Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Selfie That Broke the Social Justice Internet - My Op-Ed for Haaretz

This week I published my first op-ed for Haaretz (English language edition.) It's on the rise (and fall) of Belgian viral selfie phenom Zakia Belkhiri. What happens when anti-racist/anti-Islamophobia activists don't see any problem with the most vile kind of anti-Semitism?

Zakia Belkhiri Took a Selfie of anti-Semitism on the Left
Belkhiri’s stumble wasn’t an exception in the contemporary social justice narrative, it was another example of how the global Left systematically fails to include the Jewish struggle for self-determination both cultural and political within its framework of national and personal liberations.
read the rest here)

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Puttin on the Blitz

Netflix recently made the 1990s cult cartoon classic Animaniacs available for streaming. Off and on for the last couple weeks, I've been binging on the madness of the Warner Brothers (and the Warner Sister). Unlike most reminders of the 90s, it's been an exercise in the most enjoyable kind of nostalgia.

I already knew there were a ton of adult jokes I didn't get at the time. (I was 18 when Animaniacs debuted but I really didn't know shit, and yes, the references on an after-school cartoon went over my head), but I've been taken aback on this rewatch, never more so than tonight. 

Episode 31 features a segment set in 1939 Poland, Puttin' on the Blitz. It's a Rita and Buttons segment. Rita and Buttons (a singing cat and dopey dog) take a wrong turn and end up in the middle of occupied Poland. That's kind of a WTF for a kid's cartoon like Animaniacs. Then again, Steven Spielberg was an executive producer of Animaniacs. On a hunch I looked it up- this episode was aired in 1993, the same year as Schindler's List. Go figure.

Rita and Runt have to hide from German soldiers  and cross paths with Nazis searching for the leader of the "Polish underground." The leader has to hide his daughter until they can meet up later at the train station and escape. While hiding, the daughter is saved by scrappy cat Rita (voiced by Bernadette Peters.)

Now, the story never mentions Jews or the Final Solution. It's actually pretty silly, in keeping with the rest of the show. So, why was it so jarring for me? Well, first of all, my generation isn't used to seeing World War II as a normal part of pop culture, especially as comedy fodder. There was a time, though, when war was just a part of the cultural conversation, even for kids, even for comedy. My favorite example being:

And second- where ARE the Jews? One of the criticisms that's been aimed at Schindler's List is that, for what is possibly the most famous 'Holocaust' movie of all time, the story is about a heroic non-Jew and the question of non-Jewish responsibility. And, I mean, are Rita and Runt supposed to be stand-ins for the Jews? Or... I don't know.

I don't think it's a coincidence that this segment came out the same year as Schindler's List. It even features one of the most famous images from that movie- a little girl in a red coat.

Anyway, I think it's an interesting look at the way that serious topics get filtered down through layers of pop culture, especially when you have artists like Spielberg, who are involved at every level.

Go to 7:55 and check it out for yourself.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

No pressure but...

A very young kid in a very large Borsalino just walked into traffic to hand me this important piece of election literature. Stakes are high, as this kid reminded me. Still time to have your say! Vote!

More Proof That Yiddish Is Not Inherently Funny or Radical NEW YORK PRIMARY EDITION

An informant in Israel sent this to me and it was too good (ok, not good, but MIND BOGGLING) not to share right away. Go here and listen to the Yiddish language jingle now playing in support of a certain orange candidate.

Style: Mashup between contemporary badkhones and a used car commercial
Vocab: Shtitsn-support; Vote- vote (hasidish Yiddish isn't known for it's purity of vocabulary)
Political Context: Hasidim and the ultra-Orthodox in New York are generally considered a reliable voting bloc for conservative candidates.

Listen, laugh, cry, scrub your earballs, and then l'man hashem, go and vote for someone with a D after his or her name.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

On why I can't stand the word 'secular'

More blasts from the pasts... Today on Twitter I had a brief exchange with writer Dan Mendelsohn Aviv about the exquisite whims of our Jewish philanthropy billionaire class. The question of 'secular education' came up. Predictably, I rolled my eyes and (digitally) exclaimed WHAT EVEN DOES IT MEAN? AND DON'T SAY SPINOZA!
I told Dan I had an essay somewhere in the archives (from way way back in the day, in the previous incarnation of this blog) that touched on my very heated up feelings on 'secular' as a category of analysis.
I'll be real: this essay is almost ten years old and if written today, would probably be a bit different. But, if you're interested in some (a lot of) push back on the religious/secular thinking as usual, give it a read.

The New Generation Gap- What Synagogue Jews Can Really Learn from Secular Jews 

In "The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Secular Judaism", Professor Jonathan Sarna attempts to find a continuity of Jewish American secularism. This continuity includes the Revolutionary War era Free Thinkers, Louis Brandeis and, most importantly, the political Yiddishist movement of the 20th century. But there is no real connection between them, at least not in the way Professor Sarna proposes. In fact, Sarna misrepresents who the political Yiddishists were by associating that deeply Jewish, and successful, movement with individuals like philosopher Baruch Spinoza and the occasional Jewish Free Thinker. 
The political Yiddishists get a double insult from Sarna, because he also misrepresents the complex reasons (both internal and external) for their inability to maintain a mass movement into the 21st century. It's my belief that that misrepresentation is part of a larger narrative, one which reveals our failure to maintain a truly substantive, fulfilling Jewish American culture. It also reveals a desire to conflate the Yiddish language and the political Yiddishists, and then sweep them both into the dustbin of irrelevance as we say borekh shepotrani (the blessing said by a father on his son's bar mitzvah) for any responsibility to the continuity of Eastern European Jewish culture.

Sarna's so-called Jewish secular continuity supports an increasingly untenable fallacy: that for American Jews, cultural=secular=atheist=assimilated. In this equation, of course Louis Brandeis can be understood in relation to the political Yiddishists. But Louis Brandeis was a Jew in the only ways he knew how- eating pork, celebrating Christmas and visiting his Frankist grandparents when they laid on the guilt. With all due respect (I myself am a Brandeis grad), Louis Brandeis was about as Jewish as a Wonderbread bagel. It's well documented that Brandeis was very uncomfortable with overt Jewishness and a lot more comfortable with Pilgrims than Jew-ish Jews, especially those from Eastern Europe. In his book Are We One: Jewish Identity in the United States and Israel, Professor Jerold S. Auerbach notes that "Brandeis easily discovered so much in common between Zionism and Americanism because he knew so little about Judaism." Brandeis was able to discover the formula for American Zionism because that formula depended upon a conception of Jews, and future Israelis, in which Jews and Israelis were modern day Pilgrims who embodied the highest Enlightenment ideals of the West and specifically of the United States. But just because Brandeis believed (or wanted) Jewish values to be identical to American values didn't make it so.  
Louis Brandeis obviously felt a connection to other Jews and that connection motivated his political work on the behalf of Zionism. But his kind of Jewishness, (essentially kinship networks and political Zionism) left little chance for Jewish continuity. There was precious little Jewish substance to his kind of Jewish 'secularism.' Sarna points out that Brandeis found his own particular and individualistic Jewish identity "hard to transmit to his children." Why is this a surprise, to Brandeis, or to us? And why does Jonathan Sarna claim Louis Brandeis for the secular Jewish continuum at all?

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Purim is Coming - A Reminder from Me and Golem

My favorite high intensity klezpunkers GOLEM have a new video and it is awesome. The song VODKA IS POISON is from their latest CD, TANZ and I cannot recommend it enough. Also, obviously, highly appropriate for the holiday.

I can't embed the video (what the hell?) but you should watch it.

Also, if you're going to be in New York City, you can attend the only Yiddish megile reading (Yehoash edition) with Annette and the superstars of Golem rocking out afterwards.

Details from sponsor Folksbiene Theatre:

"Put on your wildest costume, make some noise, nosh a homentash and cut loose Yiddish Style this Purim with The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene

The evening starts with a reading of the Megiles Ester as translated by the poet Yehoash in Yiddish with English supertitles. 

Following the reading, an unforgettable concert with punk infused Rock-Klezmer band Golem.

Hamentashen provided by Ben's Delicatessen.

March 23rd at 7:30pm

Museum of Jewish Heritage
36 Battery Place
New York, NY 10280

Tickets – $20
For tickets call Itzy Firestone at 212-213-2120 x204"

Sunday, January 10, 2016

A Brokhe on BBC Weekend

How gorgeous is that picture? That's Ben Rosenblatt and Yelena Shmulenson at the reading of A BROKHE, December 28, 2015 at Yiddish New York.

In conjunction with the reading at YNY, the BBC asked me onto their Weekend program (or, programme) to talk about the play, as well as to chat about the state of Yiddish today. You can also listen here. You may get a chuckle out of hearing Yiddish dissed by a Mossad dude. The universe has a sense of irony sometimes.

I'm working on getting a couple of video clips from the reading up on the blog. Check back in soon...

Thursday, October 29, 2015

A Reminder

A Brokhe

A Blessing

My new play.

And right now, the only place you can see it is this December 28th, 3:45 pm, at Yiddish New York. Well, you can't see the whole thing. But at least an excerpt. And me talking for an hour. So, register now.

Memory, Performance and Perets

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

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

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

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

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

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