, in fact, to a new generation of American Jewish intellectuals who are determined to recover—and to celebrate—what their forbears had consigned to the attic or dismissed as a curiosity: the musical stylings of Bagels & Bongos, the crude ethnic jokes that constitute the repertoire of Jewface, the clever parodies of Mickey Katz (“Duvid Crockett,” anyone?), the malaproprisms of Mrs. Feitlebaum. Supplanting disdain with approbation, they revel in the particular and the eccentric and the outré: not for them purities of language or lofty assimilationist ideals. No, Kelman and his confreres embrace the low road and its bumps with a vengeance.
Much as I applaud their collective determination to expand the parameters of American Jewry’s republic of arts and letters and, in the process, to set elite culture on its ear, I am concerned about their lack of attentiveness to the larger, and oftentimes darker, implications of their cultural project. Consider, for instance, the cruel fate of Yiddish in America, its range of motion drastically cut down to size in the New World. A mere shadow of itself, the Yiddish that most Americans know, if they know it at all, is not the language of literature and politics and scholarship and, and, and … but its raunchy, comic cousin, the stuff of curses and sex and one-liners, the patter of Mel Brooks rather than the poetry of Abraham Sutzkever. Yiddish has become a parodied language and a language of parody; a sentimental joke. Who is to blame? Why, modernity, of course, and the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment that demoted Yiddish from a full-fledged language whose value was self-evident into a jargon whose value was entirely suspect. But Milt Gross, for all his genuine fun, was also at fault. By reducing Yiddish to a mouthful of funny, unpronounceable bits, he helped to reduce that complex, age-old language to a punchline.
Jenna Weissman Joselit is the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of History at The George Washington University.