Saturday, December 1, 2018

Kortn-shpiln iz an umglik -- and other lessons from Yiddish Communists

Hey! It's Khanike and my new Golden City is here, all about the weirdness of everyone's favorite eight day festival of something something miracles? oppression? triumph of Jewish zealots? latkes?

In any case, it's a week to argue about our conflicts and contradictions. I guess that makes Khanike the best Jewish holiday!

Rather than think about the weirdness of the story of Khanike, my Golden City this week takes a look at how Khanike figures in stories by Sholem Aleichem and I.L. Peretz. It's all about got's vunders/holy miracles vs. the wheel of fortune.

Though card playing was considered treyf, there was one day a year it was not only OK, but encouraged. Not Khanike, but Christmas. As I learned from Michael Wex, because Torah study is often done for the merit of the deceased, no Torah could be learned on Christmas should, khas v’sholem, some of that merit find its way to the guy whose birthday was being celebrated by everyone else. What else to do but the spiritual opposite of learning Torah: spending the night playing cards.
It’s strange isn't it, that one of our most beloved Jewish festivals, Khanike, is so strongly associated with gambling. I speak, of course, of dreydl. Lucky for the gambling-mad hero of “Benny’s Luck,” “there was one week of the year when we were allowed to gamble. Did I say ‘allowed’? It was considered a good deed to gamble, a regular commandment! That was the week of Chanukah and we played with the dreydl.” Our narrator is perhaps exaggerating for his own justification. While the other boys enjoy playing dreydl, he alone is compelled to it. As we learn, his gambling doesn’t just cost him his lunch money, ultimately, it costs him his dignity.
As I note above, gambling, especially kortn-shpiln/card games, was strongly frowned upon in traditional Judaism. Playing cards was the literal opposite of what an erlikhe Yid was supposed to do. What's interesting though, is how that taboo lingered, even in the most secular, politicized Yiddishist circles. As I was preparing this week's column, I happened to pull a small booklet off my shelf. It's called Zingen Mir/Sing for Peace, and was assembled by Sam Liptzin. In it I found a song called Kortn-shpiln iz an umglik (Playing Cards is a Misfortune), words by Liptzin himself. (It's adapted from a pre-existing song called Libe iz an umglik). How odd that an anti-card playing song is not just being included in a Yiddish folksong collection in 1974, but that it was newly composed! Why? And for whom?

Kortn-shpiln iz an umglik - Playing Cards is a misfortune
Shpiln kortn iz an umglik oyf der velt/
in yeder hoyz, vu dos kumt nor arayn/
es kost-op azoy fil tsayt un gelt/
dertsu iz dos mentshlekh nit fayn
farvos nit lernen beser tsu visn/
un epes der mentshayt gor brengen/
kortn makht fun alts opgerisn/
kortn brengt-- shisn un hengn!
So, not to alarm you, but playing cards only brings misery into every house, it wastes time and money, wouldn't you be better off learning something and becoming a mentsh? Playing cards destroys everything! And it may just get you hung or shot. ...YIKES!

Zingen Mir is an eclectic collection of songs and contributors, with the Star Spangled Banner and We Shall Overcome next to songs from something called Sovetishn Buch- Yidishe Folks Lider (A Soviet Book of Jewish Folk Songs) and poems by Edith Segal. How to describe the milieu from which Zingen Mir arose? It's too easy to say stam Yiddish Communists. What does Yiddish Communists even mean? Zingen Mir is dated 1974,  almost 20 years post-Hungary, post-Kruschev revelations. Who are these people? What are they doing? What did they believe?

I have a slim volume of Edith Segal poetry on my shelf about the Rosenbergs. An ad in the inside of the English language side of Zingen Mir is for 'Tales of a Tailor: Humor and Tragedy in the Struggles of the Early Immigrants Against the Sweatshop'. (Translated from the Yiddish by Max Rosenfeld). Liptzin was a Frayhayt contributor from the very beginning. But I would say his most important contribution, and the way to understand people like him, is through their cultural work, writing poetry, assembling song books, producing texts for teaching, and so forth. The revolution was no longer forthcoming. This movement was now very solidly backward-looking. Which is not to discount the activism of people like Liptzin and his circle. (See especially the activism of the Emma Lazarus Federation for a fascinating example of ongoing radical consciousness.)

The book where I found the Peretz story I reference in my column was put out by YKUF (the Yiddish Communist cultural group) in the 1960s.  I think it's safe to say that these people are not motivated or driven in any real way by the dictates of the Comintern. Which is not to apologize for them or whitewash anything, only to offer a functional analysis of their world. (OK, this is already going very afield, I'm gonna rein it in....)

Given that very particular milieu, why do we find a song about the grave dangers of playing cards in Zingen Mir? I'm not entirely sure. My friend, the Yiddishist and folklorist Itzik Gottesman mentioned to me that there is a khanike feuilleton of Sholem Aleykhem in which he describes going to a khanike party in Kyiv and going around asking, as they do in the gemore, מאי חנוכה -what is khanike and why do we kindle lights? Instead of getting an answer, he is driven away by his friends who only want to play cards. I imagine this is exactly the kind of thing that a kultur-tuer like Liptzin would have read. He may have even grown up in a traditional home where there was a taboo against playing cards.  What matters is not just that the taboo lingered, but that a person like Liptzin, whose job it was to continually refine and repackage material that reflected the values of his peers, thought it was worthy of enshrining in a new 'folk' song so these Yiddish values would continue to be transmitted. And it worked! Here it is, end of 2018, and I can't stop thinking about how goyish it is to play cards.

Got's vunders! A khanike nes! zol zayn a freylikhn!

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