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.