The following is an excerpt from a wonderful post on The Bronx’s Jewish history and how a language united its people in a borough that was home to the largest Jewish population in all of New York City.
Epitaph for a Bronx Accent
My uncle was one of the last speakers of a language that once united a borough’s Jews
There’s a saying that to lose a language is to lose a whole world. My uncle, Robert Tolchin (Americanized from Tolchinsky)—who died in September—was one of the last great speakers of Jewish Bronx, a particular nasal intonation of English so acid and sharp that, like radiation from Chernobyl, it could kill trees. Perhaps, indeed, it is why there are so few trees in the Bronx.
As a child, I was terrified of his accent. It could deliver withering disdain and disapproval; it seemed made of harder stuff than my flat Californian televisual patter. Words came out on rails, they were electrified; if I stood close enough, I could fall under their tracks and never get up.
One might just say I was terrified of my uncle, but I never heard it that way: It was always the voice. It was not the yawning New Jersey “oi” of my father’s tonality; it was not the Philly slide of my grandfather; it was not my great-grandmother’s rural Ukrainian trill.
It was an urban accent, an accent of pavement, of piss steaming into your nostrils on a hot day, it was an accent that had to fight for space on subway trains; it had the speed and brazen efficiency of a New York taxi cutting through traffic. “Gettin-a cah” was not just a request, it was motor-horn, an emergency siren, a gunshot.
I don’t know much about my uncle’s family history. He was an in-law; he married my aunt in the early ’60s. He wasn’t given to the speculative romance of family storytelling. Bob didn’t narrativize; he never tried to fit his own life within larger historical trends or some final horizon of meaning. Life was immediate, in a hurry, and made of the hard, unbending stuff of facts.
Please head over to Tablet Magazine and read the rest of this fascinating story: Epitaph for a Bronx Accent – Tablet Magazine