JWR Schticks and groans

Jewish World Review Jan. 29, 2003 / 26 Shevat, 5763

The accents
of Jewish life

By Bob Alper

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | One of my favorite classic stories concerns a Jewish woman who changed her name in order to become a member of a restricted country club. As she stood by the edge of the pool, a teenager ran by, accidentally pushing her into the very cold water. She emerged from the water screaming, "Oy vey!"

Then she quickly recovered and, with a saccharine smile, told the many onlookers, "Wha...wha…whatever THAT means!"

Restricted country clubs are pretty much a thing of the past, as are, alas, many of the colorful terms we learned from the immigrant generations. A few words like "chutzpah" and "kosher" have made it into the vernacular, but onomatopoetic gems like shlemiel and shlemozzl are either lost or, at best, are only heard during the theme song lyrics of "Laverne and Shirley" reruns.

Accents are disappearing too. Nowadays Jewish voices are homogenized, as we witness the end of the generations that sounded like Mel Brooks' Two Thousand Year Old Man. Which is a shame, because we need people with accents to tell us what to do in life. A thick Yiddish accent commands respect, obedience.

I've never seen it fail: when a family is in crisis, and making a ritual decision, inevitably it works this way:

"When we get back to Aunt Birdie's house for shivah, should we cover the mirrors?" The debate flows back and forth, until the older guy with the accent says, "Dis is vot you do. You coveh all deh mirrors, but not in deh batroom or deh leetle vuns in vimmen's poises. You don't coveh dem. In deh car, coveh deh inside mirror, but deh Talmud says you don't coveh deh outside vun on deh driver's side."

The strange thing is, everyone will go along with these "rules." Because, after all, the speaker has an accent.

He must know. Never mind that he was raised as a radical socialist who never set foot inside a synagogue.

All deference goes to the accent.

It's not just the linguistic connection with the old country that's fading away. Even charming differences between regions are fast receding, with everyone sounding more and more like Katie Couric and Dan Rather.

My father, a proud Yankee, loved to tell the story of his travels into the deep south where a Jewish customer once injected into a business negotiation, "Ain't y'all got no rachmones (pity, compassion) for a po' southern boy?"

In my own sojourn through life I've developed a bland, colorless speech pattern. But it wasn't always like this. While I have no tape recordings or videotape, I know that as a kid, I definitely spoke with a regional inflection. The proof is in my Bar Mitzvah book.

At age twelve I met with my rabbi, Selig Salkowitz, to receive my assignments. He gave me a small brown volume containing the verses from Exodus that I was to prepare, and also gave me my Haftorah, instructing me to copy down the assignment inside the front cover of the brown book. Which I did, carefully, in my seventh grade scrawl, and, apparently, in my Providence, Rhode Island accent.

It reads "Haftorah. Chapter 31. Verses 1-17. Book of Jeremeyer."

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JWR contributor Bob Alper, the world's only practicing clergyman doing stand-up comedy . . . intentionally, is the author of Life Doesn't Get Any Better Than This: The Holiness of Little Daily Dramas and A rabbi confesses. To go to his web site, click here. Comment by clicking here.


Toward rabbinic survival

©2003, Bob Alper