Monday, September 23, 2013

Git Moyed and Digital Heritage

It's khol ha'moyed sukkes, the intermediate days of the 8 day festival of sukkes/sukkot. You know, you sit in a hut (sukke) and eat; shake a festive blend of biblical plants; go apple picking if you're Brooklyn Hasidish. To be perfectly honest, I haven't done any of those things yet, especially the apple picking.

Which is all to say that I'm not really having the best sukkes ever.  Though it is kinda cinematic. Picture this: my brother and I on a road trip in a rattling cargo van tricked out with hand cranked windows and functioning FM radio. Our destination: a small city 5 hours away where our mom (OBM) was living when she passed away in 2007. Our mission: to clear out a storage locker stuffed with her pesakh dishes, my first grade notebooks and my brother's comic book collection. The drama: tears are shed, teddy bears tossed, parental approval hoped for. 

As we walked away from the storage space, I thought of the stories you hear sometimes about people living in storage lockers. Even if you could get enough oxygen inside, the storage space seems too close to being buried alive. Wouldn't it be better to take your chances on the street or a park bench? I don't know. Thank god, I've never been in the position to have to make that kind of decision.

My own take-away from this trip is that home is what you make it, from moment to moment. And no one is entitled to an attic or basement  or even just a small holding space for a teddy bear and a journal or 15. You've probably realized this if your parents have moved from what you consider to be your childhood home. Home isn't storage space for your stuff, no matter how long you've had it. As wonderful (or horrible) as it is, or how much love is there, home is contingent. It's got a life span, just like those imperfect folks hanging the drapes. Be in the moment because the moment will soon enough be over. 

There's no more perfect symbol of this than the sukke. It's handmade (slow home movement, anyone?) so you are present at its birth. With its incomplete roof, the sukke epitomizes built-in obsolescence. And maybe best of all, it has no encumbrances above or below. Don't even think about storing your comic books in a sukke, son.

I was taken by the contrast between the concrete cells of the storage units and the brittle fragility of the sukke. You can't really settle into either of them. Both are peculiar abstractions of domesticity. Stage instructions. Teddy bears and photos and good china- these are props. Home is something more- a lived experience animated for a time by the people inside.

Homes come and go. But they never really go away. As with history, our homes have made us who we are, sheltered and shaped us. Which brings me to a cool new website I want to share with you. The World Monuments Fund has created a new interactive map which takes you on an interactive journey through Hasidic Poland. It's called "The Chassidic Route: An Exploration of Jewish Heritage In Southeast Poland."  It gives you pictures of Jewish landmarks in cities along the route, the landmarks' current use, and statistics on Jewish population of that city. The starting point for the route is Zamość   If you want to learn more about any of the cities along the way, I recommend starting with a resource like the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. Consider it a khol ha'moyed adventure.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Ghost of Yiddish Revivals Past

I just discovered an interesting magazine called Jewish Quarterly.

Published in London since 1953, The Jewish Quarterly is one of the foremost Jewish literary and cultural journals in the English language. Its spectrum of subjects includes art, criticism, fiction, film, history, Judaism, literature, poetry, philosophy, politics, theatre, the Holocaust and Zionism.

I'd never even heard of the Jewish Quarterly until today, and now I'm wishing they'd put the entire archive on-line. I was flipping through issues from 1958 and found a ton of Yiddish poetry in translation, literary criticism and other socio-cultural pieces of interest.

Of particular interest was a 1958 article by A.A. Roback called 'Conference on Yiddish Studies.'  In it he reports on a Yiddish Studies conference convened at Columbia University in honor of the 50th anniversary of the 1908 Czernowitz Conference.

Roback's two page report on the conference could've been written yesterday, save for the fact that in 1958 the last living attendee at the Czernowitz conference was still around and the second to last (Sholem Asch) has passed on a few months back. 

In order to counter what Roback saw as pessimism around the future of Yiddish, he frames the conference in terms of its resurgence:

The conference itself provided one more proof, if proof were needed, that my hopes for the growth and consolidation of Yiddish are not a figment of the imagination, as some of my readers and critics seem to have made up their minds it was.

In other words, revival renaissance huzzah!


Of course, we could not insure ourselves against the coming of Hitler, or of Stalin, nor for that matter against the immigration restrictions in our own country. But therein exactly lies the miracle: that despite the holocaust we still have a growing literature in a language that gains in appreciation from year to year. If this appreciation will be coupled with other constructive efforts, it will achieve practical results, for the younger generation will discover new values in, and through, the Yiddish language. [emphasis mine]
Ah yes, the always elusive 'constructive efforts.' It would be another ten years before the first session of the Uriel Weinreich Program in Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture would be held by YIVO. Not for lack of interest, but because rarely in modern American history has Yiddish scholarship been seen as valuable or even instrumental in terms of promoting American Jewish identity. And yet! Though it's fought for funding, not only has the YIVO zumer program always been fully subscribed by eager students, it has spawned imitators all over the world to meet demand for high quality Yiddish pedagogy. 

So, rather than speaking of revivals and such, maybe we'd be better off talking about a slow, inexorable progress in the growth of academic Yiddish infrastructure, even as the number of non-Hasidic, native Yiddish speakers in the United States drops rapidly. 

At the end of Roback's review of the conference (in which he laments the infelicitous scheduling of papers, poor coordination of similarly themed presentations and lack of press coverage), he mentions a paper by Judah Joffe called "Metanalysis in Yiddish:

The Dean of Yiddish philology is still very active as the co-editor of the definitive Yiddish dictionary. Let us hope that he will live to see several volumes of this Dictionary in print.


Well, Dr. Joffe lived to see part of the four volumes of Alef published of his Groyser Verterbukh fun der Yiddisher Shprakh.  I wonder if I will live long enough to see the rest of the Groyser Verterbukh published.

Though time, politics and history ain't exactly on the side of Yiddish, Roback closes his article with a hopeful note and a good reminder to all of us:

... the conference proved once more that with an efficient organization a great deal can be achieved. Good intentions are not enough. It took more than two years to prepare the conference.... If we had efficient organizers, not just writers or scholars but enterprising and dynamic men, Jewish culture would soon acquire a new look. The Conference on Yiddish Studies was a good beginning and could serve as a model for other cultural ventures."

This has never been more true than today. I know too many organizations which flounder because the people who should be researching, performing and leading are also responsible for publicity, fund raising and event clean up. There's never been more work to be done for American Yiddish.  We have the people who can do it. What we also need is recognition of the importance of that work and the funds, and skilled support, to actually get it done. 


Monday, September 16, 2013

Live Jewish Music Every Tuesday Coming to the Upper West Side this Fall

I'm still sad about the demise of the East Sixth Street Klezmer Industrial Complex. For a moment, the basement of the shul on East Sixth Street was the address for world class Jewish art. If you came early you could drop in on some Jewish learning and if you stayed late (and were a Jewish male) you'd probably be drafted into maariv minyan. And if you wanted a drink, the bar was only a few feet away from anywhere in the room. In short, it was the kind of Jewish space funders should be tripping over themselves to fund. And yet...

Happily, the spirit of East Sixth Street has undergone a gilgul hanfefesh (transmigration of the soul) and headed uptown, to the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on W. 68th Street. Drummer Aaron Alexander is curating a new series this fall and it looks amazing. Despite its lack of proximity to Indian food (and the general suburban wasteland that is the west 60s), Tuesdays at Stephen Wise will obviously be a must-see/must-hear for this fall.

Tuesday Night Jewish Music Series at the Stephen Wise Free Synaogue Fall 2013

All Concerts begin at 7:30pm; $15.    Jam sessions afterward.        Klezmer Instrumental Music 5:30pm; $25 per class.      Full night pass – $35 (includes class, concert & jam session)

October 1

Opening Night Tantshoyz, Yiddish Dance Party featuring dance master Walter Zev Feldman, with the Jake Shulman-Ment/Christina Crowder Band.

October 8 

Ezekiel’s Wheels 

October 15

Mike Cohen Band

October 22

Roger Davidson & Frank London

October 29

Klezmerfest – Greg Wall’s Birthday Bash (traditional NY style klezmer and a birthday salute to series co-founder)

November 5

CTMD Tantshoyz – Yiddish Dance Party! Featuring dance master Steve Weintraub.

November 12

Eleanor Reissa & Friends  (w/Frank London)

November 19

Breslov Bar Band 

November 26

Lorin Sklamberg - A Hanukkah/Thanksgiving Celebration

December 3

CTMD Tantshoyz – Yiddish Dance Party!  Featuring dance master Avia Moore

December 12

Mike & Joanna Sternberg in Tribute to their Uncle  the great Moyshe Oysher

December 17

Joel Rubin All-Stars

Friday, September 13, 2013

But What About That.... Ummmm ... Other Language That's Not Yiddish???

You listen to Leonard Lopate on WNYC, right? (I'm not even going to ask if you've donated to WNYC this year because I assume you have.) He has a regular Friday feature called Please Explain.

In Please Explain, we set aside time every Friday afternoon to get to the bottom of one complex issue. We'll back up and review the basic facts and principles of complicated issues across a broad range of topics — history, politics, science, you name it

Sometimes it's whales, sometimes it's sleep apnea, and today at 1 pm, it's everyone's favorite pidgin creole language of lurve, Yiddish.

Chutzpah, glitch, klutz, schlep, and tchotchke are all Yiddish words that have entered into everyday usage. On this week’s Please Explain, we’ll find out all about the Yiddish language—where it comes from, how it’s influenced our culture, and its resurgence. We’re joined by Jonathan Brent, Executive Director at YIVO Institute For Jewish Research, and  Eddy Portnoy, Academic Advisor at YIVO Institute For Jewish Research.

And following an unwritten rule applying to every public discussion about Yiddish, THIS was the first question on the show page:


I can't tell you how many times I've heard this 'question' asked after a lecture at YIVO. No matter that the discussion was about Bundist contraception clinics in inter-war Poland. Nope, the most burning question for a certain type of audience member is always "What about Ladino?????" (To which I silently scream "Ladi-NOOOOOOOO....")

Maybe they took a wrong turn and meant to go to the lecture at the American Sephardi Federation? I dunno. If you're one of the What About Ladino Kvetchers (WALKs) please explain (hah!) in the comments.

And tune in today at 1:20 pm, or listen after the fact when the show is archived.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Tshuve Tfile Tsedoke: How Will YOU Be Averting an Evil Decree?

Our tradition tells us that during the ten days between Rosh Hashone and Yom Kiper, tshuve, tfile and tsedoke (repentance, prayer and charity) can avert an evil decree and bring us into good favor with the Judge upstairs.

Tshuve is hard. Tshuve actually means return more than repentance. Return from one's less than ideal behaviors and patterns. And, as we all know, true inner change is damn hard. Transformation of the self isn't a war that's won, but an everyday battle to be kinder, to be more thoughtful, to have faith in one's very ability to transcend. Like I said, damn hard. 

And then there's tfile. Prayer. For those of us not so spiritually inclined, prayer can feel like the last thing bringing us closer to however we imagine divinity. Prayer is rote, it's boring, it's repetitive, it's full of praise for a theoretical entity about which I personally have very mixed feelings.

That leaves (some of) us with tsedoke. Again, the translation of tsedoke as charity is poor. Tsedoke really means righteousness or justice, as in צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדּף (Justice, justice shall you pursue.) Everyone's probably seen this quoted a million times. It comes from Dvarim (Deuteronomy), parshas Shoftim (Judges). Moses tells the Israelites that they shall have an impartial system of justice:

Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates, which the LORD thy God giveth thee, tribe by tribe; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. 

Thou shalt not wrest judgment; thou shalt not respect persons; neither shalt thou take a gift; for a gift doth blind the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the righteous. 

Justice, justice shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee. 

But the justice we're concerned with during the Aseres Yemey Tshuve (ten days of repentance) is not the justice of magistrates and officials and ruling fairly over a place, (though it's appropriate that I'm writing this on Primary Day in New York City). During these days we're meditating (a little, I hope) on the ways that our gift of money, tsedoke, can encourage fairness, equality, access to education, or just the chance for a little human dignity.

There's no right or wrong way to do it. Different years I've had different approaches. Last year I gave a huge bag of clothes to a harm reduction organization in my neighborhood. Sometimes I've given money directly to homeless people. This year I have a couple of organizations in mind for donations. I thought I'd share with you, not to puff up my own charitable nature, khas v'sholem, but to give a little plug for what I think are, in their own ways, righteous enterprises.

WNYC. Public radio at its best.

Footsteps. A truly amazing organization that has helped so many young men and women transition out of the haredi world. I've personally seen how much good they're doing, and what an asset Footsteps is to the Jewish community as a whole.

YAFFED. YAFFED advocates for improved secular education in Hasidic schools. It's run by young people who have recently left the community and works to effect change from the inside. Truly inspiring stuff.

Those are my picks. To what or whom will you be giving?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

September 9 - Festival of New Yiddish Song

Rokhl says: This is going to be UH-MAZING!!

Festival of New Yiddish Song

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 9, 2013 at 7pm

At YIVO 15 West 16th Street

Patrick Farrell
Benjy Fox-Rosen

Svetlana Kundish

Josh Waletzky
Michael Winograd
and Special Guest, Deborah Strauss

Reception with the artists will follow the concert

Admission: General - $15 | YIVO, CJH, CTMD members, seniors and students - $10
Box Office: | 212.868.4444