Saturday, December 29, 2012

First Annual Sholem Aleichem Yiddish KlezFest- Sunday, December 30

First Annual Sholem Aleichem Yiddish KlezFest

Tomorrow, Sunday, December 30 


  • Andrea Pancur & Ilya Shneyveys - Klezmer Bavarian Oom-pah music (rare NYC appearance)
  • Jake Shulman-Ment - Fiddle kapelye with Deborah Strauss and Adam Moss 
  • Frank London & Friends - with Aaron Alexander, Ron Caswell and Lauren Brody
  • Steve Weintraub - Dance leader
  • Psoy Korolenko - Host and performer

1:30 - 4:30pm

Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center
3301 Bainbridge Avenue @ 208th Street - Bronx, New York
4 train to Mosholu Pkwy or D train to 205th Street
one block from Montefiore Hospital
admission: $10
info: 917-930-0295 or

It's gonna be a a great afternoon, don't miss it!

The year in Yiddish revivals, with a prologue by Molly Picon

Wow. It's been a year (pretty much to the day) since I revived this blog. I've covered everything from OTD Hasidim to masturbation mussar to the erasure of Jewish Communists from American documentary film. But my focus has always returned to my favorite topic: how we do and don't talk about Yiddish. The very first post I wrote for the blog was about an AP wire story on the 'revival' of Yiddish among college students. It's the story that keeps on giving, and give it did in 2012. Here is a surely incomplete survey of 'revival' stories from 2012.

I could list twenty articles like these to make my point: there is no revival. There is only a Jewish populace deeply confused about its identity and conflicted about the sacrifices it's made in the name of assimilation, Americanization, Zionism and the myth of a unified Jewish monoculture. The revival meme is a way of neutralizing those who would question the value of all those things; it frames their connection to Yiddish as cute, unthreatening, and incapable of maturing. To talk about Yiddish in terms other than its 'revival' is to tread on politically dangerous ground.

If my round-up of articles doesn't make my point, perhaps you'll be more impressed by the beloved pixie diva of Yiddish theater, Molly Picon.

In 1980 Molly Picon appeared on Israeli TV. There's a lot to unpack about her appearance (in which the show's host interviews her in English and she answers in Yiddish) but right now I'll just skip to the part where Molly herself proclaims a Yiddish revival. In 1980.

Around 3 minutes in Molly says that her Israeli hosts, including the Yiddish actor Shmulik Atzmon, are excited about the current Yiddish revival. All over the world, she says, there is a growing interest in Yiddish, especially among young people. They want to know 'Who are we?' and 'What have we lost?'

At Queens College, she says, six hundred students (!) study Yiddish and now in Europe and Israel, too, students want to learn Yiddish.

To which I have to ask, politely, what the hell? What in bloody hell happened between 1980 and today?

Well, for one, there has been an incredibly burst of creativity around traditional Eastern European music. Some call that the 'klezmer revival.'

And what about Yiddish language? The National Yiddish Book Center, established in the early 1980s, has obviously changed the face of Yiddish between then and now, systematically preserving Yiddish materials for future readers. But what about the classes where those readers will be educated? What about the learning? What about providing professional pedagogical resources for the next generations of Yiddish speakers? What about training the next generation of Yiddish teachers?

While there are some (too few) high quality resources for learning (and teaching) Yiddish today, it's nowhere near what you might think it would be for a language whose 'revival' was heralded over 30 years ago on Israeli TV.

More and more, real Yiddish literacy in the United States is in the hands of either academics (and quasi-academics) or the Hasidim who use it as a vernacular. These are the people who either have the resources to learn and use it or have a politico-theological reason for them to retain it as the language of everyday life.

As much as I love Molly Picon, even 600 students do not make a revival, or a revolution. A revival takes political will and institutional power. The day I see a Federation leader get up at the General Assembly and declare the importance of language transmission, the day I see a session devoted to planning for Yiddish language pedagogy at an educational conference, that's the day I will doff my Yiddish revival cap and herald a new age of Akvarious. Without these things-  communal prioritization, resources, a gigantic shift in our cultural conversation around Yiddish-  the much bally-hooed Yiddish revival is nokh vayt (still far off.)

Gawd, I depress myself sometimes.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

My last post about Gangnam Style אויף יידיש

First off, I want to say 'mazl tov' to Suri and Eli Leno on their recent marriage. It's not everyday your khasene goes viral. (Or maybe this is what the future will look like. On second thought, let's not go there.)

"But Rokhl," as no one's been asking me, "where's the English translation?"

So, for my own pleasure, if not yours, here's a link to the full studio version of Yiddish Gangnam Style with English translation for the Yiddish lyrics.

Also, these kids (Avrumy Kalisch and Tuli Brull) are adorable and they know how to get a party going. If you're getting married soon and were wondering about how you'd get your own personalized Yiddish wedding pop song, I think you've found your answer.

Lyrics composed and sung by

Avrumy Kalisch & Tuli Brull

פאר א געלאסענע חתונה
(For a beautiful wedding)
יעדער נעמט זיך צוזאםען
(Everyone come together)
סיז גיט חבורים עריבום
(Friends and witnesses)
צוזאמען איינס נאך אנאם
(Everyone, one after another)
פון אלע עקען פון שטאט
(From every corner of the city)
זענען מענטשען יעצט דא
(We're all here now)

So let's welcome khoson kale now

אזא הערליכע נאכט
(Such a magnificent night)
גארנישט קומט נישט דא צו
(Nothing compares to it)
ווען בכל כח טאנצט מען הויעך
(Dance with all you've got)
מיט שרי אין אלי
(With Suri and Eli (khosn kale)
סאיז א זיכערע זאך
(It's a sure thing)
אז מען ברענגט אראפ די דאך
(We're going to bring down the roof)

So everybody on the floor now

שמחה טוט גלאנצען
(Such a beautiful simkhe)
אינז גיי מיר טאנצען
(We're gonna dance)
לאמיר גיין
(Let's go)
מען גייט אנפאנגען
(We're gonna start)
טאנצען גאנגעם
(Dancing Gangnam!)

So let's go
Put your hands up in the air and gimme more

Woopaa Lenno Style
Hey, Suri Eli ....

Put your hands up
If you're sure that you want more
No, it's not enough
Pour some wine, another cup
Let it all out
Let's hear everyone shout
When we're dancing on the dance floor

Tonight no expectations
There's no rules, no regulations
Everybody just keep patient cause there's a party in the nation

We'll stop thinking we'll stop blinking w'ell be drinking
Ya we'll all be screaming 'gimme more'

יעצט אביסעל ערענסט
(Now, let's get a little serious)
פאר א סקאנדע לאמיר ווערען
(Just for a moment)
טי מיך נאר אויס הערען
(Listen to what I have to say)
ווען איך גיי א ברכה שערען
(I'm gonna share a brukhe)
אייביק אין א יעדע צייט
(Always, in every moment)
זאלסטי נאר וויסען פון פרייד
(You should only know from joy)
יעצט שרייטס אלע ער גייט נאר גייט
(And now, there he goes!)

(Note about English lyrics: Please don't complain about inexact translations. Pop songs rely more on the logic of rhyme than meaning. What rhymes in one language doesn't always make sense in another.)

(English translation by ani ha-koten with help from Gedalya Gottdenger)

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Memes of the British Atlantis

The BBC News Magazine has an article this week called New York, a graveyard for languages. No, please Doctor, don't sugar coat it!

Dr. Mark Turin looks at the linguistic economy of New York City. As a global capitol of immigration, it's home to a staggering variety of languages; some 800, according to researchers. You can see just the tip of that diversity, as Turin notes, in the many languages offered on subway signs, metrocard dispensers and night school advertisements. Lest you think New York City is a multi-lingual paradise: I have discovered, New York is not just a city where many languages live, it is also a place where languages go to die, the final destination for the last speakers of some of the planet's most critically endangered speech forms.

The unparalleled number of languages spoken here, as well as their uncertain future, makes New York a natural site of study for linguists and those interested in language preservation. Turin mentions the work of new-ish, NYC based non-profit, The Endangered Language Alliance . ELA's mission is to "further the documentation, description, maintenance, and revitalization of threatened and endangered languages, and to educate the public about the causes and consequences of language extinction."

Some languages have gone quiet in their place of birth but are still spoken here in New York City by immigrants who have brought their language with them. For example, the ELA has been working with two different languages, one a European ethnic minority language and one an Arawak (Native American) language from Central America:
'There are these communities that are completely gone in their homeland. One of them, the Gottscheers, is a community of Germanic people who were living in Slovenia, and they were isolated from the rest of the Germanic populations.' 
'They were surrounded by Slavic speakers for several hundreds of years so they really have their own variety [of language] which is now unintelligible to other German speakers.' 
The last speakers of this language have ended up in Queens, he says, and this has happened to many other communities. 
Garifuna is an Arawakan language from Honduras and Belize, but also spoken by a diaspora in the United States. 
Staff at the Endangered Language Alliance have been working with two Garifuna speakers, Loreida Guity and Alex Colon, to document not only their language but also aspects of their culture through traditional song, before these are lost without record.

This is all interesting, insofar as we've learned a bit about the hidden linguistic richness of New York City and the admirable work of the ELA. But as for analysis, the BBC is asleep at the wheel.

"But why do languages die?" Dr. Turin asks. Good question. After all, it's not just New York City which is increasing in spoken languages:
A recent Census Bureau report notes that in the United States, the number of people speaking a language other than English at home increased by 140% over the last 30 years, with at least 303 languages recorded in this category.
And as to why languages die, Dr. Turin offers this:

Communities can be wiped out through wars, disease or natural disasters, and take their languages with them when they go.
More commonly, though, people transition out of one mother tongue into another, either by choice or under duress, a process that linguists refer to as language shift.

OK. As a friend said to me the other night, heroyf bulltsushitn. [Stop bullshitting]

How can you write an article about multilingualism, linguistic preservation, and national identity in the United States and not mention the extreme currents of nativism at play? The places where languages other than English (and I suspect this largely means Spanish) are increasing are the places where you find, angry, armed movements looking to make English the official language and outlaw the use of any language other than English. I wish I was kidding about this.

This is about American-style capitalism, son. All those immigrants aren't coming here because America gives a shit about their language and folkways. They're here for 'economic opportunities' and because they're cheap labor which, if here illegally, can be exploited even more cheaply and with less regard for any kind of human dignity. Speak English, become a citizen, then maybe we'll pay lip service to celebrating your 'ethnic heritage.'

You cannot extricate questions of language survival from those of nationalism and politics. I mean, wigga please. It's no accident that Americans lead the world in monolingualism. Americans are PROUD of it. Monolingualism is an American value and has been for a very long time.

Ugh. And we haven't even gotten to the dumb Yiddish parts.

Somehow, an article about the endangered languages in New York City has to do with Yiddish, like, half the article goes into a long rehearsal of the 'facts' about the rise and fall of Yiddish in New York. Again, with no awareness or recognition of the violence of Americanization as a factor in the loss of Yiddish within one or two generations of immigration (which was actually a better record than most other immigrant languages.) Nope, Jews chose to flee to the suburbs and forgot to pack their Yiddish books. Oops!

Also, Yiddish is being revived thanks to the National Yiddish Book Center.

Also, the decades long existence of thriving Hasidish Yiddish newspapers may not be mentioned because it interferes with our 'death/revival' narrative.


Monday, December 10, 2012

Move Over Dschinghis Khan, Gangnam Style Has Arrived in Boro Park

It's not true that the Haredi community rejects secular culture. They just absorb it, turn it Yiddish and pretend like nothing ever happened.

The most famous example of this is probably the transmigration (or gilgul) of the 1979 Eurovision winning

Dschinghis Khan

Into Mordechai Ben David's  "hit" Yidn:

And now? Was there any doubt it would happen?

The Macarena of 2012, the video your great-grandmother has already probably forwarded to you, Psy's Gangnam Style

Has been turned into this, a Yiddish/English khasene song, first spotted at a Boro Park khasene in early December:

A khanike miracle.

Many thanks to my W'burg/BP informant for providing the video.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Gevalt! Yiddish Is (kind of) Alive in Canada

It's Khanike (Chanuka/Hanukkah) time and you know what that means? Obligatory article about the survival/struggle/revival/renaissance/zombie stagger of Yiddish in North America.

Last year that article was from the AP and called 'Gevalt! U.S. college students lead surprise Yiddish revival.'  The story was picked up all over the place, in newspapers and TV station websites. Khanike and Yiddish 'revival' stories go together like latkes and sour cream, I suppose.

This year we're shaking it up a bit. 'Yiddish Finding a Way to Survive in Canada' appeared this week in the Canadian Globe & Mail newspaper.

I don't have a lot to say about this genre that I haven't said before. Though at least they didn't call it a 'surprise' this year, so that's progress.

Nonetheless, I'm happy to see Kalman Weiser getting props in a national newspaper. He's a wonderful young scholar and, from what I hear, a great teacher. So, right on Kalman! 

And as a yomtov bonus, here's a terrific little clip of him speaking in Yiddish about speaking in Yiddish: