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Yiddish, Lampooned

Five years after Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish came out in 1968, National Lampoon offered its own take on the mother tongue

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National Lampoon burst through the scrum of magazines jammed onto newsstands in 1970 and became a sensation. It sold a million copies a month, and because of pass-alongs in college dorms, it had 10 times that in readers. It was a humor magazine in a country that, at the time, had to be convinced that something was funny.

The editors of the Lampoon were hardly a bunch of tummlers who’d come up through the Borscht Belt and would do anything for a laugh. The magazine was founded and run by Catholic heretics and protestant anarchists. The only visible Jews were in the front office begging advertisers to return after they had left the magazine over some outrage or other. There were numerous Jewish freelancers—contributing artists, cartoonists, and writers—but no editors until Gerry Sussman, who accepted the job in 1980.

Gerry’s specialty was detail, and every detail had to be exactly right. Read his parody, reprinted here, of The Joys of Yiddish. It is a perfect and loving takedown of the real thing, only with entirely made up words. Within Gerry’s aesthetic, the whole piece had to look real and sound plausible or it wasn’t worth the doing. His wit was not about tearing down. He had a big heart, and his haimishe nature came through in everything he wrote.

He stayed as editor-in-chief for only a little more than a year. Other work called, and in truth, it was writing and not editing that was Gerry’s passion. He died suddenly in 1989; he was 57. His memorial service—he would’ve been amused that it was held in a church—in Greenwich Village was, in the memory of those of us who attended, the funniest funeral of all time. So much of Gerry’s work was read aloud by his friends and colleagues, that we, all of us, almost died laughing.

A selection of Sussman’s work—and that of many others—has been collected in Rick Meyerowitz’s newly published Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Writers and Artists Who Made the National Lampoon Insanely Great.

National Lampoon

National Lampoon

National Lampoon

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Sam Salant says:

I had the pleasure of illustrating Gerald Sussman’s book, “The Official Sex Manual,” which in spite of being hilariously funny, and losing no humor even when it was translated into French, was a sales flop for
G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Gerald would have thought it amusing that I was paid more by Playboy for the use of my illustrations, than the minimal amount
that Walter Minton scrooged me for my labors on the book illustrations.

And don’t miss, if you can find it, Sussman’s filty, bigoted and hilarious “The Goyspiel According to Bernie.” From the December 1974, “The Judeo-Christian Tradition,” issue of National Lampoon.

With no disrespect to the author of this piece or Sussman, I found this no more funny or enjoyable than Leo Rosten’s original drek. Both are an insult to Yiddish and Yiddish speakers alike, unless we are to read Sussman’s piece as such a critical parody of Rosten that he wished to send us all back to learn Yiddish. Yes, I have a sense of humor, but not for this idiocy.

perot Junke says:

Hey J……Jeez…..get a life, and while you’re at it…a sense of humor.

I laughed, I cried, I kvelled AND I peed in my pants.

Laugh a little. Try it, J …it’s a MEHCHIYAH 1

Richard Stark says:

Ah yes, Yiddish humor. Yiddish is funny for several reasons.
1. It actualy SOUNDS funny when you speak it
2. It has expressions that cannot be translated into any other language unless you are Jewish and understand the concept.
3. We are a people with a deep and consummate sense of humor. How else could we have survived all the persecution and pogroms and all the other horrible things unless we could laugh?
My favorite Rosten story is about when to say “Mazel Tov”:
Two Jews who had not seen each other in a very long time met on the street. One of them was crying and tearing his hair. The conversation:
“Moishe, why are you crying?”
“Oy, I just buried my wife.”
“Are you crazy? Sadie has been dead for 15 years!”
“Not Sadie. Me second wife just died.”
“Oh, I didn’t know you got remarried. Mazel Tov.”

see “yiddishco,” number 11.

Chana Batya says:

I laughed and laughed. And that was just the “ch” entries, I know, I know. J, I truly believe that Leo Rosten, were he alive to read this parody, would laugh out loud too. He probably did. Please lighten up and enjoy what’s funny. You say you have a sense of humor? I don’t think so.

Shabbat shalom.

I love all things Yiddish, including Sussman’s brilliant and hilarious faux Yiddish. Has a touch of that great dada anarchy of the old Sid Caesar “foreign” movie gibberish routines he did in those wild days when TV was so new no one had yet figured out ways to control it and wigs like Caesar and Kovaks could gleefully run amok. Rosten’s OK, and yes, I laugh at the “Mazal Tov” joke which is one of those DNA encoded bits of Jewish Ur-humor, no question. But Sussman(who I only now am hearing about for the first time, thank you) is clearly in the Mad Magazine, Lenny Bruce subversive lineage so dear to my heart, which, arguably, can trace its roots back through the Yiddish poets, the badkhanim, perhaps the Sabbateans (false messiah as performance artist?), the Abulafian Kabbalah, (Hey, anybody who’d hotfoot it to Rome to convert the Pope to Judaism has got to have a very post-modern sense of humor. Abraham Abulafia did that in the thirteenth century and somehow lived to tell the tale.) and perhaps back to the Patri and Matriarchs. Sarai did laugh, after all.

Rachel says:

Yiddish is NOT the “mother tongue” for many of us. When will you Ashkenaziites understand that millions of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews do not know Yiddish, and find it completely foreign and irrelevant. It was bad enough during the entire 20th century in the US, but you would think that by 2010, you would have stopped this Ashkenazi ethnocentrism.

Old Rockin' Dave says:

If you don’t like the emphasis on Yiddish, then put forward the great Sephardi comedians, actors, novelists. Teach us pithy words and sayings in Ladino. I mean no disrespect to Sephardim worldwide, but if you want to be in the mainstream, then GET into the mainstream.

Did I miss something? Did anyone claim Yiddish as the mamaloshn of the Sephardim and Mizrahi? My allusive riffs above take us well beyond Ashkenaz to Salonika, Spain and Italy where Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Italian, Hebrew, and more, rather than YIddish were spoken. However, as an American Jewish desecendant of Polish and Russian Jews, I feel an ancestral connection to Yiddish that has been reiforced culturally in ways that my connections to other ancestral languages may not have been, though I’ve never met a Jewish language whether one of the diasporic ones like Yiddish or Ladino or one of the appropriated host languages like English or the good old loyshn koydesh itself that I did not love and find expressive of a Jewish music in its particular key. I find nothing Jewish (or human, for that matter) “irrelevant,” but I find blame and intolerance troubling.

Chana Batya says:

Agreed. Sephardim, Mizrachim, bring on your culture! (I’m half Ashkenaz, half Yekke myself). Yiden do not mean to crowd out the non-Ashkenazim. However, much of American Jewish culture, that which is known by most as Jewish culture, the culture of lox and bagels, of schlepping and schlemiels and schlemazels and so on, came from Yiddish. So sue us.

The B’nai and the B’rith – what else is there to say!

grampsny says:

Yiddish is funny? English is funny…as in fight, sight, might,laugh,etc. Jews are like the elephant to the ten blind men. Is it a tree, a wall, a snake, etc.? We are a nation of Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Mizrachim, and every other “…im” you can think of. Just as Americans are Easterners, Westerners, Midwesterners, Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, et al, we as diverse…. but we’re all JEWS. And, keep in mind, like every other nation in the world, the only thing 2 Jews can agree upon is how much charity a 3rd Jew should give.

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Yiddish, Lampooned

Five years after Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish came out in 1968, National Lampoon offered its own take on the mother tongue

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