Monday, March 9, 2009

Who needs a collar? Do I need one? Do you? - Aunt Jemima and the Nestlé baby on the Yiddish stage

Yiddish literature is full of surprises. Whatever I thought I might find, it did not include a play with a cast of characters featuring:

AUNT JEMIMA, black cook in apron, advertising pancake mix
ARROW COLLAR MAN, blond and handsome, advertising collars
NESTLÉ BABY, baby girl, advertising baby food
WRIGLEY TWINS, twin youngsters, advertising chewing gum

And so on. The play is (here's a Yiddish lesson) Bronks Ekspres, or Bronx Express: A Dream in Three Acts (1919 or so), by Osip Dymov.

A button maker, Khatskl Hungerproud, is riding the subway from 14th Street up to the Bronx. He bumps into an old acquaintance, a con man, Flames, who gets him fired up about getting rich:

FLAMES. (Points to the subway ads.) Do you see that Pluto Mineral Water?

HUNGERPROUD. The red devil with the tail?

FLAMES. Yes. Twenty-five million. I know him - he's a buddy of mine. Or Tuxedo Tobacco, "Your nose knows," forty million. Or Arrow Collars - he was a telegraph messenger boy. Who needs a collar? Do I need one? Do you? Bluff. Now he's worth one hundred million. Or Aunt Jemima Pancakes, "Delicious, economical, convenient," ten million.


FLAMES. No? And people don't go every year to Atlantic City to the beach? And football and bathing suits, moving pictures and chewing gum, and ice cream, and shoeshine every minute. Do you have any idea what's going on with the Americans? Nestlé? That baby? Two hundred million. And Smith Brothers Cough Drops, three hundred fifty million.

HUNGERPROUD. Both brothers together?

FLAMES. Each brother separately. Both together, five hundred.

I like the con man's math there. Khatskl falls asleep on the subway, and, one thing leads to another, he ends up lounging in Atlantic City, married to a cigarette mascot, father of the Nestlé baby, with his own real family somehow tangled up in his dream. When Khatskl wakes up, has he learned his lesson about what's really valuable in life? Whaddaya think?

A good part of the fun here is that several of the mascots are still in use, or at least distantly recognizable, and I suppose this would be even more fun live, seeing them wander around the stage. But I also like the critical thinking about advertising. the satire is still pretty much on target. Gee, people were on to the game back in 1919?

The play deepens the bite, too - Hungerproud acquire his dream-riches by selling his Judaism. I haven't found a Yiddish writer yet who sees America differently. The opportunities for improvement are endless, and there's no going back to the shtetl, but the corruptions are endless as well.

Bronx Express can be found in God, Man, and Devil: Yiddish Plays in Translation (1999), translated by Nahma Sandrow. The other plays in the book are not the off-kilter hoot that this one is, but they have their own merits. A little more Yiddish theater tomorrow.


  1. I've never been particularly interested in Yiddish theater. Or, at least not like I am in Yiddish literature... Still, the simple concept of this play is enough to raise my eyebrows and get me interested. It's mostly the "acquire his dream-riches by selling his Judaism" that's got me intrigued. Something about that...

  2. "I haven't found a Yiddish writer yet who sees America differently."

    In one sense this surprises me--I always think of Jews as a relatively culturally intact American ethnic group. (Memories of my Italian-American great-grandmother bemoaning how her own people didn't stick together nearly so well.) Then again, it doesn't surprise me at all, especially from those writing in Yiddish. Is being an ethnic minority in America really that different from it was in Europe, or is it because of the modern, industrial, urban environment?

  3. I am interested in seeing any drama in which Aunt Jemima speaks Yiddish. Or the Smith Brothers. Or the Wrigley Twins. Also that lady who sells Orbit gum on tv. Or the Geico gecko. Or the Aflac duck. I will pay to watch any of them speaking Yiddish. How could that not be funny?

    Now, whenever I see a regular, non-yiddish advertisement, I will be disappointed. Thanks a lot.

  4. So aside from my ignorance, Nicole, one thing is clear - the Yiddish writers are definitely not representative immigrants. I'll try to write about this more soon - you packed several ideas into that question.

    I wonder how much Yiddish the Aflac duck actually knows, besides all the dirty words.

  5. Gilbert Gottfried is the voice of the AFLAC duck, so it is within the realm of possibility that the commercials could, in fact, be done in Yiddish. If his standup act is anything to go on, he definitely knows the dirty words, but the implication that he knows more is rather strong. (Cf. his work on SNL in the 80s as "Leo" in the Yiddish talk show "What's It All About, Leo?" with Denny Dillon. That I know this is rather upsetting, actually.)