Thursday, November 15, 2018

Reincarnation of a Frog and Other Anthems

(Read my latest Rokhl's Golden City about transmigrations and Socalled now)

Last night Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird brought their roaring blend of klezmer folk punk to Littlefield, part of a North American tour for the new CD, The Butcher's Share. I'm not ashamed to say I yelled my lungs out singing along with the instant anthem 99% Nayn-Un-Nayntsik. (99% is songwriter Josh Waletzky's celebration of class solidarity as well as the song that coined the essential new word fuck-u-nity. It's extreeeemly catchy. Anyway...)

Painted Bird was supported by Brooklyn radical klez phenomenon Tsibele. I felt a bit of an insider-outsider vibe when part of the crowd got really into yelling 'daloy capitalism' (down with capitalism) then talked loudly over Tsibele's incredible instrumental numbers.

Look, I'm all about a good anti-capitalist chant. We all need some catharsis these days. But I can't help getting salty about the people who are only there for the chants and get bored when it's time for a  juicy terkisher. You can't separate the one from the other, or at least, you can't where I come, which is the same place Tsibele and Daniel Kahn come from: the world of Klezkanada and integrated Yiddish folk art. But... not everyone is from that same place. And I want lots of success for my extremely talented friends, but that also means their work is going to be received by people who don't know what a terkisher is and frankly, may not even care.

Which, you know, that's obviously their prerogative. But when it comes to the political stuff I hold on to my saltiness. I have seen for the last couple of years how Dan's work, anthemic and powerful as it is, has been picked up by young Jewish radicals looking for cultural touchstones. Of course as an old fogey, I am conflicted that his work, which is so deeply playful and and nuanced and interconnected... I'm worried about that work being flattened into one crude political reading without any of the nuance that's been pre- baked into his projects. Dan loves anthems. He did a whole album of them with Psoy Korolenko called The Unternationale. The point wasn't an endorsement of Communism. Or socialism or Zionism or Bundism,  but the construction of a dialectic by putting all those anthems in the same room.

Anyhoo... I'm the gatekeeping asshole who will call you out for holding a Yiddish sign with spelling mistakes at a demo if you don't actually speak Yiddish. Sorry. You're free to hold whatever sign you want, of course. I'm not the police and I've been given no special power to stop you from doing whatever you want to do. But I will use whatever platform I have to remind Jews that you cannot divorce the politics from the language and the language from the history, and if you like the politics, and you like the slogans, I promise you'll get even more out of it if you learn how to spell them correctly.

This is all a preamble really to tell you to read my latest profile for Tablet, this one of my friend Josh Dolgin. Josh and Dan are the same age and are both fucking geniuses in their own way, as well as having been nurtured by the same cultural scene. In my review of Josh's latest album di Frosh, one of the things that struck me was that he closed the album with the mid-century pro-Israel, Yiddish language anthem Am Yisroel Chai.  It took me by surprise because while Josh has a sense of humor in everything he does, his work is most definitely not in the ironic or subversive mode you'll find on a CD like The Unternationale. It felt almost strange to encounter Am Yisroel Chai by itself, unbalanced, as it were, by an anthem of equal and opposite political verve.  Are we even allowed to be this earnest in 2018? Earnestly Zionist, even? According to Josh, at least, the answer is why the hell not?

Keep in mind that the origins of di Frosh go back to an invitation Josh got from his hometown synagogue to help celebrate their 50th anniversary with a set of new Yiddish songs. Perhaps Temple Israel in Ottawa isn't quite the place to wheel out a Yiddish IWW workers song (should such a thing even exist, for example) just for balance. But also, Josh's work is subversive in its own way, as I get into in my profile.

In any case, di Frosh is a sonic delight on every level and you should get it immediately. Right after you read my article about it.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Yiddish Tevye That Might've Been...

There's a rumor (ahem) that the Folksbiene's smash production of Fiddler oyfn dakh is getting extended and moving to an off-Broadway theater next year. [I've been told the New York Post got the details wrong and nothing is certain yet ... but... ]

If and when it happens, this Fiddler's move to off-Broadway isn't that surprising, Fiddler is a gem of American musical theater and this cast (with my fave Jackie Hoffman as Yente) is superb. Now, don't get me wrong, Steven Skybell's Tevye is a powerhouse; his scene with the rebellious Chava had me in tears. But, oh, what I wouldn't give to see Broadway's original Tevye, Zero Mostel, do Fiddler in Yiddish. My friend Shane Baker hipped me to this rare clip of Zero singing in Yiddish. Though the audience is laughing, his performance had me in full body chills. The man had chops. But don't listen to me. Just watch.

(The song is called Mit a Nodl, On a Nodl/With a Needle, Without a Needle)

(and the lyrics)

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Isaac Bashevis Singer Doesn't Have a Cold

You know that classic celebrity profile ‘Frank Sinatra Has a Cold’? Gay Talese spent months tailing Frank Sinatra, trying to get an interview. He never got it, but the resulting portrait of the man, and the celebrity apparatus surrounding him, became a New Journalism classic. Now imagine that, but me and Shane Baker, waiting at a very swanky, very gay Upper East Side piano bar. He’s arranged for me to meet a famous Yiddish speaking, Israeli faith healing psychic who’s in town for a few weeks. 

Shane and ‘Guy*’ had met earlier at the same bar where Guy regaled him (in Yiddish) with tales of his childhood job delivering flowers to Habima greats, including the Dybbuk’s original Leahele, Hannah Rovina. Rovina (whose wax figure still sits eerily on the second floor of the Migdal Shalom in Tel Aviv) was a demanding presence on the Israeli stage, supposedly so strict that she would stop a performance to scold youngsters eating sunflower seeds. Guy had actually met La Rovina. He spoke a beautiful Yiddish. He could heal my aura. He had great stories. Was I dying to meet him? You bet.

Just one problem. ‘Guy’ never showed up. It had seemed bashert; dybbuks were in the air. A few weeks earlier Shane and I saw the magnificent new Gesher Theatre Dybbuk at John Jay College. Gesher brought this production to North American for just a handful of performances in Toronto and New York. Which is an absolute shame, because writer Roee Chen and director Yevgeny Arye have created something not just sumptuously beautiful and different, but smart, scary, and good. This Dybbuk isn’t beholden to the somewhat wooden German Expressionistic style of the 1937 movie. It disposes of the prologue story and takes us right to the drama of Leah and her thwarted love Khonen, filling out the story of not just Khonen and Leah but her loutish father, Sender. This Dybbuk makes its characters into real people while still telling an otherworldly story. 

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about a Hebrew Dybbuk, but it only took me a few minutes to get used to seeing this very Eastern European story with a Modern Hebrew accent. Though the Gesher company has returned to Israel, this Dybbuk is in repertory and if you’re in the Tel Aviv-Yafo area you might be able to see it; make sure you check their website for updated information.  …

The Dybbuk has dominated the category of Yiddish gothic so thoroughly since its debut on the stage in the 1920s that few stories have been able to compete. Which is why, when I was in Toronto for this summer’s Ashkenaz festival, my one absolute cannot miss event was the screening of Dean Gold’s new Yiddish language horror short, Shehita.  Shehita is an original, a genuinely creepy armrest gripper, the kind of movie that makes you realize most modern horror could be trimmed by 90 minutes and lose absolutely nothing. 

Shehita tells the eerie story of a Hasidic couple living on an isolated Canadian dairy farm where something has gone terribly, terribly wrong. Horror movies depend on the transgression of categories: living and dead, man and animal and so on. Traditional Judaism is preoccupied with the maintenance of category boundaries, making it ripe for horror exploitation, which Shehitadoes so very well.

I was somewhat apprehensive  about Shehita. Would the Yiddish be any good? Would it lean on corny, exoticizing tropes about Hasidim? I was relieved on both counts, and the casting of my friend, Yiddish theater stalwart Avi Hoffman, as a man caught between science and faith, secular and insular, was absolutely brilliant. I don’t want to give t away more than that as it looks like there will be more chances to see Shehita this summer, whether via streaming platforms, film festivals, or both… 

Someone who always brought the spooky, of course, was Isaac Bashevis Singer. We’re having something of a Bashevis moment. With a bit of fanfare the Yiddish Book Center recently announced that they’re collaborating with the Singer estate to finally make Singer’s books available in the original Yiddish.   

This is big news. Among the millions of pages of Yiddish literature now available digitally, the Singer oeuvre was conspicuously missing. This won’t be everything of course; there are still stories that were published in places like the Forverts and never collected for publication, for example. But it’s an exciting start.

Dramatizations of Singer’s work have been kind of hit or miss. But I had an insight at the fabulous Yiddish Book Center-NYPL launch event a few weeks ago. The night was built around an all star panel of Bashevis scholars and writers. Which was terrific. But what blew me away was the ultra-rare screening of a movie starring the man himself, Isaac Singer’s Nightmare and Mrs. Pupko’s Beard. It was shot by legendary photographer Bruce Davidson, and the collaboration came about because Davidson and Singer lived in the same Upper West Side building. 

What to say about Mrs. Pupko’s Beard? Blending a Bashevis short story and an improvised meta-narrative about a Yiddish writer on the Upper West side,  it’s somewhere between a Saturday Night Live short film and a Christopher Guest mockumentary, but with Yiddish. Mrs. Pupko’s Beard might be one of the weirdest films I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of weird films. Its tale of two men’s obsession with a bearded lady cries out for contemporary gender analysis. And the biggest revelation? Bashevis is a total ham. He loves being on screen. He’s spry as hell. I’m a Bashevis fan but clearly no script can top the magnetism of the man himself. I’m hoping this Bashevis moment will include a revival of this lost gem…

If you liked Bad Rabbi, you will love a new walking tour called Mystics and Fortune Tellers of the Lower East Side. Widows and single women led precarious lives in many ways and this tour uses primary historical texts and location sites to bring you into their lives. Some are familiar to us, like the women who turned to psychics to find the husbands who had abandoned them, (the infamous farshvundene mener  or disappeared husbands gallery.) Some are less well known,  like the ones who used mentalism and witchcraft to support themselves. Highly recommended.   []

*No, it’s not Uri Geller.

WATCH: If you’re in Toronto this month you can catch a screening of Shehita at Temple Sinai Congregation of Toronto, November 9th at 9pm as part of their Renaissance Film Festival
MAKE SOME YIDDISH NOISE: In Whitechapel Noise: Jewish Immigrant Life in Yiddish Song and Verse, London 1884-1914. [1] Vivi Lachs tells the story of Eastern European immigrants in turn of the century London. It’s a fascinating and funny tour through their Yiddish popular culture: poetry, bawdy music hall song and theater. You have one more chance to see her present her research in person before she returns to London.  Sunday November 4, 1:30pm at the Sholem Aleichem Center, 3301 Bainbridge Avenue, Bronx. (in Yiddish)  You can get her two CDs featuring the funny, and sometimes heartbreaking songs of those East End immigrants.  or tune in to her episode of the Yiddish Voice podcast here 

November 1 the Workmen’s Circle is hosting what looks to be a fascinating talk on the Soviet yiddish writer Der Nister. 7 pm, free for members (This event is for advanced Yiddish speakers)…  … On Saturday November 3rd you’ll have the opportunity to catch the radical women of Tsibele as part of Haimish Harmonies at the Philadelphia Folk Society deadline for the Yiddish New York art exhibit is November 10. Theme: Eros and Spirituality …Tuesday, November 13th, 2018, at 8 pm you can ‘Meet a Yiddish Celebrity’ at An Evening with Yiddish Princess Sarah Gordon at Deutsches Haus at Columbia University, 420 W. 116th St. (between Amsterdam Ave. and Morningside Dr.)… and finally, the best news of the new year is that Tehila, The Kosher Diva is back, and better than ever.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Skepticism and Yearning

I have a new piece up over at the Lilith blog called Caught Between Skepticism and Yearning on the Holidays

It's about that time I was so anxious about the approaching holidays I asked a dog for advice. And if you know me, you know I'm not a dog person.

"...every year, as one holiday flows into another, my cozy, extremely Jewish corner of the world starts to feel like a prison. The neighborhood is so Jewish that my usual haunts feel more like stations in a Yiddish panoptikon, patrolled by bored Jews in itchy clothes and crocs. On Yom Kippur in particular, I can’t help but suspect they’re all judging me as I make my way to the cafe, judging me for choosing to be less miserable than they are. But if I’m choosing to be less miserable, why am I still so miserable?"

Lilith has been killing it this year with their unique Jewish feminist content. Click over to read my piece, but make sure you're subscribing, and getting all their updates and following them on your social media channels of choice.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Let's Talk About Coffee Talk

Up now at Tablet, my first GOLDEN CITY of the fall season: two decades on, why we're still getting 'verklempt' over Linda Richman. Click for my deep dive on the roots of 'verklempt' and what lies between joy and grief, Yiddish and American, homage and parody.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Finding Happiness at the Maison du Bonheur

Self-care can mean a lot of things: staying hydrated, meditating, saying 'no' as often as necessary... what I discovered this summer is that seeing beautiful films, in a beautiful setting, is at the core of my self-care. And for me, that means temples of cinema like Metrograph and Quad Cinema. A few weeks ago I saw a movie so beautiful and striking that I went straight to the canteen (at Metrograph) and started writing a review. My review of MAISON DU BONHEUR is up now at Lilith magazine and I hope you'll give it a read.

I also talk a bit about another summer pleasure, the recent Miriam Schapiro show at the beautiful Museum of Arts and Design. Viva la femmage!

Thursday, May 10, 2018

My Kingdom for a Quest Bar

*This post not sponsored by Quest Bar, though it could be. Call me, Quest people.

My new GOLDEN CITY is up over at Tablet and it's got some great stuff. I review the latest incarnation of Jacob Gordin's The Jewish King Lear and gush over the unveiling of the Ruth Rubin Legacy archive.

Two great events that didn't make it in, but you need to know about, BOTH ON THURSDAY MAY 10th DON'T ASK ME WHY!

First, at the New York Klezmer Series at Funky Joe's, it's Jordan Hirsch's Overnight Kugel. When Jordan brought his big band to Yiddish New York in December I literally thought the floor was going to collapse under us from all the insane dancing and we would definitely not be invited back to the Town and Village Synagogue. Thank god the night ended, floor intact.

Overnight Kugel is inspired by the music of clarinetist Rudy Tepel- an undersung journeyman clarinetist who only came to klezmer after a touring career as a big band member. He's part of that post-war mid-period American klezmer scene when the music shifted noticeably to a more chasidic style. This is the lost weekend of American klezmer, the terra incognita that came before the great klezmer reclamation of the mid-70s. This is straight ahead party music- wear comfy shoes.

Jordan Hirsch's Overnight Kugel at New York Klezmer Series
455 West 56th Street, Funky Joe's
Workshop starts at 7 and concert and jamming at 9

I swear, I'm not making this up- I was just wondering what the deal was with Andy Statman's Village residency when I happened to click onto THIS on Facebook:

I'm sorry, if you don't know who Andy Statman is, you're just going  to have to do a silent google of shame. And then make plans to see him and his power trio (if you're not going to the NYKS that is...)
Andy Statman Trio
Charles Street Synagogue Synagogue, 8 pm


Finally, Monday, May 14th, 7pm at YIVO, an intriguing new piece of Yiddish theatre in translation. It's a staged reading of EYNE FUN YENE by Paula Prilutsky (spouse of noted folklorist Noyekh), first produced in Warsaw in 1912 by the Ida Kaminska theater. The huge cast has something like 12 women and 3 men which OMG is alone worth making the trip to YIVO. Are you intrigued? I'm intrigued. More info here