|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
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.