Thursday, September 18, 2014

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Vartn af Godot

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

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

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

Seriously, go, see it.

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

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Stories We Tell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

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

Nearly lost Yiddish language increasingly popular among Jewish college students

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

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

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

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

Ho hum....

Monday, June 16, 2014

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

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

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

And now, about that play...

A brokhe by Rokhl Kafrissen

Just Another Brooklyn Gangster Ghost Romance

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

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Money, Love, and Shame!


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

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

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

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

("Gelt, Libe, Un Shande")

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

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

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

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

Tickets are $15 and are available here:

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Future of American Judaism Depends on the Elimination of Yiddish: So Sayeth the German Reform Elite

My friend Dov-Ber hipped me to a gem from the JTA Archive. It's a report from the 1923 Golden Jubilee Convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations

Yiddish Denounced As “jargon” at Reformers’ Jubilee

In an effort to reclaim Jews to Judaism, regardless of the orthodoxy, conservatism or radicalism of the synagogue”, a series of obstacles will have to be overcome, chief among them the use of Yiddish by the Jewish masses, declared Rabbi Jonah B. Wise, of Portland, in addressing the Wednesday session of the Golden Jubilee Convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
“In New York there is the largest jargon-speaking population in the world”, he said, That this language is legitimately Jewish in America I deny, and shall deny though a million voices be raised in raucous denunciation of that denial. (Emphasis mine)

Does anyone still believe that the only way forward for American Jews is to destroy the 1000 year culture and history of the majority of American Jews? Wait, don't answer that...

As I've written before, the German-Jewish elite (minority) set the terms of integration for the Eastern-European majority. Such a dysfunctional relationship must be understood to take account of American Jews today.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Not New, But Newsy

UPDATE: Ari's podcast recap of the conference is available here. It's a fast paced 12 minutes. Check it out!

My Identity paper got some more love this week, getting cross-posted over at the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education blog, as well as being archived for posterity at the Berman Jewish Policy Archive. Both sites are great resources for the latest, and not-so-latest, thinking in Jewish education and policy. Check 'em out and bookmark, if you haven't already.

We're still waiting on science podcasting superstar Ari Daniel to release his recap of the Brandeis Rethinking Jewish Identity and Education conference. I'll be sure to let you know as soon as it's out.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Jewish Cultural Manifesto -- Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday. Would you rather see something I wrote 9 years ago or would you like to see a picture of me playing cello on our senior year orchestra trip?

I thought so.

A Jewish Cultural Manifesto was one of the first things I ever published. It appeared in my first year as a columnist for Jewish Currents. However, it was already a number of years in the making.

If I were to write this today, I'd probably be slightly less self-righteous. But I wouldn't change too much. You can see, all the major themes of today are there in 2005. And interestingly, the Manifesto is my number one most cited, quoted and read piece. It's turned up in books, academic syllabi, and articles. So, it seems like a natural for recycling-- I mean, revisiting, today. 


A Jewish Cultural Manifesto
(Originally published in November 2005 in Jewish Currents)

I’m a busy woman with no time for nostalgia. My grandparents didn't have a shop on the Lower East Side, my great uncle didn't play in a swing band in the Catskills, and my parents never, ever threatened to disown me if I didn't  marry a Jewish man. Perhaps that¹s why I don¹t find Yiddish and Yiddish-American culture cute. So why the hell do I bother with it, if not out of sentiment or guilt?

Because to grow up Jewish in assimilated America is to absorb a world of cultural confusion. The Jewish history I learned moved pretty quickly from the ancient land of Israel to the modern state of Israel, with brief, terrifying stops between 1939 and 1945. As you can imagine, this creates a bit of an identity crisis in the average young Jew. Who wants to be a Yid at home and an ersatz Israeli at school? 

Not I.

The mainstream Jewish press and other Jewish institutions have spent the last fifty or so years nudging Yiddish culture into its grave, and like the man on the cart full of corpses in Monty Python¹s Holy Grail, no one can hear it screaming, ‘But I'm not dead yet!’

Even before I spoke one word of Yiddish, the language itself was talking to me, telling me that there was more to being a Jew than the empty signifiers, and emptier materialism, of the modern Jewish suburb.

Don¹t get me wrong, I have the greatest respect for all Jewish cultures: Iraqi, Syrian, Moroccan, Ethiopian, Algerian, what have you. I acknowledge that American Jewish culture has been dominated at times by Ashkenazi Jews, at the expense of other Jewish cultures. But it is an equal if not greater crime to see an Ashkenazocentric world view replaced with an á la carte approach to identity! Such an approach assumes that whatever we were in the past -beard-having, matse- ball fressing, shmate peddling ghetto Jews-  is not only over, but it¹s as if it never happened! No wonder we have a crisis! It¹s not too late to acknowledge the truth about ourselves and start repairing this psychotic split. I¹d like to start with six simple declarations:

1. Jewish culture belongs to Jews

Funny how you never really care about something until someone else wants it. Or takes it. At, the most comprehensive klezmer music site on the internet, you can find listings for klezmer bands all over the world, including twenty-seven in Germany alone. Among those twenty-seven, few Jews are to be found. At the Hackesche-Hof-Theater in Berlin, you can find someone performing ‘Jewishly’ almost any night of the year. And if you insist on that performer being Jewish, you can always check out Irith Gabriely, an Israeli woman living in Germany. This self-proclaimed Queen of Jewish Soul wears a black hat and tallis and sings khasidish songs for adoring German crowds.

You know how every resident of Alaska gets a check every year from oil revenue? Forget Holocaust reparations. I¹d like to see every Jew in the world get a piece of the exploitation of Jewish culture. It wouldn't be much, I admit; in fact, it would be infinitesimal. But all I want is the tiniest little symbolic recognition that we have something that they want.

The American Jewish attitude towards things like klezmer music has been indifferent at best, to hostile, at worst. Ask any musician who has worked full time in Jewish music in the last twenty years and he or she will tell you: the serious money and the serious respect were almost exclusively found in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. While American Jews wanted to believe that Yiddish and European Jewish music had disappeared in the night, the band played on, wherever they could.

2. Secular and observant are not parallel paths, they are points on a common path. 

Neither religious nor observant are immutable characteristics, and we all know someone who¹s gone both ways. Both sides view each other with so much suspicion, when in fact we each have much to learn from the other. You heard me. You think Hasidim are coming to the (secular) Yiddish theater for the acting? They¹re coming because they¹re starving for this kind of Jewish entertainment. And secularists, yeah, I¹m looking at you, too. I¹m well aware that religion is the opiate of the masses. I also know that Karl Marx didn't know bupkes about the Jewish religion. We all have a duty to know something about the core texts of our tradition and the languages in which they were written. Which brings me to my next point:

3. Jewish culture and religion are intertwined. 

Jewish philanthropists like Michael Steinhardt want to revive the non-Orthodox Jewish community by replacing ‘victimhood’ with ‘joy.’ (See his op-ed of February of this year in the Jerusalem Post.) I think we all know that you can read 'Europe' for victimhood and 'Israel' for joy. 

Didn't that attitude get us in this mess? Turn a shul into a temple, a khazn into a cantor and Jewish music into Debbie Friedman, well, you better lock the doors cuz the inmates will be breaking out. Witness our so-called youth crisis. American Jewish culture has turned Camembert into CheezWhiz: It is boring and every young Jew and Jewess knows it. Real Jewish Culture is the product of hundreds-- -- thousands of years of joy and pain; it¹s the expression of the realities of halokhe lived in a hostile world. It¹s the result of every Jew¹s struggle between tradition and modernity. Most importantly, Real Jewish Culture is our connection to those who came before us, and without access to it, well, that bagel in your hand is not a symbol of anything, just a bunch of empty calories masquerading as breakfast.

4. I am not an Israeli. 

About two thousand American Jews make aliyah every year. Out of a total Jewish population of 5,200,000, this comes out to about .04% of American Jews each year who will choose to live in Israel. I am an American and, like 99.96% of my fellow American Jews, I will never become an Israeli. I care deeply about the State of Israel, most of all because my fate is linked to that of every other Jew. But where does the spirit of klal yisroel end and the unquestioning acceptance of Zionism begin?

Open a magazine like Moment and you¹d think every Jew in America had already put down a security deposit on an apartment in Jerusalem. Moment bills itself as 'Jewish culture, politics, and religion.' Three of four stories on the October cover are Israel-related, with more inside. And this is the music issue. Now, I would understand if this were a newspaper for a small Jewish community somewhere in the world. I doubt that the Jewish community of Honduras has enough news to fill twelve issues of a monthly magazine. But we don¹t live in Honduras. We live in the other Jewish state, a country with a Jewish population roughly equal to that of the Jewish state. And let me tell you, we've got enough news here to fill up every single Jewish newspaper, magazine, newsletter, leaflet and 'zine.

5. Israeli culture is NOT Jewish culture. 

Obviously, Jews everywhere have a special interest in Israel. I don¹t deny that we are going to want, and need, news and other information about Israel that reflects that special interest. But what I need, as a Jew in the diaspora, is a vibrant Jewish culture that will nourish my life here, where I live, worship, and write contentious though charming columns.

Writers like Ahad Ha¹am thought that Israel would eventually function like a research and development lab for the diaspora. Real Jewish culture would finally develop and nourish the diaspora Jews, even as the diaspora would wither away. Yeah, that worked well. Can you name the last Israeli novel you read? The last Israeli band you listened to? As for religious matters, when the rest of the Jewish world sends its sons (and daughters) to yeshiva, they¹re just as likely to ship them off to Brooklyn as to Jerusalem.

The real problem with the unstated focus on Israel is that it takes our focus away from our lives, and problems, here in goles. This displacement of expectations shifts resources in a way that leaves Jewish culture here poorer, culturally, spiritually and communally. Our leaders will spend millions of dollars to send every Jewish kid to Israel but can¹t find the money to support scholarships for important youth programs like Klezkamp. I guarantee that the kids who discover Klezkamp and develop a Jewish identity through Jewish music, those kids are just as likely, if not more, to marry Jewish and be part of a Jewish community as the kids who go on Birthright. I know this from experience, visiting the Jewish state doesn't make you feel more Jewish, being part of a Jewish community makes you feel more Jewish.

6. Yiddish and Yiddish culture are not dead. 

Nor were they revived. They've been here the whole damn time, waiting patiently for you to remember to call, perhaps visit, perhaps remember where Yiddish is living. And if you can¹t remember where it is, assimilation is only partially to blame. The diminishment of Yiddish and European Jewish culture in general was a necessary part of Zionism. But see points 1-5, it¹s time to take back our culture and start living our lives in the most Jewish way possible, in the here and now.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

In Case You Missed It... Why We Need to Shut The Door On Identity

From earlier this week:

Indeed, not inculcation of Jewish patterns of life, nor transmission of Jewish culture and history, but measurement and management of identity became the constitutive act of the modern Jewish communal apparatus. It’s no coincidence that the most lavishly funded communal project of our generation has not been universal comprehensive Jewish education, but rather, an identity making vacation whose goals are no more controversial than encouraging passive Zionism and getting young Jews near each other.  This is the insidiousness of the identity ideology.