Reprinted with permission from American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide (Jewish Publication Society).
Leo Rosten is mostly remembered for The Joys of Yiddish (1968), a bestseller offering enlightenment to Jews and gentiles perplexed by the massive amounts of mameloshen that get tossed around in American speech. Rosten’s career as a humorist was long, though, and three decades before Joys he published, under the pseudonym Leonard Q. Ross, The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N, a collection of episodes culled from the pages of the New Yorker that could have been subtitled The Oy-oy-oys of Yiddish Speakers.
The stories take place at the American Night Preparatory School for Adults, where the genteel Mr. Parkhill attempts to impart American panache (“English-Americanization-Civics-Preparation for Naturalization”) to a horde of bumbling immigrants, the most indefatigable of whom is Mr. Hyman Kaplan. In the grand tradition of Jewish dialect humor, which is itself part of a general American literary obsession with regional speech patterns stretching back to the 19th century, Rosten renders Kaplan’s language with exuberantly phonetic orthography.
Kaplan’s favorite American writers, for example, are ‘Jeck Laundon, Valt Viterman, and the author of ‘Hawk L. Barry-Feen,’ one Mocktvain.” Kaplan has a genius for grammatical errors, a gift for finding ridiculous homonyms, and he approaches English with his own bizarre logic: “to die” is conjugated as “die, dead, funeral.”
Because Kaplan’s mangled speech was designed to entertain fluent English speakers, the puns and jokes still manage to amuse even 70 years after they were first published. Obviously, Kaplan and most of his classmates–Miss Mitnick, Mrs. Moskowitz, Mr. Bloom–are Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants. Yet the author remains coy about their origins: Kaplan remarks that “for som pipple is Chrissmas like for odder pipple is Passover,” but he never says outright that he is one of those odder pipple.
The Poland-born Rosten, writing under his Anglicized pseudonym, aligns himself with the prim Mr. Parkhill, who speaks a high-minded English peppered with Latin and French phrases; and while the satire is light and kindhearted, it is not free of condescension. Nor does Rosten acknowledge the grim side of immigration in the interwar period: since 1924, the numbers of Jews who could come to the United States from Eastern Europe had been severely limited by quotas, and by the mid-1930s, tens of thousands of German-Jewish immigrants were flooding Manhattan each year, fleeing Hitler’s Germany-hardly a barrel of laughs.
Still, the night school experience has been shared by new Americans from all over the globe throughout the generations, and the book is a sweet portrait of that quintessential and hilarious element of the immigrant experience.
Further reading: Rosten churned out a couple of sequels to this first Hyman Kaplan book, and his Joys of Yiddish is a riot (though not a reliable Yiddish lexicon). While no biography of the humorist has yet appeared, The Many Worlds of L *E*O R*O*S*T*E*N (1964) offers a partial introduction to the scope of his writings (in addition to his humorous work, he also wrote political novels and screenplays). Fans of Jewish dialect humor should consult the works of Arthur Kober, Milt Gross, and, if they can find it, Harry Hershfield, whose long-running comic strip character Abie Kabibbe spouted a wonderful Yinglish and occasionally even wrote theater and film reviews in that argot for the New York Evening Journal (despite the fact that he was a fictional character). Myra Kelly’s stories set in the public schools of the Lower East Side, such as Little Citizens (1904), can also be read as literary antecedents of Hyman Kaplan’s adventures.