Memories of Speaking Yiddish in Hollywood
On a trip to California, Kvel joined Monty Hall—host, producer, and creator of the daytime game show Let’s Make a Deal—for lunch at the Hillcrest Country Club in Beverly Hills. Among a roomful of kibitzers, we asked the ninety-two-year-old entertainer to share his story.
Kvel: Monty, you hail from Winnipeg, Canada. What was special about the Yiddish culture of your hometown?
Monty: Winnipeg in the 1920s was a marvelous Jewish community. There were 25,000 Jews in a city of a quarter million. We had our own section of town that felt like a slice of the Ukraine. There were twenty-five kosher butchers and a variety of shuls to represent the diversity of our community. I remember two main shuls in the city: the Peretz Shul and the Folks Shul. Peretz was for the “intelligentsia,” and the Folks Shul was for working-class folks. As a kid I could always tell the members of either shul by the way they held their cigarettes. Folks Shul members would hold their cigarettes between their index and middle finger, while the Peretz Shul members would hold theirs between their thumb and index finger.
Max Freed, a wealthy businessman, supported your academic studies. How did he shape your philosophy of philanthropy?
I started my studies at the University of Winnipeg, but when the money ran out I returned home and became a janitor in a warehouse owned by Max Freed. When Mr. Freed saw me scrubbing floors, he reached out to my father, offering to help me get a college education even though he didn’t know me. Max gave me a few rules when he offered to help: I could never tell anyone what he had done for me, I had to maintain a B-plus average, I had to submit a monthly progress report, and I had to promise to do the same for someone else one day. Since then, I have honored Mr. Freed’s investment in me by investing in other people and organizations that needed help to achieve their goals.
Do you still speak Yiddish?If so, with whom and in what context?
When I was young, I was very lucky to have four great-grandparents, and we would always speak Yiddish. But most Jewish people in my town tried to assimilate—even my grandparents—so there wasn’t much opportunity to speak Yiddish. Years later, though, after I came to Hollywood, I found myself at a dinner with Danny Kaye and discovered that he spoke Yiddish. We had a great time having private conversations in our “secret” language. Other folks I spoke Yiddish with through the years were Burt Lancaster, who, though not Jewish, knew an amazing number of Yiddish expressions, and James Cagney, who spoke perfect Yiddish.
This year you will be sponsoring a faculty member for the Steiner Summer Yiddish Program. Can you offer any advice to the next generation of Yiddishists?
I would tell them that there are many places to study Yiddish. More and more great universities have Yiddish-language programs, and there are many opportunities to learn. But the most important thing to do when studying Yiddish is to find other people with the same interest and form a havurah [fellowship]. It’s always better to study alongside a group of friends.
Pesach is approaching. Did you celebrate the holiday as a boy in Winnipeg?
Yes! My favorite story takes place in 1927, when I was a boy. My grandfather was leading us in the seder when the phone rang. It was the train station; my mother’s cousins had arrived with their children from their shtetl in the Ukraine. We set a place at the table, and when their cab arrived everyone was overjoyed. Moishe and Bobke walked in with their young children, still dressed in their shtetl clothes. It had been twenty years since all of my family members had been together, and we had a fabulous seder—I’ll never forget it.
To learn how you can sponsor a faculty member in the Steiner Summer Yiddish Program, please email or call Zvi Jankelowitz at 413-256-4900, ext. 117.
From Kvel, the newsletter of the Yiddish Book Center (Spring 2014)
The following is an excerpt from Monty Hall’s interview for the Wexler Oral History Project.
View the full-length interview.