September 16, 2004
See Jane Shlep
"See Jane shlep,
Shlep, Jane shlep,
Shlep, shlep, shlep."
This is not your parent's primer. This is "Yiddish With Dick and Jane," a new parody by Ellis Weiner and Barbara Davilman, who will be reading their work this Sunday, Sept. 19 at the Skirball Cultural Center.
The story of how Dick and Jane came to be flavoring their speech with Yiddish began innocently enough two summers ago, when Weiner and Davilman found themselves in Laguna with three hours to kill before a performance at the Laguna Playhouse.
"What do we do now?" Weiner asked.
"We can schmy around," Davilman responded. (Schmy: knock about, meander.)
"Or maybe" Weiner said, gleefully, "we can use my favorite word of yours."
"Spatier?" (Spatier: to stroll casually, to take a constitutional.) Yes, We can spatier."
They marveled at how Weiner's family, who came from Russia, the Pale, or even perhaps beyond the Pale, used "schmy," while Davilman, who's roots owed more to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, used "spatier,"
Soon they were kidding each other.
Davilman said, "See Jane spatier," and Weiner said, "This is a book."
The more they thought about it, the more they agreed.
Weiner's credits as a humorist are longstanding and extensive. As his bio indicates, Weiner has been an editor of the National Lampoon, a columnist for Spy and his work has appeared in The New Yorker.
"Yiddish With Dick and Jane" completes a hat trick of sorts for Weiner, who this year also published a mystery novel, "Drop Dead My Lovely" (New American Library), and "The Joy of Worry" (Chronicle), with illustrations by Roz Chast. As far as humor goes, you might call him a maven.
Davilman has written for advertising agencies, started her own greeting card company and has written for TV and film. This is their first book together.
"Mazel Tov" one might say -- but that is as much Hebrew as Yiddish.
Still, "Yiddish With Dick and Jane" was not an easy sale. Weiner and Davilman wrote the text in full and then submitted it to 14 editors, all of whom passed. Either they didn't get it or loved the idea, but the legal departments said, "Are you meshugge?"
Actually what they said was, "No way."
Finally, the book was submitted to Little Brown, a division of Time Warner, and they loved it. They just asked that Weiner and Davilman find the illustrator themselves.
This led to an Internet search that auditioned illustrators from all over the world before finding Gaby Payn, who lived next door to Davilman, literally. Her '50s retro-style watercolors play a nice counterpoint to the text, as comforting as the text is subversive. Payn was a hilf. (Hilf: a godsend.)
What Weiner and Davilman succeed at so brilliantly is bringing Dick and Jane into a present in which Jane sells real estate, Dick schmoozes on the golf course and grandma has a stroke -- causing all to say, "Oy vey!" They also call Jane's sister, Sally, who teaches transgressive feminist ceramics in Berkeley.
Sally, having left the seemingly perfect world that Dick and Jane inhabit, is the character with her eyes open -- who knows that seeing Phil and Susan at the Chinese restaurant without their respective spouses means they are shtupping (shtupping: if you don't know this expression, I'm not going to be the one to tell you) -- and who points out that Susan's actions are better understood when they see her husband, Tom, kissing Phil.
This combination of nostalgia for how things were, combined with evidence that nothing is as it seems, is a comic concoction both arch and wise.
This is the America of third- and fourth- and fifth-generation Jews, the children of parents who never spoke Yiddish but passed along certain expressions and phrases to leaven life. The children of the country club Jews of "Goodbye Columbus," suburban all-Americans who beg the question: Can you still call it assimilation, when it was your great-grandparents who assimilated?
And what does it say about assimilation when your non-Jewish friends and business associates know and use more Yiddish expressions than you? For my European-born parents, Yiddish was a lower-class language they were striving to never use or hear again. For my daughter, it will probably be a class she takes in college -- and that, as Woody Allen said in "Broadway Danny Rose," is the emess (the truth).
"Yiddish With Dick and Jane" provides a glossary of terms to brush up your Yiddish. The spellings are phonetic rather than authentic. By contrast, the definitions are traditional, rather than colloquial, which is to say that many people, myself included, use Yiddish phrases inaccurately -- which you might say is a shanda but you would be technically wrong (i.e., I use shanda to mean "a shame" but is meant more precisely to imply a scandal and an affront to decency).
Still, Weiner and Davilman could not include as many terms as they wanted to in this first effort. So there will hopefully be a bissele more Yiddish with Dick and Jane. (Bissele: a little.)
Then Weiner and Davilman hope to take them on the road to Hollywood, to the hood.... But first, there is the Skirball this Sunday, and then a trip across the country visiting Jewish Book Fairs in November.
See Weiner and Davilman schmooze.
Schmooze Weiner and Davilman.
Schmooze, schmooze, schmooze.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.