Saturday, January 19, 2019

Who Will Write Our History

Brief post to say I have a think piece up at Tablet about the remarkable new movie Who Will Write Our History. The movie is part dramatization, part documentary, which manages to balance story telling with traditional talking heads. In the piece I argue that WWWOH isn't just essential viewing, it can, and should, make us reevaluate the state of Holocaust education.

Today, as even the youngest generation of survivors reaches old age, anxiety about the disappearance of firsthand testimony has risen, and we’re seeing more public concern about a looming demographic reality: “The youngest survivors are in their mid-70s, with most in their 80s and 90s. In a future no longer beyond the horizon, no one will remain to testify firsthand to Nazi Germany’s systematic effort to exterminate the Jews in the territory it controlled.”  
Some have turned to technology to fight the clock. The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center recently unveiled their New Dimensions in Testimony oral history project, featuring holograms of 15 Holocaust survivors. Each of the 15 participants has gone through a rigorous filming and testimony process, making it possible for museumgoers and students to ‘interact’ with the simulated survivors.
...
There’s no question that first person survivor testimony will continue to have an important place in contemporary Holocaust education for Jews and non-Jews. But the release of Who Will Write Our History has the potential to effect a sea change in the way we think about Holocaust education. Indeed, I would go so far as to call it the most important Holocaust movie in decades. Who Will Write Our History is the first Holocaust documentary that centers victim stories along with the written and visual materials they created to document their lives.


Of course a 90 minute movie cannot begin to communicate the whole story of the Oyneg Shabes as told by Sam Kassow’s book or the vast treasures of the archive. This beautiful and sensitively done documentary adaptation of Kassow's book is, in a sense, an appetizer, an introduction to the story that is only now finally available to Jews all over the world. We should see it as an invitation to rethink our relationship to the Jews of Poland, not as a faceless mass of victims created between 1939 and 1945, but individuals shaped by life before the war, and who fought to live, and die, with dignity.


Who Will Write Our History is playing now at Quad Cinema and theaters around the country.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Three Identical Strangers

I have a new piece up at Hey Alma about one of 2018's most intriguing documentaries, Three Identical Strangers. I found the movie compelling, but, as you will see in my analysis, I was disappointed that the filmmakers didn't, or couldn't, explore the particular Jewish dimensions of the story:
Three Identical Strangers is a story about power: the power of social service agencies to create, and destroy, families, as well as the power of the scientific establishment to turn human beings into subjects. One of the urgent questions raised by the movie is what, if anything, will it take to force the powerful to admit fault to the powerless? 
That all the players in the triplets’ story — social service agency, scientists, parents, babies, even the newspaper editor who broke the story — were themselves Jewish, makes the whole thing even more disturbing. In this story, rather than conflict between Jews and non-Jews, the key distinctions fall along lines of social standing, education, and class. And yet, the filmmakers seem reluctant to explore the deep, complicated Jewishness of the story.


There's one aspect of the story, or my take on it, that didn't make it into the piece. Three Identical Strangers is a movie propelled by the question of nature versus nurture and the belief that the nature/nurture equation could be solved if we just had enough data. 


But what seems equally important to me is a third variable, self-knowledge. The ability for a human being to know who they are, and where they come from, is as crucial to the fulfillment of human potential as genes or environmental blessings. The triplets and twins in Peter Neubauer’s study were cruelly denied that self-knowledge.

In 2019, American Jews, especially those of Ashkenazi heritage, are similarly adrift, cut off from their specific histories. If you've been a reader here before, you already know the many ways and wherefores of this situation. I was reminded again of our dilemma of historical amnesia at the gorgeous, recently closed Jewish Museum exhibit CHAGALL LISSITZKY MALEVICH. The exhibit, on tour from the Centre Pompidou, is a fascinating look at the city of Vitebsk, a second tier provincial city which, for a few years, was at the cutting edge of modern art. What you don't get from the exhibit, though, is that the city was almost 50% Jewish and Yiddish speaking. 

I'll bring just one example of how the exhibit misses an opportunity to bring out the particular Yiddish quality of Vitebsk and its art scene. An entire set of Lissitzky's Had Gadya lithographs is on display. It was published by the Yiddish language culture organization the Kultur-Lige. The lithographs themselves are captioned with the Yiddish words on top and the Aramaic on the bottom.

iz gekumen di kats un fartsukt dos tsigele
At the Jewish Museum, however, the explanatory cards that accompany the series of lithographs only refer to the Aramaic text. I started grumbling out loud and ended up talking to a couple of older ladies next to me. They had no idea that there was Yiddish in the illustrations, or even that Yiddish was written with Hebrew letters. 

If the curators can't even be bothered to accurately describe the artworks, no wonder they describe the Kultur-Lige-  the Yiddish cultural organization of the early post-Revolution period par excellence-  as "an organization that promoted Jewish culture."

ARGH! 



Despite the care and resources put into the show, these errors of omission end up obscuring as much as they illuminate, and for an American Jewish public, which, in the main, cannot tell the difference between Aramaic and Yiddish, this is yet another tragic missed opportunity to educate.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

A Very un-Yiddish Scandal

I'm two-thirds of the way through the new Amazon Prime mini-series A Very English Scandal and let me say, I'm kind of obsessed. I'm not usually that interested in political scandal stories, but if you're any kind of Anglophile, you will be sucked in immediately by it's dry, semi-horror semi-comic tone, sweeping green vistas, and numerous cozy pubs. In between the buggery, attempted murder and the endless search for one National Insurance card. Also, Hugh Grant is a revelation as Jeremy Thorpe.

But, this isn't about that. First, let me say, there's absolutely nothing Jewish about A Very English Scandal. Isn't that the whole point of being an Anglophile? The fantasy world where one's own angst is blissfully non-existent?

HOWEVER.

I was indeed taken aback in episode one, when the Hugh Grant character (Jeremy Thorpe) takes his new would-be lover, Norman Scott, back to his *mother's* house and, once there, woos him (??) by playing this duet with his mother, I mean, Ursula.

(Apologies for the very stupidly shot video. Stay with me.)

Anyone who's spent a minute in the world of klezmer would recognize this tune, sometimes labeled as a Cirba and usually as Hora Staccato. I know it from versions by Moishe Oysher, Oysher and the Barry Sisters, as well as Dave Tarras. 

Here's Moishe Oysher and the Barry Sisters absolutely killing it. Apologies for the video; I couldn't find the version I wanted on Youtube. 






In the past, it had never occurred to me that this tune that felt so incredibly Yiddish might actually be... not.

But, it did occur to me just now, when the producers of A Very English Scandal decided to use it for a particular emotional moment. This very powerful man, Thorpe, has brought home a very vulnerable younger man, Scott, and is in the process of wooing- or more like wowing- him into doing what he wants. But, still, it struck me as odd that the producers would choose this tune, of all things, for that moment, especially when Hugh Grant appears to be struggling to keep up with his violin finger miming. Why pick a piece that was so difficult to pull off? And so Jewish??? 

A little more research showed me that this Hora Staccato is not by Moishe Oysher, or even Dave Tarras, but was composed in 1906 by a Roma violin virtuoso named Grigoraș Dinicu. The tune probably gained its greatest fame with another virtuoso, Jascha Heifetz. Heifetz often saved Hora Staccato as a show stopping encore number.



So, that makes a lot more sense. Thorpe was a very confident, indeed, arrogant man. Of course he'd pull out a literal virtuosic show stopper to try to impress his young friend, and of course he'd think he had the chops to pull it off. Faster, he cries. That moment so perfectly encapsulates Thorpe's arrogance and vanity, some of the very qualities that would, we know now, end his career in total ignominy.

Anyway, Hora Staccato is a great tune. And I'm glad I can give props to the real composer, the great Grigoraș Dinicu.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Unusual Jews

Happy almost goyish New Year! 
(Jump to the bottom for a couple juicy Yiddish events)

Despite having a disgusting cold, I just spent a magical almost-week at Yiddish New York. One of my personal highlights was having the honor of presenting my work to friends and colleagues. First, I gave an updated and expanded version of a lecture debuted last year called 'The Deathless Klezmer Revival.' In order to understand better what's been going on in the past oh, 46 years of the 'Klezmer Revival', I dove into some comparative revival history. Did you know about the ragtime revival of the '70s? I didn't before I wrote this lecture, but boy, do I now. In addition to doing comparative history, we talked about the elements of a revival, how they apply to the work being done on klezmer, and why the word 'revival' just won't go away. It was really, really fun.

My second lecture was completely new. 'The Most Unusual Jew I Know' was written in honor of my friend Shane Baker's yoyvl, his fiftieth birthday. I opened with a brief overview of Shane's multi-varied body of work, from literary translator to teacher to performer. But what I really focused on were Shane's influences: from the downtown camp extravaganzas of Charles Ludlam to the fabulous women of the Yiddish stage. All of those influences can be seen in his newest, and in my opinion, most significant, new work, a drag character called Mitzi Manna. It's in the persona of Mitzi that all these influences speak- across artistic milieux, across time, and across continents. Throw in a dollop of Judith Butler (no, but seriously) and you've got an extremely entertaining, and, if I do say so myself, provocative afternoon.


Shane as Mitzi Manna as the non-binary Jew


Both lectures are available for your Hadassah meeting, university Yiddish club or Hillel. I can even bring Shane, too, if you have the budget.

If you missed Shane's triumphant performance as Mitzi during Yiddish New York, you can still catch his brilliant new interpretation of MONISH, the classic Peretz prose poem about Yiddish romance. I thought I had heard everything there was to hear about Monish. Until I saw this production. I'm serious. You need to see this.


The show will be preceded by a concert by visiting pianist David Serebryanik, including Three Piano Pieces by Georg Kreisler; Gershwin's Preludes; excerpts from Viktor Ullmann's The Lay of Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke; as well as original preludes of David's own.


Details: 

MONISH AND OTHER WORKS
Wednesday, January 2nd
7:30 PM
Scorca Hall at Opera America
330 Seventh Avenue, 7th Floor
Admission $25


Get your tickets here

....Coming up later this week at the Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center in the Bronx, Sunday, January 6th at 1:30. Rukhl Schaechter, Editor of the Forverts will be speaking (in Yiddish) on possibly the most divisive topic in Jewish history, gefilte fish. Lecture followed by (if a devastating sweet vs. pepper brawl hasn't broken out) a performance by the fabulous Sasha Lurje



Contribution: $5 Members: Free.
Information: 917-930-0295




And finally, so much of what happens during the year in the Yiddish and klezmer world is facilitated by magic of Klezkanada. Please think about giving them an end of year donation to keep the magic going.



Friday, December 21, 2018

Yep, It's a Thing

My latest for Hey Alma, Yiddish Porn is Officially a Thing, is up now.

My editor made me take out the best pun, though. Annie Sprinkle has started a new chapter in her life as a fierce protector of water and educator on all things therein, leading to her being the sexiest example of kishmoy ken hu ever.

OK, I got it out of my system. Please click over and give it a (furtive) read!

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

My Great-Grandfather Wasn't a Bundist

It's the end of the year and I'm shaking things up a little. I've posted two long read essays over at Medium. One is called My Great-Grandfather Wasn't a Bundist and the other is called
Beyond Demographic Panics and Contraceptive Virtuosos: Building a New Jewish Agenda for 2019. Both are kinda self-explanatory, both contain many of the key themes of this year in the Jewish thought-o-sphere,  as well as some thoughts about the future. How's that for an exciting inducement to read?

From Beyond Demographic Panics


They're both pretty good, if I do say so myself, so please, click on over and take a read.

Thanks!

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Kortn-shpiln iz an umglik -- and other lessons from Yiddish Communists

Hey! It's Khanike and my new Golden City is here, all about the weirdness of everyone's favorite eight day festival of something something miracles? oppression? triumph of Jewish zealots? latkes?

In any case, it's a week to argue about our conflicts and contradictions. I guess that makes Khanike the best Jewish holiday!

Rather than think about the weirdness of the story of Khanike, my Golden City this week takes a look at how Khanike figures in stories by Sholem Aleichem and I.L. Peretz. It's all about got's vunders/holy miracles vs. the wheel of fortune.

Though card playing was considered treyf, there was one day a year it was not only OK, but encouraged. Not Khanike, but Christmas. As I learned from Michael Wex, because Torah study is often done for the merit of the deceased, no Torah could be learned on Christmas should, khas v’sholem, some of that merit find its way to the guy whose birthday was being celebrated by everyone else. What else to do but the spiritual opposite of learning Torah: spending the night playing cards.
It’s strange isn't it, that one of our most beloved Jewish festivals, Khanike, is so strongly associated with gambling. I speak, of course, of dreydl. Lucky for the gambling-mad hero of “Benny’s Luck,” “there was one week of the year when we were allowed to gamble. Did I say ‘allowed’? It was considered a good deed to gamble, a regular commandment! That was the week of Chanukah and we played with the dreydl.” Our narrator is perhaps exaggerating for his own justification. While the other boys enjoy playing dreydl, he alone is compelled to it. As we learn, his gambling doesn’t just cost him his lunch money, ultimately, it costs him his dignity.
As I note above, gambling, especially kortn-shpiln/card games, was strongly frowned upon in traditional Judaism. Playing cards was the literal opposite of what an erlikhe Yid was supposed to do. What's interesting though, is how that taboo lingered, even in the most secular, politicized Yiddishist circles. As I was preparing this week's column, I happened to pull a small booklet off my shelf. It's called Zingen Mir/Sing for Peace, and was assembled by Sam Liptzin. In it I found a song called Kortn-shpiln iz an umglik (Playing Cards is a Misfortune), words by Liptzin himself. (It's adapted from a pre-existing song called Libe iz an umglik). How odd that an anti-card playing song is not just being included in a Yiddish folksong collection in 1974, but that it was newly composed! Why? And for whom?

Kortn-shpiln iz an umglik - Playing Cards is a misfortune
Shpiln kortn iz an umglik oyf der velt/
in yeder hoyz, vu dos kumt nor arayn/
es kost-op azoy fil tsayt un gelt/
dertsu iz dos mentshlekh nit fayn
farvos nit lernen beser tsu visn/
un epes der mentshayt gor brengen/
kortn makht fun alts opgerisn/
kortn brengt-- shisn un hengn!
So, not to alarm you, but playing cards only brings misery into every house, it wastes time and money, wouldn't you be better off learning something and becoming a mentsh? Playing cards destroys everything! And it may just get you hung or shot. ...YIKES!

Zingen Mir is an eclectic collection of songs and contributors, with the Star Spangled Banner and We Shall Overcome next to songs from something called Sovetishn Buch- Yidishe Folks Lider (A Soviet Book of Jewish Folk Songs) and poems by Edith Segal. How to describe the milieu from which Zingen Mir arose? It's too easy to say stam Yiddish Communists. What does Yiddish Communists even mean? Zingen Mir is dated 1974,  almost 20 years post-Hungary, post-Kruschev revelations. Who are these people? What are they doing? What did they believe?

I have a slim volume of Edith Segal poetry on my shelf about the Rosenbergs. An ad in the inside of the English language side of Zingen Mir is for 'Tales of a Tailor: Humor and Tragedy in the Struggles of the Early Immigrants Against the Sweatshop'. (Translated from the Yiddish by Max Rosenfeld). Liptzin was a Frayhayt contributor from the very beginning. But I would say his most important contribution, and the way to understand people like him, is through their cultural work, writing poetry, assembling song books, producing texts for teaching, and so forth. The revolution was no longer forthcoming. This movement was now very solidly backward-looking. Which is not to discount the activism of people like Liptzin and his circle. (See especially the activism of the Emma Lazarus Federation for a fascinating example of ongoing radical consciousness.)

The book where I found the Peretz story I reference in my column was put out by YKUF (the Yiddish Communist cultural group) in the 1960s.  I think it's safe to say that these people are not motivated or driven in any real way by the dictates of the Comintern. Which is not to apologize for them or whitewash anything, only to offer a functional analysis of their world. (OK, this is already going very afield, I'm gonna rein it in....)

Given that very particular milieu, why do we find a song about the grave dangers of playing cards in Zingen Mir? I'm not entirely sure. My friend, the Yiddishist and folklorist Itzik Gottesman mentioned to me that there is a khanike feuilleton of Sholem Aleykhem in which he describes going to a khanike party in Kyiv and going around asking, as they do in the gemore, מאי חנוכה -what is khanike and why do we kindle lights? Instead of getting an answer, he is driven away by his friends who only want to play cards. I imagine this is exactly the kind of thing that a kultur-tuer like Liptzin would have read. He may have even grown up in a traditional home where there was a taboo against playing cards.  What matters is not just that the taboo lingered, but that a person like Liptzin, whose job it was to continually refine and repackage material that reflected the values of his peers, thought it was worthy of enshrining in a new 'folk' song so these Yiddish values would continue to be transmitted. And it worked! Here it is, end of 2018, and I can't stop thinking about how goyish it is to play cards.

Got's vunders! A khanike nes! zol zayn a freylikhn!







Thursday, November 15, 2018

Reincarnation of a Frog and Other Anthems

(Read my latest Rokhl's Golden City about transmigrations and Socalled now)

Last night Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird brought their roaring blend of klezmer folk punk to Littlefield, part of a North American tour for the new CD, The Butcher's Share. I'm not ashamed to say I yelled my lungs out singing along with the instant anthem 99% Nayn-Un-Nayntsik. (99% is songwriter Josh Waletzky's celebration of class solidarity as well as the song that coined the essential new word fuck-u-nity. It's extreeeemly catchy. Anyway...)





Painted Bird was supported by Brooklyn radical klez phenomenon Tsibele. I felt a bit of an insider-outsider vibe when part of the crowd got really into yelling 'daloy capitalism' (down with capitalism) then talked loudly over Tsibele's incredible instrumental numbers.

Look, I'm all about a good anti-capitalist chant. We all need some catharsis these days. But I can't help getting salty about the people who are only there for the chants and get bored when it's time for a  juicy terkisher. You can't separate the one from the other, or at least, you can't where I come, which is the same place Tsibele and Daniel Kahn come from: the world of Klezkanada and integrated Yiddish folk art. But... not everyone is from that same place. And I want lots of success for my extremely talented friends, but that also means their work is going to be received by people who don't know what a terkisher is and frankly, may not even care.

Which, you know, that's obviously their prerogative. But when it comes to the political stuff I hold on to my saltiness. I have seen for the last couple of years how Dan's work, anthemic and powerful as it is, has been picked up by young Jewish radicals looking for cultural touchstones. Of course as an old fogey, I am conflicted that his work, which is so deeply playful and and nuanced and interconnected... I'm worried about that work being flattened into one crude political reading without any of the nuance that's been pre- baked into his projects. Dan loves anthems. He did a whole album of them with Psoy Korolenko called The Unternationale. The point wasn't an endorsement of Communism. Or socialism or Zionism or Bundism,  but the construction of a dialectic by putting all those anthems in the same room.

Anyhoo... I'm the gatekeeping asshole who will call you out for holding a Yiddish sign with spelling mistakes at a demo if you don't actually speak Yiddish. Sorry. You're free to hold whatever sign you want, of course. I'm not the police and I've been given no special power to stop you from doing whatever you want to do. But I will use whatever platform I have to remind Jews that you cannot divorce the politics from the language and the language from the history, and if you like the politics, and you like the slogans, I promise you'll get even more out of it if you learn how to spell them correctly.

This is all a preamble really to tell you to read my latest profile for Tablet, this one of my friend Josh Dolgin. Josh and Dan are the same age and are both fucking geniuses in their own way, as well as having been nurtured by the same cultural scene. In my review of Josh's latest album di Frosh, one of the things that struck me was that he closed the album with the mid-century pro-Israel, Yiddish language anthem Am Yisroel Chai.  It took me by surprise because while Josh has a sense of humor in everything he does, his work is most definitely not in the ironic or subversive mode you'll find on a CD like The Unternationale. It felt almost strange to encounter Am Yisroel Chai by itself, unbalanced, as it were, by an anthem of equal and opposite political verve.  Are we even allowed to be this earnest in 2018? Earnestly Zionist, even? According to Josh, at least, the answer is why the hell not?

Keep in mind that the origins of di Frosh go back to an invitation Josh got from his hometown synagogue to help celebrate their 50th anniversary with a set of new Yiddish songs. Perhaps Temple Israel in Ottawa isn't quite the place to wheel out a Yiddish IWW workers song (should such a thing even exist, for example) just for balance. But also, Josh's work is subversive in its own way, as I get into in my profile.

In any case, di Frosh is a sonic delight on every level and you should get it immediately. Right after you read my article about it.




Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Yiddish Tevye That Might've Been...

There's a rumor (ahem) that the Folksbiene's smash production of Fiddler oyfn dakh is getting extended and moving to an off-Broadway theater next year. [I've been told the New York Post got the details wrong and nothing is certain yet ... but... ]

If and when it happens, this Fiddler's move to off-Broadway isn't that surprising, Fiddler is a gem of American musical theater and this cast (with my fave Jackie Hoffman as Yente) is superb. Now, don't get me wrong, Steven Skybell's Tevye is a powerhouse; his scene with the rebellious Chava had me in tears. But, oh, what I wouldn't give to see Broadway's original Tevye, Zero Mostel, do Fiddler in Yiddish. My friend Shane Baker hipped me to this rare clip of Zero singing in Yiddish. Though the audience is laughing, his performance had me in full body chills. The man had chops. But don't listen to me. Just watch.

(The song is called Mit a Nodl, On a Nodl/With a Needle, Without a Needle)




(and the lyrics)


Saturday, October 27, 2018

Isaac Bashevis Singer Doesn't Have a Cold

You know that classic celebrity profile ‘Frank Sinatra Has a Cold’? Gay Talese spent months tailing Frank Sinatra, trying to get an interview. He never got it, but the resulting portrait of the man, and the celebrity apparatus surrounding him, became a New Journalism classic. Now imagine that, but me and Shane Baker, waiting at a very swanky, very gay Upper East Side piano bar. He’s arranged for me to meet a famous Yiddish speaking, Israeli faith healing psychic who’s in town for a few weeks. 

Shane and ‘Guy*’ had met earlier at the same bar where Guy regaled him (in Yiddish) with tales of his childhood job delivering flowers to Habima greats, including the Dybbuk’s original Leahele, Hannah Rovina. Rovina (whose wax figure still sits eerily on the second floor of the Migdal Shalom in Tel Aviv) was a demanding presence on the Israeli stage, supposedly so strict that she would stop a performance to scold youngsters eating sunflower seeds. Guy had actually met La Rovina. He spoke a beautiful Yiddish. He could heal my aura. He had great stories. Was I dying to meet him? You bet.

Just one problem. ‘Guy’ never showed up. It had seemed bashert; dybbuks were in the air. A few weeks earlier Shane and I saw the magnificent new Gesher Theatre Dybbuk at John Jay College. Gesher brought this production to North American for just a handful of performances in Toronto and New York. Which is an absolute shame, because writer Roee Chen and director Yevgeny Arye have created something not just sumptuously beautiful and different, but smart, scary, and good. This Dybbuk isn’t beholden to the somewhat wooden German Expressionistic style of the 1937 movie. It disposes of the prologue story and takes us right to the drama of Leah and her thwarted love Khonen, filling out the story of not just Khonen and Leah but her loutish father, Sender. This Dybbuk makes its characters into real people while still telling an otherworldly story. 

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about a Hebrew Dybbuk, but it only took me a few minutes to get used to seeing this very Eastern European story with a Modern Hebrew accent. Though the Gesher company has returned to Israel, this Dybbuk is in repertory and if you’re in the Tel Aviv-Yafo area you might be able to see it; make sure you check their website for updated information.  …

The Dybbuk has dominated the category of Yiddish gothic so thoroughly since its debut on the stage in the 1920s that few stories have been able to compete. Which is why, when I was in Toronto for this summer’s Ashkenaz festival, my one absolute cannot miss event was the screening of Dean Gold’s new Yiddish language horror short, Shehita.  Shehita is an original, a genuinely creepy armrest gripper, the kind of movie that makes you realize most modern horror could be trimmed by 90 minutes and lose absolutely nothing. 

Shehita tells the eerie story of a Hasidic couple living on an isolated Canadian dairy farm where something has gone terribly, terribly wrong. Horror movies depend on the transgression of categories: living and dead, man and animal and so on. Traditional Judaism is preoccupied with the maintenance of category boundaries, making it ripe for horror exploitation, which Shehitadoes so very well.

I was somewhat apprehensive  about Shehita. Would the Yiddish be any good? Would it lean on corny, exoticizing tropes about Hasidim? I was relieved on both counts, and the casting of my friend, Yiddish theater stalwart Avi Hoffman, as a man caught between science and faith, secular and insular, was absolutely brilliant. I don’t want to give t away more than that as it looks like there will be more chances to see Shehita this summer, whether via streaming platforms, film festivals, or both… 

Someone who always brought the spooky, of course, was Isaac Bashevis Singer. We’re having something of a Bashevis moment. With a bit of fanfare the Yiddish Book Center recently announced that they’re collaborating with the Singer estate to finally make Singer’s books available in the original Yiddish.   

This is big news. Among the millions of pages of Yiddish literature now available digitally, the Singer oeuvre was conspicuously missing. This won’t be everything of course; there are still stories that were published in places like the Forverts and never collected for publication, for example. But it’s an exciting start.

Dramatizations of Singer’s work have been kind of hit or miss. But I had an insight at the fabulous Yiddish Book Center-NYPL launch event a few weeks ago. The night was built around an all star panel of Bashevis scholars and writers. Which was terrific. But what blew me away was the ultra-rare screening of a movie starring the man himself, Isaac Singer’s Nightmare and Mrs. Pupko’s Beard. It was shot by legendary photographer Bruce Davidson, and the collaboration came about because Davidson and Singer lived in the same Upper West Side building. 

What to say about Mrs. Pupko’s Beard? Blending a Bashevis short story and an improvised meta-narrative about a Yiddish writer on the Upper West side,  it’s somewhere between a Saturday Night Live short film and a Christopher Guest mockumentary, but with Yiddish. Mrs. Pupko’s Beard might be one of the weirdest films I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of weird films. Its tale of two men’s obsession with a bearded lady cries out for contemporary gender analysis. And the biggest revelation? Bashevis is a total ham. He loves being on screen. He’s spry as hell. I’m a Bashevis fan but clearly no script can top the magnetism of the man himself. I’m hoping this Bashevis moment will include a revival of this lost gem…

If you liked Bad Rabbi, you will love a new walking tour called Mystics and Fortune Tellers of the Lower East Side. Widows and single women led precarious lives in many ways and this tour uses primary historical texts and location sites to bring you into their lives. Some are familiar to us, like the women who turned to psychics to find the husbands who had abandoned them, (the infamous farshvundene mener  or disappeared husbands gallery.) Some are less well known,  like the ones who used mentalism and witchcraft to support themselves. Highly recommended.   []




*No, it’s not Uri Geller.




WATCH: If you’re in Toronto this month you can catch a screening of Shehita at Temple Sinai Congregation of Toronto, November 9th at 9pm as part of their Renaissance Film Festival
MAKE SOME YIDDISH NOISE: In Whitechapel Noise: Jewish Immigrant Life in Yiddish Song and Verse, London 1884-1914. [1] Vivi Lachs tells the story of Eastern European immigrants in turn of the century London. It’s a fascinating and funny tour through their Yiddish popular culture: poetry, bawdy music hall song and theater. You have one more chance to see her present her research in person before she returns to London.  Sunday November 4, 1:30pm at the Sholem Aleichem Center, 3301 Bainbridge Avenue, Bronx. (in Yiddish)  You can get her two CDs featuring the funny, and sometimes heartbreaking songs of those East End immigrants.  or tune in to her episode of the Yiddish Voice podcast here 


ALSO:
November 1 the Workmen’s Circle is hosting what looks to be a fascinating talk on the Soviet yiddish writer Der Nister. 7 pm, free for members https://www.facebook.com/events/262485164676007/ (This event is for advanced Yiddish speakers)…  … On Saturday November 3rd you’ll have the opportunity to catch the radical women of Tsibele as part of Haimish Harmonies at the Philadelphia Folk Society https://www.eventbrite.com/e/haimish-harmonies-tsibele-tickets-48935408123Submission deadline for the Yiddish New York art exhibit is November 10. Theme: Eros and Spirituality …Tuesday, November 13th, 2018, at 8 pm you can ‘Meet a Yiddish Celebrity’ at An Evening with Yiddish Princess Sarah Gordon https://youtu.be/thlOVsY-2TM at Deutsches Haus at Columbia University, 420 W. 116th St. (between Amsterdam Ave. and Morningside Dr.)… and finally, the best news of the new year is that Tehila, The Kosher Diva is back, and better than ever.