The Forward was known for its stable of erudite Yiddish writers, whose stories reflected the lives of the paper’s immigrant readership. One such prolific scribe was Jacob Adler, who, under the penname B. Kovner, wrote a much-loved humor column that sketched the everyday foibles of life on the Lower East Side. His most iconic character, Yente Telebende, known for her loud mouth and meddling ways, even spawned the creation of a new term in the vernacular: a “yente,” meaning a gossip.
Below, a tale as told by a “drugsman,” anglicized Yiddish for pharmacist.
Recently one of my next-door neighbors ran into my drugstore. Her name is Yente. The same Yente that gets written about in the papers, whose husband‘s name is Mendel Telebende and who has a son — Pinye.
“Mister Heifetz, Mister Heifetz!?” she exclaims with all her strength — “Here’s a nickel, now please connect me with my husband with your telephone. Mendel is his name, Mendel Telebende. Huriup, Mister Heifetz!”
“Where is your Mendel’s telephone number?” I ask her.
“How should I know?” she answers. “I think 144 Pitt Street, near Broome in a rear building, on the stoop.”
“I don’t mean the number of the shop where he’s working, but the number of the telephone,” I say.
“What do you need two numbers for?” asks Yente. “One number is not enough?”
I finally managed to find her Mendel’s phone number, called up “Central” and gave the receiver over to Yente in her hand.
“Halo, Mendel!” She starts screaming, “Halo! Is this you? Hey, Mendel don’t forget to bring back home my silk vest from work, are you listening Mendel? And a strap for Pinye. He threw Isaac down all the stairs ..[…?] wha? What are you saying? Halo! Is this you, Mendel? Wha?”
“Mister Heifetz, Mister Heifetz!” — yells Yente wildy — “What’s the matter with your telefon? Someone else is talking to me, not Mendel…. Where did Mendel go? Who drove him away?”
So I take the receiver from Yente, call up Central, and tell them to send away the clown who kept interfering in Yente’s call, and I give her back the receiver.
“Halo, Mendel!’” — yells Yente — “Huh? Mendel, is this you? Mister Heifetz, Mister Heifetz! Please fix the telefon, again someone else is speaking….”
So I take the receiver from her hand and listen. The person on the other yells — “Is that you, Gussie? Hello? Gussie, wait for me tonight near Shmelke’s theater, don’t forget, Gussie.”
When it was quiet I gave Yente back the phone.
“Get away from here you unkosher bone!” She yells, “Hello, Mendel!”
“Gussie,” the other voice, still again. “Gussie, don’t forget Shmelke’s theater. My love for you burns like a fire.”
Yente shouts: “You and your Gussie should be burned and destroyed together. Wait a minute, Mendel. You leave me waiting to talk to some Gussie? A dark year on you, Mendel. I hear your voice, why are you talking to Gussie? Who is Gussie? Are you nuts or what? You leave me standing and declare your love to strange women?”
And Yente starts arguing with Mendel on the phone. “Mendel,” she screams enraged, “leave that wretched woman already. Mendel, you’ll only have unhappy years. Mendel, stop, I am telling you, this monki bizness, what do you say? Someone mixed up the wire? May your hands and feet also get mixed up! Why didn’t they mix me up? Just you wait, you’ll get yours!”
“Mister Heifetz, what is this? Now it’s totally quiet. The telefon hot gestopt.”
“You ran out of time,” I explain to Yente — “five cents, five minutes. A penny a minute.”
Translated by Itzik Gottesman.