Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Last Minute Signal Boost for the Congress for Jewish Culture: Upcoming Events

Rumors of the demise of the Congress for Jewish Culture have been greatly exaggerated. The Congress has announced a full slate of events ready for the new year. It's a wonderful mix of history, new cinema and new Yiddish music, a little something for everyone. And, as you can imagine for an organization whose precarious existence has made the Times more than once, now might be an excellent time to make a donation

Straight from the Congress: 

On Sunday 11 January 2015 at 2 PM, we're joining with the American Jewish Historical Society to honor the memory of Mina Bern on the 5th anniversary of her yortsayt.  It's going to be a program to remember, with about everyone working in Yiddish theater today (after all, who didn't learn from Mina?) and it's free and open to the public.  But you have to have a reservation, so click here to save your seat.
On Wednesday 28 January 2015 at 3:15 PM and again at 8:45 PM, we're pleased to present our very own project in the New York Jewish Film Festival: a neon animation by Jack Feldstein called How to Break Into Yiddish Vaudeville (in three easy steps!).  With illustrations by Ellen Stedfeld and a script by Shane Baker and Allen Lewis Rickman, it's a fun little film, so catch it if you can -- on a double bill with Natan, a feature about an interesting character in the early days of film.  Info and tickets here.
Also on Wednesday 28 January 2015 at 7 PM, our very own Miryem-Khaye Seigel will be celebrating the release of her new CD Toyznt tamen with a special concert at the Museum at Eldridge Street.  Busy day, that 28th of January, but you won't want to miss this event.  There are a lot of special guests on the program and you can read more about it here.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

3rd Annual Sholem Aleichem Yiddish Klezfest

Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center presents:

3rd Annual Sholem Aleichem Yiddish Klezfest
Sunday, December 21, 2014, 1-5pm 

Aaron Alexander & Zoe Christiansen
KlezKamp Founder, Henry Sapoznik
Hy Wolfe
The Brothers Nazaroff (Daniel Kahn, Psoy Korolenko
& Jake Shulman-Ment)

Michael Winograd, Patrick Farrell and Mark Rubin

Dance Leader: Steve Weintraub

Final Act: Open Jam for All Musicians!

Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center
3301 Bainbridge Ave, Bronx, NY 10467

D train to 205th / 4 train to Mosholu Pkwy
One block from Montefiore Hospital
Info: 917-930-0295
$10 admission includes nosheray

With support from the Center for Traditional Music and Dance 
and the National Endowment for the Arts

(Tsvishn undz: Based on attendance in past years, the room will fill up FAST! If you want a seat, make sure you get there early.)

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Litvakus and The Party Music of Jewish Belarus

My friend Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch just released the new Litvakus CD and - SPOILER ALERT - it's brilliant. Read my review here. And listen to this while you do. (You'll want to buy the whole CD. Get it here.)

If you weren't lucky enough to catch Litvakus at the Center for Jewish History last week, here's a clip. This is a Belarusian song about a Jewish girl named Khayke.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Happy Unholiday

Unless you've been living under an unkosher rock, you probably know that we just said goodbye and git vokh to the marathon of holidays that started with Rosh Hashanah and ended with Simkhes Toyre (and then blended into Shabes, just for a little extra fun.) For a lot of people, it's finally back to the five day a week grind.

The afternoon before Yom Kipper started I saw a colleague at work and we exchanged holiday wishes. He said 'tsom kal' to which the jerky pedant inside of me insisted on responding that "tsom kal [a light fast] is just a calque from the Yiddish of 'hot a laykhtn fast'."

He happens to live with another Yiddish pedant, so he just smiled and waved. But it was true. And not just 'tsom kal.' Not content to scold in person, I took the matter to Twitter. 'Most of modern Jewish culture is just a secret calque from Yiddish. ADMIT IT.' And while I got a little pushback on that, I also got a great reference from a Twitter friend, perfectly on point.

After yontev my brilliant Twitter friend Shlomo Kay sent me this. It's a blog post called Origins of the Phrase Hag Sameah and it's a wonderful translation and summary of a Hebrew language post on the blog of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. The thrust of the post is that the phrase hag sameah (or khag sameakh) is fairly modern, only coming into wide use at the turn of the 20th century. And it is most definitely a calque (a word for word carry over) from the Yiddish gut yontev or a freylikhn yontev.

I often talk about the way that Yiddish language and culture is erased and delegitimized-- and delegitimized by its erasure-- and this is a pretty great example.

And here's some more secret Yiddish calques off the top of my head:

gut yontev ----> khag sameakh
hot a laykhtn fast------> tsom kal
gut shabes-----> shabbat shalom
in a guter sho-----> b'sha'a tovah

Please add more in the comments!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

This Time Last Year...

Last Sukkes I was in another state, cleaning out the remnants of my mother's life and thinking about what a sukke and a cement storage unit share in common:

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.

(The author with actual bear lost in the memory purge of Sukkes 2013)

Read more here.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Notes from the Past

Just found a notebook full of these weirdo notes from 1999-2000-ish. Don't act like you don't have your own weirdo notes from the past with pages of unsearched queries...

With apologies to all my Karliner readers...

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Vartn af Godot

New Yiddish Rep's triumphant production of the Yiddish language Waiting for Godot is now in previews at the Barrow Street Theater. I saw it this week and having seen it in the original run at the Castillo Theater, I'm happy to say it's even better than it was last fall.

So, that said, I have to get this off my chest. What do I love about Waiting for Godot? At least three or four times in the show, the characters actually say the name of the show. Am I the only one who gets a juvenile thrill from that?

Allen Rickman has joined the cast as Pozzo and brings his trademark Old Hollywood serious-silly verve to the role. And Shane Baker has been sharpening his clowning skills; his Vladimir has an intelligent physicality that an absurdist text like Godot demands.

Seriously, go, see it.

Buy your tickets now. Performances are limited and the show is only running through September 21st. And if you can't make it to New York to see the show, please think about supporting the work of the New Yiddish Rep, the talents behind this important new Godot.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Stories We Tell

I stumbled on this a while ago, but just decided to blog about it. PRI partners with Israel Story to bring us a slice of life from Israel, in English, in the style of This American Life.

The subject is one I've covered before: Mendy Cahan and Yung Yiddish. This particular iteration follows the 'Yiddish revival in Israel' pattern pretty much point for point, so I don't need to say much. There was just one thing that stood out to me.

Around 8:30 the narrator talks about the ways that the state of Israel suppressed and even criminalized Yiddish in an effort to promote cultural and linguistic unity. She says that all the Yiddish books lovingly brought from Eastern Europe to the new promised land now sat yellowing on the shelf. Skip ahead to the soi disant revival and Mendy collecting all those now yellowed treasures from pre-war Eastern Europe.

And yet. What we miss in the skip ahead is that after the war, the center of global Yiddish publishing shifted to Israel! I'd lay money that a great portion of the books in the collection of Yung Yiddish are actually relatively modern and published right there in Israel.

I'll quote myself, because I'm lazy:

"...from the 1950s to the 1970s the publication of Yiddish books in Israel increased by 500%.  At the same time, the number of books published in Yiddish far exceeded the number published in other world languages. In 1970, 54 Yiddish books were published in Israel but only 8 in French and 6 in German. In fact, the world center of Yiddish publishing had shifted to the state of Israel. Not a revival of Yiddish as a vernacular, ober s'iz oykhet nisht keyn kleynikayt.

The position of Yiddish in Israel is a lot more complicated than toggling between 'alive-ish' and 'dead-ish.'

 Yung Yiddish and Mendy are like catnip to journalists. You've got the quirky protagonist with his bushy eyebrows and hand rolled cigarettes. You've got a delightfully grotesque locale for a Yiddish library (in the bus station! next to the VD clinic!). And you've got a foregone conclusion, that Yiddish is a curiosity for Israelis, but ultimately, poses no threat to the cultural hegemony. It's lazy, boring journalism at its finest.  And that's a damn shame.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Nearly Lost Language Found By Intrepid Students Again. And Again. And Again.

Nearly lost Yiddish language increasingly popular among Jewish college students

This article from the JNS says that college students are getting in touch with their Ashkenazi heritage through the academic study of Yiddish. (No word on those Yiddish students whose heritage is outside the pale of Ashkenaz.)

You know, I feel like I've seen this somewhere before...

On the bright side, the author had the wisdom to get quotes from serious Yiddish teachers like Agi Legutko and Gennady Estraikh. (Agi and Gennady also happen to be friends of mine. And wonderful teachers.)

Anyway, once again, Yiddish is on the brink of extinction, young people are Columbusing it, and the Jewish institutional world continues to ignore Eastern European culture and history as an obvious point of spiritual renewal.

Ho hum....

Monday, June 16, 2014

Journalist, Attorney, Angry Lady About Town and... Playwright?

Now seems like a good time to share some exciting news. For the past few months/years I've been working on/sweating blood over my first play. This summer A brokhe will see its premiere staged reading. Squee!

The reading will take place at Klezkanada, and though I know I'm hardly incentive enough, if you haven't thought about attending, you really, really should think about it. Klezkanada is a world unto itself, a week long Jewish arts retreat in the spectacular Laurentian mountains of Quebec. (shabes/kosher/all religions friendly)  More info here.

And now, about that play...

A brokhe by Rokhl Kafrissen

Just Another Brooklyn Gangster Ghost Romance

KlezKanada is proud to present the world premiere staged reading of A brokhe this August!
A brokhe (a blessing) is a new bi-lingual (Yiddish-English) play by Rokhl Kafrissen. Set in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, in the early 1950s, A brokhe takes on the neglected moment in American-Jewish history when thousands of Eastern European Jews arrived in the United States after the horrors of WWII. Before they were known as survivors, they were simply refugees. 
In A brokhe, members of the Brayndls family find themselves haunted by the wartime past and threatened by American forces they don’t quite understand. With guns, ghosts, and gangsters, A brokhe explores the role of violence in contemporary Jewish history and the Jewish response to trauma. 
This staged reading, directed by Avia Moore and featuring the talent of the KlezKanada artistic community, is an exciting opportunity to experience the world premiere of a new piece of Yiddish theatre.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Money, Love, and Shame!


I saw Money, Love, and Shame! on Sunday night. Now, full disclosure, Yelena and Allen are old friends (and colleagues) of mine. However, I would not say this if it weren't true: I laughed from beginning to end. I loved this show. And I'll go even further: Money, Love, and Shame! exemplifies what Yiddish theater can, and should, be in the 21st century. To pull off a show like this you need a deep understanding of historical context; you need a certain kind of genius to reinterpret what would otherwise be dated and boring; and, most important, you need the comedic chops to pull it all off.

Money, Love, and Shame isn't a one off thing. It is part of an ongoing artistic project, and the product of hundreds of hours of research by Allen and Yelena, slogging through, let's be honest, a lot of crappy, turn of the century shund. Whether we like it or not, this stuff is also part of our heritage. It's truly a joy to see a work of art that takes a hard look at that trashy past and finds something so wonderful.

This production has it all. Don't wait. Two more shows, Tuesday and Wednesday night.

News from the first couple of modern Yiddish theater, Yelena Shmulenson and Allen Rickman. They have a new show and it looks terrific:

("Gelt, Libe, Un Shande")

Sex!  Alcoholism!  Corruption!  Sickness and Death!  Weddings!

On the night before she is to take her immigrant widower father to Denver for his Galloping Tuberculosis, young Sonia Eydlman is ‘ruined’ by lawyer Albert Liebhartz in a fit of drunken madness.  Albert had promised to marry Sonia, but is forced instead to marry Barney Bender’s daughter Cecilia, the nymphomaniac.  Slumlord Bender plans to promote Albert to the bench so that Albert can help him kick the “chiselers” out of his tenements.  And while innocent Sonia finds a new life as an alcoholic prostitute, Harry, Cecilia’s lovesick boytoy chauffeur, makes his own plans... 

Isaac Zolotarevsky’s legendary (notorious?) 1910 melodrama, once a staple of the popular Yiddish stage, has not been seen in New York in many decades.  In a new English translation by Allen Lewis Rickman it will be seen for four performances only (June 8-11) at 7:30 pm at the Secret Theatre in Long Island City.  The play will also feature live piano accompaniment by Steve Sterner, of Film Forum fame.

MONEY, LOVE, AND SHAME! is being presented as part of Target Margin Theater’s Lab series, which runs from June 4-14,  and is the final project in the theater’s two-year exploration of Yiddish theatre derived material.  Among the other projects in the series are an adaptation of Osip Dymov’s “subway dream play” BRONKS EKSPRES and plays based on works by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholem Aleichem.

Tickets are $15 and are available here:

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Future of American Judaism Depends on the Elimination of Yiddish: So Sayeth the German Reform Elite

My friend Dov-Ber hipped me to a gem from the JTA Archive. It's a report from the 1923 Golden Jubilee Convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations

Yiddish Denounced As “jargon” at Reformers’ Jubilee

In an effort to reclaim Jews to Judaism, regardless of the orthodoxy, conservatism or radicalism of the synagogue”, a series of obstacles will have to be overcome, chief among them the use of Yiddish by the Jewish masses, declared Rabbi Jonah B. Wise, of Portland, in addressing the Wednesday session of the Golden Jubilee Convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
“In New York there is the largest jargon-speaking population in the world”, he said, That this language is legitimately Jewish in America I deny, and shall deny though a million voices be raised in raucous denunciation of that denial. (Emphasis mine)

Does anyone still believe that the only way forward for American Jews is to destroy the 1000 year culture and history of the majority of American Jews? Wait, don't answer that...

As I've written before, the German-Jewish elite (minority) set the terms of integration for the Eastern-European majority. Such a dysfunctional relationship must be understood to take account of American Jews today.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Not New, But Newsy

UPDATE: Ari's podcast recap of the conference is available here. It's a fast paced 12 minutes. Check it out!

My Identity paper got some more love this week, getting cross-posted over at the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education blog, as well as being archived for posterity at the Berman Jewish Policy Archive. Both sites are great resources for the latest, and not-so-latest, thinking in Jewish education and policy. Check 'em out and bookmark, if you haven't already.

We're still waiting on science podcasting superstar Ari Daniel to release his recap of the Brandeis Rethinking Jewish Identity and Education conference. I'll be sure to let you know as soon as it's out.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Jewish Cultural Manifesto -- Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday. Would you rather see something I wrote 9 years ago or would you like to see a picture of me playing cello on our senior year orchestra trip?

I thought so.

A Jewish Cultural Manifesto was one of the first things I ever published. It appeared in my first year as a columnist for Jewish Currents. However, it was already a number of years in the making.

If I were to write this today, I'd probably be slightly less self-righteous. But I wouldn't change too much. You can see, all the major themes of today are there in 2005. And interestingly, the Manifesto is my number one most cited, quoted and read piece. It's turned up in books, academic syllabi, and articles. So, it seems like a natural for recycling-- I mean, revisiting, today. 


A Jewish Cultural Manifesto
(Originally published in November 2005 in Jewish Currents)

I’m a busy woman with no time for nostalgia. My grandparents didn't have a shop on the Lower East Side, my great uncle didn't play in a swing band in the Catskills, and my parents never, ever threatened to disown me if I didn't  marry a Jewish man. Perhaps that¹s why I don¹t find Yiddish and Yiddish-American culture cute. So why the hell do I bother with it, if not out of sentiment or guilt?

Because to grow up Jewish in assimilated America is to absorb a world of cultural confusion. The Jewish history I learned moved pretty quickly from the ancient land of Israel to the modern state of Israel, with brief, terrifying stops between 1939 and 1945. As you can imagine, this creates a bit of an identity crisis in the average young Jew. Who wants to be a Yid at home and an ersatz Israeli at school? 

Not I.

The mainstream Jewish press and other Jewish institutions have spent the last fifty or so years nudging Yiddish culture into its grave, and like the man on the cart full of corpses in Monty Python¹s Holy Grail, no one can hear it screaming, ‘But I'm not dead yet!’

Even before I spoke one word of Yiddish, the language itself was talking to me, telling me that there was more to being a Jew than the empty signifiers, and emptier materialism, of the modern Jewish suburb.

Don¹t get me wrong, I have the greatest respect for all Jewish cultures: Iraqi, Syrian, Moroccan, Ethiopian, Algerian, what have you. I acknowledge that American Jewish culture has been dominated at times by Ashkenazi Jews, at the expense of other Jewish cultures. But it is an equal if not greater crime to see an Ashkenazocentric world view replaced with an á la carte approach to identity! Such an approach assumes that whatever we were in the past -beard-having, matse- ball fressing, shmate peddling ghetto Jews-  is not only over, but it¹s as if it never happened! No wonder we have a crisis! It¹s not too late to acknowledge the truth about ourselves and start repairing this psychotic split. I¹d like to start with six simple declarations:

1. Jewish culture belongs to Jews

Funny how you never really care about something until someone else wants it. Or takes it. At, the most comprehensive klezmer music site on the internet, you can find listings for klezmer bands all over the world, including twenty-seven in Germany alone. Among those twenty-seven, few Jews are to be found. At the Hackesche-Hof-Theater in Berlin, you can find someone performing ‘Jewishly’ almost any night of the year. And if you insist on that performer being Jewish, you can always check out Irith Gabriely, an Israeli woman living in Germany. This self-proclaimed Queen of Jewish Soul wears a black hat and tallis and sings khasidish songs for adoring German crowds.

You know how every resident of Alaska gets a check every year from oil revenue? Forget Holocaust reparations. I¹d like to see every Jew in the world get a piece of the exploitation of Jewish culture. It wouldn't be much, I admit; in fact, it would be infinitesimal. But all I want is the tiniest little symbolic recognition that we have something that they want.

The American Jewish attitude towards things like klezmer music has been indifferent at best, to hostile, at worst. Ask any musician who has worked full time in Jewish music in the last twenty years and he or she will tell you: the serious money and the serious respect were almost exclusively found in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. While American Jews wanted to believe that Yiddish and European Jewish music had disappeared in the night, the band played on, wherever they could.

2. Secular and observant are not parallel paths, they are points on a common path. 

Neither religious nor secular are immutable characteristics, and we all know someone who¹s gone both ways. Both sides view each other with so much suspicion, when in fact we each have much to learn from the other. You heard me. You think Hasidim are coming to the (secular) Yiddish theater for the acting? They¹re coming because they¹re starving for this kind of Jewish entertainment. And secularists, yeah, I¹m looking at you, too. I¹m well aware that religion is the opiate of the masses. I also know that Karl Marx didn't know bupkes about the Jewish religion. We all have a duty to know something about the core texts of our tradition and the languages in which they were written. Which brings me to my next point:

3. Jewish culture and religion are intertwined. 

Jewish philanthropists like Michael Steinhardt want to revive the non-Orthodox Jewish community by replacing ‘victimhood’ with ‘joy.’ (See his op-ed of February of this year in the Jerusalem Post.) I think we all know that you can read 'Europe' for victimhood and 'Israel' for joy. 

Didn't that attitude get us in this mess? Turn a shul into a temple, a khazn into a cantor and Jewish music into Debbie Friedman, well, you better lock the doors cuz the inmates will be breaking out. Witness our so-called youth crisis. American Jewish culture has turned Camembert into CheezWhiz: It is boring and every young Jew and Jewess knows it. Real Jewish Culture is the product of hundreds-- -- thousands of years of joy and pain; it¹s the expression of the realities of halokhe lived in a hostile world. It¹s the result of every Jew¹s struggle between tradition and modernity. Most importantly, Real Jewish Culture is our connection to those who came before us, and without access to it, well, that bagel in your hand is not a symbol of anything, just a bunch of empty calories masquerading as breakfast.

4. I am not an Israeli. 

About two thousand American Jews make aliyah every year. Out of a total Jewish population of 5,200,000, this comes out to about .04% of American Jews each year who will choose to live in Israel. I am an American and, like 99.96% of my fellow American Jews, I will never become an Israeli. I care deeply about the State of Israel, most of all because my fate is linked to that of every other Jew. But where does the spirit of klal yisroel end and the unquestioning acceptance of Zionism begin?

Open a magazine like Moment and you¹d think every Jew in America had already put down a security deposit on an apartment in Jerusalem. Moment bills itself as 'Jewish culture, politics, and religion.' Three of four stories on the October cover are Israel-related, with more inside. And this is the music issue. Now, I would understand if this were a newspaper for a small Jewish community somewhere in the world. I doubt that the Jewish community of Honduras has enough news to fill twelve issues of a monthly magazine. But we don¹t live in Honduras. We live in the other Jewish state, a country with a Jewish population roughly equal to that of the Jewish state. And let me tell you, we've got enough news here to fill up every single Jewish newspaper, magazine, newsletter, leaflet and 'zine.

5. Israeli culture is NOT Jewish culture. 

Obviously, Jews everywhere have a special interest in Israel. I don¹t deny that we are going to want, and need, news and other information about Israel that reflects that special interest. But what I need, as a Jew in the diaspora, is a vibrant Jewish culture that will nourish my life here, where I live, worship, and write contentious though charming columns.

Writers like Ahad Ha¹am thought that Israel would eventually function like a research and development lab for the diaspora. Real Jewish culture would finally develop and nourish the diaspora Jews, even as the diaspora would wither away. Yeah, that worked well. Can you name the last Israeli novel you read? The last Israeli band you listened to? As for religious matters, when the rest of the Jewish world sends its sons (and daughters) to yeshiva, they¹re just as likely to ship them off to Brooklyn as to Jerusalem.

The real problem with the unstated focus on Israel is that it takes our focus away from our lives, and problems, here in goles. This displacement of expectations shifts resources in a way that leaves Jewish culture here poorer, culturally, spiritually and communally. Our leaders will spend millions of dollars to send every Jewish kid to Israel but can¹t find the money to support scholarships for important youth programs like Klezkamp. I guarantee that the kids who discover Klezkamp and develop a Jewish identity through Jewish music, those kids are just as likely, if not more, to marry Jewish and be part of a Jewish community as the kids who go on Birthright. I know this from experience, visiting the Jewish state doesn't make you feel more Jewish, being part of a Jewish community makes you feel more Jewish.

6. Yiddish and Yiddish culture are not dead. 

Nor were they revived. They've been here the whole damn time, waiting patiently for you to remember to call, perhaps visit, perhaps remember where Yiddish is living. And if you can¹t remember where it is, assimilation is only partially to blame. The diminishment of Yiddish and European Jewish culture in general was a necessary part of Zionism. But see points 1-5, it¹s time to take back our culture and start living our lives in the most Jewish way possible, in the here and now.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

In Case You Missed It... Why We Need to Shut The Door On Identity

From earlier this week:

Indeed, not inculcation of Jewish patterns of life, nor transmission of Jewish culture and history, but measurement and management of identity became the constitutive act of the modern Jewish communal apparatus. It’s no coincidence that the most lavishly funded communal project of our generation has not been universal comprehensive Jewish education, but rather, an identity making vacation whose goals are no more controversial than encouraging passive Zionism and getting young Jews near each other.  This is the insidiousness of the identity ideology. 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

How Do You Say Open Mic in Yiddish? Find Out On April 17th at YIVO!

Join celebrated host, actor and singer Shane Baker, and special guests for a fun, intimate night of Yiddish performance. Bring your instruments, poems, monologues, manifestos, and films in Yiddish. Sign up starts at 7:00pm, open mic starts at 7:30pm. 

Master of Ceremonies Shane Baker and special guests

Admission: Free
RSVP Required: | 212.294.6140

*Yes, I know, if you read the poster you already learned how to say open mic in Yiddish. Don't be so literal! It's bad for your health.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A Few Thoughts on the Roots of the Identity Discourse

(paper given at last weekend's Rethinking Jewish Identity and Jewish Education conference at Brandeis)

The Roots and Structure of the Identity Discourse in Contemporary Jewish Life

The question of identity has both personal and intellectual interest to me. Unpacking the identity discourse is part of my personal project, situating my experience as a born again Yiddishist within the larger context of American Jewish history. Why do I need Yiddish? and why didn’t I have Yiddish?-- those have been two of my guiding questions. It’s impossible to answer these without stumbling over the related question of identity.

As I’ve written elsewhere, studying Yiddish brought me to a deeper understanding of my own family and the Jewishness transmitted within my home. Similarly, the study of American Jewish sociology has helped me understand the larger Jewish American milieu in which I grew up, and how I ended up with my middle class, suburban, Conservative Hebrew school, shma and hatikvah, bacon is ok but ham isn’t, 1980s Long Island jewish identity. You only have to look at the Pew study to see that for the majority of American Jews, that kind of minimal observance, minimal education, maximal pride, is very much the de facto American Jewish identity today.

Rather than being natural or inevitable, my so-called Jewish identity, was both a product of historical movements and a deliberately inculcated ideology, one that meshed so well with my upbringing as a liberal, cosmopolitan American, as to be invisible. What I’d like to do is push back on the sense of inevitability or naturalness that surrounds identity as a concept. Though identity may be a category of practice, as sociologist Rogers Brubaker has written, that doesn’t mean we must accept it as a category of analysis. That means investigating the work that identity does and how it is historically and politically inflected.

Though identity may be a category of practice... that doesn’t mean we must accept it as a category of analysis. That means investigating the work that identity does and how it is historically and politically inflected.

First: identity as a post-war ideology. Identity as ideology presents Jewishness and Americanness as inherently compatible and complementary, and most importantly, that a synthesis of the two is sustainable and transmissible.

The integration of American Jews, especially Eastern European Jews, was the great project of the Jewish elite of the first half of the century. That integration came with many seemingly irresolvable contradictions and tensions. For example, the terms of integration of Eastern European Jews were set, in part, by the German Jewish elite, a group traditionally less than enamored of Eastern European Jews.  But the most fundamental of these tensions was a reimagining of the Jewish way of life as an American style religion. Turning Jewishness into the Jewish religion was like stuffing 10 pounds of kishke into a five pound casing. It was lumpy as hell, but it worked, sort of.

As it happened, the vast majority of American Jews didn’t want religion or religious commitments. No matter. Identity as ideology could reframe the multitude of contradictions now at the heart of American Jewish life, including the rejection of religion by American Jews. Identity made it possible for sociologist Herbert Gans to make an observation which, 50 years earlier, would have seemed downright bizarre. In a 1951 ethnographic study he wrote: “In Park Forest... adult Jews quite consciously rejected any involvement in the religious and cultural aspects of the Jewish community, while trying to teach the children to be Jews.”

Lemme tell you, I had a chill of recognition upon reading that. Gans had pretty much summed up my Jewish education, decades before it even happened.

Identity as ideology reframes the contradictions and tensions which have enabled the integration of American Jews and gives them a unitary, affirmative power. It also has another, related, political function.

The evocation, and invocation, of identity by communal elites works to reify American Jews as a group, even as the connections between individual Jews have become ever more attenuated. It also serves to justify the power and resources allocated to those elite institutions and leaders.

In her book Speaking of Jews, Lila Corwin Berman describes how at mid-century, thinkers like Oscar Handlin and Nathan Glazer characterized Jews as the American ethnic, immigrant group par excellence. They, and others, created what she calls ‘sociological Jewishness' -- Jewishness as a manifestation of American values. She writes: “Handlin and Glazer’s attempts to prove the existence of an American ethnic pattern paralleled their desire to categorize Jewish experience in universal and American terms... arguing that all American groups felt the same tension between group cohesion and American integration...” Most importantly, there was “nothing distinctly Jewish about this bond.”

This sociological Jewishness was a powerful formula for the integration of American Jews, but, as Corwin Berman notes: “...while naming ethnic identity as an American norm, they [Glazer and Handlin] neglected its content...” 

Indeed, not inculcation of Jewish patterns of life, nor transmission of Jewish culture and history, but measurement and management of identity became the constitutive act of the modern Jewish communal apparatus. It’s no coincidence that the most lavishly funded communal project of our generation has not been universal comprehensive Jewish education, but rather, an identity making vacation whose goals are no more controversial than encouraging passive Zionism and getting young Jews near each other.  This is the insidiousness of the identity ideology. 

Indeed, not inculcation of Jewish patterns of life, nor transmission of Jewish culture and history, but measurement and management of identity became the constitutive act of the modern Jewish communal apparatus. It’s no coincidence that the most lavishly funded communal project of our generation has not been universal comprehensive Jewish education, but rather, an identity making vacation whose goals are no more controversial than encouraging passive Zionism and getting young Jews near each other.  This is the insidiousness of the identity ideology. 

The common purpose and shared culture that once bound Jews as a group, and set them off from the larger American culture, has dramatically diminished. It has fallen to the American Jewish elite, ----journalists, philanthropists, and social scientists -- to evoke, and invoke, a sense of groupness without content, and the language of identity has been key to that project.

As sociologist Rogers Brubaker has argued,  groups don't just exist, but are called into being in a variety of ways. Think of how an event like the latest Pew survey calls the group 'American Jews' into being. Without the survey, Jews in America are a diverse bunch, and, as we see by the numbers, the majority are only minimally engaged with the acts and beliefs of traditional Judaism, and are not much more involved with other Jews than they are with lots of other kinds of people. But the act of surveying brings those Jews together, bounds them within the inquiry, gives them the appearance of unified agency and purpose: being Jewish. Jewish identity is invoked in the very act of studying it.

...the act of surveying brings those Jews together, bounds them within the inquiry, gives them the appearance of unified agency and purpose: being Jewish. Jewish identity is invoked in the very act of studying it.

The Pew survey is what Brubaker would call a a project of group-making. Group-making is a "social, cultural, political project aimed at turning categories into groups or increasing levels of groupness..." The Pew survey is an event that reifies the idea of an American Jewish group, "groupness as an event." But it is a 'groupness' that reflects the values of the people constructing it. Those acting as consultants to the survey believe in a Jewishness bounded by Synagogue, Israel, Denomination and Federation. Those being surveyed, by and large, have a very different set of concerns.

As Brubaker points out, if groupness is something that needs to be cultivated and evoked, it can also fail to materialize. The 'groupness' the Pew survey (like all the previous NJP surveys) sought to invoke has consistently failed to materialize, or only weakly. Thus the talk of crisis from the Jewish institutional world and calls to action, or at least accountability. But that crisis rhetoric is itself a group making, identity heightening project. No matter what actions are taken or, or not, a sense of Jewish identity has been aroused in those who are the ostensible objects of crisis. And by using the language of crisis, the institutional elite, ethnopolitical entrepreneurs as Brubaker calls them, reinforce their own importance in solving whatever crisis they have defined.

In conclusion, Identity has become seemingly indispensable to the Jewish communal conversation, even as American Jews drift farther away from Jewishness. It behooves us to think critically about the work done by identity. For example, a willingness to grapple with the contradictions of American Jewish integration, that which is smoothed over by the identity ideology, could be an exciting new direction for Jewish thought and engagement.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

How Well Do You Know Your Yiddish Dictionaries?

UPDATE UPDATE (second update)
According to a tweet from the Director of Digital Strategy at WNET/Channel 13, the Yiddish "quiz" is down because Survey Gizmo suffered a cyber attack yesterday, nebekh. I'll wish a refue shleyme to Survey Gizmo and still hold out hope that WNET/ Channel 13 will just take down the quiz, or redo it with real Yiddish words and definitions.

As they say on TV, stay tuned...

/UPDATE UPDATE (end second update)


UPDATE (first update)

It's come to my attention, even more recently, that PBS has removed the How Well Do You Know Your Yiddish quiz from their website! Now, who can say if it was due to the public shaming meted out by angry bloggers? But a little gentle shaming obviously can't hurt if you want to make the soi disant 'educational media' take responsibility for the quality of content they are putting out.

If you think I'm making a big deal out of nothing here, think about this: The act of writing history, especially one's own history, is a definitional, political act. The Story of the Jews is saying something about global Jewry today, both in its content, and in its choice of establishment, British but Jewish host, Simon Schama.

By using the How Well Do You Know Your Yiddish quiz to promote a seemingly serious work of history, PBS is also telling us something about which parts of Jewish history and culture to take seriously and which can be regarded as a joke. You can guess which is which.

But I'm not willing to consign a thousand years of history, literature, music, foodways and folk religion to a back-of-the-book novelty glossary. Yiddish culture belongs to me (and you) and shouldn't be peddled like plastic dog poo, especially not by people who should know better.

So yeah, I'm going to continue to speak up for the importance and integrity of Yiddish and Yiddish culture, whenever I see the need. I hope you will, too.

/UPDATE (end first update)

How Well Do You Know Your Yiddish Dictionaries?

It's recently come to my attention that the well intentioned, though poorly informed, folks at PBS don't know the difference between Yiddish and English. They seem to be under the same impression as many, many Americans: that is, if it feels Yiddish, it must be Yiddish. After all, Yiddish isn't a real language, right? And futz sounds like a Yiddish word, so it must be a Yiddish word, right?


All this confusion could be cleared up in the time it takes to open a standard Yiddish dictionary. It occurred to me, though, that perhaps people don't know the difference between, say, a Yiddish dictionary and a humorous reference book on Yinglish. One is a dictionary. One is not. Uhh... I'm not a linguist, people. Just a humorless scold, here to help.

And since people like learning in quiz form, I now present to you How Well Do You Know Your Yiddish Dictionaries? No prizes, no shareable Facebook badge, sorry. I don't have the slick graphics and know-how of the PBS team. Alls I got are a couple of dictionaries. And a couple not dictionaries. So... without further ado...

The challenge: Choose which of the following are Yiddish dictionaries and which are humorous books on Yinglish or other non-dictionary reference books

A. The Joys of Yiddish

B. Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary

C. If You Can't Say Anything Nice, Say It In Yiddish

D. Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary

E. English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary

F. Sex and the Single Hasid

G. Verterbukh fun loshn-koydesh shtamike verter in yiddish


B, D, E, G

A, C, F

Now that we all know where to find real Yiddish words and their definitions (in dictionaries), places with an educational mandate, like PBS, will never end up with embarrassing, error-ridden material on their website. 

Yay! We all win!!!! Now let's go watch Simon Schama in The Story of the Jews!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

me' khapt a nosh/ a homentash...

Purim sameakh/ a freylikhn purim, y'all. What are you doing reading this? Shouldn't you be pounding shots in a dark room in a terrible wig?

But, since you're here, and we're in a Purim mood, let's talk about hamentashen. What the heck is a hamentash (singular)? Is it from the Yiddish for Haman's (boo hiss) Pockets?

Not so fast, smarty pants. According to best-selling Canadian author Michael Wex:

Hamantaschen–pronounced homon-tashn in Yiddish–were originally mon-tashn, poppy seed pockets, that were eaten on Purim. The similarity between mon, Yiddish for poppy seeds, andHomon led to the name change, and with it a raft of after-the-fact attempts to explain what the pastry had to do with Haman, the villain of the Purim story. Variously said to represent Haman's ears and nose, his hat, and even his pockets, hamantaschen are more convincingly explained–if there is any explanation beyond homophony–by a pun on the various biblical verses in which the Children of Israel are said to have eaten ha-mon, the manna, which would also help to explain the popularity of the poppy seed filling.

Sorry, poppy seed h8ers. Go argue with tradition. And before you diss this tricorner classic, keep in mind its important place in Yiddish sexual euphemism:
The general appearance of  the hamantasch and its cousins in geometry, the knish and the pirogi, has given all three a special place in colloquial Yiddish as slightly coy vulgarisms for the human vulva, roughly equivalent to "pussy" or "beaver," neither of which is even vaguely kosher. Pireg–pirogi–is the most vulgar, hamantasch the cutest. Its triangular shape and varicolored stuffings make it a natural. Knish occupies the sort of middle ground that allows it to be used informally between consenting adults of either sex.

 esen a trois, anyone?

One last Wex related Yiddish factoid: Many years ago Wex taught me that in Yiddish, a nun is a monaskhe. Surely there's some interesting resonances there, or at least puns to be made, given the wonderful symbolic depth of the humble 'montash. Which brings me to our next hamantash related destination...

Over at Lilith magazine, there's an exploration of the hamantash as a symbol of ancient feminine fertility and power.

If Judy Chicago has never made a branded hamantash she really should

A must read is Susan Schnur's classic reclamation of the hamantash as the Womantash. As a feminist, it made me rethink my distaste for mon. After all, the little classic seed represents the fertile potency of Spring and is a powerful symbol of the feminine within the springtime stories of peril, triumph and rebirth. Can your apricot jam do all that?

Now go get drunk, seriously!!!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

PBS or Heeb? Take This Quiz!!!

Dear PBS,

When your website content is almost indistinguishable from that of Heeb, it's probably time to stop farming out your website work to the unpaid interns.

PBS is promoting its new documentary The Story of the Jews, narrated by Simon Schama. So far, so good. It's the kind of thing my dad would TiVO so we could watch together and I would secretly roll my eyes at how they get everything wrong about Eastern Europe.

In any case, I haven't seen it. And if they want to make it appealing to snobs like me, this is probably not the best way. It's a quiz called How Well Do You Know Your Yiddish. It has 15 questions, testing your knowledge of well known 'Yiddish' words. Unsurprisingly, many of the Yiddish words are actually Yinglish, the 'translations' are mostly appalling, and the whole thing is mainly a quiz of how hard you can cringe through 15 mouse clicks.

The worst part is, it's not much better than Heeb's 2010 Test Your Jew IQ game. Remember that gem of American-Jewish cultural pride?
Know the lyrics to If I Were a Rich Man? Can you distinguish between actual Yiddish words and plain mumbo-jumbo? Heard of any Israeli cities besides Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv? If you’re not feeling nauseous by now, then this is probably the game for you!
Yes, because what self-respecting Jew doesn't feel nauseated by knowing common Yiddish words and Israeli cities??? 

PBS doesn't quite articulate it so clearly, but How Well Do You Know Yiddish quiz has the same self-hating minstrel vibe. Its mish mosh of Yiddish, Yinglish and fake definitions reeks of the same peculiar American Jewish shame.

A little side by side comparison of the games:


Futz is not a real Yiddish word. It is Yinglish.



The actual expression is 'hak mir nisht keyn tshaynik' and roughly translates to 'stop banging on about it.'



Shtik means piece. 

And it just goes on and on...

Honestly, if PBS can't do any better than Heeb, I don't have a lot of hope for mainstream Jewish pop culture. As the well known Yiddish saying goes, 'We're fucked on both ends.'


PBS has removed the Quiz from its website.