The verses in Kings I Chapter 11 say that King Solomon, influenced by his wives in his old age, built monuments to various idols. The Talmud explains that he did not actually build them, the wives did, but he was held equally liable for tolerating this behavior. Judged by this standard, I suspect my own performance would be lacking too. If sacrilege or sedition are packaged with wit, my response is likelier a chuckle than a gasp.
Yet a little book, ostensibly a satirical quasi rendition of a children’s book to teach Yiddish, has me spitting, fuming with outrage. Outraged as an American, outraged as a Jew, outraged as an honest analyst of political matters, outraged as a writer who employs humor to serve truth, outraged as a student of language, outraged as a speaker of Yiddish, and ultimately… outraged as a human being clinging to some sense of decency.
This mini tome has been out since 2006, but it came to my attention only this week. It is published by Little, Brown — heretofore a reputable outfit — and entitled Yiddish with George and Laura, by Ellis Weiner and Barbara Davilman. This small cutesy book is far from cute. It is nothing less than an abomination.
The premise is simple. A disingenuous disclaimer says it is a work of fiction “populated” with real, nonfictional individuals. George and Laura Bush, their daughters, brother Jeb, and their parents, are drawn by an accurate sketch artist, so everyone knows just who is who. It opens with a portrait of the President waving in front of the White House alongside a classic bit of See-Spot-run educational pap. Except it does not edify, it vilifies.
He is our president.
He lives in a fancy white house and is a big shmegegge.
As if the purpose is merely to acquaint us with this Yiddish slang word, meaning a cross between a dope and a loser, the sitting, elected leader of the country is disrespected on the very first page. There is no joke here, other than a “ha, ha, Bush is an idiot” scoff meant to be shared without substantiation by initiates in a snide fraternity. As Ann Coulter documented in her book, Scandal, the Democrats have evinced the same sneering derision toward the intellect of every Republican President since Eisenhower.
Besides for the fact that it is a cheap shot offered without proof, it is inappropriate to humiliate a sitting President at random, even if the accusation were true. Unless a specific policy critique is on the table, it is simply uncouth to announce that your President is an idiot, much less to do so in a format aimed largely at kids. But if you think that is bad, fuhgeddaboudit. It gets much, much worse from there.
George loves his job.
He gets to take a lot of vacations.
He gets to do special things for his family and friends.
“Not bad for an ex-shikker,” he thinks.
That Yiddish word is actually borrowed from Hebrew, and it means a drunkard. Instead of the sensitivity a liberal would demand for a reformed alcoholic, we get to see the President labeled, again liltingly, as an ex-drunk.
See Jenna and Barbara.
They are George and Laura’s twin daughters.
Jenna was cited two times for underage drinking.
Barbara was cited only once.
George and Laura shepen nachas from their lovely girls.
Here the Yiddish phrase indicates that the parents take proud satisfaction from their children’s behavior. The entire lives of Jenna and Barbara are reduced to their weakest moments of sowing their wild oats. These are not even politicians who might be considered fair game for expounding views that affect our lives. These are two teenagers, and later young adults, who are trying to cope with facing life’s responsibilities in the pitiless glare of the spotlight.
The book then offers us a conversation between George and Brother Jeb. “How is your daughter, Noelle? Is she still addicted to Ex-Lax?” No, Jeb explains, her drug of choice is correctly pronounced Xanax, and she is in therapy. “Therapy schmerapy,” says George. “If someone has troubles they should talk to God.”
The elder Barbara Bush, George’s mother, is introduced as a farbissenah, a crotchety woman. Brother Neil, we are told, was in the savings and loan business. “A lot of people lost money at his bank. They were very sad. Neil made a lot of money at the bank and was very happy.”
The unremitting nastiness continues in this vein, peaking in a scene where Laura Bush finds an abandoned baby. She considers adopting it, but her husband and father-in-law chide her that this will encourage young women to have more children out of wedlock. They decided to abandon the baby to its fate, which they compound by taking away its blanket. Why waste a perfectly good blanket?
This all strikes me as a perfect example of what the Talmud calls: “He came to teach about others and ended up revealing about himself.” A person of decency does not publish personal attacks against a family where no social or political purpose is achieved. Nor does he treat the office of the Presidency so dismissively. The political debate deserves better, as does our literary culture. Even the Yiddish words chosen are of the lowest caliber, used only by people who have no breeding. Indeed this pretense at education is a base exercise: class is dismissed.
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