Accentuating Circumstances


I grew up during the late 1940s in a Jewish working class neighborhood in Brooklyn. Because all our neighbors over the age of fifty were from Eastern Europe, nearly everyone’s grandparents had thick Jewish accents.

There were two other Steves on my block, so I’d often hear a grandparent summoning one of them to dinner. In fact, I must have been eight or nine before I realized that my actual name was neither Stivie nor Stivaluh.

My friend Chuck and his two older sisters lived in a house directly around the corner. Their grandfather sat on the porch every afternoon reading The Forward, a Yiddish newspaper.

Chuck was great at doing accents – Yiddish, Spanish, French, German, Chinese, and Indian among them – and would often entertain his friends and family by acting out entire skits. One evening Chuck regaled a bunch of us with a long monologue about the career of the great Boris Thomashefsky, who was a mainstay of the Yiddish theater around the turn of the twentieth century. No one knew how much of it was true, if only because Chuck did this with a Yiddish accent. When he finally wound it down, his grandfather observed, “You know, Chuck’s hexent is better than mine.”

That was quite a compliment, because Chuck’s grandfather not only did have a great “hexent,” but he would occasionally employ it when he had a chance to pun. One time, when Chuck was in high school, his grandfather told him he had a phone call.

“Who is it?”

“Vell, vy dunt you esk her yourself?”

Chuck, who was painfully shy around girls, was afraid to come to the phone. What if the girl wanted to go out with him? He had never gone out on a date.

“Look, Grandpa. I don’t want to talk to her.”

“So vat I shull say?”

“Tell her anything! Tell her I have small pox! Tell her I have pneumonia!”

So his grandfather went back to the phone and said, “I am sorry. Chuck, he kent come to the phone…. He has smull pockets and no moanyuh.”

Perhaps Chuck’s most memorable skit depicted a great naval battle involving Napoleon’s fleet, Admiral Nelson, and the Spanish Armada. Years later, when he was a young naval officer aboard a destroyer on a training run off the coast of Japan, Chuck got on the PA system and impersonated a German U-boat commander about to torpedo their ship.

Having an accent was often taken as an indication that you were not a real American. There was a guy who lived down the block who was reputed to be the smartest person in Brooklyn. Sol had grown up in Poland and moved here as a teenager after World War II.

He’d taught math at Brooklyn College, but lost his job during the city’s budget crisis in the mid 1970s. Sol loved to teach, so he humbled himself and applied for a job teaching high school math. But the Board of Education had a firm rule: If you had even the slightest foreign accent, you could not teach in the New York City public school system. And in fairness, Sol did sound like he just got off the boat.

And so, year-after-year, he was turned down. But then, miraculously, the Board of Education abolished its rule against accents and Sol was hired. As it happened, he had the same examiner who had turned him down each time. The examiner was curious about Sol’s accent, and asked him where he grew up.
Sol was incredulous. “Vaht, you don’t recognize ah Kellafunyah hexcent?”

One day, when we were in our early thirties, I told Chuck about my script idea for a dog food commercial. It began with a lingering camera shot of a bowl of dog food alongside a water bowl on a linoleum covered kitchen floor. The announcer informed the viewer that this particular dog food contained thirty-seven essential nutrients and twenty-six important vitamins that no dog should go without.

Chuck didn’t say anything, but he nodded approvingly. I continued. “So it did not surprise us to learn that we were now the bestselling dog food brand in America. But we were indeed amazed to find out that our main customers were not dog owners.”

Chuck was laughing because he had guessed what was coming next. “That’s right! Our best customers were old people.”

Now we were both laughing. A little later, when we talked about it, Chuck and I agreed about how sick this was, since so many impoverished old people could afford just dog food. But we couldn’t stop laughing even though we knew just how sick this was.

Then I continued with my commercial. “So then I have an old man crawling across the linoleum. And just as he reaches the bowl of dog food, a small brown and white terrier comes running up to the bowl from the other direction.”

Then Chuck burst out, “And then the old man says to the dog, ‘Go avay! Drink your vortah!’”

Chuc k noticed my look of complete amazement. He waited.

Then I asked,  “Chuck, how come you gave the old man a Jewish accent?”

“Don’t all old people have Jewish accents?”