The French may smell but be nice: D-Day advice from a Yiddisher comic

‘Joys of Yiddish’ author Leo Rosten also wrote a book giving tips to US troops who liberated France in 1945


Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish remains one of the most popular books on Jewish shelves.

For anyone who is no maven in the mameloshen, his lexicon is an indispensable guide to explaining the difference between a shlemiel and a shlemazel.

But the American humourist, who died in 1997, had other books to his name, including one — as The Times reported this week — that aided the war effort. In 1945, at the behest of the US War Department, he wrote a handbook to explain to American troops who liberated France after D-Day the ways of the natives in order to dispel any misconceptions.

His 112 Gripes About the French used a Q&A format to answer complaints that the French were smelly, too fond of a good time and, besides, what did they ever do for the Americans?

“They helped us out of one of the greatest jams we were ever in,” Rosten observed in response to the last. During the American Revolution, the French were “our greatest ally and benefactor”.

You don’t have to love the French but you don’t have to hate them either, he counselled the troops. What they should do was to try to understand them.

He tackled such topics as the French drive too fast, kiss in the open and their subways smell of garlic, unwashed bodies and perfume.

During the war, people had to resort to a poor soap substitute, he explained, which is why women may have splashed on the perfume.

Agreeing that there were an unusual number of prostitutes, he said that many girls had been compelled to take to the street because they could not earn a living wage.

And countering another apparent sign of dubious morals, he explained that women did not pull up their skirts when they sat down in order to show off their legs but to save on wear and tear of fabric.

While acknowledging that the French were “less puritanical” than Americans, he said the French were “shocked by the rude way in which GIs talk to a woman, and by the number of unpleasant experiences decent French women have had with intoxicated and amorous American soldiers.”

Although the French thought Americans drank too much, he noted, “You very rarely see a Frenchman drunk. They don’t go in for whiskey. They have never liked cocktails. They are a wine-drinking people and they have a right to be — French grapes and wines are among the best in the world.”

To the question, “What did these frogs ever contribute to the world anyway?”, Rosten listed some 100 writers, artists and thinkers, arguing that the French could culturally hold their own.

And as for the suggestion they were less efficient than the Germans, he opined, “The French are not efficient in starting wars. The Germans are.”

Rosten’s other work includes his Treasury of Jewish Quotations, Rome Wasn’t Burned in a Day and The Education of Hyman Kaplan.

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