Saturday, July 28, 2012

Bright Lights, Yiddish Stage

The New York Yiddish scene has been kind of quiet lately. That's summer in the city for you; all the cool kids are in Berlin, Krakow or Minsk. But two great Yiddish theater events are coming up in August, so mark your calendars:

First, on August 8: You Don't Have to Speak Yiddish to Understand the Truth, an evening of vintage vaudeville benefitting the Sholem Aleichem Foundation and the Congress for Jewish Culture. Performers will include Yelena Shmulenson, Shane Baker, Allan Rickman, David Mandelbaum and many, many others. (Wednesday, August 8, 9:30 pm, at the Metropolitan Room)

And then, The Essence, a Yiddish Theatre Dim Sum, returns to the New York stage as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. The Essence is a madcap overview of the history of Yiddish theater like you've never seen before. In the words of the producers, "Leave Grandma at home."

Tuesday August 14 at 7:30, Thursday August 16  at 7:15, Friday August 17 at 4, Sunday August 19 at 9, Friday August 24 at 4, Sunday August 26 at 1 

At the Robert Moss Theater at 440 Studios 
(440 Lafayette Street, below Astor Place, across the street from the Public Theater) 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

When Old World and New World Values Clash

Today the New York Post published an article about 'outrage' at some businesses in Hasidic neighborhoods asking customers to observe modesty guidelines. "It’s only the latest example of the Hasidic community trying to enforce their strict religious laws for everyone who lives near their New York enclave." You don't say? Posting the Hasidic equivalent of a 'No shirt, no shoes, no service' sign in a store is now the same as forcing non-Jews to eat kosher, observe shabes and dress modestly all the time? Or, alternatively, the New York Post has just unloaded a pile of anti-Semitic garbage on the reading public.

Let's unpack, shall we?

As we all probably know, the encroachment of hipsters, or, artistn, as the Hasidim call them in Yiddish, onto the Hasidic section of Williamsburg has sparked any number of uncomfortable encounters between the two groups. Hasidim want to maintain communal separation at all costs. They value modesty and group coherence, things not so fashionable in American mainstream culture, and certainly not so popular among the young, liberal, and at leisure. To what extent are the artistn obligated to tolerate intolerance, especially the perceived intolerance of the Hasidim who are their neighbors (and often landlords)? 

These are certainly legitimate questions and there are times when some parts of the Hasidic community have pushed too far, as in the illegal sex-segregation of the B110 bus line, a privately operated bus route awarded to them by the government.

For some reason, however, the Post has taken a hodgepodge of issues and incidents and cooked up something which isn't just bad journalism, but reeks of bad intentions.

The story here is the 'outrage' of non-Hasidic customers at Hasidic businesses which have taken to posting signs saying "No Shorts, No Barefoot, No Sleeveless, No Low Cut Neckline Allowed in the Store." Just like the signs you see pretty much everywhere saying 'No shirt, no shoes, no service.' The signs in the Hasidic stores go an extra step in accordance with the modesty norms already practiced by their community.

It is perfectly legal to post (and enforce) dress requirements for a private business, as long as the owners are not discriminating against a protected class. The Post even points this out: "City lawyer Gabriel Taussig said the signs appeared kosher, provided they don’t “impermissibly discriminate based upon gender, religion or some other protected class.”

OK... then nobody's actually doing anything illegal. So, where's the outrage? Where are all the customers in Daisy Dukes  humiliated and thrown out of stores up and down Lee Ave?

"When a Post reporter visited Lee Avenue in a sleeveless dress, some store owners stared at her shoulders, while others refused to look her in the face."


Wait, what? That's it? Surely, there must be stories of customers being turned away, scorned, yelled at for flaunting their sexy, sexy shoulders, no?

Um, no. All the Post's got is a couple of hipsters miffed that their right to 'bare arms' (herp derp) might possibly be infringed in a perfectly legal way. This possibility is too terrible to bear without calling the white knights at the Post to the rescue:

“Religious freedom is one thing, but we do not have the right to enforce our beliefs on someone else,” charged Bob Kim, 39, comfy in tight jeans and a T-shirt.
“Why should they be able to say that on their signs? It’s not OK,” added Hana Dagostin, 32, wearing a sleeveless top.
“People should be able to wear what . . . makes them comfortable,” said Fabian Vega, 34, also wearing shorts and a T-shirt.
D'ja here that, Hasidim? Bob, Hana and Fabian want to be comfortable. It's hot as balls out here in Williamsburg.  Not everyone is happier wearing 3 pounds of beaver fur on their heads all summer. Why do you want Bob, Hana and Fabian to be so hot? Why do you hate freedom, Hasidim? Why so fucking un-American, Hasidim?

See, there's no story there. No one was even refused service (as far as the Post is reporting.) Since there's no actual story, the writers at the Post have no choice but to throw together a bunch of unrelated incidents (some legal and some not) and smear them all by association. What do the B110 bus, the air brushing of Hillary Clinton in the Yiddish papers and the bike lane kerfuffle have to do with the perfectly legal actions of some Hasidic business owners?  How can a legitimate journalist honestly imply that there is something sinister about the community run Shomrim and Hatzolah? They can't, because to do so would be dishonest and a gross violation of journalistic ethics. The whole thrust of the article isn't to call attention to a real injustice but to sensationalize and exploit the differences between those funny looking Jews (with intolerable values) and their neighbors.

Which is why this article needs to be called out as some straight-up anti-semitic bullshit. The writers take minimally related incidents, wrap them around a non-story, and juxtapose THAT with quotes from experts suggesting (and stating) that the Hasidim of Williamsburg are "dangerous for tolerance.... and dangerous for peace." The odious (and unaccountable) "some people" are called in to claim that the Hasidic store policies are "un-American." Jesus Christ. What, did they edit out "rootless cosmopolitans" for word length? I mean, were "fifth column" or "dirty fucking Jews" not appropriate for a family paper like the New York Post? Why the hell did the legal actions of some store owners become an excuse for inexcusable race-baiting?

The New York Post, and its writers Gary Buiso and Kate Briquelet, need to re-think their casual anti-Semitism real quick. And they better remember that Jews read the paper on Sunday, too.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Radical Camera and Red, White and Blue-washing

This winter the Jewish Museum mounted a terrific exhibit about the Photo League called Radical Camera. The Photo League (1936-1951) was a group of amateur and professional photographers who joined together to teach and exhibit cutting edge photography with a socially conscious point of view.

As the name of the exhibit hints, the Photo League, its members and the work it produced, reflected the progressive/Socialist/Communist currents of the day. Mason Klein's essay in the exhibit catalog argues that viewers should resist easy categorization of the League, and, he says, to generalize about the radical politics of the League is to make the same totalizing mistake of the blacklisting madmen who eventually destroyed it (along with many similar organizations.) He writes:  "To reduce such a vitally boisterous and dynamic association to its earliest iteration [which was more explicitly Marxist] is to echo the mindset of the general's office, which falsely condemned and ultimately destroyed the Photo League as a subversive organization in 1947."

Fair enough. Art is a messy business and an artists' collective bears little resemblance to a political party. However, there is no question that the League and its members were "informed by a socialist sensibility and advocacy..." [catalog, p. 13].  This made the League no different than any number of magazines, clubs,  and fraternal organizations of this period, all with an over-representation of young Jews, most the sons and daughters of poor Eastern European immigrants.

As you can imagine, I loved the Radical Camera exhibit. The radical history and art of Eastern European Jews (and their children and grandchildren) is an important part of American Jewish history, one that can be appreciated without subscribing to its politics. (Indeed, to presume that investigating, discussing and appreciating the history of Jewish Communists should be taboo, and somehow implies an endorsement of Communism or, kholile, Stalinism, is a childish and willfully malicious manipulation of history for ones own political purposes. But that's another discussion.)

A new documentary has just arrived on the scene, also about the Photo League. The movie is called 'Ordinary Miracles' and I was excited to check it out recently at Quad Cinema here in New York. My excitement quickly turned to rank dismay. For one thing, the word 'Jewish' was mentioned once in the movie, as far as I could tell. How could a subject so richly Jewish as to be featured at the Jewish Museum be portrayed without addressing the Jewishness of its members? The mind boggles.

But that was only the beginning. The politics of the Photo League students and teachers isn't just toned down in Ordinary Miracles, it's almost entirely erased, only to emerge, toward the end of the film, out of nowhere, as a catalyst for the Photo League's prosecution and and ultimate dissolution. A viewer who knew nothing about the history of the Photo League would be baffled as to why the League would be targeted at all.

Instead of exploring the politics of the Photo League (an integral part of the League's approach to documentary photography), director Nina Rosenblum chose to spend large chunks of the narrative (in an already brief movie) on subjects only tangentially related to the story of the League, namely the visit of Lewis Hine to the League's New York headquarters and the military service of various League members during World War II. But why?

It seems to me there are two, complementary explanations, neither of which reflects very well on the film's maker. If you look at Nina Rosenblum's filmography, her previous documentaries include films on, you guessed it, Lewis Hine and soldiers fighting in World War II. Rather than tackle the tough subject of politics, Rosenblum does a cut and paste from her previous work, something we should all be wary of these days.

But there's something else going on in Ordinary Miracles. The director is clearly uncomfortable with the politics of the League, going so far as to erase it almost completely from the film. She focuses on the war time service of League members, and their implied patriotism, as well as using clips of interviews with a few League members who play down the role of politics in the League, decades later.  The effect of these narrative choices is to present a sanitized Photo League bearing little resemblance to the one portrayed in the Jewish Museum's Radical Camera exhibit.

Ordinary Miracles's is so brazen in its distortions as to inspire a genre all its own: Red, White, and Blue-washing.  It's a disingenuous, baffling dishonor to the work of the Photo League and, ironically, a betrayal of the very ideals of truth and documentary integrity at the heart of the Photo League mission.

Abie mitn Fidl

Like a lot of Yiddish culture in America, the origin of much Yiddish music is now generally so unfamiliar as to be easily dismissed as 'folk music,' as if the lyrics to 'Oyfn Pripitchek' were found on an anonymous clay Sumerian tablet. On the contrary, many of these 'folk' songs have well established authorship. For example, 'Oyfn Pripitchek' was written by Mark Varshavsky, a colleague of Sholem Aleykhem and a fellow maskil.

In the US, the Yiddish stage was the source of the musical pop culture for Eastern European immigrants. Many of these songs were so well crafted that they far outlived the shows they were written for and are still known to the grandchildren and great grandchildren of those same immigrants. Abe Ellstein, one of the Big Four composers for the Yiddish stage, may not be a well known name today, but his songs are still familiar, even if his name isn't. Ellstein wrote the music for Yidl mitn fidl, Mamele, Zog es mir nokh a mol, and many, many others.

While much of his work for the Yiddish stage has been recorded time and time again, he also composed lesser known symphonic pieces, as well as an opera based on the story of the Golem of Prague. Unlike Yidl mitn fidl, recordings of those pieces are much harder to find. Enter the beautiful people at the Milken Archive. The fine folks there have issued recordings of Ellstein's classical work and you can even see a clip of a live recording of Hassidic Dance here. How cool is that?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Gey shray khay ve-kayem

Presented without comment, our favorite voice of reason and moderation in all things klal yisroel related:

Kulturfest 2015

Hey! There seems to be a big pile of Yiddish related news items to get outraged about. Not that I'm outraged about Yiddish, but at the inevitable (it seems) cliches applied to it.


Exciting news from the Folksbiene. At the theater's big gala few weeks ago,  plans were anounced for a festival named for the gala's honoree, Chana Mlotek. Kulturfest: The First Chana Mlotek International Festival of Jewish Performing Arts is scheduled to open in 2015.  According to the New York Times, Kulturfest will be "A weeklong festival with 100 events including concerts, film screenings and theater."

It's kind of amazing that New York doesn't already have something like this. Toronto has the biennial Ashkenaz festival. Krakow has its yearly Jewish Culture Festival, just to name two of the most important. New York City is the global capital of Jewish culture. Why don't we have a Jewish festival on par with Toronto or Krakow? A good question, but one unanswered in the Times article.

Like with many of Joe Berger's articles about Yiddish, Felicia Lee of the New York Times can't write about a Yiddish related topic without using an 'on the one hand- on the other' framing of the relevance of Yiddish. On the one hand, you have amazing, ground breaking news from an important cultural institution. On the other hand, you have some spurious, bull shit straw man argument that Yiddish is dead/dying/only spoken by the undead of Williamsburg and, what's more, Yiddish will never again be a vernacular so therefore just GET OVER IT ALREADY.

As Felicia Lee learned at the Joe Berger school of writing about Yiddish, the context and import of this announcement must be secondary to passive aggressive beard stroking about the futility of Yiddish. For expert commentary, Lee got novelist Thane Rosenbaum:

Mr. Rosenbaum, who moderates an annual series of discussions on Jewish culture and politics at the 92nd Street Y, predicted that Folksbiene’s “interest in memorializing Yiddish culture and making it relevant” will turn the festival into a “pep rally” for the more than 1,000-year-old language.
Pep rally? Is this a joke? What does that even mean? Whither flows such toxic, and unbecoming, condescension, Mr. Rosenbaum?

You would hope that the Times and its meticulous, in-depth research would explore some of the reasons why we should devote large sums of money and resources to promoting Yiddish culture. You would also be disappointed.  Let's see what the Times has to say about the contemporary relevance of Yiddish:

Yiddish, a Germanic-based language, has contributed terms like "oy vey," and "bagel" to the English vernacular and is still taught.

Rakhmune litzlon. If that's the best the New York Times can come up with, we're all fucked. To hell with Sholem Aleykhem and Peretz and Mendele. Who gives a shit about Inzikh and di Yunge. Not the New York Times, not Thane Rosenbaum, not every ignorant putz who feels compelled to piss on something that makes them feel guilty and defensive:

“It is still a dying language,” Mr. Rosenbaum said, noting that Yiddish has few speakers outside Hasidic enclaves. 

Ah yes, the "still a dying language" trope. I think I've seen that before.  And, did he just imply that Hasidim are not actually living? Gevald.

In any case, claiming that Yiddish is dying is a red herring that's been invoked by many people, for many purposes, for at least a century, if not more. What's so wrong with admitting that Yiddish is the cultural inheritance of the majority of American Jews and thus matters, whether it has 100 (non-Hasidic) native speakers or 100,000? No one's proposing to send Thane Rosenbaum  to a Yiddish re-education camp [not yet -ed.] Yiddish is no threat to him. Can't we just let the death of Yiddish die already? But no, we can't, because the casual delegitimization of Yiddish is not quite complete. Rosenbaum asks:

“Are there original plays being written in Yiddish?”

Well, are there? [crickets]   

Aside from a few recent Folksbiene productions, no mention is made of contemporary theater being made in Yiddish. Because, you know, that's got nothing to do with this story, except it's got everything to do with the story. The Folksbiene is planning a massive, 100 event festival inspired by Yiddish theater and the thrust of the Times story is that contemporary Yiddish theater does not exist (or didn't leave a forwarding address) and a so-called Jewish culture 'expert' is hard pressed to hide his contempt for it.

For the 'other hand' part of the formula the Times did consult with an honest to goodness voice of authority on contemporary Yiddish theater :

Shane Baker, executive director of the Congress for Jewish Culture, founded to promote Yiddish culture, argued that Kulturfest is groundbreaking because it is interdisciplinary and international, both scholarly and artistic, and has the Yiddish component. 
“To bring together all the arts is a wonderful and brilliant idea,” Mr. Baker said. “There has to be a dialogue. I imagine one of the things they’ll be looking at is what is Jewish culture. I’m a gentile fluent in Yiddish, and I play in Yiddish theater.”

What the Times leaves out is that Baker doesn't just play in Yiddish theater (and would have much to say on what might be programmed in Kulturfest) but he himself is a creator of new Yiddish theater, answering Rosenbaum's no doubt rhetorical question about whether such a thing even exists.

So, to sum up: the New York Times will cover the announcement of a major new culture festival for New York City, but only if it can invoke the same old, irrelevant, cliches about the supposed death of Yiddish at the expense of reporting on what the actual content of the festival might be.

And they say all publicity is good publicity. Ugh.