Ellis Weiner and Barbara Davilman had an hour to kill in Laguna, Calif., slightly more than a year ago, waiting to see a play written by a friend. What to do? “Well, we could shmy around Laguna,” Weiner recalls suggesting, using a Yiddish word for meandering.
“Or . . . ” his fiancee responded, prodding him to use the Yiddishism her mother had favored to describe an aimless walk.
“Or,” Weiner said, “we could shpatzir around Laguna.”
That’s the one Davilman was looking for.
And what followed, in addition to an aimless stroll around the chic beach town, was a witty back-and-forth where the couple meshed the mamalushen with two of American pop culture’s least Jewish characters.
“We started combining Yiddish with Dick and Jane — you know, ‘See Jane run,’ ” Weiner says. “And I said: ‘This is a book.’ “
He was right. After rejections from 10 publishers, Little, Brown and Company last year published “Yiddish with Dick and Jane,” a diminutive, 104-page laugher in which readers watch the iconic duo struggle with modern living — work, kids, aging parents — while learning some of the choicest words the expressive Jewish tongue has to offer.
“Jane works in real estate. Today is Sunday. Jane has an Open House. She must schlep the Open House signs to the car,” reads the text over a picture of Jane, in powder-blue housedress, heels and a classic matronly hair-do straight out of the McCarthy era. “See Jane schlep. Schlep, Jane. Schlep. Schlep, schlep, schlep.”
There are now 142,500 copies of the book in print. A short, animated version of book excerpts, available at www.VidLit.com, has received over a million hits.
“It was great fun to write,” Weiner says. “We went through 16 drafts. After 16 drafts it wrote itself.”
But it appears all this is just a shtikl too much success for the original Dick-and-Jane owners to bear.
Pearson Education, publisher of the well-known primer series, filed a copyright infringement lawsuit in U.S. District Court in January, seeking to prevent Little, Brown from selling the book.
Little, Brown, for its part, insists the book is a parody, “entitled to the full protection of the First Amendment and related laws permitting expression of social commentary.”
“The decision by Pearson to bring suit against a legitimate parodic work such as ‘Yiddish with Dick and Jane’ is deeply saddening,” the company said in a statement.
A Pearson spokeswoman says the company offers “no comment on pending litigation.”
Weiner, though, says Pearson is just being opportunistic. Before the book was published, the company asked that Little, Brown stamp the word “Parody” on the cover; include a short disclaimer; and explain why the Dick and Jane characters had to be used.
“We happily complied,” Weiner says.
When Pearson filed the suit, its outside counsel wrote to Little, Brown offering to discuss a settlement. Attorney Stephen Feingold wrote that Pearson initially decided “not to pursue costly litigation over a title it thought would not be commercially successful.”
Feingold did not immediately offer comment on the case.
The suit will go into mediation in early March, Weiner says.
As for the book’s humor, Weiner says it has more to do with the juxtaposition of Yiddish with the original “Dick and Jane” style than it does with the prototypically non-Jewish characters using such Jewish expressions.
“It wasn’t so much their WASPiness that made it funny as the simple prose style and the fact that it’s instructional,” he says.
“We use the Yiddish like a series of flares, little bursts of irony, worldliness and savvy to illuminate the dopey innocence of Dick and Jane’s world,” Weiner says in the author’s note at the book’s end.
Weiner is a longtime humorist and Davilman a former sitcom writer. They now are considering other characters for a sequel to the Dick-and-Jane book, including the gang from Archie Comics along with Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends.
The pair is also at work on another new book, “How to Raise a Jewish Dog: By the Rabbis of the Boca Raton Theological Seminary.”
Perhaps this one will prove a touch less litigious than the last. Kina-hora.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.