Thursday, October 29, 2015

A Reminder

A Brokhe

A Blessing

My new play.

And right now, the only place you can see it is this December at Yiddish New York. Well, you can't see the whole thing. But at least an excerpt. And me talking for an hour. So, register now.

Memory, Performance and Perets

If you were at Klezkanada this year, you were lucky. Among other highlights, we had a special focus on the 100th yortsayt of Y.L. Perets. If you weren't at Klezkanada, you can still spend some quality time with the Perets legacy. This Sunday at YIVO at 2 pm:
Y. L. Peretz (1852-1915) was the father of the Yiddish cultural revolution that transformed Jewish life in the early 20th century. The first to bring high literary talent to the workers’ movement, the first to use Jewish folklore for literary creation and the first Jewish cultural figure to enlist in electoral politics, Peretz championed a culture that embraced both tradition and modernist invention, and fought for its right to flourish in dangerous times.

If you've had enough of Perets at this point [WHAT????] there is a wonderful talk at the same time, a bit further downtown. Theater historian Alisa Solomon will be talking about her fantastic exploration of Fiddler on the Roof, Wonder of Wonders, at the Eldridge Street Synagogue. And if you thought you knew all there was to know about FotR, trust me, you don't know the half of it. Sunday, November 1 at 3 pm.
When it burst onto Broadway in 1964, Fiddler on the Roof was an instant sensation. But the show’s success went well beyond its nine Tony awards and record smashing ticket sales. Join Columbia University Professor Alisa Solomon, author of the acclaimed book Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, for a fascinating talk about this remarkable musical. Sharing stories the New York Times called "as rich and dense as chocolate babka," Solomon gives us an inside look at the talented team who clashed, collaborated, and created this most celebrated of shows and explores how a musical about shtetl life became a cultural touchstone for audiences around the world.
Looking further ahead...

Coming up on Tuesday, November 10 is an event with a very personal connection for me. My friend Isabelle Rozenbaumas has spent the last few years researching the education of the girls of inter-war Telz, Lithuania. The education the girls received there was remarkably broad and demanding. I'm pretty sure I would have struggled to keep up with the Yavne curriculum.  I often think of the girls of Telz when working on my play. A Brokhe centers on the post-war lives of two young women who came of age in Eastern Europe but must now adjust to America and the American educational system. Isabelle's work is my link to the lived experience of ambitious Jewish girls of Eastern Europe.

This lecture will reflect on Rozenbaumas’s research process through archival documents, oral testimonies, photographs, eyewitness accounts, and yizkor-bikher (memorial books). Rozenbaumas will outline her efforts in teaching with these materials, as well as her work developing an open-space installation in the marketplace of Telsiai.

And last but not least. Just as Isabelle is doing multi-media memory work with her Telz research, for years Wolf Krakowski has been making music that integrates the soul of Polish Yiddish life with contemporary sounds. It's a lot more remarkable than that. His first album, Transmigrations, created a cult of fandom whose ranks seems to be still growing, some 20 years after its release.

A few days ago Wolf sent me this, his first video. And because it's Wolf, it's not just a performance of a new song, but a daring exploration of memory and how it lives on, and through, us. Enjoy!

Monday, September 28, 2015


The bad news: After 30 consecutive years, Klezkamp is no more.

The good news: A group of artists has organized a New York City based event to carry on in the spirit of Klezkamp. The event is called Yiddish New York and will feature many of the same world class faculty, but with a New York City twist. The program will be non-residential, which lowers the cost of participation significantly. And, because it will be taking place in the East Village, the organizers will be able to take advantage of many fantastic New York venues and locales. And for everyone who has ever said to their friends and family: 'You'd understand if you had been there' (there being Klezkamp/Klezkanada etc), this may make it a little easier to bring your loved ones into the cult-- I mean, family.

Anyway, go here ASAP and register. The faculty list is lengthy and stellar. I'll even be there, presenting on my new play, the Yiddish-English gangster ghost romance, A Brokhe.

See you in December!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Leshono Toyve

Wishing All of You a Sweet New Year 5776
(See my previous post about how surprisingly influential this wonderful little record has been.  I HOPE HOPE HOPE it will be reissued on CD sometime soon b'himeyre v'yameynu omeyn)

mir bagrisn hoykh un klor/leshono toyve a gut yor
mir bagrisn un mir vintshn/ale kinder hoykh un klor
leshono toyve tikaseyvu/ a gut yor a gut yor

tates mames dem gantsen dor/leshono toyve a gut yor
tates mames shvester brider/ kroyvim, fraynd, dem gantsn dor
leshono toyve kol yisroyel/ a gut yor

(my rough translation)
We wish you loud and clear/ a good year
leshono toyve tikaseyvu [may you be inscribed in the book of life]

fathers mothers the whole generation/ a good year
fathers mothers sisters brothers/ family, friends, the whole generation
a good year to all the people Israel

Saturday, August 8, 2015


photo by Anya Roz
In case the photo doesn't say it all, my dear friend and brilliant genius creator-man Frank London (that's him, on the plate above) wants y'all to know about this little piece of world debut art he's throwing down this Thursday in the East Village:

Salomé: Woman of Valor
Refracted in fragments of fact, re-flective factions of fiction in friction
re-taled in the toiling, tilled in the tolling, styled in the telling, Detailing, tallying – 
through history, mystery, herstory, errstory,
a mythistory to be endlessly re-told.
Poet/spoken word performer Adeena Karasick and trumpeter/composer Frank London present Salomé: Woman of Valor, their radical re-telling of the story of Salomé. This multi-disciplinary performance re-visions Salomé through a feminist Jewish perspective and translates the story not only as a narrative of violence and desire, but of scapegoating and our contemporary preoccupation with erotic and aesthetic transgression, occupying a space of otherness and desire.
The creative team for Salomé: Woman of Valor includes:
- visual landscape artist Paul Clay, who is both VJ for Basement Bhangra and the set designer of the Broadway show, RENT.  
-  super virtuosic creative musicians, percussionist Deep Singh and keyboardist Shai Bachar, performing the Jewish/Arabic/Bhangra/Free Jazz/trance score with trumpeter London.
- dancer Roni Yaari, creator of Inner Spirit Dance, practitioner of all styles of belly dance from classical, modern, Arabic, Indian and beyond. 

Thursday, Aug 13, 2015
DROM 85 Ave. A, New York
7:15 pm Doors open at 6:30. $15.00 

Memorial for the Night of the Murdered Poets -- August 11

From the Congress for Jewish Culture:

Please join us on Tuesday, August 11th at 6:30 PM for a special program honoring the Yiddish artists and writers murdered in the Soviet Union on August 12, 1952. The date has become known as the "Night of the Murdered Poets". Among others, David Bergelson, David Hofshteyn, Perets Markish, Itsik Fefer, Leyb Kvitko, and Benjamin Zuskin were executed on that date in the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. 
This year we will feature Ala Zuskin Perelman - daughter of Benjamin Zuskin, principal actor in GOSET (the Moscow State Yiddish Theater) - who will share memories of her father and read from her recent biography of him, The Travels of Benjamin Zuskin.  Ms. Perelman will be available to sign copies of the book after the event.
Dr. Jonathan Brent of the YIVO will greet the audience. Professor Tom Bird of Queens College, CUNY, will deliver opening remarks. Shane Baker of the CJC will chair. In the musical program, Yelena Shmulenson, well-known Yiddish actress and singer. 
The Congress for Jewish Culture has organized the program together with the YIVO, the Jewish Labor Committee and the Workmen's Circle.

Tuesday, August 11th from 6:30 PM to 8 PM at the Center for Jewish History 15 West 16th Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues) Admission freeReserve your seat here


To give you a taste of the poets we will be honoring, please watch Shane Baker performing Peretz Markish's Brokhshtiker

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Kockleffels and the Bridges to Memory

I've often said Yiddish Eastern Europe is the Jewish Atlantis. Somehow, back in the mists of time, it was the wellspring of a good portion of global Jewish culture. Today, its traces are everywhere: in language, in food, in custom. And yet, like Atlantis, Yiddish Eastern Europe was subsumed by disaster (man made in this case.) Swallowed up by the waves, Yiddishland is gone and, we tell ourselves, all that's left is a giant history shaped hole. How can one possibly know such a lack?

These latest examples appear in a personal essay recently published in The American Scholar. That many of these words are mistranslated, mistransliterated, Yinglish, German, and/or not even Yiddish words appears to be wholly besides the point.

We've conceded the unknowability, and inaccessibility of Yiddish Eastern Europe, thus leaving its interpretation wide open to charlatans and fraudsters. It's a sad fact that many of the people who pretend to speak authoritatively about Yiddish would be more at home in the pages of Fate magazine, holding forth on the latest 'scientific' proof of Atlantis.

Paradoxically, the field of academic Yiddish is flourishing and a new generation of farbrente Yiddishists is making long needed quantum leaps in advancing Yiddish pedagogy.

But there are few points of contact between Yiddishists and the majority of American Jews. While among Yiddishists the narrative about Yiddish may be growing and changing in exciting ways, for most American Jews, the narrative hasn't changed one bit in decades. The path to Yiddish is a rickety, slightly disreputable footbridge across the vast historical chasm between then and now. And the best we can expect from non-specialized, non-academic publications is yet another list of Yiddish words the author thinks s/he knows, strung along the familiar domestic recollections. These are the phrases that connect me to my past, these were the words of my mother, aren't they juicy, aren't they just so delightfully untranslatable? 

These latest examples appear in a personal essay recently published in The American Scholar. That many of these words are mistranslated, mistransliterated, Yinglish, German, and/or not even Yiddish words appears to be wholly besides the point.

schlemiel, schnook, schmo, schmegeggie, schlub, pischer, nebbish, putz, schnorrer, gonif,  fresser,  chazer, schtarker,  faygeleh...

And my favorite: kockleffel (קאקלעפל). A kokhleffel (קאכלעפל) is a cooking spoon. Colloquially it refers to a person who sticks their nose where it does not belong and takes pleasure in stirring things up. Kockleffel is not a Yiddish word, though if it were, it would mean shitspoon, which, I'll admit, would come in handy reading this kind of drek.

Phyllis Rose, the author of the piece, holds a doctorate from Harvard in English literature. She most certainly has the education and the resources to find out that nebbish is not a Yiddish word, but nebekh is.

I found this part especially interesting:
She [Rose's mother] had many expressions for sentimental trash, because that’s the kind of book she liked to read—before casting it aside as too sentimental, just a bubbe meise. I misheard that as “bubble meise,” and thinking that meise meant masterwork, I invented the definition “soap opera,” when the actual meaning was “old wives’ tale.”
Actually, "bubbe meise" has nothing to do with bubbe/bobe (grandmother). It comes to us all the way from the middle ages and refers to a Yiddish version of a chivalric romance, The Bovo Bukh. As Michael Wex writes in Born To Kvetch, a bobe mayse came to mean a cock and bull story, or an "unbelievable tale of knights and their deeds."

Further, the Yiddish connotation of bobe mayse actually has little in common with its common translation as 'old wives' tales.' An old wives' tale is saying that rubbing a frog on your finger will get rid of a wart or going out with a wet head will give you a cold. In fact, Rose's mother's derision of her sentimental novels as bobe mayses is the authentic Yiddish usage of the term, taking us all the way back to the literary origins of the phrase!

What is maddening is that an incredibly accomplished academic like Rose would not show the slightest interest in actually finding out what any of these terms mean. It's one thing to have a personal, sentimental dialect; it's another to turn that idiosyncratic language into fodder for a magazine with the word 'Scholar' in the title.

In the popular imagination, among ordinary civilians and even the most elite academics, Yiddish remains a rigid list of misheard, misapprehended words and expressions, with an emphasis on the vulgar and the 'colorful' (oh how I shudder to hear that word.)  As I said/ranted earlier today on Twitter:
If I had a friend who thought human circulation was the work of lymph gnomes, I wouldn't think it was cute, I would think it was sad. Ignorance about the deepest parts of oneself, one's history, family, language, migration, is a sad thing. American Jews, though, have no shame. It's as if they assume there is no possible way one could learn that it's lymph node, not lymph gnome. Or that bubbe meise doesn't mean old wives's tale.
But there is some hope. There are Jewish culture workers - talented, educated, generous- who have been working tirelessly for decades. They entertain and educate widely, not just to the circles of dedicated Yiddish lovers. One of those culture workers is Michael (Meyshke) Alpert. Today we learned that he had been named by the NEA as a National Heritage Fellow, an honor he well deserves. So, mazl tov, Meysh, and thank you.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

From Wales to Anatevka and Back

Something to consider:  This week has seen an intense national discussion going on in Wales about improving and supporting Welsh language instruction at all levels. As part of Welsh language culture development, the government sponsors Eisteddfod, an all Welsh youth festival and competition. Today is the last day of the Eisteddfod competition.

Within that conversation about the value of Welsh and how best to support it, you can see this Eisteddfod entry: Fiddler on the Roof, sung by children, in Welsh. Not really a surprise, as people all over the world have found Fiddler's themes of tradition vs. modernity resonate within their own lives.

(I can't figure out how to embed the video here, but please click, you won't be disappointed.)

If you only listen to the beginning, keep an ear open for the Celtic reinterpretation of the fiddler's theme. Fantastic stuff.

And since we're talking about minority languages within English language hegemony... This is the first Yiddish language newscast I've ever seen. It's not really news so much as an in-depth look at the 2014 stabbing of a Chabad bokher in Crown Heights..

And just to tie everything together, please check out this wonderful project documenting the Jews of Wales, sponsored by the Reform community there.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

וואס קומט פאר? ?What's Happening

Couple of cool things to put on your calendar, one this weekend and one coming in June:

Greek Jewish Festival

First, this weekend Kehila Kedosha Janina is holding its first ever Greek Jewish Festival. How cool is that? It's Sunday, noon to 6 pm, celebrating the culture of this historic Romaniote congregation.

From the website:
Join the Greek Jewish Festival as we celebrate the unique Romaniote and Sephardic heritage of Kehila Kedosha Janina. Experience authentic kosher Greek foods and homemade Greek pastries, traditional Greek dancing and live Greek and Sephardic music, an outdoor marketplace full of vendors, arts and educational activities for kids, and much more!

Bonus event: Thursday night (tomorrow) at the Center for Jewish History, Sephardic Journeys: an Evening of Exploration  (tickets $36)

From the website:
Rabbi Marc Angel and Rabbi Yamin Levy will discuss The David Berg Rare Books Room's latest exhibit, Sephardic Journeys, created by the Center for Jewish History with the American Sephardi Federation. The rare books and artifacts in this exhibit reflect a rich tradition of scholarship and culture shaped by migrations, and they invite, in turn, reflection upon the physical, emotional and spiritual journeys of Jewish history. The evening will also feature a performance by Itamar Borochov, a member of Yemen Blues and the New Jerusalem Orchestra, who recently played Dizzy's Club Coca Cola (Jazz at Lincoln Center).
Sephardi refreshments by Nahmias et Fils Distillery and desserts will be served. 

2015 Symposium on Yiddish Performing Arts, Media, Language and Literature, June 16-17

And coming June 16-17, some of my favorite people in the world, together at the most inconvenient museum in the world (haha, I kid, I kid), organized by the Folksbiene's Kulturfest. Yes, I know, such a long list of names, still missing the name of a certain acerbic voice of modern Yiddish culture criticism. גיי ווייס

The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene
and The Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University
proudly present
2015 Symposium on Yiddish Performing Arts, Media, Language and Literature
June 16-17, 2015 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage 36 Battery Place in New York

Key Note Speech by Aaron Lansky, Executive Director of The Yiddish Book Center
Tuesday June 16, 2015 at 6:00 PM
Followed by a wine and cheese reception

The symposium is generously supported by a grant from the David Berg Foundation

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Life Imitates TV Tropes

Do you guys know about TV Tropes? I love TV Tropes. I can't watch anything without having either IMDB or TV Tropes open on my computer, sometimes both. Despite its name, TV Tropes isn't just about TV, but includes music, film, animation, literature and basically any kind of popular entertainment. As TV Tropes says of itself "This wiki is a catalog of the tricks of the trade for writing fiction." And for anyone who has dared to dip her toe in fiction or playwriting (ahem...), it's an invaluable resource.

Anyhoo, whilst noodling through the back streets of TV Tropes I found a couple things which spoke to the non-TV Tropes side of my brain.

There's been some discussion lately about the erasure of non-Ashkenazi Jews: who is to blame, and how to frame the dynamic between different groups of Jews.  I come to the question from the point of view of a Yiddishist, as well as someone who cares deeply about Jewish history. Both positions put me at the margins of American Jewish life. The American Jewish narrative is not just deeply ahistorical, it is also founded on a great deal of internalized self-hatred and shame about Eastern European Jewish culture. Arguing for the importance of Yiddish is seen as not only foolish,  by many, but by those looking to bring Jews of color and non-European Jews to the forefront of the cultural conversation, such a position can seem downright retrograde.

How can I argue that 'Ashkenormativity Isn't a Thing' when TV Tropes, for fucks sake, has a whole page devoted to this very idea, All Jews Are Ashkenazi.

Which, ok, yeah, it's true. I get it. And here's the thing. We've been suffocated by an avalanche of Ashkenazi representations, 99% of which are about an inch deep. We're drowning in shallow waters here, people. Jews, when they show up as Jews and not Italian crypto-Jews (George Costanza, Everyone Loves Raymond) are written by people with very little relationship to Jewishness outside bagels, rabbis in beards and 'shiksappeal.'

And this is not a new phenomenon. In 1952 Henry Popkin wrote a wonderful polemic for Commentary magazine called 'The Vanishing Jew of Our Popular Culture: The Little Man Who Is No Longer There.' In short, we have almost a century long paradox of Jewish over-representation in culture making, accompanied by a complex process of Jewish erasure from said culture industry, both from Jews and non-Jews.

Which brings us back to TV Tropes. The contributors at TV Tropes have the perspicacity to identify and dissect the presumption of 'Ashkenaziness' but still come up with statements like this, on the page You Have to Have Jews:

Oh, TV Tropes. I guess this is just one of those things that everyone knows, because the American Jewish narrative is a story we tell ourselves about a tribe of upwardly mobile, middle class, white collar, cerebral, shrinking, manual labor averse Woodys and Brendas.

Of course, this narrative is utter bullshit. How and why we reify it is for another post/book... but anyway. It leads to the periodic surprise discovery of the actual Jews in the woodpile: brawny, criminal, sour, working class, radical and yeah, a little bit dangerous.

To my point, there is a wonderful new exhibit at YIVO about the world of Yiddish speaking wrestlers and boxers. Much of the press about the exhibit sags under the weight of the risible narrative I spoke of above. Isn't it kaaarayyyyzeeee? Jews were wrestlers? And boxers? WHOODA THUNK IT?

I dunno? Anyone who knew the first thing about American Jewish history? That wouldn't be so rare if we weren't so god damn invested in whitewashing ourselves and our past. But don't expect the Jewish press to do any of the real intellectual lifting for you. And, it may go without saying, don't get your Jewish history from TV Tropes.

And more importantly, we need to find a way to hold multiple frames of analysis simultaneously: yes, non-Ashkenazi Jews are under-represented and erased from popular culture. And yes, at the same time, Ashkenazi Jews have taken the means of culture reproduction and fucked themselves over, psychically speaking.

If it were possible to see how these things intersect, and how we can build an analysis to change both, then, and only then, we might find our starting point for some very necessary cultural work.