The Magazine

Speaking in Tongues

The linguistic demands of New York politics, then and now.

Jun 6, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 36 • By ARNOLD BEICHMAN
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"SPANISH POLITICAL ADS KICK off Bloomberg TV campaign" was the New York Daily News headline the other day discussing the early opening of New York City's mayoral campaign. The headline brought back childhood memories of New York's Lower East Side when a politician who didn't speak some foreign language, usually Italian and/or Yiddish, during campaign appearances suffered a terrific handicap at election time.

The reason I witnessed such linguistic phenomena is that there was no such thing in my 1920s neighborhood as a babysitter. A teenage sibling or an older relative might watch a child. But if neither was available, the parents took the child to the political meeting, the movies, or wherever. Staying home alone was out of the question.

With no babysitter available, the first movie I ever saw with my parents was The Kid, starring Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan. And I loved being taken to political meetings, because in that way I could be with my parents. These assemblies, usually held in public school auditoriums, were almost a nightly affair in the run-up to the November election.

At first, these meetings were just noise, incomprehensible noise, and I usually fell asleep. As I grew older, the speeches began to make some sense. And since I was bilingual as most East Side residents were--the second language being Italian, Russian, Ukrainian, or Yiddish--I understood some of the speeches, at least the words if not the content.

Looking back, I think it was remarkable (although I didn't think so at the time) to hear Governor Al Smith, the 1928 Democratic candidate for president against Herbert Hoover, lapsing into Yiddish during a campaign stop in the auditorium of my East Side public school, or years later to hear Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia laughing merrily at his own Yiddish jokes.

Labor union business could also be conducted in languages other than English. David Dubinsky, onetime president of what was then the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), conducted executive board meetings in Yiddish even though one of the board members, Luigi Antonini, who headed the Italian branch of the union, barely knew enough Yiddish to understand what was going on. However, Antonini spoke to his members in Italian.

This bilingualism (and sometimes trilingualism) came in handy for politicians. The Democratic leaders in my lower East Side district were Christy Sullivan and his co-leader, Maxie Levine, later a criminal court judge. A lot of their business was conducted al fresco, usually on Saturday nights. Their base of operations was a bread stand at the corner of Eldridge and Hester Streets, which was closed on the Jewish Sabbath as were the Jewish bakeries. That became the office of the Tammany district leaders. Sullivan stood on one side of the bread stand and Levine on the other. The bread stand opened for business early Sunday morning with magically scented bialys, bagels, and pumpernickel.

On one Saturday night when Maxie Levine was ill and didn't show up at the bread stand, Christy Sullivan took over. He knew just enough Yiddish and Italian to understand his petitioners whose claims were usually the same--a son had been arrested as a pickpocket; someone else's son had been arrested riding in a stolen car; a daughter, just out of high school, needed a job; a petitioner wondered where was the Thanksgiving turkey his family was supposed to get.

On the night in question, another petitioner, a merchant, showed Sullivan a summons. The merchant explained in a mixture of Yiddish and English that a case of cotton goods had been dropped at his store front. A cop had given him the summons for blocking the sidewalk. Sullivan flashed a look at the summons, tore it into a dozen pieces and tossed it away. If you have any trouble, tell 'em to call me, were his words of farewell to the grinning merchant.

The merchant walked off muttering happily in Yiddish, "Iss dus ah mentch," translated, "What a guy!"

Indeed, he was. Christy Sullivan in 1937 became leader of Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine that had dominated New York City politics until the election of Fiorello LaGuardia in 1933. Tammany and Sullivan are gone and their kind of sidewalk politics died with them. But while it lasted, it was a kind of crude democratic politics which also taught these European immigrants and their children what the world was all about. Last week's headlines suggest that New York City politics haven't changed all that much.

Arnold Beichman is a Hoover Institution research fellow. His updated biography Herman Wouk: The Novelist as Social Historian, has just been published.