WHEN H. L. MENCKEN wrote "The American Language" in 1936, he could cite some Yiddish words that had become part of the American usage. The very next year, the wealth of Yiddish humor and expressions fairly exploded in the consciousness of the reading public with the release of "The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N," the first of Leo Rosten's marvelous novels about the Americanization process of an Eastern European immigrant.
Leo Rosten, who died recently at 88, could mix humor and folklore with such skill because he himself had arrived from Poland as a wide-eyed "greenhorn." The experiences, emotions and reactions of Hyman Kaplan were so universal that any family of immigrants, regardless of ethnic background, could relate to them.
Leo Rosten, who had a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, was a writer of amazingly wide range. He authored sociological studies like "The Washington Correspondents" (1937) and "Hollywood: The Movie Colony, the Movie Makers" (1941) as easily as mystery novels and screenplays, sometimes using pseudonyms.
His lasting scholarly contribution was as a popularizer of Yiddish expressions. His 1968 work, "The Joys of Yiddish," is a standard reference. It came at a time when the language was already melting into the American polyglot. In recognition of that fact, "The Joys of Yinglish" followed in 1989.
When the first of those books appeared, Mr. Rosten's mother excitedly called him and declared, "You have saved Yiddish!" Not quite, as the rapidly declining number of Yiddish speakers and publications demonstrates. Instead, Leo Rosten revealed the richness of Yiddish to millions who never could have appreciated it without a skillful cultural interpreter.
Pub Date: 3/01/97