Sunday, July 8, 2012

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.


  1. Awesome! Shkoyekh! Why is Mr Rosenbaum an authority on Yiddish for NYT, since his book "Golems of Gotham" clearly shows that the author does not seem to know the difference between golems and ghosts??