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.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

New Yiddish Theater Coming Up -- Making Stalin Laugh, May 17-18

This comes to me from my friend, the doyenne of the New York Yiddish theater scene, Yelena Shmulenson.

Next week, the good people at New Yiddish Rep will be presenting a brand new, multi-lingual (English-Yiddish-Russian) production of David Schneider's Making Stalin Laugh.  I suggest you get your tickets now, as this is strictly a limited engagement and looks to be pretty fantastic.

In 1921 the GOSET troupe moved into a theater right near the Kremlin.

These flamboyant, neurotic, egotistical actors
performed world-class theater in Yiddish for huge audiences...
...most of whom didn’t even speak the language.

They did it for 28 years, through purge, terror, and paranoia.

Then they went too far.

Vadim Krol   Sergey Nagorny   Dani Marcus  Gera Sandler 
Adam Shapiro   Yelena Shmulenson   Suzanne Toren

May 17th and 18th at 7:00pm

Theatre 80 St. Marks Pl.

all seats $25.00

Tickets at

For more info visit

Directed by Allen Lewis Rickman

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Felix and Meira

With its sly nods to Harold and Maude and The Graduate,  the new Canadian indie Felix and Meira beats, if weakly, with the heart of a black comedy. Like those two films, Felix and Meira tells the story of mismatched lovers, with a slightly absurd fairytale air. That one half of the couple is Hasidic turns out to be not terribly relevant to the story, even as Felix and Meira is being hailed in some corners as a great movie about the Hasidic experience.

Meira (Hadas Yaron) is a beautiful young wife and mother living within the Hasidic community of Montreal's Mile End. (If, like me, you have a soft spot for the slushy beauty of Montreal in winter, Felix and Meira is worth the price of admission just for that.) Meira's husband Shulem (Luzer Twersky) can't understand why she is so distant: locking herself in the bathroom, listening to forbidden records, falling into sudden dead faints. 

By chance, Meira meets Felix (Martin Dubreuil), a slightly older, slightly rakish Francophone hispter. If Meira is trapped by a lack of resources and opportunities, Felix struggles with too much. He must make peace with his dying father, and the wealth his father represents. What can Meira do with so little? Why has Felix done so little with so much?

We learn why Felix is the way he is, but no explanation is ever really given for Meira's unrest. Yes, Meira is an artist. We know because we see her sketching when she catches the eye of Felix. But the contemporary OTD (Off the Derekh, meaning those who leave the Hasidic/Haredi community) memoirs (like Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox and Shulem Deen’s All Who Go Do Not Return) hinge on the cracks that form between individual and community, whether listening to a forbidden radio, reading blogs or simply enduring an intolerable dynamic of communal abuse.  

On screen, however, Meira's angst is taken as self-evident. Her husband is confused, but loving. She has only one child, not five. What has brought Meira to such a desperate point where she is willing to jeopardize her entire life, perhaps even sacrifice her child? We never really discover what makes Meira tick, we never see her struggle against the totalizing worldview that comes with growing up in a fundamentalist community. 

And yet, I cried through much of Felix and Meira. Not because I was touched by Meira's characterization (thin as it was), but because having read about, met, and befriended a number of people who have left the Hasidic world, I could fill in the details myself. Seeing Meira and her sketchbook, I thought of Frieda Vizel, a dryly brilliant cartoonist who left Kiryas Joel, went to Sarah Lawrence and now runs tours of Hasidic Williamsburg. Seeing two young people trapped in a marriage not of their making, I thought of any number of people I know who found themselves married off at eighteen to total strangers. 

In that sense, Felix and Meira didn't have to do much to move me as an audience member. These are not stories lacking in drama.  For me, the humorless Yiddishist, all Felix and Meira had to do was get the Yiddish right. And that it did. With one jarring exception, the language and setting were beautifully rendered, a major achievement in itself, reflecting the input of ex-Hasid turned actor Twersky.

Yaron and Twersky give beautiful, understated performances, gracefully moving between Yiddish, French and English. It would have been easy to drift toward melodrama given the storyline, yet the writers stay away from big gestures or lurking trauma. Most importantly Twersky's Shulem, Meira's husband, with his soulful eyes, is no monster, but, like Meira, a young person coping the best he can with limited education in matters of the heart. I found Shulem so sympathetic that when he finally confronts Felix canoodling with Meira, I found myself wishing he had really clocked him, instead of taking Felix down in a comical hail of slaps. The dramatic tension simmers at low, even at the moments when most is at stake.

And that's the quirky, fairytale quality of Felix and Meira. In real life, brutal custody battles are the norm for those leaving the community. Wayward souls like Meira are rarely dealt with in such a gentle manner. Most of those who leave have paid dearly, some have paid the highest cost, either with their children, or their lives. There are few fairytale endings in the real world.

Like Harold and Maude and The Graduate, Felix and Meira relies heavily on a pop music soundtrack to amplify the story. I teared up as forlorn Meira peered through strange windows, watching a couple make love, all while Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat came on, handed me a tissue, and told me it was ok to let it all out. A good cry is one of the fundamental pleasures of cinema, isn't it? 

Unlike Harold and Maude and The Graduate, however, Felix and Meira lacks the nerve for black comedy. Some critics have dinged it for being excessively gloomy. A great black comedy embraces the gloom with glee, wringing comedy out of angst. When Felix dresses in full Hasidic garb in a desperate effort to see Meira, it just comes off as cringeworthy, a throwback to the silliness of a movie like The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob, a French comedy in which a bigot is forced to hide out in Hasidic garb, passing as a ‘Rabbi’ with much hijinks ensuing. But Felix and Meira is too hesitant to really exploit the absurdity inherent in cross-cultural romance.

Indeed, Felix and Meira positions itself as a straight OTD narrative, but with little exploration of what it means to be a woman trapped in that community or what Meira really longs for, besides forbidden music. (How Meira would come to have a record player and rather esoteric taste in records is another matter.)

Had the filmmakers committed to either comedy or topical drama, Felix and Meira might have ended up a minor classic. For my money, the best portrayal of the OTD narrative is still the much less slick, but more psychologically insightful, Mendy: A Question of Faith. (2003). As it is, Felix and Meira is an entertaining but slight Yiddish flavored fairytale.