On February 19, 1997, the writer Leo Rosten, author of “The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N” and “The Joys of Yiddish,” among many other works of fiction and nonfiction, died at the age of 88.
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Rosten’s early and unlikely initial success in 1937 with his first Hyman Kaplan book, about a Jewish immigrant in a Chicago night school for English who seems to get the better of the language each time it engages him in combat, was inspired by the author’s own job teaching English to fresh-off-the-boat arrivals. At the time, Rosten was a doctoral student in political science. But he had many other fields of expertise and interest as well.
Leo Calvin Rosten was born on April 11, 1908, in Lodz, then part of the Russian empire, today in Poland. He was the first of the two children of Samuel Rosten and the former Ida Freundlich. When Leo was 3, the family immigrated to the United States, settling in Chicago.
Rosten received his bachelor’s degree and his doctorate from the University of Chicago. He earned his Ph.D. the same year he published both “The Washington Correspondents,” a well-regarded book about the press corps in the nation’s capital that was based on his doctoral thesis, and “The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N,” whose contents had appeared earlier as short stories in The New Yorker, and which he published under the pseudonym Leonard Q. Ross.
The title character of the latter book, the first and most successful of three volumes about Hyman Kaplan, was based on a man named Kaplan who had studied English with Rosten, and who evoked both astonishment and begrudging admiration in his teacher. “I walked out of that first night’s class in a daze,” Rosten explained at the time. “I thought the conjugation of verbs meant saying, ‘Drink, drank, drunk.’ I asked Kaplan to conjugate ‘fail,’ and he said, ‘Fail, failed, bankrupt.’ I was stunned.’’
It is not clear whether Kaplan the character is an idiot savant, and thus oblivious to his own brilliance as a mangler of both English and logic, or a poker-faced nemesis who will never let on how much satisfaction he derives from confounding his teacher. What is clear is that Kaplan — who refers to the first president as “Judge Vashington” and the debonair actor as “Clock Gebble,” who thinks the opposite of “new” is “secondhand” and the plural of “dog” is “doggies” — is good not only for some warmhearted laughs, but also for providing insight into the world of immigrants like him, who have to learn not just a new language but also a new way of thinking.
Thirty years later, Rosten compiled his masterful “The Joys of Yiddish” (1968), which provided definitions and useful examples of hundreds of Yiddish words and expressions still in use in America. It was no less a book of humor than a lexicon. There were those purists who didn’t find it funny — Irving Howe said the book was fit for “vulgarians and ignoramuses,” and a reviewer at Commentary called it embarrassing and in poor taste — but the book became a best-seller, and spawned sequels, updated versions and imitators.
Rosten had a spell in Hollywood too, both as a prolific screenwriter and as a scholar whose book “Hollywood: The Movie Colony, the Movie Makers” took a sociological look at the film industry. During World War II, Rosten was employed by the Office of War Information, where he worked on something akin to psychological warfare; he also taught sociology and other subjects at Berkeley, Columbia and Yale.
Several years after Rosten’s death, his daughter Madeline Rosten Lee wrote to The New York Times, responding, she said, to an article “about the assimilation struggles of today’s new immigrants” that referenced Hyman Kaplan, more than six decades after his first appearance. Lee suggested her late father would have been proud that the same day the article was published, in 2000, Rosten’s first great-grandchild “was being christened in the Episcopal Church, with the loving attendance of her Jewish, Roman Catholic and Protestant relatives and friends.”