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!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Your Revival is Tacky and Bores Me. NEXT!

My friend Bob from Brockley hipped me to this today. It's a Jewish-Azerbaijani artist named Akshin Alizadeh who just happens to love Yiddish swing as much as we do. Check out how he mixes Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn with modern beats:

It's kind of fun. And I would like to hear more. But I'm also reminded of a rant that's been a long time brewing. So I went back into the dusty attic of my drafts folder and decided to publish the following. Consider it a preemptive shot against those hipper than I who might declare Akshin Alizadeh the vanguard of some techno-Yiddish revival. Before you take it from them, take it from me, two years ago.

(Spring 2012)

The Yiddish Revival Must Die And Heeb Magazine Nails the Coffin Shut

Maybe you've seen this already. Clips of the Jewrythmics were making their way around Facebook walls (including mine), courtesy of a promo bump from Heeb magazine. Jewrhythmics is a Russian/Israeli group making its mark with classic Yiddish songs set to a retro 80s disco.

Here's a clip of them doing a medley including Mayn Shteytele Belz (a Yiddish nostalgia song about the town of Belz, written in America for the American Yiddish stage and screen):

OK.... Am I the only one who hears Pet Shop Boys + Yiddish? Here's a comparison:
The comparison, of course, is intentional. According to their website:
Jewrhythmics is working on the disco-axis Moscow/Tel Aviv: The one city - that radio stations are playing the 70/80's sounds all around the clock – meets the other, which is located in the centre of the Middle Eastern techno club culture. The Disco-Sound is not reproduced in a digital way, but in the sense of a throwback to the early disco era with a variety of analogue synthesizers, drum machines and traditional instruments (guitars, accordion, clarinet and more). Over those spherical sounds hovers the original and genuine Yiddish song as the wave-like echo of a bygone era. 
And according to Heeb blogger Dan Sieradski in 'Jewrhythmics Take Yiddish Revival to the Next Level'
 "Jewrhythmics not only resuscitates decaying cultural forms, it makes them get up and dance. And it is the greatest. thing. ever."
Greatest. Thing. Ever. Since when does the Simpsons comic book guy blog for Heeb? Really. Some Barry Sisters chestnuts laid over a retro-disco beat is the greatest thing ever? THIS is the "next level" in the so-called Yiddish revival?

I mean, is it better than Israeli-Russian Yiddish death metal?

Is it better than the other metal Yiddish band, Dibbukim?

Is it better than OG Canadian hip-hop Yiddish mixologist So Called

Is it better than this ska version of Lomir Ale Zingen

Is it better than my favorite hair metal Yiddish fusion band, Yiddish Princess

Is it better than my favorite punk/gypsy Yiddish fusion band Golem

Is it better than the Godfather

Does anything make Jewrhythmics stand apart from its many predecessors in Yiddish fusion? They've even got a cutesy Jew pun name. (Something I thought would be way too corny for the sangfroid irony of Heeb, but ok.)  

The only thing setting Jewrythmics apart from the crowd is that their production values are much higher, at least in video form. Calling this important reveals an ignorance of everything else that came before, oh, say, yesterday. Claiming Jewrhythmics resuscitate "decaying cultural forms" straight up implies that the last 35 years of the so called klezmer revival never happened. Which, I have to be honest, is a pretty fucking stupid thing to say.


Bashing Heeb feels very turn of the millennium. You won't believe this, but it bores me. And I normally wouldn't say anything about the Jewrhythmics. They're not my gleyzele tey, but they also don't tickle my rage bone. They want to work in Yiddish? Good for them. They get vocalists who are actually familiar with the language? God bless 'em. They have a manifesto? Let she who has not manifested cast the first stone. 

But just because it's in Yiddish doesn't mean I'm gonna like it. There's plenty of Yiddish drek out there. Mostly I smile politely and walk on by. Which is not to say Jewrhythmics is drek. Like I said, their vocalist(s) clearly speak Yiddish. There's nothing terrible about the music. It's just not my cup of tea. But garbage journalism is garbage. It claims to speak for ideas, for something important, when all it really does is speak to our own cultural ignorance. 

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.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Love Lays Low

From my friend Daniel Kahn, a dark and funny new video for Love Lays Low, off his newest CD with the Painted Bird, Bad Old Songs.


Constructed and directed by Polish artist Izabela Pia Szumen.