Jews had an enormous impact on American pop culture in the 20th century, and often the influence of Yiddish lurks just beneath the surface of their work. Ziggy Elman’s hit song “And the Angels Sing” was originally a freilich, and many popular comedians got their start as tummlers in the Catskills. Similarly, Milt Gross — a celebrated cartoonist in the 1930’s who is still revered by collectors of the genre — became famous partly for comic strips whose characters spoke a Yiddish-inflected English of his own invention.
Ari Y. Kelman has lovingly assembled a generous sample of that part of Gross’ work. It progresses from the sketches of Nize Baby (1926) to the longer-form stories of Dunt Esk (1927) to parody/adaptations of Longfellow’s Hiawatha and Clement Clark Moore’s ’Twas the Night Before Christmas. Hiawatha, in Gross’ dialect spelling, improbably transfers the story to suburbia, with a Yiddish accent, while somehow keeping Longfellow’s trochaic tetrameter. These extended pieces display Gross’ virtuosity at its finest.
Kelman’s 50-page introduction is an indispensable guide to the personal, cultural, and sociological context that produced these hybrid works that are still entertaining today.