Friday, August 30, 2013

Montreal Flashback: December 2001 and the Kishif Kartofl Kabaret

As some of you may know, I just got back from a few days in Montreal. I was there for the Montreal Jewish Music Festival and to see all the Yiddish world peeps I missed by not going to Klezkanada. (Incidentally, I learned that in Canada they call Klezkanada Klez. And Canadian bacon is just bacon. Not that I'd know that personally.)

Spotted on Avenue du Parc in Montreal

The Jewish Music Festival takes place mostly at the legendary club Sala Rosa. The music was amazing and I got to see Shtreiml, Anthony Russell, SoCalled and even do some klezmer contra dancing. I hadn't been back to Sala Rosa since December 2001, when I came into town for something called the Kishif Kartofl Kabaret (Magic Potato Cabaret).

In 2001 I was in law school. In my free time (hah!) I was taking baby steps into journalism with a 'zine called Rootless Cosmopolitan. The following piece appeared in its first issue. I'm sharing the piece with you 1. because it's fun to go back to a place and see how it's changed and 2. because it's cool to see how much you've changed.

Two things jump out at me. First. Damn, I was angry. I mean, really fucking ragey, three day waiting period angry. WHEW. And a little bit mean. I wrote my 'zine knowing it was mostly for me, so I didn't exactly pull any punches. I think if I was writing this now I'd focus less on making fun of people and more on the larger context.

And second, I'm happy to say that my own relationship to Jewish dance has changed for the better. I'm still a terrible dancer, but (for me) I know a lot more about Jewish dances and how to do them. I danced quite a bit this trip. And the dancing at the Jewish Music Festival reflected that many of the people at the shows had either just come back from Klezkanada or had been at one time. The quality of the dancing in 2013 was far better than that of 2001. It is possible to create (and renew) communal culture. Songs can be learned, dances can be taught. It's pretty fucking cool!

All that said, here's my report from Montreal, December 2001 (reproduced from Issue 1, Volume 1 of Rootless Cosmopolitan)

(Cranky) Letter from the (Cranky) Editor: Letter from Montreal

December 2001

The stage has been reset and the lights are back up. It’s only the second act, but the Montrealers have apparently obeyed the no smoking signs long enough (as if the request to ne pas fumer expires after an hour or two) and pretty much everyone except this non-smoking American lights up.

We’re all munching on latkes and wondering what the next act, Black Ox Orkestar, is going to sound like. Instead of the whole band coming on, one guy comes out in a white shirt and black vest. No one is quite sure if this is a solo number or what. His name is Gabe Levine and he is a member of the Orkestar. And before they take the stage, he has a few words to say. He begins by acknowledging the fact that we are gathered in honor of the festival of Khanike, also known to normal people as Chanuka. He draws the familiar (in Yiddishist circles) comparison of cultures: diasporic/Yiddish on the one side and sui generis Israeli on the other. Levine feels that diasporic/Yiddishist culture is more dynamic being that it is less programmatic than Israeli- it has no goals to meet, no agenda to move forward. More to his point, diasporic culture is not a tool of Israeli militarism.

At this point an older gentleman calls out from the audience “I thought I was supposed to be listening to music here.” Gabe has been expecting this and cooly replies, “We’re getting to that, sir.” That boy gets an A in respecting his elders. He continues reading from a piece of paper as a few older members of the audience leave noisily. He again calls on the integrity of diasporic and Yiddish culture and the resilience and resistance within those traditions. He asks us to draw on that alternative tradition and to stand up for what is right- to end the injustices committed against Palestinians and to ‘end the occupation.’ With that, the rest of the band joins him on stage and rips into their first number, Ver Tantzt Dort? (Who is Dancing There?) an original song written in Yiddish by Levine about armed conflict in Israel.

This was the scene at the Kishif Kartofl Kabaret in Montreal, the last night of Khanike, 2001, a night for celebrating, eating deep fried foods and hearing some great music. The irony of decrying Jewish militarism while celebrating a militaristic festival (the only one of its kind in the Jewish year) seems to be mine alone to ponder. The evening begins old school traditional and ends with a hip-hopkele dance party. The music was great, but the interaction between the audience and performers was worth the 7 bucks admission. And although I am usually an urban monogamist and pledge my love solely to New York, I am infatuated with Montreal. It’s a beautiful, old world city with a Jewish community quite different from that of New York. Part of that difference is the fact that the doors of immigration for European Jews closed at least 10 years later than they did in America, a significant fact which puts many Canadian Jews much closer, temporally, to their ‘over-there-ness’, making their cultural dislocation much more uncomfortable. 

The Orkestar played a wide ranging set ending with a bunch of people at the front of the stage in a sort of Jewish mosh pit. I find myself writing in my notes “Dance education is important,”  even as the thought of dance research and preservation makes me reach for a plastic bag to put over my face, to be completely honest. But here we are, and how else to come to terms with the spectacle of my people, expressing their joy for life, their gratitude for living during a comfortable, prosperous time in history, when the joyous, ecstatic, physical manifestation of this expression of happiness is... flying around monotonously in a circle as fast as fucking possible. Ugh. I’ve been here before and I’ll be here many times again, unless I decide to convert to whatever they were in Footloose and move somewhere dancing of any kind is forbidden. But seriously, the idea of appropriate social dancing is no joke. At
this point, for this particular world, I can’t imagine a scenario where it will ever get any better. Where’s that plastic bag? 

Before the next act, an experimental sound collage piece called Needletrade by Torontonian Reena Katz, it is announced that equal stage time has been demanded and, unbelievably, given. I’ve never seen this kind of audience engagement at a musical performance in New York. Interactivity here is usually limited to lectures and conferences. Sometimes, usually, it’s the question and answer period at the end of a discussion of a new book, let’s say, about the yiddish art theater. There’s always one guy who gets up to ask, a propos of nothing, “What about Murnia?” I go to Workman’s Circle events in New York specifically hoping that some AK is going to pick a fight, or, better yet, stand up during the question and answer period, proclaim the author wrong on every point, and offer his own self-published book as a modest redress. 

A woman by the name of Terry Mc**** takes the stage. She was one of the people who protested Gabe Levine’s speech by leaving and demanding her money back. She accepted stage time, instead. McA******’s speech is off the cuff and though obviously heartfelt, not well organized or presented. It’s a “knife in her socialist Jewish heart” to hear her Jewish people characterized as  oppressors. It is not the first time someone on stage will cast themselves as a socialist or inject class-consciousness into the dialog. But she doesn’t dwell on universal socialist ideals, hardly. She emphasizes again and again her own personal oppression in Canada. The audience is astounded to learn that her family name was not McA***** upon arrival in Canada, but was changed. Although she makes it seem that this was thrust upon the McA****** famille, the truth is that names were not generally changed upon entry to a country (America or Canada) and the changing of a name was a very conscious effort of a family to assimilate as quickly as possible. McA****** insists that in the Israel/Palestinian issue there are no good guys or bad guys, merely two long histories clashing with each other, both sides having been oppressors and oppressed. I note that she emphasizes the fact that her family “had” to change its name. I wonder why this theme has such power for her, as in her nervousness it seems to be one of the only things she can focus on. Does she actually think this is an injustice perpetrated on her family alone? Or that this is even an injustice at all, instead of a smart social move I’m sure her family was thrilled to have the freedom to make.

After Terry McA***** comes a local named M****. M**** is somewhere in his sixties, an anarchist Peter Pan whom everyone knows because he works at the socialist bookstore. M**** is a bit more focused than Terry McA******, you can tell his harangue has been a long time coming- working at a socialist bookstore leaves you with more free time than one might expect. Yet, his bullet points are so wrong, in every aspect, on every level, in every fucking way, I consider just jumping on stage (I was in the front row) and bitch slapping some sense into his stupid kepele, forget about politely asking for my own five minutes. The M**** world view seems to encompass young people in idling taxis, jumping out to carelessly withdraw cash from their newfangled automated teller machines. I’m not sure if it’s the decadence of the taxi or the expendable cash or, I don’t know, all the teller jobs which have been replaced by unfeeling machines- is he some kind of Luddite? Is this truly an anti-technology rant? It’s unclear. He accuses all of us of being unaware that the social hall we’re sitting in, which now belongs to Montreal’s huge Portuguese community, was in fact sold to the Portuguese by its former owners, the Arbiter Ring/Workmen’s Circle. The audience is so stunned by his revelation it can barely stop talking over him and smoking up a fucking storm.

Take that, he continues, you decadent taxi taking dead-inside shopaholics numbing your pain with the carcinogenic opiates of modem consumer culture, you, you witless audience members who may l remind you have no respect for our yiddish socialist poet forefathers and mothers whose name you probably don’t even know! Uh, M*****? Didn’t some young punk just get up there not five minutes ago and sing a song, in yiddish, that he wrote, by himself, were YOU NOT FUCKING PAYING ATTENTION YOU DELUSIONAL OLD FUCK??

There it is, the coral reef of inter-generational conflict and cultural amnesia on which I can’t seem to keep from scraping my feet raw from dragging around this damn scene so much. No, the point is NOT that we have no respect for the past. If we, the audience members at the kishif kartofl kabaret (organized by two friends of mine in their twenties) had no respect for our la-la-la cultural heritage we wouldn’t have dragged our asses to this dump on a freezing Montreal night. We’d be at a damn bar dancing and getting shiker vi goyim because Montreal doesn’t have idiotic anti-dancing cabaret laws like New York (hey, l still love you New York, really, I do). 

No, the problem is not with the young people at all. The energy and ideas and sweat I’ve seen just tonight has been incredible. The amount of work that we have to do to reclaim our fucking precious la-la-la cultural heritage is akin to cyanide gold mining. If our grandparents and parents hadn’t so easily chucked all this stuff, so willingly given us laughable Jewish educations which, it’s a surprise more of us didn’t end up wiccan bi-sexuals (as some at my nice Jewish university did), left us feeling like Judaism had no culture except suffering and more suffering, maybe we wouldn’t be in the goddamn mess. There, I said it.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

From the Back Wall: Gut Yom-Tev Kinder

Confession time: I listen to a classic rock station. I'm not proud, but it's a habit from junior high and I can't seem to kick it.

Anyway, one of the many irritating things about my classic rock station is when they say they're going to play something you haven't heard 10,000 times before: something from the "back wall." And then they play "Witchy Woman" or "Paperback Writer." UGH! As if they don't very well know that every song played comes from a not very large dot matrix printout from 1989, "back wall" included! UGH! Just being a B-side doesn't make it obscure. Jeez!

Now, on to things so not deserving of scorn.

Last summer I was gifted with a huge stack of vintage Jewish vinyl. It's been a year and I'm still working my way through it all. So I decided that a good way to explore these treasures is to blog about them in my own "back wall" series. Because, hey, most of these are legit obscure (unavailable on CD) and I really do keep my records on the back wall (of my living room.)

First up: Gut Yom-Tev Kinder

(Yes, I liked it so much I had to have it in multiple manifestations of obsolescence)

Gut Yom-Tev Kinder was released in 1974 by the education department of the Workmen's Circle and featured a chorus of kids from its schools. According to the back of the record jacket, Gut Yom-Tev Kinder came with booklet with Yiddish words, English transliteration AND English translation. WOW!

Alas, the copy I inherited was missing the booklet; the cassette (purchased new) never had a booklet; and the Workmen's Circle has never seen fit to re-release it on CD. (A huge wasted opportunity, in my humble opinion. They let this get their rightful market share.)

Gut Yom-Tev Kinder is definitely worth buying (and reissuing!!!) because on one record you get a generous slice of the Yiddish holiday repertoire, all in a very understandable Yiddish, appropriate for all levels of Yiddish students. Moreover, many of the songs on Gut Yom-Tev Kinder have been re-worked and re-appropriated by the edgiest of artists. Yiddish Princess does Oyfn Nil, and the Klezmatics do Ale Brider, Makht Oyf and Simkhes Toyre, just to name a few.

Seen from 2013, Gut Yom-Tev Kinder, released pretty much at the beginning of the "klezmer revival," is a charming peek into what was to come.

Side One

Leshono Toyvo
A Suke
A Fon
Der Vinter
Feter Shneyer
Khanike Oy Khanike
A Dreydl
Drey Zikh Dreydele
Gut-Yomtev Aykh Kinder
O Ir Kleyne Likhtelekh
Ver Ken Dertseyln
In Khoydesh Shvat
Haynt Iz Purim
Makht Oyf
Yakhne Dvoshe
Ma Nishtano
Tayere Malke
Oyfn Nil
Eliyohu Hanovi
Khad Gadyo

Side Two

Oyfn Pripetshik
Geyen Mir In Shul Arayn
Katz Un Moyz
Mitn Zegel
Di Ban
A Yingele A Meydele
S'hot Der Tate
Ikh Bin A Guter Muzikant
Karuseln Dos Iz Emes
Der Zingemaring
Kum Rokhele Zikh Shpiln*
O, Hermerl Klap
Makhnes Geyen
Shoymer In Galil
Ale Brider
Fayer Fayer
Ay Vi Gut

*An unjustifiable absence from the klezmer revival repertoire has been Kum Rokhele Zikh Shpiln. I look forward to someone rectifying this very, very soon.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Blogs You Need To Know - YIVO YEDIES

YIVO has stepped up their blog game of late. The new YEDIES (news) blog has a great mix of YIVO news with archival curiosities. 

YEDIES isn't just the name of the YIVO blog, it's also the name of their (English language) newsletter and was an official (Yiddish language) YIVO publication from the beginning. 

Here, archivist Roberta Newman brings to light a controversy from 1935. Hebrew University was refusing to accept students from Vilne's two Yiddish language high schools. YIVO had been founded in Vilne in 1928 and was still located there in 1935, so the city's Yiddish language schools were a matter of immediate importance to the YIVO board.

Even though students had no trouble being accepted at universities in France, Germany and Belgium, Hebrew University chancellor Judah Magnes insisted the school
would only be willing to accept diplomas accredited by the Polish government or from Jewish schools in which the language of instruction was Hebrew.

The controversy ended up in YEDIES after all attempts at private resolution of the matter failed.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Night of a Thousand Rubber Chickens

Exciting news for fans of Yiddish vaudeville, Shane Baker and rubber chickens. Baker and fellow vaudevillian Tanya Solomon have a new show premiering on August 28th called Night of a Thousand Rubber Chickens

Baker will tell of his rise from Missouri altar boy to latter-day king of Yiddish vaudeville through songs, tales and chicken hypnosis, as well as pulling rare materials from the vaults, including his Yiddish Yes, We Have No Bananas as well as Essen, the tale of the man who went to the Catskills and ordered everything on the menu.
Baker will be accompanied by Steve Sterner, the world's foremost remaining silent movie accompanist.
Solomon, New York's first lady of funny magic, plays with sharp knives, creamed corn, and your dearest beliefs.  Highly trained in the art of clowning and deadly serious about her comedy, Solomon is one of a handful of women magicians and she had to fight hard to break through the glass trap-door.  In New York she has made a name as one of the most popular hosts and entertainers for variety evenings, and audiences will delight in the new mysteries she'll present during this feature evening.

It's one night only at Coney Island USA, so I advise you buy tickets now.

Friday, August 16, 2013

These Are Not The Goldbergs You're Looking For...

Seen this morning on the subway: a car full of ads for the new Goldbergs show. To be fair, it's not another piece of so-called 'reality.' While the world may not need another sit-com, by now it's probably had more than its share of table flipping, wig snatching and dare-devil sperm guzzling. That kind of Reality is best left in the shadows and behind closed doors, don't you think? 

Anyway, The Goldbergs of 2013. My scorn is only at 98%, as according to Wikipedia, this new Goldbergs has cast George Segal (my 1971 boyfriend!) as "Gramps." Awww, George Segal is old!

ABC must be really desperate, hoping that some of that old 1949 magic will rub off on this li'l slice of drek. What would Gertrude Berg think?

(Gertrude Berg on the set of The Goldbergs [1949-1956])

Smart business woman she was, she'd probably insist on royalties of some kind for use of the Goldbergs name. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Six Degrees of Kosher Bacon

My friend Michael Wex has read pretty much every book worth reading, and plenty, I'm sure, that weren't. About 14 years ago he recommended I read The Adventures of One Yitzchok by Yitzchok Perlov. And of course, I did. I enjoyed it so much that I then lent it to a friend whom I knew would like it just as much. And then, as these things often go, the book was never seen again. Happily, I picked up another copy last week and am re-reading it right now. The Adventures of One Yitzchok is just as funny and touching as I remembered.

Yitzchok Perlov was a writer for the Yiddish theater whose muse was his wife, Lola Folman, for whom he wrote many songs and shows. The Adventures of One Yitzchok is a memoir of his time as a Polish evacuee to Central Asia. (Many Polish Jews, like Perlov and Folman, found themselves in the USSR after the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact and its partition of Poland. When war broke out between Germany and the USSR in 1941, many of those Jews continued to move east and found safety in exotic places like Baku and Tashkent.) Beautiful, talented, beloved Lola, of course, is a major character in the book.

And it's Lola who made me pick up The Adventures once again. Via the magic of Facebook, I found out that Lola Folman was the aunt of one of my favorite people, Yiddish teacher extraordinaire, Paula Teitelbaum. Not only that, but thanks to my other favorite people at the Congress for Jewish Culture, we can now hear Lola Folman sing, digitized off a 78 record from the collection of the grande dame of the New York Yiddish theater, Mina Bern.

Lola Folman sings "Di Shadkhnte" (The Matchmaker) from Congress for Jewish Culture on Vimeo.

....א וועלט מיט וועלטלעך

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Bat Kama At

With sadness I learned of the passing of Rosa Portnoi Rozenbaumas z'l', on August 5th. Rosa was the mother of my friend Isabelle Rozenbaumas, author of the unfolding memory project Bat Kama At.

If you haven't yet visited Bat Kama At, you must. It is a fascinating multimedia art and history project dedicated to the young women of the pre-war Telz Gymnasium Yavne. Rosa Portnoi Rozenbaumas was just one of the brilliant young students of Yavne before the war.

The education the girls of Yavne received was second to none. Rosa spoke seven languages, though English was not one of them. Latin had replaced English at Yavne in 1931. 

From Isabelle:
Yes, the girls of Yavne in Telz studied Latin. And the small bibliography in Lithuanian (among hundreds of documents from the archives of the school Yavne Telz) demonstrates the excellence of education provided in this school for girls: Halevi Yehuda, Ibn Gabirol, Bahai, Rambam, amidst luminaries of Western literature, from the medieval epic lyric (“Chanson de Geste”) of Roland to Voltaire and Rousseau via Shakespeare, Goethe and Novalis. The daughters of Telz were not exactly considered dumb. 

In addition to the website, you can now watch Isabelle's movie, [nemt]: (take) about Jewish life and memory in Lithuania:

May Bat Kama At continue to honor the extraordinary life of Rosa Portnoi Rozenbaumas and all the girls of Telz.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Memes of Yiddish Atlantis - And the Hits Keep Coming!

Just when you thought no editor could possibly be interested in the re-revivication of Yiddish, well, you thought too soon. Once widely spoken, now mostly studied, Yiddish sees revival  was published a few days ago in the Religion News Service and subsequently widely syndicatedOnce widely spoken, now mostly studied, Yiddish sees revival  follows the Yiddish!Revival! formula and hits all my favorite memes. 

Without further ado, let's break it down:

Spunky old people meeting at a Yiddish shmooze club, speaking from the heart and without grammar:

Friends of Yiddish has no agenda. No textbooks. No Yiddish grammar rules.
Its members gather every month at the B’nai Tikvoh-Sholom synagogue to speak a language stamped in their hearts and memories. They savor their past through Yiddish words and phrases spoken by their parents and grandparents. In the process, they are keeping a dying language alive.

in a purely nostalgic mode:

“It’s a nostalgic get-together with mostly old people coming to renew their memories from when they were kids,” said Cohen, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Lithuania.

BUT! Small numbers of young people are discovering Yiddish and a revival is, or is not, imminent :

But while many older Americans gather to reminisce about parents and grandparents who spoke the Germanic-Hebrew language of Eastern and Central European Jews, a renewed interest in Yiddish is blooming among a younger generation of people who have no such memories.

Via academic  and summer intensive courses:

Much of the renewed interest grows out of university programs in Jewish studies that now offer Yiddish language and literature courses. This summer also saw a flourishing of intensive language courses and camps...

Then there's the historical trajectory of Yiddish: assimilation in America, suppression in Israel:

For centuries, Yiddish was widely spoken by an estimated 11 to 13 million Jews throughout Europe. But the number of Yiddish speakers began dwindling with the Holocaust and the Soviet persecution. A Germanic language written in the Hebrew alphabet, Yiddish was also the victim of the assimilation of Jews who immigrated to new countries and left their old language behind.
When Israel rejected the language over Hebrew many believed it had been dealt its final blow. Today, an estimated 1 million speak the language, many within the Orthodox community.

And now comes Revival, but not too much (obligatory dour straw man):

Professor Victor Bers of Yale University grew up speaking Yiddish and organizes the Yale-New Haven Yiddish Reading Circle. He believes Yiddish will survive on college campuses. 
“My feeling is that Yiddish is going to be an academic subject,” he said.

BONUS! Head scratching error 

But others say the ranks of Orthodox Jews, and particularly Hasidic groups such as the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which has embraced Yiddish and is growing worldwide, will keep the language alive.

(Chabad is NOT a center of Yiddish, unlike Satmar and other Hasidic sects which support numerous Yiddish language publications and teach and conduct business in Yiddish)

The bottom line is that languages require support and political will. Yiddish will continue to thrive in places like Kiryas Yoel and Williamsburg as long as it has utility as a method of social control. And the "revival" among young American Jews will continue to be limited by the resources available to those who are interested, (college students have access to high quality Yiddish language courses. Most of us do not.)

Seeing that the majority of American Jews are invested (for many complex reasons) in the morbidity of the language (and thus loathe to actually put much money or support into it), right now there's little chance this so-called revival will go much further than where it is today. And articles like this one only reinforce our narrow, ahistorical vision of American Jewish life.