Thursday, January 7, 2021

Salomea Perl Book Talk This Spring at YIVO

One of the pleasures of my work is discovering and sharing new Jewish art and culture. In the case of The Canvas and other stories, the new translation of Salomea Perl's Yiddish stories, it's a new-old discovery. We finally have all of Perl's exquisite Yiddish stories gathered in one place, a hundred years after their publication. And we have a brand new translation by Ruth Murphy, presented in a beautiful bilingual edition, making it perfect for those who want to work on their Yiddish reading skills with the aid of simultaneous translation.

I wrote about The Canvas in my recent column on the Jewish obsession with genealogy. Perl herself was writing at the time Sholem Aleichem created his mytho-genetic family tree of modern Yiddish literature. He named Salomea Perl's erstwhile friend and publisher, Y.L. Peretz, as the father on that tree. But Perl, who eventually fell out with Peretz for unknown reasons, received no such mythologizing. As far as we know, she only published seven Yiddish stories in her lifetime, and after her death, they fell into obscurity.

After publishing the column in which I talked about The Canvas, YIVO asked me to lead a conversation about it, and the literary life of Salomea Perl. It's going to be on May 25 and because it will be online, there's no excuse not to see it. We've put together a fantastic group of folks for the talk: Canvas translator Ruth Murphy, literary scholar Justin Cammy, and master teacher of Yiddish literature, Anna Fishman-Gonshor. See you in May!

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Adrienne Cooper Legacy 'Dreaming in Yiddish' Award 2020

In just a few weeks we will be celebrating at the 9th annual Adrienne Cooper Dreaming in Yiddish Memorial Concert and Award

The Dreaming in Yiddish event is something I look forward to every year. It's an evening of poetry, theater and music in the memory of our dear friend, colleague, and mentor, Adrienne Cooper. The Award is a sort of combination MacArthur Genius and lifetime achievement award for folks in the prime of their careers. The program is unlike any other award ceremony you've ever seen, and never fails to bring me to tears.

I'll admit, I'm especially excited because this year, the award is going to my very dear friend (and sometime gay Hawaii husband), Shane Baker. I'm thrilled to say I was invited to speak about Shane and the important work he does.

I want to encourage all of you to buy tickets to this year's award ceremony and concert, which will be on Sunday, December 27th at 8:00 p.m., live streamed from the Safra Hall at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.  Dreaming in Yiddish will be part of the Yiddish New York festival program, and you can buy a one night pass to YNY, which includes admission to the DIY concert live stream. Or, you can donate to the Dreaming in Yiddish fund, via PayPal link here or mail a check to GOH Productions, 309 E. 4th St. Suite 3B, NY NY 10009.

Every donation goes directly to the Dreaming in Yiddish fund. All funds raised are given to the award recipient, enabling them to pursue a project which might otherwise be financially out of reach. Too often, when an artist passes, we lament that they were not celebrated while they had a chance to hear it. The DIY award is our chance to support the very best of our community, and our chance to celebrate with them.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Shtumer Shabes comes to Chutzpah! Fest November 22

After a very disappointing (and tense and scary and demoralizing) spring, I'm thrilled to tell you that my new play, Shtumer Shabes*, is being featured as a 'work in progress' at the upcoming Chutzpah! Festival in Vancouver, Canada. Because everything is virtual right now, that means almost anyone, anywhere in the world, can attend the festival, time zones permitting.

What is Shtumer Shabes about? Well... imagine it...

Tekufes teyves (wintertime), around the shortest day of the year, in a certain town in Poland. The widows in the town gathered for a peculiar minheg, at which the spirits of their dead husbands were invited to give a blessing for their wives. The occasion was a shabes meal held in silence, something they called the shtumer shabes (silent sabbath)...

Is it folklore, fakelore, or the basis for a Dybbuk wannabe which caused a riot on opening night in 1938? 

Tune in on Sunday, November 22 and find out!

*Shtumer Shabes was incubated at LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Art and Culture at the 14th Street Y

Friday, September 4, 2020

Oyneg Shabes Kveln

This is a story which spans two New York summers. If you’ve ever spent a summer in New York, you know that the humidity is inescapable and tends to color your perceptions. 


In the summer of 2019 I was at the YIVO summer program where I took a literature class with Miriam Trinh. There we read a poem by Celia Dropkin which had the title Du kvelst, ikh kvel or You Swell, I Swell. In it, a woman addresses her lover. Nail my hands and feet to a cross, she says, consume the whole of me


The poem is full of startlingly erotic imagery and it got me thinking about the Yiddish verb kveln and its American afterlife. 


Kvelling has become the quintessential Yinglish verb, signifying everything cozy and right within the American Jewish habitus. 


But when I looked up kveln in the dictionary, I found that the verb contains two distinctly antithetical connotations. The first relates to swelling or gushing, either literally or figuratively. The second means to torture or suffer. Kveln (to kvell) is in fact a contronym, a word which comprises two opposite meanings (other examples in English being cleave and sanction.) This is because Middle High German, the precursor language to Yiddish, contained two distinct, differently spelled words, one relating to water and swelling, the other related to torture and pain. By a linguistic quirk, these two different words ultimately merged into the Yiddish homonym, kveln. 


In Yiddish, both meanings of kveln are utterly commonplace, and can be found everywhere. But in English, the second, more uncomfortable kvel is entirely absent. The fact that there’s a popular Jewish parenting site called Kveller (with no asterisk to disambiguate this kvell from its evil twin) speaks for itself.


In February 2020, Kveller dedicated a whole article to the art of kvelling

Kvelling is not boasting or bragging; it’s quieter. It’s the pride you feel when you witness your older child patiently helping the younger one finish a puzzle. It’s also the satisfaction you feel because it means they might have been listening to you after all.” But kvelling isn’t limited to your own kids. Kvelling can be communal: seeing a bat mitzvah girl at the bima or a Jewish celebrity being excellent in the public eye. A good kvell is low key because it avoids attracting the attention of the evil eye (ayin-hore.)”


Now, let’s go back to Celia Dropkin’s Du kvelst, ikh kvel


Du kvelst, ikh kvel.
Es kvelt in undz der got,
Vos makht fun alts a tel,
Vos veyst nisht fun farbot

(You swell, I swell
Within us swells a god
Which makes of everything a ruin
And knows nothing of forbidden.)


The narrator of the poem asks her lover to nail her to a cross, to consume her, to suck every drop from her and walk away. 

I wrote about this dimension of adult kveling in my Valentine’s Day Golden City column this year

In American-Jewish English, kvell has been shrunken down in connotation, reduced to taking pride in one’s children or its association with motherhood more generally. But as we see, Dropkin infuses kvel with a much more primal vulnerability, one in which kvel can mean an uncontrollable gushing, of desire, of emotion, of the stickiness of human procreation. Kveln also carries this paradoxical second meaning, to torment or torture, introducing a masochistic question to the verse.


How then to translate Dropkin’s ‘kvel’? For my own translation, I liked the mamoshesdik (substantial) quality of ‘swell.’ But even ‘swell’ loses the erotic dampness of kveln’s connotations of ‘gushiness.’ I was sad but not surprised when I saw one male translator had gone with ‘overjoyed’ for Dropkin’s ‘kvel’. With all due respect, not every Yiddish poem must be rendered safe for the front of the family fridge.


Which brings me to the Summer of 2020. Whether you were listening to the radio, or right wing talk shows, everyone was suddenly talking about gushiness. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion had dropped their single called WAP. The “radio-friendly” edit  of the song changed the words to “Wet and Gushy,” perhaps the only cleaned up single version to end up that much filthier than the original.


The nation’s (mostly male) pearl-clutchers were predictably alarmed at two women insisting on their own pleasure, and profiting from it, to boot. 


Dropkin, too, had her share of pearl-clutchers. Reviewing Dropkin’s sole published collection of poetry in 1935, the most important literary critic of the day, the writer now known as Samuel Charney dismissed Dropkin’s work as insufficiently political: “it irks me that [Dropkin] included in her books things that were important only for her, and not for the reader.” Even Charney, a sensitive reader who himself pioneered a Yiddish literary theory which centered female readers, even he could not imagine the female readers who would find female pleasure “important.” 


Dropkin’s vision of the feminine kvel was, to say the least, ahead of its time, unlimited as it was by male, or American, ideas of appropriateness, whether literary or otherwise. Her poetry imagined a female subject whose kvel was not passive, not centered on the achievements of her family, or her community. Dropkin’s kvel was a messy flood of feeling which could not be contained by either pleasure or pain, one which, you might say, demanded a bucket and a mop. If, as Kveller tells us, anyone can (and should) master the art of kvelling, Celia Dropkin challenges us to expand the boundaries of the word itself. I would suggest that this must include taking Yiddish seriously as a Jewish language, making sure students in Jewish schools have the resources to study it if they want to, and ultimately, to reclaim the mess and contradictions of Jewish-American life which defy translation.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Honey on the Page on the Screen

For the last year or so I've been yelling (in print) about how good my friend Miriam Udel's new book, Honey on the Page, is going to be, once it's actually published and available for purchase. (I've had special insider access for a while, which is why I've been blabbing about it so much.) Honey on the Page is a collection of all new translations of classic Yiddish literature for children, with Miriam's brilliant context and framing for the adults.

And now, to celebrate the book's upcoming publication, YIVO has asked me to moderate an event about Yiddish children's literature with Miriam, called 'Yiddish Children's Literature Today'. On October 7, Miriam and I will be joined by Jennifer Young and Naomi Seidman to talk about pedagogy, ideology and the future of Jewish kid lit. It's a real dream team of writers and educators and I think it's going to be a lot of fun. And I hope you'll tune in!

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Warsaw: A City Divided

Just a quick note to let you know that you can now watch Warsaw: A City Divided in a couple different ways, including streaming on Amazon. Last fall, on the 80th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland, I reviewed the film for the Jewish Review of Books. The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest ghetto established by the Nazis and one of the first in Poland, holding over 400,000 Jews, almost 100,000 of whom died inside it.

"Today, only a few scattered pieces of the ghetto walls that imprisoned them still stand, including fragments between properties as well as the sections of the wall that are were part of buildings.
Unlike Auschwitz or Dachau, the Warsaw Ghetto cannot be visited in any meaningful way. And yet, the ghetto looms large in Holocaust memory. The uprising there in 1943 is still the most famous act of modern Jewish resistance. In addition to Yom HaShoah, many Jews, especially those with family connections to the Warsaw Ghetto, observe April 19, the date of the beginning of the uprising, as a sacred day.
Though the movie makes effective use of Nazi archival materials, they never take over the film. Indeed, A City Divided is one of a handful of new documentaries that focus less on describing the crimes of the Nazis and more on the experience of the victims. These films are reshaping not just what we know about the Holocaust, but how we know it. A City Divided also joins A Film Unfinished (2010) and Who Will Write Our History (2018) as a sort of Warsaw Ghetto trilogy. Although they were produced and directed by different teams, all three have archival footage and written documents at their center. Viewers can examine the same “story” through three different lenses—German, Jewish, and Polish.    
There’s a remarkable moment at the end of A City Divided. The Chief Rabbi recalls how one day a resident of the Muranow neighborhood built on top of part of the ghetto came to him for help. “There are spirits in my apartment, can you do something?” Finding restless ghosts at the site of the former ghetto is almost too on the nose. And yet, we often see ghosts because we need to see ghosts."

You can now buy Warsaw: A City Divided on DVD from LOG TV or stream it via Amazon

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Shtumer Shabes Update

Alas, my dream of bringing Shtumer Shabes in front of a live audience is officially on hold for the foreseeable future. As I write this, all of New York theater is dark, a very scary thing for theater artists and lovers.

But if you're interested in learning more about Shtumer Shabes,  allow me to direct your attention to the following:

This week Alex Weiser had me as a guest for one of the YIVO lunchtime livestreams. This was a really fun - and brief! - chat.

One of the things Alex and I talked about was 'Shin is for Shtumer Shabes,' the April 29th livestream program the Shtumer Shabes cast did for the 14th Street Y in lieu of our staged reading. 'Shin is for Shtumer Shabes' was an Orson Welles-inspired show about making Yiddish theater, featuring a couple of very short excerpts of the play, as well as interviews with folks who have been carrying on the Yiddish theater tradition. 

We're all still figuring out these new virtual tools, so I hope you'll forgive the unpolished feel of the show.

And finally, if you haven't read the interview Miryem-Khaye Seigel did with me about the play, you can check it out here at the wonderful Digital Yiddish Theatre Project.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Shtumer Shabes/Silent Sabbath

UPDATE: Alas, New York theater is going dark as part of the effort to contain this [EXPLETIVE DELETED] virus. Our LABA FEST will not be going ahead during the first week of April but it looks like it will be rescheduled for May, mit gots hilf/God willing... I will post here as soon as we have the official rescheduled May date. 

In the meantime, you can read an interview I did about the play over at the wonderful Digital Yiddish Theatre Project.

If you've already bought your ticket GOD BLESS YOU. It looks like you'll be able to use that ticket for the rescheduled show. More information will be posted as soon as I have it.

I'm obviously very sad and disappointed to have to make this announcement, but I believe that our best hope of keeping this virus in check is by taking drastic measures now. Thank you and keep washin' those hands. -xxrokhl

Exciting news: My new play, Shtumer Shabes/Silent Sabbath, will have a one night, sneak preview performance on April 2. 

This year I have the good luck to be a LABA fellow at the 14th Street Y. My play will be part of the week-long LABA Fest, featuring a number of my talented colleagues.

If you're interested in seeing the play, get your tickets now. It's a small house and will probably sell out.

Shtumer Shabes: Presented by the Theater at the 14th Street Y

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Broadway Danny Gumby and the Yiddish Side of Eddie Murphy

I was at brunch today with my friend Ari and he mentioned an old Saturday Night Live sketch I had never seen. It's a What If scenario: what if a Jewish family like the Franks had been hidden in an attic in Amsterdam, but the people hiding them had never remembered to let them out. My jaw dropped as Ari described the premise, that the family was so annoying it wasn't worth it to the Dutch family living downstairs to free them. Yikes.

I was also intrigued when he mentioned that Eddie Murphy played one of the members of the Jewish family. I assumed he did it in white face makeup, similar to what he used for Coming to America, but no, it's just him, doing his thick as shmalts 'Yiddish' accent with a black satin yarmulke perched on his giant wig.  

When I went to find the clip on YouTube, though, I stumbled on something else. It's Eddie Murphy returning to Saturday Night Live in 1982, to promote his new movie, 48 Hours.

In the opening monologue, he tells the story of buying a house on Long Island. It's haunted by the ghost of the Jewish man who died there. The ghost turns out to have a special enmity for Eddie, and uses a Yiddish word to insult him which I won't spell out here.

Like a lot of words from that era, this particular word is now unacceptable, but back then, its use was utterly unremarkable. In my experience, the adults who used it did so, to be totally honest, in the same way they used the Yiddish words for 'gentile.'  Not so much as a pejorative, but to underline our own separateness from everyone else. Which is not to claim it wasn't used in a more overtly racist way, but only that that wasn't my experience.

I grew up on Long Island, and, to understand Long Island, you have to understand that it's one of the most segregated places in the country. Eddie Murphy grew up partly in Roosevelt, one of the few heavily African-American towns on Long Island. It wasn't always that way, of course. In the 1950s, rather than allow African-Americans into the neighborhood, almost all of the white residents sold their houses and took off, aka 'white flight.'

If you're a real Long Islander, you know that, aside from Eddie Murphy, the most notable product of Roosevelt* is Howard Stern. Stern claims his white, liberal, Jewish parents refused to leave the neighborhood out of a sense of principle

In this light, you can read Murphy's joke about the ghost of the Jewish man in his new house as a comment about the despicable history of racial restrictions and housing covenants, legal devices meant to enforce segregation in housing. Eddie Murphy may have become a millionaire who could afford to buy a house in the fanciest, whitest part of Long Island, but you better believe that there will always be someone to remind him that as an African American man, he doesn't belong there. The ghosts of Jim Crow are always there, even in supposedly enlightened New York. It's also a reminder to white, American Jews that, very often, they were more than innocent bystanders in the story of American segregation.

Two years later, Eddie Murphy returned to Saturday Night Live and performed in 'The Family in the Attic.' The problem with 'The Family in the Attic' is that it's not just offensive, it's unfunny, which frankly, is even more unforgivable. It's also weird to think that this aired only four years after the death of Otto Frank.

The one intriguing aspect of the skit is that Mary Gross plays what one supposes is the 'Anne Frank' character, now a grown up woman, and sex crazed from being hidden in the attic for decades. 

It's well known today that the standard edition of Anne's diary was censored and that all her references to sex and her own sexuality were removed by her father, Otto. Did they have an awareness of what had been removed from the diary when the sketch was written in 1984? Or was it just kind of obvious that someone cooped up in isolation for decades, whether man or woman, would be pretty desperate?

And then we come to Broadway Gumby Rose, SNL's takeoff on the then new Woody Allen movie, Broadway Danny Rose. I believe this is from the same night as 'The Family in the Attic.' A bunch of old 'Yiddish' showbiz types are bullshitting at a deli when in comes Broadway Gumby Rose. Eddie Murphy does his angry Gumby shtik, but with a Yiddish flavor.

It's mildly funny, I guess?

Eddie Murphy brought out his old Jewish guy shtik again in 1988, for Coming to America, this time with astonishingly realistic makeup by SFX king, Rick Baker.

According to this video, Baker based the makeup on his father in law, Nestor, who is not Jewish. You can even spot him in the background of a couple of shots.

There's really no earthly reason 'Saul' needs to be in Coming to America except to show off Eddie Murphy's virtuosity as a mimic. Inadvertently, 'Saul' foreshadow Murphy's later box office success in such vehicles as his Nutty Professor remake, where he disappeared into elaborate makeup once again.

Also, I'm sorry, yes, this joke may be a thousand years old, but it's still funny:

Anyway, I'm curious what you, dear readers, think about Eddie Murphy and Jewface. Is there anything more to it than a comic falling back on instantly recognizable, and tested, 'funny' voice?

*Bad on me for slighting Chuck D. and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy. Apologies.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Like Ashes and Yortsayt Candles...

Like many American Jews, I don’t know much about my family history before their arrival in the United States. For one thing, I’m a third generation American. My grandparents were born here, and even if they had lived to transmit our family history to me, they themselves had no first hand knowledge of our lives before

American Jews breathe forgetting like oxygen and history cannot compete. 

Nostalgia tastes good, like a pastrami sandwich on fresh rye bread. History tastes of guilt, like ashes and yortsayt candles. It makes demands upon the individual, it takes work. Nostalgia is a false friend, one which soothes guilt, but whose fruit is self-deception.

A perfectly apposite moment comes in Red Shirley, the late  Lou Reed’s 2011 documentary about his elderly cousin, garment worker and labor activist Shirley Novick. 
Novick is describing how she bought a mandolin upon arriving in Canada from Poland in 1929. Reed’s only response is “Oh come on.” 

Presented with this unexpected point of contact between the 99 year old former garment worker and himself, Reed can form no response other than incurious disbelief. Had Reed paused a moment to ask why she bought it, he might have discovered that it was not chance or whimsy that brought Shirley to buy that mandolin, but, something akin to the same forces that drove Reed himself to pick up the guitar in the early 1960s. 

Shirley was a young woman at a time when mandolin orchestras were the rage for young working class lefties, especially in the garment industry. Dozens of mandolin orchestras thrived in New York and other centers of Jewish labor activism. Picking up the mandolin was an obvious way for a young greener to make friends in a new country. Not that Lou, or the audience, ever get the chance to make the connection.

At the time Red Shirley was making its way around film festivals, Reed told the press:  "I realized if I didn't do this, a connection to a lot of things would be lost forever. So there was great impetus to do this.” 

But Reed’s explanation for making the movie rings hollow. What he ended up doing was indeed the opposite of capturing some kind of fragile historical truth. He didn’t just miss every opportunity to learn more about Shirley, he, for reasons that may now be impossible to uncover, actively chose to distort key aspects of his cousin’s life. 

The woman who was known for decades as Shirley Novick is presented in the film as Shulamit Rabinowitz. Shulamit (or, as she would have been known in Yiddish, Shulamis) Rabinowitz was born in Poland, but came to New York as a young woman where she became an outspoken organizer in the garment industry and a high profile member of Yiddish Communist circles.

How is it possible that in the (albeit brief) 27 minutes of Red Shirley the word ‘Communist’ is not even uttered once? It could be that Lou’s family didn’t approve of Shirley’s marriage to a high profile Communist like Paul Novick. It’s hard to say. 

Memory is a muscle and American Jews have allowed theirs to waste away. Indeed, that wasting effect is cumulative. What is allowed to wither in one generation will have small chance at being reclaimed by the next.

Lou Reed went in search of the radical Jewish past. Led by nostalgia, he ended up rewriting history. 

By a quirk of fate, I was at Shirley Novick’s funeral not long after Red Shirley premiered at the New York Jewish Film Festival. I even sat a few seats away from her very surly cousin, Lou. I’m one of the very, very few who saw the movie and knew enough to be alarmed by its distortions, knew the people whose lives were being erased.

The Talmud tells us that while they are gestating in the womb, Jewish babies possess knowledge of the entire Torah. Right before they are born, an angel's touch removes that knowledge, making the subsequent acquisition of Torah a process of remembering.

I became a born again Yiddishist in college. My adult life has been spent in this kind of remembering, a re-acquisition of memories, a scrabbling at dreams in languages always at the far end of my tongue. 

That work of remembering is exhausting. Simply learning Yiddish at the end of the 20th century - the language of millions of American Jews and tens of thousands of volumes of literature - was a labor of extraordinary difficulty. 

Anyone who studies Yiddish today, even at this moment of so-called revival, knows that it is a source of social friction. Because we all know Yiddish is a dead language; we all know Yiddish had to die for Hebrew to live. It is the logic of internalized brutality, where losers may be pitied, may even be mourned, but they must, at all costs, remain buried.

I have seen how easily the story of history’s ‘losers' can be casually (or maliciously) overwritten. Who will remember Shirley Novick as she was? Who will be able to correct the historical record? Decades from now, who will look back and want to claim Shirley as their own?