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Culture

No, we shouldn’t waste time fretting about Billy Crystal’s Yiddish scat routine

Cheer up, says a cast member of ‘Mr. Saturday Night,’ it’s a joke

In his recent article “Billy Crystal’s fake Yiddish was a Jewish standout at the Tonys — but how should Jews feel about it?,” P.J. Grisar asks his readers if there is a “deleterious effect of humor like this.”

As a proud Jewish actor and member of the cast of Broadway’s “Mr. Saturday Night,” I hope your readers will agree I’ve some standing to respond to Grisar’s 700-word pearl clutch. Or is it poil clutch?

Grisar wastes ink arguing that Billy Crystal’s absurd Yiddish scat at the Tony Awards bordered on the offensive. Far more worrying, to me, than a shopworn Borscht Belt bit would be the Jewish people’s loss of appreciation for the irreverent, the silly, even the blasphemous. Our sense of the absurd not only enlivens an evening in the theater — just visit the Nederlander Theatre any day but Monday and see for yourself — it sustains and fortifies us during history’s regular periods of darkness.

Photo of cast onstage in "Mr. Saturday Night"
From left: Brian Gonzales, Mylinda Hull, Billy Crystal and author Jordan Gelber in “Mr. Saturday Night.” Photo by Matthew Murphy

I share Grisar’s passion for preserving Yiddish language and culture, but not at the expense of free expression, which ought to leave room for parody by the very people who embrace — and are a part of — its heritage (as are the seven-and-a-half Jews in the acting company of “Mr. Saturday Night,” to pick a few people at random).

As it says in the Talmud, the jesters have a place in the world to come, for they cheer up the depressed:

“In the meantime, two brothers came to the marketplace. Elijah said to Rabbi Beroka: These two also have a share in the World-to-Come. Rabbi Beroka went over to the men and said to them: What is your occupation? They said to him: We are jesters, and we cheer up the depressed. Alternatively, when we see two people who have a quarrel between them, we strive to make peace. It is said that for this behavior one enjoys the profits of his actions in this world, and yet his reward is not diminished in the World-to-Come.”

Mr. Grisar, let this Broadway jester help you make peace with Mr. Crystal’s piece. Yiddish has its roots in Hebrew and the cultures of Ashkenazi Jews of Europe, and “Yiddish scatting,” however ridiculous, has its roots in the cultures of Billy Crystal’s own musical and comic antecedents. It is an homage to the performances of jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald as well as to the doubletalk of Sid Caesar, that master of joyfully relaying meaning through gibberish, and who observed cannily: “Every language has its own song.” Yiddish is not exempt from this musical truth.

Yiddishists need not despair. At the Tony Awards, Mr. Crystal, in essence, sings what Sid Caesar called a “song.” How appropriate for a Broadway musical! The comedy of the music entertains without condescending. It is performed with affection and without malice, a sly wink with a comforting hug. Take it to heart, as Friar’s Club members will fondly remind you, “We only roast the ones we love.”

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