Friday, January 24, 2020

Like Ashes and Yortsayt Candles...

Like many American Jews, I don’t know much about my family history before their arrival in the United States. For one thing, I’m a third generation American. My grandparents were born here, and even if they had lived to transmit our family history to me, they themselves had no first hand knowledge of our lives before

American Jews breathe forgetting like oxygen and history cannot compete. 

Nostalgia tastes good, like a pastrami sandwich on fresh rye bread. History tastes of guilt, like ashes and yortsayt candles. It makes demands upon the individual, it takes work. Nostalgia is a false friend, one which soothes guilt, but whose fruit is self-deception.

A perfectly apposite moment comes in Red Shirley, the late  Lou Reed’s 2011 documentary about his elderly cousin, garment worker and labor activist Shirley Novick. 
Novick is describing how she bought a mandolin upon arriving in Canada from Poland in 1929. Reed’s only response is “Oh come on.” 

Presented with this unexpected point of contact between the 99 year old former garment worker and himself, Reed can form no response other than incurious disbelief. Had Reed paused a moment to ask why she bought it, he might have discovered that it was not chance or whimsy that brought Shirley to buy that mandolin, but, something akin to the same forces that drove Reed himself to pick up the guitar in the early 1960s. 

Shirley was a young woman at a time when mandolin orchestras were the rage for young working class lefties, especially in the garment industry. Dozens of mandolin orchestras thrived in New York and other centers of Jewish labor activism. Picking up the mandolin was an obvious way for a young greener to make friends in a new country. Not that Lou, or the audience, ever get the chance to make the connection.

At the time Red Shirley was making its way around film festivals, Reed told the press:  "I realized if I didn't do this, a connection to a lot of things would be lost forever. So there was great impetus to do this.” 

But Reed’s explanation for making the movie rings hollow. What he ended up doing was indeed the opposite of capturing some kind of fragile historical truth. He didn’t just miss every opportunity to learn more about Shirley, he, for reasons that may now be impossible to uncover, actively chose to distort key aspects of his cousin’s life. 

The woman who was known for decades as Shirley Novick is presented in the film as Shulamit Rabinowitz. Shulamit (or, as she would have been known in Yiddish, Shulamis) Rabinowitz was born in Poland, but came to New York as a young woman where she became an outspoken organizer in the garment industry and a high profile member of Yiddish Communist circles.

How is it possible that in the (albeit brief) 27 minutes of Red Shirley the word ‘Communist’ is not even uttered once? It could be that Lou’s family didn’t approve of Shirley’s marriage to a high profile Communist like Paul Novick. It’s hard to say. 

Memory is a muscle and American Jews have allowed theirs to waste away. Indeed, that wasting effect is cumulative. What is allowed to wither in one generation will have small chance at being reclaimed by the next.

Lou Reed went in search of the radical Jewish past. Led by nostalgia, he ended up rewriting history. 

By a quirk of fate, I was at Shirley Novick’s funeral not long after Red Shirley premiered at the New York Jewish Film Festival. I even sat a few seats away from her very surly cousin, Lou. I’m one of the very, very few who saw the movie and knew enough to be alarmed by its distortions, knew the people whose lives were being erased.

The Talmud tells us that while they are gestating in the womb, Jewish babies possess knowledge of the entire Torah. Right before they are born, an angel's touch removes that knowledge, making the subsequent acquisition of Torah a process of remembering.

I became a born again Yiddishist in college. My adult life has been spent in this kind of remembering, a re-acquisition of memories, a scrabbling at dreams in languages always at the far end of my tongue. 

That work of remembering is exhausting. Simply learning Yiddish at the end of the 20th century - the language of millions of American Jews and tens of thousands of volumes of literature - was a labor of extraordinary difficulty. 

Anyone who studies Yiddish today, even at this moment of so-called revival, knows that it is a source of social friction. Because we all know Yiddish is a dead language; we all know Yiddish had to die for Hebrew to live. It is the logic of internalized brutality, where losers may be pitied, may even be mourned, but they must, at all costs, remain buried.

I have seen how easily the story of history’s ‘losers' can be casually (or maliciously) overwritten. Who will remember Shirley Novick as she was? Who will be able to correct the historical record? Decades from now, who will look back and want to claim Shirley as their own?

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Doikayt and Decolonization

I closed out 2019 by fulfilling a longtime ambition: attending the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) conference as an invited member of a conference panel. 

Alllll the excited emojis.

I was the sole journalist in an otherwise all-star lineup of young academics. We came together to talk about the modern meaning(s) of the Bund. I joined David Slucki (Monash), Josh Meyers (Harvard), Jacob Labendz (Youngstown State), Caroline Luce (UCLA), and Mindl Cohen (Yiddish Book Center) for what turned out to be a truly fascinating and productive conversation. It was a pleasure to meet so many great folks whom I had previously only known virtually. 

I read Mindl's doctoral thesis on doikayt in preparation for our discussion and I highly recommend it if you want to go deeper into the pre-war Bundist zeitgeist. Of course I've read David Slucki's The International Labor Bund After 1945: Toward a Global History. And both Josh and Caroline have books coming out soon about very different moments in Bund history. I have a feeling they will be 'must reads' on the subject and I'm eagerly awaiting both of them. 

As I said during our panel, I was there as a humble polemicist among serious scholars. My paper, on doikayt (hereness) and decolonization, was expanded and translated into Hebrew for the latest issue of Haaretz's Judaism supplement magazine. It was then published in English as 'Why Modern Anti-Zionists Love the Bund.' If my goal were to piss off every possible corner of the Jewish Left I'd be making solid progress on that one. I guess you have to take your wins where you find them.

As a bonus to those of you who read to the bottom, here's the video from Itzik Gottesman's recent YIVO talk about Yiddish Christmas. Enjoy!

Tevye the Icon

Yiddish Fiddler (aka Yiddler) was the unexpected off-Broadway hit of 2019. What else could I do but honor it's January 5th closing with a grumpy op-ed about linguistic oppression for JTA. Audiences may love Tevye, but they're a lot more mixed on the language he speaks.

I'd been wondering why Yiddish is always tagged as 'guttural' and after seeing myself described with that word in a newspaper article, it occurred to me that:
If one had to locate Yiddish within the popular imagination, it would be found in the primeval Jewish throat.
The success of Yiddish “Fiddler” shows that Yiddish, from afar, can attain a certain symbolic stature in the public eye of the theatre class. But the intimate experience of Yiddish, up close and personal, still speaks to nothing so much as lingering discomfort, and an estrangement between observer and object. 
Yiddish is often characterized by its guttural “ch’s.” But Hebrew, with just as many guttural sounds, rarely seems to get tagged as such. As late as 1930, Zev Jabotinsky was arguing that the ideal Hebrew pronunciation would “First of all … have to avoid the Yiddish ch, which is like the hoarse cough of someone with a throat disease.” Ouch.

Read more at JTA ...