For almost 20 years, I’ve been paid to have a bad day.
I write humorous essays. My subject matter comes from personal experience. The more painful, the funnier on the page. Starting with the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1996, I’ve turned the loss of jobs, lovers, and pubic hair into hilarious stories. But when my 84-year-old mother Ceil was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I couldn’t translate her suffering — or mine — into laughter.
Several years after her death, I found myself smiling at things my mother had said, right up until the very end. Yiddish was her first language. When Ceil opened her eyes in a Catholic hospice and saw a nun standing over her bed playing a harp, her response was colorful and, frankly, unprintable. And so I did something that had seemed impossible while my mother was alive: I started to scratch the surface of dementia for the humor that lies just beneath the pain. It didn’t feel like writing, as much as taking dictation. I heard my mother’s Yiddish-inflected voice, and she wouldn’t shut up. Mom made it clear. Her story couldn’t be squeezed into a 500-word essay. She demanded an entire novel.
My approach wasn’t strictly autobiographical. I didn’t want to be sued by my relatives, most of whom are lawyers. I set the story in Manhattan, not my native Philadelphia, and gave myself a cross-dressing brother and two lovers. Why not? None of the characters are me. And yet they all are. Including my mother.
In writing her story, I realized that in losing my mother, I lost an entire world. A world with its own language, curses, dirty jokes, artery-clogging foods, and garlic-scented hugs. My grandparents came from Belarus to Philadelphia and lived their entire lives in a South Philly enclave where speaking English was an option that they pointedly ignored. As a result, my mother, who was born here, had to repeat first grade. She didn’t know her ABCs; she only knew her Aleph, Base, Kimmel.
Killing the mother tongue
I was always puzzled by the conscious choice of that generation to turn their mother tongue into a dead language, to deliberately not teach it to their children. I didn’t see it happening in families of Italian, Greek, or German descent. I wondered what was so shameful or unsuitable about Yiddish that they chose to discard it like fish on the third day. The answer I got was, “We wanted to be American.” As a result, when we went to the Catskills in the 1960s and the comedian’s punch line was in Yiddish, my mother would howl with laughter, tears streaming down her face, while my sister and I begged to know what he had said. “I can’t translate!” Mom would cry.
In the process of writing about my mother, I didn’t hesitate to use the Yiddish that peppered her conversation. However, when I submitted my manuscript to literary agents, their first comment was, “It’s too funny. Too Jewish.” One high-powered agent barked, “Get rid of the Yiddish!” I was mystified. Novels about growing up in Iran and Nigeria were climbing the Best Seller list. What was it about being Jewish in the 21st century that wasn’t PC?
Eventually, I found a respected agent who wasn’t afraid of a geshrai or a schmear. With her encouragement and support, Tender Is the Brisket is coming out later this month on Amazon. Some people say it isn’t really published because it’s on Kindle.
I know what Mom would say. But I can’t translate.