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.