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by Joel Schechter
I BRIEFLY MET one of my idols, the comic writer S.J. Perelman (1904-1979), at a New York theater where I worked as a literary advisor when his play, The Beauty Part, was revived in 1974. I can’t say that he had me laughing in the aisles, because we met in the theater’s basement, a drab little space with a few chairs. Perelman was modestly attired and mild-mannered, not at all the khutspe-charged tumler I would have expected from his satiric writings and the colorful Yiddish phrases in them.
Sidney Joseph Perelman (1904-79) wrote mostly in English, but he was a polyglot who would insert untranslated Yiddish into his casual essays as if everyone knew — or should have known — exactly what he meant, as if Yiddish is part of any educated person’s vocabulary. A brilliant social satirist, he parodied popular detective novels, films, the argot of gossip columns and racy advertisements in his feuilletons. He also wrote humorous travelogues, screenplays, and a series of books with titles such as Chicken Inspector No. 23, The Ill-Tempered Clavichord, and Vinegar Puss (the latter a self-chosen appellation for the dour-looking author).
Perelman’s insertion of Yiddish into his writing, along with the occasional French, Spanish, and properly British phrase, reflects his own background as a Brooklyn-born Jew not completely assimilated into any single culture. (You could call him an internationalist, perhaps. He traveled around the world six times, a modern Phileas Fogg.) Instead of learning to speak like an ordinary Rhode Islander while enrolled in Brown University, he drew cartoons for his college humor magazine. When at last words became his métier around 1930, Perelman could be found writing for the New Yorker and the Marx Brothers.
He wrote screenplays for Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, and he shared with the Marx Brothers an anarchistic disrespect for authority figures and ostentatious wealth (studio paychecks excepted). As a scriptwriter, Perelman experienced some disrespect himself. Groucho responded to the first draft of Monkey Business by saying, “It stinks;” months of rewrites followed. While Perelman found Groucho difficult to please, he also had a great deal in common with the dyspeptic comic actor. He could have been speaking about his double when he praised Groucho’s “lightning transitions of thought, his ability to detect pretentiousness and bombast, and his genius for disemboweling the spurious and hackneyed phrases that litter one’s conversation.”
Asked by Kenneth Tynan to discuss the success of Jews in show business, Perelman replied that “it’s because the Jews were immigrants. They were wrestling with English as a foreign language. They’d take an Anglo-Saxon cliché... and make it funny by pronouncing it with the wrong accent.” (Of course neither he nor the Marx Brothers were immigrants.)
WORKING IN HOLLYWOOD during a period when many Jewish actors anglicized their last names, the Marx Brothers and Perelman rarely celebrated Jewishness in their art — except through Yiddish lines, including Groucho’s famous question in the film Animal Crackers: “Did someone call me shnorer?” Such Yiddishisms may have puzzled non-Jews and Jews raised on English; but Perelman was unapologetic about it. While modest in person, in writing the satirist let out all the stops. His vocabulary was unabridged; his zany speech, undaunted. Some of his free expression included references to women and minorities that would now be considered inappropriate, and I regret them; by contrast his Yiddish jokes, as far as I can tell, don’t share those biases, and promote only the satirist’s usual, more acceptable prejudices against fashionistas, ostentatious wealth, and Santa Claus.
Perelman jokingly invokes an icon of leftwing Yiddish culture in Waiting for Santy. His 1936 parody of Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty features a sweatshop of elves exploited by Santa Claus, rather than Odets’ crew of underpaid taxi cab drivers. But one elf in love with the boss’s daughter, Stella, seems to have a Jewish cabbie’s knowledge of New York; he compares Stella to “a double malted with two scoops of whipped cream... the moon over Mosholu Parkway... a two weeks’ vacation at Camp Nitgedaiget.” Did the elf go to Nitgedaiget (“Not to worry” in Yiddish), the radical Yiddish summer camp, before Claus hired him? Is that where the other elves learned about wage slavery? I can only speculate, but it seems that through the elf’s comic litany of praise for Stella, Perelman calls into question Odets’ own writing style, more than the playwright’s politics, by borrowing and exaggerating the perfervid colloquial speech he found in Odets’ Awake and Sing as well as Waiting for Lefty.
Perelman’s first loyalty was to language itself. Eclectic love of speech, particularly arcane, overwrought, faddish and insulting words and phrases, led S.J. Perelman to mine diverse jargons for humor. In response to the abuse of language perpetrated by popular playwrights, couturiers, journalists, salesmen and self-proclaimed experts in any field, Perelman limned wry comic portraits of the offenders, by making their speech more clearly preposterous.
The great vinegar puss once told Paris Review interviewers that he repeatedly turned to Yiddish expressions “for their invective content. There are nineteen words in Yiddish that convey gradations of disparagement from a mild, fluttery helplessness to a state of downright, irreconcilable brutishness. All of them can be usefully employed to pinpoint the kinds of individuals I write about.” (He did not list those nineteen words, and if anyone has his list, I would like to see it; nineteen seems rather low as the number of entries for a catalogue of Yiddish invective.) Michael Wex might say that such ejaculations sustain a disagreement with the world inherent in the Yiddish language, and in exile (golus), the expression of which involves kvetching. To such discourse I can imagine Perelman responding: “Well do I know the boychik of whom you speak.”
A TROVE of Perelman’s antic Yiddish can be found in his travelogue Eastward Ha! (1977), where he recounts a journey through Scotland. The Scots seem to be a lost tribe of Poland, as the author treks to “Auchundvay” for a visit with Sir Alasdair Pech-and-Schwebyll, who is writing an article on his ancestor Rokeach. Sir Alasdair and S.J. stop at the “vaunted pub, the Star and Kreplach,” and drive toward “Ichvaisnit Grange, the fief of Gornisht.” It becomes increasingly difficult to take the travel report seriously, and makes readers wonder if Perelman ever left New York, as his Scottish expedition moves “off to Manor Sheviss, the seat of the Homintashes.” At a remote hotel that has no rooms available they find a sign advising customers: “A finisterra yorr in baina, skikker. Mir chollischt avec mit dein narishkeit.” This Yiddish (in non-YIVO transliteration) might loosely be translated as: “ A black year to you, drunkard. We don’t need your foolishness.” But we do need S.J. Perelman’s narishkayt; requiring readers to exercise intelligence and multiple lingua in the extreme, in order to enjoy the story, his nonsense provides a wonderful comic counter to those who would remove the little sense left in our language.
It would be misleading, however, to conclude that S.J. Perelman was a writer profoundly indebted to Yiddish culture. In the 1970s he once met Isaac Bashevis Singer in Israel, at the King David Hotel’s coffee shop, and the two conversed for five hours about Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne; they might just as well have been sitting in the lounge of the Algonquin on West 44th. At that point both Singer and Perelman had achieved success by publishing books in English. What I find notable about their situation is that these writers never abandoned Yiddish, but Yiddish was not their only language; it had become, Perelman might have said, part of the patois.
Joel Schechter (SFSU.edu) conducted our "Radical Yiddish" column and wrote, with Spain as his illustrator, a series of comics in Jewish Currents about Jewish and Yiddish culture. His columns are available in book form, and his comics as a comic book, both at our Pushcart. His books include Messiahs of 1933: How American Yiddish Theatre Survived Adversity through Satire and Eighteenth-Century Brechtians: Theatrical Satire in the Age of Walpole. Schechter teaches theater at San Francisco State University.