Yiddish With Dick and Jane
By Ellis Weiner and Barbara Davilman
Little, Brown, 112 pages, $14.95.
The Dick and Jane primers left an indelible imprint on generations of Americans — myself among them — who first experienced reading inside their pages. Dick and his sister, Jane, epitomized the fresh-faced, immaculate and well-behaved offspring of the American Dream, idealistically rendered in the cheery style found in Norman Rockwell paintings. Trademark of the series are its unadorned, declarative sentences, repeated in prescribed loops of monosyllables: See Dick. See Dick run. Run, Dick, run. This simplicity served only to exaggerate Dick and Jane’s breezy innocence, yet to 6-year-old me, these classic lines of quasi-metered verse were pure poetry. Years later, however, as burgeoning teenagers, my peers and I wised up to the fact that the siblings’ flawlessness was farce, and we parodied the books by replacing Dick and Jane’s “doing verbs” with profanities.
In “Yiddish With Dick and Jane,” Ellis Weiner and Barbara Davilman have turned Dick and Jane on their heads in their own hilarious and wholly original satire of the series. The siblings — now Jews, one assumes, as Yiddishisms abound in nearly every sentence — are grown up with children of their own, as if mirroring the lives of many of their faithful readers of yesteryear. “Run, Dick, run” has been replaced with “Nosh, schnorrers, nosh,” thus the all-American veneer has been replaced with a much more appetizing heymishness. The kitschy, sentimental illustrations, similar to those found in the original books, serve as comical contrast to the revised text, as Dick and Jane have retained a striking resemblance to blonde, blue-eyed Aryans, yet their back-and-forths are now peppered with schlep and alter kocker. The delightful crudeness of these words, of saying what you mean without apology, is completely contrary to the otherwise saccharine suburbia of Dick and Jane. The multiplot narrative — a bit confusing at times, as it skips abruptly from character to character — is deliciously absurd, as everyone plotzes over one tsuris or another. Jane’s mother suffers a stroke (she’s farblondget); Jane’s co-worker is gay (his partner, it is noted, is very kvetchy), and Jane’s married neighbor is shtupping another woman. But it’s not until Sally (Dick and Jane’s sister) flies in from Berkeley, Calif., donning a shmatte that all hell breaks loose. Sally relentlessly chips away at her family’s superficial facade; she blames her mother for raising her in a candy-coated bubble, thus not preparing her for life in the “real world.” Sally cries: “People are not nice. They are mean. I am on Matchmeifyoucan.com and every man I meet is a schlemiel.”
Weiner and Davilman’s whimsical glossary clears up any confusion surrounding words not nearly as common as nosh. Drek is defined as “literally excrement, or dung. Something — merchandise, a work of art, etc. — that’s cheap, lousy, meretricious junk (i.e., even worse than shlock.) ‘We saw their new house. Believe me, the furnishings are strictly from Drek Barn.’” For those just learning the language, “Yiddish With Dick and Jane” is a first-rate primer for mastering the basics that fall from your bubbe’s lips, and is a playful baby-step in keeping Yiddishkeit alive for the next generation. The crudeness of shtunk and pupik, of saying what you mean without a hint of apology, is completely contrary to Dick and Jane’s saccharine suburbia. As Weiner and Davilman point out, “One of the eternal subtexts of Yiddish is oppression: awareness of it, acknowledgment of it, surrender to it, resistance to it.” In my house, Yiddish, the language of the shtetl and the ghetto, was only spoken behind closed doors, while in public we assimilated with the neighbors. In “Yiddish With Dick and Jane,” two very different yet familiar worlds are conflated, as they never were before, resulting in a delectable tsimmes of sidesplitting humor.
Suzan Sherman has written for BOOKFORUM, The New York Times and the New York Observer.