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. 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

How Do You Say Open Mic in Yiddish? Find Out On April 17th at YIVO!

Join celebrated host, actor and singer Shane Baker, and special guests for a fun, intimate night of Yiddish performance. Bring your instruments, poems, monologues, manifestos, and films in Yiddish. Sign up starts at 7:00pm, open mic starts at 7:30pm. 

Master of Ceremonies Shane Baker and special guests

Admission: Free
RSVP Required: | 212.294.6140

*Yes, I know, if you read the poster you already learned how to say open mic in Yiddish. Don't be so literal! It's bad for your health.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A Few Thoughts on the Roots of the Identity Discourse

(paper given at last weekend's Rethinking Jewish Identity and Jewish Education conference at Brandeis)

The Roots and Structure of the Identity Discourse in Contemporary Jewish Life

The question of identity has both personal and intellectual interest to me. Unpacking the identity discourse is part of my personal project, situating my experience as a born again Yiddishist within the larger context of American Jewish history. Why do I need Yiddish? and why didn’t I have Yiddish?-- those have been two of my guiding questions. It’s impossible to answer these without stumbling over the related question of identity.

As I’ve written elsewhere, studying Yiddish brought me to a deeper understanding of my own family and the Jewishness transmitted within my home. Similarly, the study of American Jewish sociology has helped me understand the larger Jewish American milieu in which I grew up, and how I ended up with my middle class, suburban, Conservative Hebrew school, shma and hatikvah, bacon is ok but ham isn’t, 1980s Long Island jewish identity. You only have to look at the Pew study to see that for the majority of American Jews, that kind of minimal observance, minimal education, maximal pride, is very much the de facto American Jewish identity today.

Rather than being natural or inevitable, my so-called Jewish identity, was both a product of historical movements and a deliberately inculcated ideology, one that meshed so well with my upbringing as a liberal, cosmopolitan American, as to be invisible. What I’d like to do is push back on the sense of inevitability or naturalness that surrounds identity as a concept. Though identity may be a category of practice, as sociologist Rogers Brubaker has written, that doesn’t mean we must accept it as a category of analysis. That means investigating the work that identity does and how it is historically and politically inflected.

Though identity may be a category of practice... that doesn’t mean we must accept it as a category of analysis. That means investigating the work that identity does and how it is historically and politically inflected.

First: identity as a post-war ideology. Identity as ideology presents Jewishness and Americanness as inherently compatible and complementary, and most importantly, that a synthesis of the two is sustainable and transmissible.

The integration of American Jews, especially Eastern European Jews, was the great project of the Jewish elite of the first half of the century. That integration came with many seemingly irresolvable contradictions and tensions. For example, the terms of integration of Eastern European Jews were set, in part, by the German Jewish elite, a group traditionally less than enamored of Eastern European Jews.  But the most fundamental of these tensions was a reimagining of the Jewish way of life as an American style religion. Turning Jewishness into the Jewish religion was like stuffing 10 pounds of kishke into a five pound casing. It was lumpy as hell, but it worked, sort of.

As it happened, the vast majority of American Jews didn’t want religion or religious commitments. No matter. Identity as ideology could reframe the multitude of contradictions now at the heart of American Jewish life, including the rejection of religion by American Jews. Identity made it possible for sociologist Herbert Gans to make an observation which, 50 years earlier, would have seemed downright bizarre. In a 1951 ethnographic study he wrote: “In Park Forest... adult Jews quite consciously rejected any involvement in the religious and cultural aspects of the Jewish community, while trying to teach the children to be Jews.”

Lemme tell you, I had a chill of recognition upon reading that. Gans had pretty much summed up my Jewish education, decades before it even happened.

Identity as ideology reframes the contradictions and tensions which have enabled the integration of American Jews and gives them a unitary, affirmative power. It also has another, related, political function.

The evocation, and invocation, of identity by communal elites works to reify American Jews as a group, even as the connections between individual Jews have become ever more attenuated. It also serves to justify the power and resources allocated to those elite institutions and leaders.

In her book Speaking of Jews, Lila Corwin Berman describes how at mid-century, thinkers like Oscar Handlin and Nathan Glazer characterized Jews as the American ethnic, immigrant group par excellence. They, and others, created what she calls ‘sociological Jewishness' -- Jewishness as a manifestation of American values. She writes: “Handlin and Glazer’s attempts to prove the existence of an American ethnic pattern paralleled their desire to categorize Jewish experience in universal and American terms... arguing that all American groups felt the same tension between group cohesion and American integration...” Most importantly, there was “nothing distinctly Jewish about this bond.”

This sociological Jewishness was a powerful formula for the integration of American Jews, but, as Corwin Berman notes: “...while naming ethnic identity as an American norm, they [Glazer and Handlin] neglected its content...” 

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. 

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. 

The common purpose and shared culture that once bound Jews as a group, and set them off from the larger American culture, has dramatically diminished. It has fallen to the American Jewish elite, ----journalists, philanthropists, and social scientists -- to evoke, and invoke, a sense of groupness without content, and the language of identity has been key to that project.

As sociologist Rogers Brubaker has argued,  groups don't just exist, but are called into being in a variety of ways. Think of how an event like the latest Pew survey calls the group 'American Jews' into being. Without the survey, Jews in America are a diverse bunch, and, as we see by the numbers, the majority are only minimally engaged with the acts and beliefs of traditional Judaism, and are not much more involved with other Jews than they are with lots of other kinds of people. But the act of surveying brings those Jews together, bounds them within the inquiry, gives them the appearance of unified agency and purpose: being Jewish. Jewish identity is invoked in the very act of studying it.

...the act of surveying brings those Jews together, bounds them within the inquiry, gives them the appearance of unified agency and purpose: being Jewish. Jewish identity is invoked in the very act of studying it.

The Pew survey is what Brubaker would call a a project of group-making. Group-making is a "social, cultural, political project aimed at turning categories into groups or increasing levels of groupness..." The Pew survey is an event that reifies the idea of an American Jewish group, "groupness as an event." But it is a 'groupness' that reflects the values of the people constructing it. Those acting as consultants to the survey believe in a Jewishness bounded by Synagogue, Israel, Denomination and Federation. Those being surveyed, by and large, have a very different set of concerns.

As Brubaker points out, if groupness is something that needs to be cultivated and evoked, it can also fail to materialize. The 'groupness' the Pew survey (like all the previous NJP surveys) sought to invoke has consistently failed to materialize, or only weakly. Thus the talk of crisis from the Jewish institutional world and calls to action, or at least accountability. But that crisis rhetoric is itself a group making, identity heightening project. No matter what actions are taken or, or not, a sense of Jewish identity has been aroused in those who are the ostensible objects of crisis. And by using the language of crisis, the institutional elite, ethnopolitical entrepreneurs as Brubaker calls them, reinforce their own importance in solving whatever crisis they have defined.

In conclusion, Identity has become seemingly indispensable to the Jewish communal conversation, even as American Jews drift farther away from Jewishness. It behooves us to think critically about the work done by identity. For example, a willingness to grapple with the contradictions of American Jewish integration, that which is smoothed over by the identity ideology, could be an exciting new direction for Jewish thought and engagement.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

How Well Do You Know Your Yiddish Dictionaries?

UPDATE UPDATE (second update)
According to a tweet from the Director of Digital Strategy at WNET/Channel 13, the Yiddish "quiz" is down because Survey Gizmo suffered a cyber attack yesterday, nebekh. I'll wish a refue shleyme to Survey Gizmo and still hold out hope that WNET/ Channel 13 will just take down the quiz, or redo it with real Yiddish words and definitions.

As they say on TV, stay tuned...

/UPDATE UPDATE (end second update)


UPDATE (first update)

It's come to my attention, even more recently, that PBS has removed the How Well Do You Know Your Yiddish quiz from their website! Now, who can say if it was due to the public shaming meted out by angry bloggers? But a little gentle shaming obviously can't hurt if you want to make the soi disant 'educational media' take responsibility for the quality of content they are putting out.

If you think I'm making a big deal out of nothing here, think about this: The act of writing history, especially one's own history, is a definitional, political act. The Story of the Jews is saying something about global Jewry today, both in its content, and in its choice of establishment, British but Jewish host, Simon Schama.

By using the How Well Do You Know Your Yiddish quiz to promote a seemingly serious work of history, PBS is also telling us something about which parts of Jewish history and culture to take seriously and which can be regarded as a joke. You can guess which is which.

But I'm not willing to consign a thousand years of history, literature, music, foodways and folk religion to a back-of-the-book novelty glossary. Yiddish culture belongs to me (and you) and shouldn't be peddled like plastic dog poo, especially not by people who should know better.

So yeah, I'm going to continue to speak up for the importance and integrity of Yiddish and Yiddish culture, whenever I see the need. I hope you will, too.

/UPDATE (end first update)

How Well Do You Know Your Yiddish Dictionaries?

It's recently come to my attention that the well intentioned, though poorly informed, folks at PBS don't know the difference between Yiddish and English. They seem to be under the same impression as many, many Americans: that is, if it feels Yiddish, it must be Yiddish. After all, Yiddish isn't a real language, right? And futz sounds like a Yiddish word, so it must be a Yiddish word, right?


All this confusion could be cleared up in the time it takes to open a standard Yiddish dictionary. It occurred to me, though, that perhaps people don't know the difference between, say, a Yiddish dictionary and a humorous reference book on Yinglish. One is a dictionary. One is not. Uhh... I'm not a linguist, people. Just a humorless scold, here to help.

And since people like learning in quiz form, I now present to you How Well Do You Know Your Yiddish Dictionaries? No prizes, no shareable Facebook badge, sorry. I don't have the slick graphics and know-how of the PBS team. Alls I got are a couple of dictionaries. And a couple not dictionaries. So... without further ado...

The challenge: Choose which of the following are Yiddish dictionaries and which are humorous books on Yinglish or other non-dictionary reference books

A. The Joys of Yiddish

B. Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary

C. If You Can't Say Anything Nice, Say It In Yiddish

D. Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary

E. English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary

F. Sex and the Single Hasid

G. Verterbukh fun loshn-koydesh shtamike verter in yiddish


B, D, E, G

A, C, F

Now that we all know where to find real Yiddish words and their definitions (in dictionaries), places with an educational mandate, like PBS, will never end up with embarrassing, error-ridden material on their website. 

Yay! We all win!!!! Now let's go watch Simon Schama in The Story of the Jews!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Your Revival is Tacky and Bores Me. NEXT!

My friend Bob from Brockley hipped me to this today. It's a Jewish-Azerbaijani artist named Akshin Alizadeh who just happens to love Yiddish swing as much as we do. Check out how he mixes Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn with modern beats:

It's kind of fun. And I would like to hear more. But I'm also reminded of a rant that's been a long time brewing. So I went back into the dusty attic of my drafts folder and decided to publish the following. Consider it a preemptive shot against those hipper than I who might declare Akshin Alizadeh the vanguard of some techno-Yiddish revival. Before you take it from them, take it from me, two years ago.

(Spring 2012)

The Yiddish Revival Must Die And Heeb Magazine Nails the Coffin Shut

Maybe you've seen this already. Clips of the Jewrythmics were making their way around Facebook walls (including mine), courtesy of a promo bump from Heeb magazine. Jewrhythmics is a Russian/Israeli group making its mark with classic Yiddish songs set to a retro 80s disco.

Here's a clip of them doing a medley including Mayn Shteytele Belz (a Yiddish nostalgia song about the town of Belz, written in America for the American Yiddish stage and screen):

OK.... Am I the only one who hears Pet Shop Boys + Yiddish? Here's a comparison:
The comparison, of course, is intentional. According to their website:
Jewrhythmics is working on the disco-axis Moscow/Tel Aviv: The one city - that radio stations are playing the 70/80's sounds all around the clock – meets the other, which is located in the centre of the Middle Eastern techno club culture. The Disco-Sound is not reproduced in a digital way, but in the sense of a throwback to the early disco era with a variety of analogue synthesizers, drum machines and traditional instruments (guitars, accordion, clarinet and more). Over those spherical sounds hovers the original and genuine Yiddish song as the wave-like echo of a bygone era. 
And according to Heeb blogger Dan Sieradski in 'Jewrhythmics Take Yiddish Revival to the Next Level'
 "Jewrhythmics not only resuscitates decaying cultural forms, it makes them get up and dance. And it is the greatest. thing. ever."
Greatest. Thing. Ever. Since when does the Simpsons comic book guy blog for Heeb? Really. Some Barry Sisters chestnuts laid over a retro-disco beat is the greatest thing ever? THIS is the "next level" in the so-called Yiddish revival?

I mean, is it better than Israeli-Russian Yiddish death metal?

Is it better than the other metal Yiddish band, Dibbukim?

Is it better than OG Canadian hip-hop Yiddish mixologist So Called

Is it better than this ska version of Lomir Ale Zingen

Is it better than my favorite hair metal Yiddish fusion band, Yiddish Princess

Is it better than my favorite punk/gypsy Yiddish fusion band Golem

Is it better than the Godfather

Does anything make Jewrhythmics stand apart from its many predecessors in Yiddish fusion? They've even got a cutesy Jew pun name. (Something I thought would be way too corny for the sangfroid irony of Heeb, but ok.)  

The only thing setting Jewrythmics apart from the crowd is that their production values are much higher, at least in video form. Calling this important reveals an ignorance of everything else that came before, oh, say, yesterday. Claiming Jewrhythmics resuscitate "decaying cultural forms" straight up implies that the last 35 years of the so called klezmer revival never happened. Which, I have to be honest, is a pretty fucking stupid thing to say.


Bashing Heeb feels very turn of the millennium. You won't believe this, but it bores me. And I normally wouldn't say anything about the Jewrhythmics. They're not my gleyzele tey, but they also don't tickle my rage bone. They want to work in Yiddish? Good for them. They get vocalists who are actually familiar with the language? God bless 'em. They have a manifesto? Let she who has not manifested cast the first stone. 

But just because it's in Yiddish doesn't mean I'm gonna like it. There's plenty of Yiddish drek out there. Mostly I smile politely and walk on by. Which is not to say Jewrhythmics is drek. Like I said, their vocalist(s) clearly speak Yiddish. There's nothing terrible about the music. It's just not my cup of tea. But garbage journalism is garbage. It claims to speak for ideas, for something important, when all it really does is speak to our own cultural ignorance. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

me' khapt a nosh/ a homentash...

Purim sameakh/ a freylikhn purim, y'all. What are you doing reading this? Shouldn't you be pounding shots in a dark room in a terrible wig?

But, since you're here, and we're in a Purim mood, let's talk about hamentashen. What the heck is a hamentash (singular)? Is it from the Yiddish for Haman's (boo hiss) Pockets?

Not so fast, smarty pants. According to best-selling Canadian author Michael Wex:

Hamantaschen–pronounced homon-tashn in Yiddish–were originally mon-tashn, poppy seed pockets, that were eaten on Purim. The similarity between mon, Yiddish for poppy seeds, andHomon led to the name change, and with it a raft of after-the-fact attempts to explain what the pastry had to do with Haman, the villain of the Purim story. Variously said to represent Haman's ears and nose, his hat, and even his pockets, hamantaschen are more convincingly explained–if there is any explanation beyond homophony–by a pun on the various biblical verses in which the Children of Israel are said to have eaten ha-mon, the manna, which would also help to explain the popularity of the poppy seed filling.

Sorry, poppy seed h8ers. Go argue with tradition. And before you diss this tricorner classic, keep in mind its important place in Yiddish sexual euphemism:
The general appearance of  the hamantasch and its cousins in geometry, the knish and the pirogi, has given all three a special place in colloquial Yiddish as slightly coy vulgarisms for the human vulva, roughly equivalent to "pussy" or "beaver," neither of which is even vaguely kosher. Pireg–pirogi–is the most vulgar, hamantasch the cutest. Its triangular shape and varicolored stuffings make it a natural. Knish occupies the sort of middle ground that allows it to be used informally between consenting adults of either sex.

 esen a trois, anyone?

One last Wex related Yiddish factoid: Many years ago Wex taught me that in Yiddish, a nun is a monaskhe. Surely there's some interesting resonances there, or at least puns to be made, given the wonderful symbolic depth of the humble 'montash. Which brings me to our next hamantash related destination...

Over at Lilith magazine, there's an exploration of the hamantash as a symbol of ancient feminine fertility and power.

If Judy Chicago has never made a branded hamantash she really should

A must read is Susan Schnur's classic reclamation of the hamantash as the Womantash. As a feminist, it made me rethink my distaste for mon. After all, the little classic seed represents the fertile potency of Spring and is a powerful symbol of the feminine within the springtime stories of peril, triumph and rebirth. Can your apricot jam do all that?

Now go get drunk, seriously!!!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

PBS or Heeb? Take This Quiz!!!

Dear PBS,

When your website content is almost indistinguishable from that of Heeb, it's probably time to stop farming out your website work to the unpaid interns.

PBS is promoting its new documentary The Story of the Jews, narrated by Simon Schama. So far, so good. It's the kind of thing my dad would TiVO so we could watch together and I would secretly roll my eyes at how they get everything wrong about Eastern Europe.

In any case, I haven't seen it. And if they want to make it appealing to snobs like me, this is probably not the best way. It's a quiz called How Well Do You Know Your Yiddish. It has 15 questions, testing your knowledge of well known 'Yiddish' words. Unsurprisingly, many of the Yiddish words are actually Yinglish, the 'translations' are mostly appalling, and the whole thing is mainly a quiz of how hard you can cringe through 15 mouse clicks.

The worst part is, it's not much better than Heeb's 2010 Test Your Jew IQ game. Remember that gem of American-Jewish cultural pride?
Know the lyrics to If I Were a Rich Man? Can you distinguish between actual Yiddish words and plain mumbo-jumbo? Heard of any Israeli cities besides Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv? If you’re not feeling nauseous by now, then this is probably the game for you!
Yes, because what self-respecting Jew doesn't feel nauseated by knowing common Yiddish words and Israeli cities??? 

PBS doesn't quite articulate it so clearly, but How Well Do You Know Yiddish quiz has the same self-hating minstrel vibe. Its mish mosh of Yiddish, Yinglish and fake definitions reeks of the same peculiar American Jewish shame.

A little side by side comparison of the games:


Futz is not a real Yiddish word. It is Yinglish.



The actual expression is 'hak mir nisht keyn tshaynik' and roughly translates to 'stop banging on about it.'



Shtik means piece. 

And it just goes on and on...

Honestly, if PBS can't do any better than Heeb, I don't have a lot of hope for mainstream Jewish pop culture. As the well known Yiddish saying goes, 'We're fucked on both ends.'


PBS has removed the Quiz from its website.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Love Lays Low

From my friend Daniel Kahn, a dark and funny new video for Love Lays Low, off his newest CD with the Painted Bird, Bad Old Songs.


Constructed and directed by Polish artist Izabela Pia Szumen.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Where is Yiddish? Depends on Your Perspective

The Washington Post brings us an interesting chart from the Pew Research Center. The chart tracks language presence in the United States from 1980 to today. Because Yiddish had the most stark decline between then and now (from #11 in 1980 to dead last today) the Pew chart is labeled The decline of Yiddish, the rise of Tagalog. Which, ok, is pretty accurate.  The Washington Post's headline, however, is How We Stopped Speaking Yiddish. Which isn't just bizarrely non-descriptive of this charticle (the 'How' never comes up), it also speaks to the media's love of a good 'Yiddish in decline' narrative.

For comparison, Greek was at  #8 in 1980 with 401,000 speakers. Today it's at #14 with 307,000 speakers. In 1980 Yiddish had 315,000 speakers and today around155,000. (By the way, I'm pretty sure this is an underestimate given the population explosion in the Hasidic world and how that explosion does not show up in official records.) Between 1980 and today both Greek and Yiddish dropped six positions. 

So, why no tears for the dramatic decline of Greek? Italian? Polish?

While the Washington Post leads with the disappearance of Yiddish, Salon reprints Ross Perlin's Jewish Currents piece on Yiddish on the Internet. Perlin, a Yiddishist living in New York,  finds a thriving Yiddish world on line.

The Washington Post may have stopped speaking Yiddish, but there's a whole lot of folks typing, texting and publishing in it online. But you have to be interested in finding them.