Magazine article The American Prospect

Vicca with a W

Magazine article The American Prospect

Vicca with a W

Article excerpt

WHEN I TALK TO MYSELF, I SOUND LIKE AN OLD Jew. This is not because I am all too quickly actually becoming an old Jew, mind you. It's that the voice I use to argue with and amuse myself is my grandparents--all of them Russian Jews who came to America about 100 years ago.

And how did my grandparents sound? Consider the following exchange I had with my grandmother, whom we called "Bubba," in my mother's backyard in the late 1970s--a time when Bubba's hearing was failing, and my cousin Claire, with her cat, Wicca, was staying with my mom. As the scene begins, Wicca emerges from the bushes.

Me: Bubba, this is Wicca.

Bubba: Ticca?

Me: No, Wicca.

Bubba: Ricca?

Me: No, Bubba, it starts with a "W."

Bubba: Oh--Vicca!

I was reminded of Vicca with a W by a collection of Yiddish-accent comic songs originally recorded between 1905 and 1922 that have recently been remastered and re-released on a CD with the in-your-face title of Jewface. The album reminds us, if we need reminding, how deeply and crudely ethnic American popular culture has often been, and how complex the uses to which that ethnicity has been put.

Some of the earliest recordings on Jewface are up to their pupick in beyond-the-pale stereotypes. It was a duo of non-Jewish songwriters who came up with "When Mose with his Nose Leads the Band." But "Cohen Owes Me Ninety-Seven Dollars"--the story of Old Man Rosenthal, who, on his deathbed, tells his son which deadbeat creditors to go after, until he is so energized by his own greed that he recovers--was written by Irving Berlin. Still, Berlin, who was much the most successful American songwriter during the heyday of comic ethnic songs, was an equal-opportunity stereotyper. In his song "Sweet Italian Love" (the lyric to which appears in my most prized book, The 1915 Home Correspondents School Guide to Writing for Vaudeville), he wrote: "When you squeeza yo' gal and she no say please 'Stoppa'/When you gotta 20 kids whatta call you 'Poppa'/ ... When you kissa yo' pet/And it's like a spaghett'/ 'At's Italian love!"

In the later recordings on Jewface, the comedy grows more complex. American-born children of immigrants, Fannie Brice in particular, storm the halls of high culture and Euro-pomposity with outrageously accented and inflected Yiddishized English. …

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