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Epitaph for a Bronx Accent

My uncle was one of the last speakers of a language that once united a borough’s Jews

Benjamin Balthaser
November 11, 2016
Collage: Tablet Magazine; original photos: Flickr
Collage: Tablet Magazine; original photos: Flickr
Collage: Tablet Magazine; original photos: Flickr
Collage: Tablet Magazine; original photos: Flickr

There’s a saying that to lose a language is to lose a whole world. My uncle, Robert Tolchin (Americanized from Tolchinsky)—who died in September—was one of the last great speakers of Jewish Bronx, a particular nasal intonation of English so acid and sharp that, like radiation from Chernobyl, it could kill trees. Perhaps, indeed, it is why there are so few trees in the Bronx.

As a child, I was terrified of his accent. It could deliver withering disdain and disapproval; it seemed made of harder stuff than my flat Californian televisual patter. Words came out on rails, they were electrified; if I stood close enough, I could fall under their tracks and never get up.

One might just say I was terrified of my uncle, but I never heard it that way: It was always the voice. It was not the yawning New Jersey “oi” of my father’s tonality; it was not the Philly slide of my grandfather; it was not my great-grandmother’s rural Ukrainian trill.

It was an urban accent, an accent of pavement, of piss steaming into your nostrils on a hot day, it was an accent that had to fight for space on subway trains; it had the speed and brazen efficiency of a New York taxi cutting through traffic. “Gettin-a cah” was not just a request, it was motor-horn, an emergency siren, a gunshot.

I don’t know much about my uncle’s family history. He was an in-law; he married my aunt in the early ’60s. He wasn’t given to the speculative romance of family storytelling. Bob didn’t narrativize; he never tried to fit his own life within larger historical trends or some final horizon of meaning. Life was immediate, in a hurry, and made of the hard, unbending stuff of facts.

But I did learn some things. His father owned a tailor shop in Manhattan that was wiped out in what Bob called “the Eisenhower recession” of the late 1950s—the same recession that shuttered my grandfather’s laundry in North Hollywood as well. Shortly after, his father died of a heart attack. Bob had to drop out of Cornell to help his mother and family.

I’ve long suspected that Bob personally blamed the Republican Party for destroying his career as an economist and killing his father. But Bob would never say such a thing. In fact, that would be the kind of poetic connection between two things—Bob’s fierce hatred of the Republican Party and his personal anger at his father’s death—that he would dismiss as “horseshit.” Horseshit was a word he liked. So was “fuckhead.” And “asshole.”

Bob did not like poetry. He liked science fiction, the kind that spends pages on the small technical details of the future world. He liked police procedurals; he liked anyone who demonstrated competence in the material world of objects and the complex world of machines. He liked genre fiction—I suspect because it followed clear rules and did not deal in moral complexities and ambiguity. I’m pretty sure he hated movies; at least, he never talked about them, and we never went to see one together. I imagine they might require too much suspension of disbelief, too much careless adolescent yearning. He liked dinner; he liked lox and bagels; he took a particular pleasure in slicing through a bagel with a giant bread knife and not spilling a single poppy. He liked delis and corned beef.

He liked numbers, the bluntness of data; he liked the hard structure of a table or graph. I have sometimes been tempted to say that Bob was a conservative: He hated Ralph Nader and was lukewarm about Bernie Sanders. But it wasn’t conservatism—Bob was a New Deal Democrat through and through. Rather, it was a distrust of romantics; of dreamers; of people who had no plan. I would say it was a lower-middle-class shopkeeper’s distrust of people who didn’t have cash on hand. It was a uniquely Jewish fear, I might add, of uncertainty; of being noticed too much.

And when I talk about the lost world of his Bronx accent, I should say, it was an accent that carried with it the history of the old Jewish left. “The Communist Party had its Bronx headquarters on the first floor of my building,” he told me once. He could compare French labor unions with American labor unions (he liked the latter because “they understood how to negotiate a contract”). He told me how his father would read the New York Daily News on the subway in the morning, and the left-wing PM on the way home, to correct all the errors of the first newspaper. He knew this history, or rather, I should say, he absorbed it in the air the way smoke leaves its traces in the lung.

Maybe I could give a better flavor of the accent and all its contradictions by describing a picture of him at a Jewish summer camp that hung in his hallway, along with photos of the family, some living, most dead: In a Camp Merrimac T-shirt, in the blazing sun, he is slouching, short, frowning, dark, off to one side, in the shadows. He frowns at the trees, at the ferns, at the broad, athletic lawn in front of him. “What I am doing in New Hampshire?” the frown asks, with no particular curiosity, or interest, in what the answer might have been.

For Jews who argued politics with each other, it’s strange to say, Israel almost never came up. I got the sense that he felt about the Jewish nationalists the same as he felt about the far left: They were romantics; they wanted something that was both impractical and had no basis in material reality for existence. They longed for a premodern past that had nothing to do with the blunt, concrete, sweat-stained world of cash-and-carry Bronx shopkeepers. There would be no settlements built with such a sour accent as his; no revival of dead languages, no mystical ideas of Jewish brotherhood.

Social critic Raymond Williams might call his accent a “structure of feeling,” part of the common sense of a social formation one belongs to, often whether they like it or not. If Bob were raised anywhere other than Jewish New York City in the 1940s, he might have been a conservative. He had the temperament. His love of technical expertise; his dislike of literature, speculation, imagination. His impatience for the poetry of suffering and loss that is so much of the culture of resistance. His distaste for the radical left and social disruption of any kind. And yet, to most Americans, he would be a left-liberal: a passionate supporter of Elizabeth Warren, Barack Obama, and Barbara Boxer. Milton Friedman was a favorite swear word (and he usually would insert a swear before, after, or during the utterance of his name), and he even once gave me a book about the overthrow of Salvador Allende. Growing up poor and Jewish in New York in the ’40s may not have improved Bob’s temperament, but it never allowed him to forget his class. His world was one of the left, even more evident for the fact that he wanted little part of it.

Despite being one of the most Jewish men I’ve met, he was completely uninterested in Jewish ritual or Jewish community; he was scandalized when we invited a rabbi for my grandmother’s memorial service and bemused when I said I attended high-holiday services. Yet all of his friends were Jewish. His diet was Jewish. And even when he ate pulled pork, he did it with the relish of a Jew.

Perhaps it would also help to give you the look of the man: He was short, moody, acerbic, and very bald, the sort of body grown in the small rooms of giant apartment buildings; that must fit in crowded subways cars and elbow to the front of deli counters. Like a plant that survives in near-total darkness, he had pale spindly arms and a bulbous middle; he slouched as if to walk closer to the ground.

And yet it was a meticulous slouch. He shaved his head with a razor every day—it was so perfectly round and clean my brother and I joked you could send satellite images off its surface. I remember reading once of a half-wit bank robber in the Old West who shot a bald man in the head to see if his skull would deflect bullets. While it is clear the bank robber was a sadistic moron, I had to admit on reading that I understood from where this perverse curiosity emerged: Bob’s head gleamed like one of those scientifically engineered chemistry mixing bowls.

One thing I could never understand about my uncle was his love of Los Angeles. L.A. seemed everything for which Bob would have “unaffected scorn,” if may quote Fitzgerald. L.A. is glitter, neon, obsessed with health and taken to dreamy flights of entrepreneurial fancy, a town that could produce both Hollywood and a photogenic Satanic serial killer, the Night Stalker. It contained the Beach Boys and NWA, home to the defense industry and the porn industry. Bob, with his bald head, his refusal to exercise, his moody temper, his nasal voice, seemed out of step with a city that prided itself on rude health and vitality. Perhaps only in the way that speaks to his relentless appreciation for the material, I could understand it. There is the sunshine that, as Carey McWilliams wrote, has the uniform quality as a factory-made commodity. For someone who loved facts and distrusted dreams, L.A. was a fantasy one could literally taste.

Perhaps Bob loved L.A. in the way only a Jewish kid from the Bronx could love it. It was the most Jewish of all fantasies: Superman, written of course, by a New York Jew. To walk into a phone booth Clark Kent and emerge on the other side a true, square-jawed American. To live in L.A. was to experience America as its most elaborate fantasy, delivered in the concrete and reliable form of good weather, good food, air-conditioning, and broad, elegant highways that are made for cars the way the Great Plains are made for horses.

And yet, L.A. ruined him. The downsizing of NASA and the aerospace industry in the area led to mass layoffs among computer engineers. He was laid off so many times he’d actually had a retirement party in his late 50s only to be rehired by the same company a week later. For all the sunshine, the chronic threat of unemployment destroyed his health: first carpal tunnel, then Crohn’s disease, then finally liver failure from the medication he took to fight Crohn’s. I can’t help but think his escape from New York—and his father’s death in his shtetl profession—never left him. Bob got a technical education precisely to not have to suffer the same fate as his father. But even after learning to program computers for NASA and Lockheed-Martin, instead of sewing the lining of coats, he fell victim to the same economic forces that ruined his father.

I don’t know if Bob was happy. I don’t know if that’s a question that would have occurred to him. He had all the things his accent demanded: an education (even if at CCNY, not Cornell), a wife 2 inches taller than him, a house, a wine cellar. Maybe he was surprised by his own relative success, as long as it lasted. Or maybe the misery, and the success, were contained by his accent, that long, grinding cycle of Jewish suffering and promise. And all that complex Jewish history that he was a part of even as he was apart from it, is gone with the same finality as his human voice.

I don’t know where an accent goes when it dies. Perhaps I should have recorded him the way indigenous people, in those tribes that have been decimated, will sometimes record the last of their older relatives who speak a dying language. But it is all of a piece: His hunched shoulders, his dark eyebrows, the deep circles under his eyes, and his acerbic tone—a recording could not do it credit. We remember the Rosenbergs; some of us even remember Mike Gold and Dorothy Healey. But it is Bob Tolchin, in all of his contradictions, who made up the quiet world of left-wing Jewish American life, in its whiteness, its otherness, its Americanness, its un-Americanness, its disavowal, its materialism, its ordinariness. Perhaps it would be easier to say: He was the last un-assimilated Jew I knew, so much more so for the fact that he would roll his eyes at the thought and tell me, “That’s horseshit.”

Benjamin Balthaser is Associate Professor of Multi-Ethnic U.S. Literature at Indiana University, South Bend.