Sunday, October 19, 2014

Happy Unholiday

Unless you've been living under an unkosher rock, you probably know that we just said goodbye and git vokh to the marathon of holidays that started with Rosh Hashanah and ended with Simkhes Toyre (and then blended into Shabes, just for a little extra fun.) For a lot of people, it's finally back to the five day a week grind.

The afternoon before Yom Kipper started I saw a colleague at work and we exchanged holiday wishes. He said 'tsom kal' to which the jerky pedant inside of me insisted on responding that "tsom kal [a light fast] is just a calque from the Yiddish of 'hot a laykhtn fast'."

He happens to live with another Yiddish pedant, so he just smiled and waved. But it was true. And not just 'tsom kal.' Not content to scold in person, I took the matter to Twitter. 'Most of modern Jewish culture is just a secret calque from Yiddish. ADMIT IT.' And while I got a little pushback on that, I also got a great reference from a Twitter friend, perfectly on point.

After yontev my brilliant Twitter friend Shlomo Kay sent me this. It's a blog post called Origins of the Phrase Hag Sameah and it's a wonderful translation and summary of a Hebrew language post on the blog of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. The thrust of the post is that the phrase hag sameah (or khag sameakh) is fairly modern, only coming into wide use at the turn of the 20th century. And it is most definitely a calque (a word for word carry over) from the Yiddish gut yontev or a freylikhn yontev.

I often talk about the way that Yiddish language and culture is erased and delegitimized-- and delegitimized by its erasure-- and this is a pretty great example.

And here's some more secret Yiddish calques off the top of my head:

gut yontev ----> khag sameakh
hot a laykhtn fast------> tsom kal
gut shabes-----> shabbat shalom
in a guter sho-----> b'sha'a tovah

Please add more in the comments!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

This Time Last Year...

Last Sukkes I was in another state, cleaning out the remnants of my mother's life and thinking about what a sukke and a cement storage unit share in common:

I was taken by the contrast between the concrete cells of the storage units and the brittle fragility of the sukke. You can't really settle into either of them. Both are peculiar abstractions of domesticity. Stage instructions. Teddy bears and photos and good china- these are props. Home is something more- a lived experience animated for a time by the people inside.

(The author with actual bear lost in the memory purge of Sukkes 2013)

Read more here.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Haunted Sukke and Open Mic at YIVO

Don't forget. THE HAUNTED SUKKE is Tuesday night at 7 pm. Tickets are $8. Call SmartTix at (212) 868-4444 or visit

You have to admit, this sounds awesome. From the YIVO blog:
To introduce people, body and soul, to the deep folkloristic roots of sukkes, [theater artist Jenny] Romaine first has to transform the Center for Jewish History. Lights will dim, homemade Torah crowns will be tied to railings, and a klezmer band will transmit big brassy sounds across the Great Hall. With the help of cardboard pickles and ears of corn, the freight elevator will become a Jewish cornucopia, and audience members will gather for a séance in the second-floor atrium.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Notes from the Past

Just found a notebook full of these weirdo notes from 1999-2000-ish. Don't act like you don't have your own weirdo notes from the past with pages of unsearched queries...

With apologies to all my Karliner readers...

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Vartn af Godot

New Yiddish Rep's triumphant production of the Yiddish language Waiting for Godot is now in previews at the Barrow Street Theater. I saw it this week and having seen it in the original run at the Castillo Theater, I'm happy to say it's even better than it was last fall.

So, that said, I have to get this off my chest. What do I love about Waiting for Godot? At least three or four times in the show, the characters actually say the name of the show. Am I the only one who gets a juvenile thrill from that?

Allen Rickman has joined the cast as Pozzo and brings his trademark Old Hollywood serious-silly verve to the role. And Shane Baker has been sharpening his clowning skills; his Vladimir has an intelligent physicality that an absurdist text like Godot demands.

Seriously, go, see it.

Buy your tickets now. Performances are limited and the show is only running through September 21st. And if you can't make it to New York to see the show, please think about supporting the work of the New Yiddish Rep, the talents behind this important new Godot.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Stories We Tell

I stumbled on this a while ago, but just decided to blog about it. PRI partners with Israel Story to bring us a slice of life from Israel, in English, in the style of This American Life.

The subject is one I've covered before: Mendy Cahan and Yung Yiddish. This particular iteration follows the 'Yiddish revival in Israel' pattern pretty much point for point, so I don't need to say much. There was just one thing that stood out to me.

Around 8:30 the narrator talks about the ways that the state of Israel suppressed and even criminalized Yiddish in an effort to promote cultural and linguistic unity. She says that all the Yiddish books lovingly brought from Eastern Europe to the new promised land now sat yellowing on the shelf. Skip ahead to the soi disant revival and Mendy collecting all those now yellowed treasures from pre-war Eastern Europe.

And yet. What we miss in the skip ahead is that after the war, the center of global Yiddish publishing shifted to Israel! I'd lay money that a great portion of the books in the collection of Yung Yiddish are actually relatively modern and published right there in Israel.

I'll quote myself, because I'm lazy:

"...from the 1950s to the 1970s the publication of Yiddish books in Israel increased by 500%.  At the same time, the number of books published in Yiddish far exceeded the number published in other world languages. In 1970, 54 Yiddish books were published in Israel but only 8 in French and 6 in German. In fact, the world center of Yiddish publishing had shifted to the state of Israel. Not a revival of Yiddish as a vernacular, ober s'iz oykhet nisht keyn kleynikayt.

The position of Yiddish in Israel is a lot more complicated than toggling between 'alive-ish' and 'dead-ish.'

 Yung Yiddish and Mendy are like catnip to journalists. You've got the quirky protagonist with his bushy eyebrows and hand rolled cigarettes. You've got a delightfully grotesque locale for a Yiddish library (in the bus station! next to the VD clinic!). And you've got a foregone conclusion, that Yiddish is a curiosity for Israelis, but ultimately, poses no threat to the cultural hegemony. It's lazy, boring journalism at its finest.  And that's a damn shame.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Nearly Lost Language Found By Intrepid Students Again. And Again. And Again.

Nearly lost Yiddish language increasingly popular among Jewish college students

This article from the JNS says that college students are getting in touch with their Ashkenazi heritage through the academic study of Yiddish. (No word on those Yiddish students whose heritage is outside the pale of Ashkenaz.)

You know, I feel like I've seen this somewhere before...

On the bright side, the author had the wisdom to get quotes from serious Yiddish teachers like Agi Legutko and Gennady Estraikh. (Agi and Gennady also happen to be friends of mine. And wonderful teachers.)

Anyway, once again, Yiddish is on the brink of extinction, young people are Columbusing it, and the Jewish institutional world continues to ignore Eastern European culture and history as an obvious point of spiritual renewal.

Ho hum....

Monday, June 16, 2014

Journalist, Attorney, Angry Lady About Town and... Playwright?

Now seems like a good time to share some exciting news. For the past few months/years I've been working on/sweating blood over my first play. This summer A brokhe will see its premiere staged reading. Squee!

The reading will take place at Klezkanada, and though I know I'm hardly incentive enough, if you haven't thought about attending, you really, really should think about it. Klezkanada is a world unto itself, a week long Jewish arts retreat in the spectacular Laurentian mountains of Quebec. (shabes/kosher/all religions friendly)  More info here.

And now, about that play...

A brokhe by Rokhl Kafrissen

Just Another Brooklyn Gangster Ghost Romance

KlezKanada is proud to present the world premiere staged reading of A brokhe this August!
A brokhe (a blessing) is a new bi-lingual (Yiddish-English) play by Rokhl Kafrissen. Set in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, in the early 1950s, A brokhe takes on the neglected moment in American-Jewish history when thousands of Eastern European Jews arrived in the United States after the horrors of WWII. Before they were known as survivors, they were simply refugees. 
In A brokhe, members of the Brayndls family find themselves haunted by the wartime past and threatened by American forces they don’t quite understand. With guns, ghosts, and gangsters, A brokhe explores the role of violence in contemporary Jewish history and the Jewish response to trauma. 
This staged reading, directed by Avia Moore and featuring the talent of the KlezKanada artistic community, is an exciting opportunity to experience the world premiere of a new piece of Yiddish theatre.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Money, Love, and Shame!


I saw Money, Love, and Shame! on Sunday night. Now, full disclosure, Yelena and Allen are old friends (and colleagues) of mine. However, I would not say this if it weren't true: I laughed from beginning to end. I loved this show. And I'll go even further: Money, Love, and Shame! exemplifies what Yiddish theater can, and should, be in the 21st century. To pull off a show like this you need a deep understanding of historical context; you need a certain kind of genius to reinterpret what would otherwise be dated and boring; and, most important, you need the comedic chops to pull it all off.

Money, Love, and Shame isn't a one off thing. It is part of an ongoing artistic project, and the product of hundreds of hours of research by Allen and Yelena, slogging through, let's be honest, a lot of crappy, turn of the century shund. Whether we like it or not, this stuff is also part of our heritage. It's truly a joy to see a work of art that takes a hard look at that trashy past and finds something so wonderful.

This production has it all. Don't wait. Two more shows, Tuesday and Wednesday night.

News from the first couple of modern Yiddish theater, Yelena Shmulenson and Allen Rickman. They have a new show and it looks terrific:

("Gelt, Libe, Un Shande")

Sex!  Alcoholism!  Corruption!  Sickness and Death!  Weddings!

On the night before she is to take her immigrant widower father to Denver for his Galloping Tuberculosis, young Sonia Eydlman is ‘ruined’ by lawyer Albert Liebhartz in a fit of drunken madness.  Albert had promised to marry Sonia, but is forced instead to marry Barney Bender’s daughter Cecilia, the nymphomaniac.  Slumlord Bender plans to promote Albert to the bench so that Albert can help him kick the “chiselers” out of his tenements.  And while innocent Sonia finds a new life as an alcoholic prostitute, Harry, Cecilia’s lovesick boytoy chauffeur, makes his own plans... 

Isaac Zolotarevsky’s legendary (notorious?) 1910 melodrama, once a staple of the popular Yiddish stage, has not been seen in New York in many decades.  In a new English translation by Allen Lewis Rickman it will be seen for four performances only (June 8-11) at 7:30 pm at the Secret Theatre in Long Island City.  The play will also feature live piano accompaniment by Steve Sterner, of Film Forum fame.

MONEY, LOVE, AND SHAME! is being presented as part of Target Margin Theater’s Lab series, which runs from June 4-14,  and is the final project in the theater’s two-year exploration of Yiddish theatre derived material.  Among the other projects in the series are an adaptation of Osip Dymov’s “subway dream play” BRONKS EKSPRES and plays based on works by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholem Aleichem.

Tickets are $15 and are available here: