When I talk to myself, I sound like an old Jew. This is not because I am all too quickly actually becoming an old Jew, mind you. It's that the voice I use to argue with and amuse myself is my grandparents' -- all of them Russian Jews who came to America about 100 years ago.
And how did my grandparents sound? Consider the following exchange I had with my grandmother, whom we called "Bubba," in my mother's backyard in the late 1970s -- a time when Bubba's hearing was failing, and my cousin Claire, with her cat, Wicca, was staying with my mom. As the scene begins, Wicca emerges from the bushes.
Me: Bubba, this is Wicca.
Me: No, Wicca.
Me: No, Bubba, it starts with a "W."
Bubba: Oh -- Vicca!
I was reminded of Vicca with a W by a collection of Yiddish-accent comic songs originally recorded between 1905 and 1922 that have recently been remastered and re-released on a CD with the in-your-face title of Jewface. The album reminds us, if we need reminding, how deeply and crudely ethnic American popular culture has often been, and how complex the uses to which that ethnicity has been put.
Some of the earliest recordings on Jewface are up to their pupick in beyond-the-pale stereotypes. It was a duo of non-Jewish songwriters who came up with "When Mose with his Nose Leads the Band." But "Cohen Owes Me Ninety-Seven Dollars" -- the story of Old Man Rosenthal, who, on his deathbed, tells his son which deadbeat creditors to go after, until he is so energized by his own greed that he recovers -- was written by Irving Berlin. Still, Berlin, who was much the most successful American songwriter during the heyday of comic ethnic songs, was an equal-opportunity stereotyper. In his song "Sweet Italian Love" (the lyric to which appears in my most prized book, The 1915 Home Correspondents School Guide to Writing for Vaudeville), he wrote: "When you squeeza yo' gal and she no say please 'Stoppa'/ When you gotta 20 kids whatta call you 'Poppa'/ … When you kissa yo' pet/ And it's like a spaghett'/ 'At's Italian love!"
In the later recordings on Jewface, the comedy grows more complex. American-born children of immigrants, Fannie Brice in particular, storm the halls of high culture and Euro-pomposity with outrageously accented and inflected Yiddishized English. In one Ziegfeld Follies sketch, Brice entered, to great fanfare and in royal regalia, as Madame de Pompadour, turned to the audience and said in her most dulcet Delancy Street tones, "I'm a bedd voman -- but I'm demm good company." An emblematic child of the Lower East Side, Brice appropriated her parents' immigrant marginality to tear down -- you name it -- conventional Broadway spectacle, or high melodrama, or tales of the official culture. It's the same comic stance that Mel Brooks revived 45 years later with the 2,000-year-old man.
One of the surprises on Jewface is two 1920 Yiddishized comic songs by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, who later became famous as the Marx Brothers' songwriters. Groucho himself had started in vaudeville with a vaguely German-Jewish character, and when he performed at Carnegie Hall in his 80s, he revived one such dialect tune from his youth: "It's better to run to Toronto/ Than to live in a place you don't vant to." By the time Kalmar and Ruby teamed up with Groucho, their mutual assault on the bourgeois propriety had lost its accent, but its attitude remained that of New York street kids demonstrating both their mastery and disdain of the dominant culture. For that matter, a similar attitude infuses the current-day work of the great Latino comedy troupe Culture Clash. In a nation of immigrants, this is what comedy is.
And this Yiddishization that goes on within me -- inflecting the world, so to speak -- is plainly about attitude as much as anything else. My skeptical attitude. The attitude that sustained and amused my immigrant forebears and their kids, an attitude they applied to the world and themselves. According to family legend, one of my mother's cousins once told her mother, my Great Aunt Gussie, that she was getting a sitter for her little son rather than continue to leave him every afternoon with my great aunt, because the toddler was starting to speak English with a Yiddish accent he had obviously picked up from Gussie. "Ah don't detect it," said Gussie in the thickest accent imaginable. That's the voice I hear inside my head.