Tuesday, October 25, 2022

The Many Faces of the Dybbuk

There’s still a few days left to put the spook in Spooktober. My latest Golden City column is up now and in this one, I look at just a few of the many incarnations of the dybbuk. 

 

Of course, there’s the 1938 Polish produced, Yiddish-language film adaptation of Sh. Ansky's play, der dybbuk. But there’s also a 1960 made for TV, English-language adaptation directed by Sidney Lumet! I had a vague understanding that Lumet came from a Yiddish theater background, but it’s much juicier than that. Sidney was a child actor in the Yiddish theater in New York. He got his start there thanks to his dad, one-time Vilne Troupe member and then New York Yiddish actor, Baruch Lumet. You can read all about that over at the Digital Yiddish Theater Project.

 

There have been many, many productions and adaptations of Ansky’s dybbuk play, the two I just mentioned are the tip of the dybbuk iceberg. Traditional dybbuk lore has also done its own share of “inspiring” stories. I don’t know how I missed Psi Factor when it was airing in the late 90s, but this bit of forgotten Dan Ackroyd paranormal silliness will appeal to anyone who loves spotting Toronto locations. And in the first season of the show, the Psi Factor cops took on a dybbuk.


 

 


 

Dybbuks aren't just for grown ups! On this episode of Rugrats, the Yiddish-accented grandfather tells a scary story about a dybbuk, which he says is a kind of monster.


 


 

Thank God I wasn’t born a dybbuk


One of my absolute favorite YouTubers is Justin Sledge, the man behind the Esoterica channel. Sledge is an academic specializing in Western Occultism and Esotericism. It's really fascinating material presented in a down to earth, accessible format. This week he focused on, what else? the origin of the dybbuk in Jewish philosophy. 


 


 

 

As Sledge explains, the concept of a dybbuk, a dead human spirit possessing the body of a living person, only came about relatively late, within 16thcentury Spanish kabbalah. It took a number of philosophical developments to finally get there. 

 

Before that, Judaism, Islam and Christianity had beliefs around possession by malevolent spirits, though not the spirits of formerly living people. Jews in the ancient world were well known for their association with spirit exorcisms. Many of the miracles of Jesus, as Sledge reminds us, were exorcisms! However, after the rise of Christianity and its “embrace” of possession and exorcism, the rabbis lost interest in possession and exorcism. It would take a thousand years, and the rise of kabbalah, for spirit possession to come back to an influential place in Jewish philosophy and theology.

 

Finally, as I discussed in my column, there has been a bit of a dybbuk renaissance in cinema in the last ten years or so. Unfortunately, the catalyst for most of that “dybbuk revival” is down to what I would call an urban legend, the dybbuk box. (I go a bit more in depth on this “haunted wine box” in the column.) The important thing here is that the dybbuk box urban legend is not a Jewish story, but another take on the modern craze for haunted objects, wherein "Jewish culture" (or an approximation of such) lends a slightly different form to the elements of the genre.  But the story is not actually Jewish.


In addition to the movies I covered in the column, the “dybbuk box” pops up elsewhere, as in this 2019 short film, about two couples camping in the desert. One of them accidentally open a “dybbuk box,” unleashing a murderous spirit. If you thought violent possession couldn’t be dull, you haven’t been looking in the right places. 


 


 

It irritates me when artists (loosely defined) extract Jewish culture and distort it for their own uses. I’m tempted to say that those people are getting dybbuks “wrong.” But if you’re a modern, scientifically minded person who doesn’t believe in a literal reality of spirit possession -  and I am -  it seems sort of… silly to say that they’re getting the facts about a ghost story wrong. 

 

To go back to Justin Sledge, we can see that the concept of the dybbuk is in fact a historical, contingent phenomenon. If the Jewish world can go from being full of spirit possession experts to a thousand years of No Possession, Please and then on to a kabalistic explosion of possession and dybukim, we understand better that these kinds of supernatural stories change with the times, reflecting the concerns and conditions of the people who tell them. Who am I to say that modern “dybbuk boxes” are stupid, offensive and just plain wrong?

 

So I won’t say that. But I will say that the “dybbuk box” conceit is one that allows anyone to profit off a fresh angle on a supernatural story (something rare in Hollywood) while marginalizing the Jews who would have otherwise been central to such a story. And at the risk of opening a box full of angry dybbuks, I will indeed call bullshit on any story which exorcises the Jews out of their own myths. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

The Holocaust & the Exile of Yiddish: A History of the Algemeyne Entsiklopedye (Book Talk with Barry Trachtenberg)

I'm happy to say that the video is now available for the book talk I did with author Barry Trachtenberg for his latest, The Holocaust & the Exile of Yiddish: A History of the Algemeyne Entsiklopedye.

The Algemeyne Entsiklopedye (General Encyclopedia) was a 16-volume set published between 1930 and 1966, with Yiddish and English volumes, some on Jewish topics and others for general knowledge. But that dry description really can't capture the many twists and turns the project took over three decades.

I had a fantastic time chatting with Barry for a book talk sponsored by the Congress for Jewish Culture. I hope you'll give it a watch. He is a wonderful historian and a really engaging speaker.

(And while you're watching the video, make sure you subscribe to the Congress for Jewish Culture YouTube page.)



The men who launched the Algemeyne project hoped:
"...to add a sophisticated Yiddish language encyclopedia to the already blossoming global genre of Jewish encyclopedias in world languages. The Entsiklopedye’s central tension lay between those who felt the goal should be to offer world knowledge for Yiddish readers, and those who urged the Entsiklopedye to educate Jews about their own history. It was a tension that would linger across the Entsiklopedye’s many twists and turns.

For more on the wild history of Yiddish reference books, see my May column, Encyclopedic Knowledge.



Who By Fire, Who By Knight of Swords

New at Rokhl's Golden CityJeremiah Lockwood and the revival of traditional cantorial music

...With one holy tune, one can relay the content of entire bookshelves, for the language of melody is concise. 
-Shneur Zalman of Liady (first rebbe of Chabad), quoted in Avrom Rekhtman's memoir of the Ansky ethnographic expedition.

Cantors, khazones, and nigunim were central to the work of the Ansky expedition, carried out in the heart of Hasidic Ashkenaz. In contrast with the s
cholars of the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement, who found the redemption of Jewishness in books and other texts, the Ansky expedition privileged the sensory and sensual, ephemeral and ghostly traces of what they perceived to be a disappearing, pre-modern existence. 

And how do you capture a Yiddish ghost? Not with a proton pack, khas v'sholem, but with an Edison wax cylinder phonograph. The expedition made 500 such recordings (in addition to collecting 1,000 melodies and 1500 folk songs.) 
Avrom
Rekhtman's memoir of the expedition notes many funny and fascinating (and at times, disturbing) encounters between the expedition team and shtetl residents, mediated by this spooky new piece of technology.

A hundred years later, Jewish modernity is still being shaped in the encounter between Jewish researchers and their Hasidic neighbors. I recently caught up with Jeremiah Lockwood to learn more about his research in modern khazones. As we talked, bright lines of connection emerged between the work of the Ansky expedition team and Jeremiah's own work recording the rebel cantors of contemporary Hasidic Williamsburg. 

That new record is called "Golden Ages: Brooklyn Chassidic Cantorial Revival Today." But 
"Hidden Melodies Reveled" - the name of his upcoming Rosh Hashanah concert event with Because Jewish - resonates just as much with the work he's been doing with these Hasidic cantors.

 

What I discovered in our conversation is that in 2022, Hasidic Williamsburg is not some romantic source of "authentic" Yiddishkayt to be "collected" by objective scientists. Rather, it is a community that, in some surprising ways, is just as alienated from its own past as a child of 1980s Jewish American suburbia, such as myself. 


The "hidden melodies" in this case are the recordings of Golden Age khazones, made a hundred years ago by men who prized improvisation and artistry. In order to access this tradition, the Hasidic artists whom Jeremiah recorded had to do their own kind of salvage ethnography. Indeed, one of the cantors got into this repertoire after finding a cassette tape of Golden Age khazones underneath a washing machine! ...


Last November I wrote about how taking a new name was a key act of self-creation for modern Yiddish speaking Jews. I asked Jeremiah to speak to the history of cantors and name changes:

...many cantors took new names when they performed for non-Jewish audiences, at the opera, for example, or even in vaudeville. “Name changes,” he said, “reflect the polyglossia of modern Jewish life. Jews weren’t satisfied with just code switching, they had to change the very substance of their beings. They’re like Jacob wrestling the angel and receiving a new name. It’s the angel of history now, instead of the angel of the Lord.” Lockwood pointed me to the cantor Pierre Pinchik as a particularly vivid example.

Pinchik was born Pinchas Segal somewhere around 1900 in Russia. He went from the Hasidic yeshiva world to the Kyiv conservatory....

...after he had immigrated to the United States, he released an album called Two Sides of Pinchik (1962). The cover features two pictures of him, one, in his cantorial garb, the other, in his incarnation as a suave artist of the world. This duality is also reflected in his song choices. One side of the album is liturgical and the other is traditional Yiddish songs.

There’s something intriguing in the Two Sides concept. Though he has changed his name to the continental-sounding “Pierre,” Pinchik is not hiding anything, but rather, he’s putting his various selves into conversation, perhaps even inviting us to imagine many sides to Pierre Pinchik. ...


I'll conclude by going to back to Shneur Zalman: "the language of melody is concise." 

I recently had a friendly argument with Jeremiah about whether you needed to understand the words of a song to enjoy it. He came down pretty firmly on the "don't need the words" side, a take which, I'll admit, scandalized me, as a writer of words. But it also reminded me that in approaching khazones, it's ok to not worry about the meaning so much and to simply let yourself listen once in a while.

Read more about Jeremiah's work over at Rokhl's Golden City...



Thursday, April 21, 2022

Listening Parties & Posthumous Release of The Ginzburg Geography

 

Save the Date:  Listening Parties & Posthumous Release of
The Ginzburg Geography




Come to hear new songs, sing-along with her bandmates, listen to friends and collaborators discuss the new CD and watch recordings of Jewlia Eisenberg as she speaks about her music.  


East Coast | West Coast Listening Parties & Streaming Options:

May 20, Friday 8 p.m.
Venue tbd, East Bay, California, 
with: Jason Ditzian, Cynthia Taylor, Laura Inserra, AnMarie Rodgers


May 22, Sunday 4 p.m.
Barbès, Park Slope, Brooklyn 
with: Blake Eskin, Marika Hughes, Jill Slater, Jeremiah Lockwood

With The Ginzburg Geography, Charming Hostess explores sense of place in the lives of Natalia and Leone Ginzburg, Italian writers famous for their intellectual brilliance and resistance to Mussolini’s fascist state. This album is a musical map of the Ginzburgs, with original scores set to their work. It evokes the Ginzburg's lives in Turin, Abruzzo, and Rome—cities that sustained them emotionally, spiritually, and politically. The sonic palette of The Ginzburg Geography draws from Italian regional traditions, anti-fascist songs, and Italian Jewish liturgy.
 
The album and installation addresses ideas that Jewlia dedicated her life to exploring, "resistance and what sustains people in severely oppressive situations"-- as relevant today as it was for the Ginzburgs during WWII. Getting the album produced was the one thing Jewlia was most steadfast to complete after her 30-day induced coma and intubation.  When she did recover in early 2020, the induced paralysis left her unable to wiggle her fingers and toes.  She learned to walk and sing again vowing that now more than ever she needed to get her anti-fascist album, The Ginzburg Geography out into the world. While Eisenberg was able to record vocals and oversee the majority of the band tracks before her passing, the album was ultimately completed by guitarist/producer Max Baloian and Eisenberg’s longtime collaborator, cellist/vocalist Marika Hughes.

Much, much, much more about Jewlia and her work at the Charming Hostess website

                                    

                              
         
                             



Monday, March 14, 2022

On the first yortsayt of Jewlia Eisenberg, a reflection on Sarajevo Blues

We’re coming up on the 30thanniversary of the opening of the Bosnian war, which began, more or less, at the beginning of April 1992, and ended three years later, with heavy intervention from NATO forces.  

Despite an estimated 100,000 casualties (though that number could be much higher), the war seems to have faded from public memory. Last week, during a visit to the Ukrainian Cultural Centre in London, Prince William appeared to give voice to this perception. During his public remarks at the event, the Duke of Cambridge observed that “it’s very alien to see this in Europe…”  The “this” presumably being war, now being waged with genocidal fervor by Vladimir Putin against the people of Ukraine. 

 

Prince William was ten years old --not to mention a European monarch in waiting-- when the Bosnian war began. That he apparently has no historical consciousness of what has been called the most devastating conflict in Europe since the end of World War II," and which happened in his living memory, made him the rightful target of media criticism.


In addition to the human casualties, the Bosnian war was marked by systematic rape, ethnic cleansing, and the resulting displacement of 2.2 million people. And yet, as William’s remarks show, those of us not directly touched by it have mostly allowed it to slip from memory. Certainly, World War Two is far further from us in time, and yet remains much, much more present in public memory.

 

Today, accessibility of digital video and ubiquity of social media combine to make the war in Ukraine uniquely consumable in all its angles, across every platform. Even if there is (god willing) a quick and peaceful resolution, it’s unlikely that Putin’s war against Ukraine could be forgotten in the same way as the Bosnian war. Think about the little girl singing “Let it Go” from a bomb shelter or the plucky babushka downing a Russian drone with a jar of pickled tomatoes. They have both become characters in the global war discourse- images easily adaptable to hopeful Facebook posts and late-night comedy monologues; eagerly consumed by a pandemic-weary world looking for distraction.

 

And it’s true, the emergence of such wartime “characters” has been a powerful way to elicit material support for those under siege. But our attention comes at a steep cost: their human peril reframed as our entertainment. And as important as it is to rally global support for Ukraine’s government in its fight against Russian aggression, it feels almost impossible to do so without also turning the war into just another piece of content, a kind of spectator sport, with attention grabbing characters, and clearly delineated teams to cheer (or boo) from the safety of thousands of miles of distance. 

 

It seems to me that the ethical implications of our present-day war-media synergy have gone mostly uninterrogated. Perhaps it is too soon to reflect productively on events still unfolding. But that doesn’t mean no one is speaking to our current moment. Since the war began, my thoughts have turned again and again to my friend, the forever unclassifiable Jewlia Eisenberg. From the “forgotten” Bosnian war to Ukraine, her 2004 album Sarajevo Blues feels more relevant than ever.   


March 11 was Jewlia’s first yortsayt. You can read the tribute I wrote right after her passing last year. For a beautifully detailed examination of her multifarious oeuvre, especially her scholarship, you can read this recent piece, by her close collaborator, Jeremiah Lockwood. 


With her band Charming Hostess, Jewlia put out Sarajevo Blues in 2004, based on the book of the same name by Bosnian journalist-poet, Semezdin Mehmedinovic. The texts collected in Sarajevo Blues reflect his experience living through the years long siege of Sarajevo.  


Like all of Jewlia's work, her musical adaptation of Sarajevo Blues sits at the intersection of music and translation. With Sarajevo Blues, she adds another, very simple question to her musical methodology: what is my relationship to the news? In the liner notes to Sarajevo Blues she says: 

“We all know that simply watching news is not doing anything about what you see. We want to know what’s going on, but human experience in a place where “news” is happening is reduced to the most sensationalistic elements—pain, terror, despair. Watching or even reading the news, one can become complicit in a kind of war-profiteering—the experience of suffering people is appropriated and used to sell cars. Orphans and refugees become icons, divorced from the people they represent, metaphors for other things.”

 

Going further, she declares her intent to explore “other ways of being with the news, ways that focus on real human experience, on particularity and wholeness.”  

 

Take the song “Death is a Job.” The lyrics describe the dark irony of life under siege, where a person can find themselves dodging both sniper bullets and war photographers. Jewlia puts the text to a disarmingly upbeat a capella setting, propelling us across that intersection, along with the narrator, who has come to see war photographers as just another enemy faction:   

 

They’re doing their job, in deep cover

If a bullet hit me they got a shot worth so much more than my life

That I’m not sure who to hate

The sniper or the monkey with a Nikon

For the chetniks, I’m just a simple target

But those others only confirm my utter helplessness

And even take advantage of it…  

 

War time journalism has the potential to bring our attention to the atrocious human cost of war. But as a practice, war journalism necessarily obscures its own complicity in the events which give it purpose.       

 

Here Jewlia raises the very questions which seem to me so urgent, and so unaskable, in these heated days of war. In the liner notes, she says that Sarajevo Blues was an extension of her previous work, now “morphed into questions about the possibility of encountering another person’s experience without trivialization or appropriation. What comes of delving into events characterized by vicious nationalism, opportunistic fascists, fleeing refugees, concentration camps, mass slaughter and do-nothing bystanders? … Is it possible, or even desirable, to create emotional connections to brutal events that most Americans (b’ezrat ha-Shem) will never experience?”

 

Sarajevo Blues doesn’t pretend to retrospectively educate Americans on the complex of identities which powered both the Bosnian and Kosovo wars. Nor does it prospectively presume to teach us any grand lesson about the meaning of war. Today, it speaks to us from a place of humanizing paradox. It is both an act of resistance against the historical erasure of a specific war, and at the same time, an assertion of the dignity of human frailty; a song sung against totalizing ideologies and political statements; a testimony to the capacity of music(s) to translate the human experience in ways so compelling that we cannot help but pay attention. In other words, it is alive with everything that made Jewlia the extraordinary artist she was, and always will be.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Jewlia Eisenberg and the Sphere of the Endless

 Jewish Currents, July-August 2006

The Sphere of the Endless

[New York City, summer 2006. In which your faithful columnist heads to Joe's Pub to hear the music of Jewlia Eisenberg]

...

Charming Hostess is a delightfully indescribable enterprise, more an ongoing project than a band. Though the members of the group haven’t changed much over the years, it is mainly the brainchild of Jewlia Eisenberg. Eisenberg takes unusual, provocative texts and sets them to her own eclectic brand of Jewish fusion music, mostly exploring different traditions of a cappellasinging. Imagine the love letters of Walter Benjamin set to transmogrified doo-wop. 

On her newest album, Sarajevo Blues, Eisenberg uses the translated poems of a contemporary Bosnian poet named Semezdin Mehmedinovic. The resulting piece is astonishing in its beauty and its relevance, especially in the way it humanizes the inhumanity of war. Our war in Iraq has been so tightly, criminally managed, leaving us shielded from the death that is being doled out in defense of “our freedom.” What is needed to mobilize opposition, even more than comprehensive, popular reporting about this war, is empathy. Poetry, at its best, can awaken that empathy in us. Sarajevo Blues moved me in a way that a week’s worth of New York Times editorials could not. 

When I listen to Jewlia Eisenberg, I am always struck by how she manages to take disparate texts, marry them to odd, haunting music, and express her humanity in an immediate way — and make it all work. She sings in many Jewish languages —Yiddish, Ladino, German, English, Hebrew —and references many musical traditions. Where I would normally pounce on such a khutspedik exemplar of cultural appropriation, I could only crane my neck around the amourous French throng and clap like mad. 


Ma nishtana . . . What makes her promiscuous appropriation different than others? Usually I hate performers paying tribute to “Our Jewish Heritage” with a song in Yiddish, a song in Ladino and maybe a Hava Nagila encore, doing justice to none and making kitsch out of all. Eisenberg, however, never tries to pass off her pieces as anything “authentic,” except authentically her own. 

Her exploration of Jewish music, themes and texts is always specific, and motivated, dare I say, by a solid grasp of her own rootlessness. She sees herself in these disparate forms because she appreciates the disparate elements in herself. As she wrote in her liner notes for Sarajevo Blues

“As described by Sem [the Bosnian poet], Sarajevo sounds very cool; a pluralistic place [that] included not just the South Slavic ethnic and language groups, but also Sufis, Sephardic Jews and Franciscans. For many years, Sarajevo successfully rejected the limits of nationalism and militarism, and instead embraced connectedness.” 

She goes on to observe that out of this connectedness came a wartime, urban culture of magazines, poetry and films that served not merely to inform the outside world about what was going on, but to nourish the people of Sarajevo by reaffirming their community and connectedness in the face of nationalism. 

The tension between nationalism and connectedness can also be expressed as the tension between what Shimon Rawidowicz (1897-1957) called the “spheres of the end and the endless.” The sphere of the end, as he described it, is the world of the immediate: of results, solutions and exclusions. The sphere of the endless is the world of the spirit: of the expansion of possibilities, of learning and creativity. 

Nationalism belongs to the sphere of the end, and by its nature excludes — usually violently — other possibilities of connection to others. As Rawidowicz (author of Israel, the Ever-Dying People and Other Essays and a long-time philosopher at Brandeis University) explained it, the meaning of Jewish redemption changed from the time of the Prophets to the time of the Second Temple’s destruction, after which:

“the heavy yoke of galut [exile] made the dream of redemption on the one hand more urgent and burning than in the days of the Prophets, and on the other, more radical, theoretical and utopian. . . . For various social and political reasons, the vision of redemption became more national than before, narrower and more restricted, but also more concrete and bloodier, because redemption [goel], by its very nature, is blood-drenched. The root gimel-aleph-lamedis related to blood . . . Redemption, then, is initially linked with blood, the blood of the individual, of the family, and of the tribe. Later, an abstract, spiritual meaning developed from the word or concept goelgeulah, redemption as national liberation, redemption of the people. But ultimately, redemption is bloody, it costs blood.”

Nationalism comes at a great price. Despite this price, however, the “sphere of the end,” as Rawidowicz points out, is seductive to all peoples, and especially to Jews. It’s not surprising that with the suffering of millennia upon us, Jews long for an end, either through self-redemption or self-annihilation (assimilation). But Rawidowicz warns against blind faith in the redemptive power of force: “Man does not live by force alone, and certainly not a nation. Isaiah’s prophecy that ‘Zion shall be redeemed by justice’ was not just a catch phrase . . . Justice is, on a deeper level, one of the symbols of the endless, the infinite.” 

Two weeks after being charmed by Charming Hostess and their Francophile audience, I stood on the sidelines of the “Salute to Israel Day” parade and thought about the collision of Rawidowicz’s spheres in Jewish life. Also on the sidelines were anti-occupation protesters (and a few anti-anti-occupation protesters) and the laughable Neturei Karta waving their Palestinian flags. Suddenly I was seized with the desire to lead my own Salute to Golus Day parade all the way back uptown— away from the sphere of flag-waving sameness to the sphere of the endless in my surprisingly diverse Jewish neighborhood. 

Judaism and the Jewish people are often criticized for tribalism, and for focusing on law over spirit. Yet Jews have always roamed widely, both geographically and spiritually-intellectually. One of the keys to our survival has been our unique status as an international nation, a scattered people that embraced many kinds of Jewishness, many languages, many nationalities, many traditions. And the truth is that we still do. But no one’s going to organize a parade to celebrate that. 

“The people of the endless in its true depth,” wrote Rawidowicz, “are essentially the backbone of the Jewish people . . . they are often the great hidden ones of the generation who protect the house of Israel from external and internal fires. They are the personification of stiffneckedness; in them, it reaches its fullest and highest expression; even if they are not the wings of Israel, they are its head and its heart, its hands and its feet.” 

Jewlia Eisenberg’s creative, integrative, connected music was, for me, a small taste of the endless that sustains us. And in these times, with the demands of multiple nationalisms upon us, we need her, and people like her, more than ever. 

Sunday, January 30, 2022

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

January 27 was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the last few years, I've published a number of pieces about Holocaust commemoration and memory.

Looking back, a couple things stand out to me:

1. The importance of being able to identify the perspective of whatever text you’re using: Who is telling the story? Whose documents/archives are being used to construct a narrative?
2. The urgency of elevating victim-centered narratives: How did victims themselves understand what was happening? What were their strategies of resistance and resilience?  
3. The continued expansion of access to contemporaneous testimony via diverse texts. This includes wonderful new film and musical adaptations of archival materials. These new archive-based projects not only present new materials for Holocaust education, but they are also models for future generations to produce new understandings of historical events. ...


In January 2019, I wrote about the film adaptation of Samuel Kassow's history of the Warsaw Ghetto's Oyneg Shabes project, Who Will Write Our History. I argued that the film provides an important new perspective on Holocaust education: 

Survivors are worried that they will be forgotten and their individual stories blurred together. Leaders and educators are worried that with the passing of the survivor generation, a powerful weapon against forgetting and Holocaust denial will be lost.

 

But if ignorance of the Holocaust is rising in general, along with bolder attempts at normalizing Holocaust denial, we cannot lay the burden of education on the shoulders of survivors. General ignorance about the Holocaust is a problem of education and the thinness of historical consciousness in the United States. And the rise of neofascism is a problem that demands a political analysis and solution...

 

...the release of Who Will Write Our History has the potential to effect a sea change in the way we think about Holocaust education. Indeed, I would go so far as to call it the most important Holocaust movie in decades. Who Will Write Our History is the first Holocaust documentary that centers victim stories along with the written and visual materials they created to document their lives. It presents a multifaceted picture of spiritual and cultural resistance within the Ghetto. It sympathetically portrays the everyday dilemmas inherent in survival. Most importantly, it figures the events of World War II as a continuation of Jewish history, not an interruption.


In January 2021, I wrote about how partnerships between Holocaust archives and musicians are creating new ways into Holocaust memory.

The notes for Cry, My Heart, Cry! run to some 30 digital pages, a dazzling work of musical, linguistic, and historical contextualization. [Producer Zisl] Slepovitch brings his command of many languages and his training in ethnomusicology. At times, the story behind the song is just as gripping as its performance.

 

In his archive testimony, Henri G. recalls how his family moved to Paris in 1932 to escape the anti-Semitism in Poland. But when war broke out in France, Henri and his brother had to escape again. He put on a uniform with the insignia of Marshal Petain and went to the train station with his brother, where they had to fool the patrolling Germans. Henri instructed his brother to sing “Une Fleur au Chapeau”(A Flower on the Hat), a jaunty French scouting song. The song itself became an essential part of their survival. As Slepovitch writes in the notes, the arrangement “attempts to convey the feigned carelessness of the two teenagers running for their lives from occupied Paris.” As sung by Sasha Lurje, this version of “Une Fleur au Chapeau” does exactly that, bringing the listener to a moment of breathless daring and bravery with just a few snaps of the finger.

 

Each song on Cry, My Heart, Cry! contains a hundred threads leading in every direction, inviting contemplation, as well as further research on the part of the listeners. 



September 2019 was the 80th anniversary of the German invasion of Poland. I took the opportunity to write about a then-new documentary called Warsaw: A City Divided"Featuring 10 minutes of newly found amateur footage shot inside the ghetto, A City Divided does something quite extraordinary: It takes us to a place that no longer exists." 

Holocaust commemoration in the 21st century is haunted by the disappearance of elderly survivors, as well as the physical deterioration of historic killing sites. Each gives us access to irrefutable evidence of crimes that the world would love nothing more than to forget. 

“[T]he destruction of humans is often symbolized by ruins,” writes Jerzy Elzanowski, a Polish historian of architecture and conservation. Warsaw’s lack of ghetto “ruins” confounds a satisfying encounter with the past, while the ghosts of the Muranow apartment block speak to the unquiet nature of memory.


This January,explored the role the Holocaust plays in American Jewish identity formation

 

Who am I and what is my relationship to the past? For the modern Jew, there are perhaps few questions greater than this.

 

American Jews have never stopped struggling with their relationship to the past. Consider the 76% of American Jews (per the 2020 Pew survey) who view “Remembering the Holocaust” as essential to being Jewish. (This is in contrast with the mere 45% for whom “Caring about Israel” is essential, not to mention the 15% who claimed the same about “Observing Jewish Law.”) In fact, for almost every single demographic slice across the data categories listed, “Remembering the Holocaust” was deemed the most essential to being Jewish.

 

While there are certainly myriad factors working to put the Holocaust at the center of modern Jewish life, it makes sense to me that at a time of diminishing historical consciousness, the Holocaust would be so crucial to American Jewish identity. Understanding one’s own place in history is key to identity formation. For many, the Holocaust is the sole entry point to a thousand years of European Jewish existence. It provides their geographic orientation to Eastern Europe and maybe even their primary contact with Yiddish language and song. And while American Jews as a whole are not terribly interested in going to synagogue, the various days of Holocaust commemoration provide their own structure to the American Jewish calendar...

 

 







Monday, December 13, 2021

Tekufes Teves

 A short story for the approaching solstice... Originally written in the winter of 2019


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Tekufes Teves or Deep Winter, New York City

I admit that I’ve fallen into a rut. So much of what I write these days is polemical and issue driven. Snitches get stitches and polemics get clicks.  

You know what else gets clicks? First person confessionals. Problem is, then a lot of strangers on the internet know your darkest secrets. And once they know your secrets, they think they know you. So I don’t share too much about my personal life on here. But it’s the twilight of the year, maybe even sunset on this goddamn pandemic. For once, it feels ok to allow myself a little sentimentality.  So, I’m gonna do something a little bit different. I’m gonna tell you what happened on December 21, 2001, the night of Shtumer Shabes

 

I was in social work school at the time, working at our clinic dedicated to issues affecting elderly widows and widowers. One of the things we learned in clinic was that surviving partners will often have issues around eating. They might end up buying too much and have lots of spoiled food in the house, or, conversely, they would stop buying food altogether and lose the will to eat. 

 

In many cultures, it’s customary to bring prepared food to mourners. It’s not just a kind gesture or allowing for the debilitating effects of grief, though those are certainly important factors. But something much deeper is happening, even if we’re not aware of it. When we bring a mourner food, it recognizes that eating with, and feeding someone, changes us on a cellular level. And the longer you’ve been sharing food with someone, the greater the effect. 

 

Sharing meals isn’t just tied to the release of insulin, but it also affects cortisol and adrenaline levels. Sudden and prolonged changes in these levels can even have an effect on the expression of genes.  Many scientists now consider dramatic changes in eating patterns a kind of physical trauma. Emotional blows engender physical wounds.  

 

What’s worse, this kind of trauma to one person can have a physiological effect two generations afterwards. There’s a whole new field of science around this called epigenetics. One of my professors referred to it as ‘the haunted body.’

 

During the clinic on widows and widowers, I was paired up with an elderly woman from Poland named Sonja. She had survived the war, but lost her first husband. She remarried in a displaced persons camp in Germany, like many other survivors. 

 

Sonja was very old. I was never exactly sure how old, because she was evasive about it, but she had to be at least 90 when I met her.

 

Before the war, Sonja had been a dancer in Warsaw. When she got here, she taught dance at Camp Kinderland and other progressive Jewish summer camps. In the 1960s, she started teaching Israeli folk dance at the 92ndStreet Y. When I asked her where she had picked up Israeli folk dance, she told me she hadn’t. She just did the dances she knew from Poland and changed the hand movements a little. 

 

Sonja understood the value of living boldly. Sometimes she would tell me, “survival isn’t for wimps”. At first, I thought she was referring to what she had to do to survive the war. Much later, I realized she meant that outliving your own world was itself a kind of death.

 

I ended up hanging out with Sonja, even after the semester was over. One day she called me sounding much more serious than usual. First, she said, she was getting married. I knew she had a gentleman friend named Harry, but I didn’t realize it was so serious. Then she told me she was having a dinner party on Friday and that I was coming. I thanked her for letting me know. 

 

She hustled me off the phone so quickly, I realized she hadn’t told me what I was bringing. I just assumed the dinner party was in honor of her engagement to Harry. I thought it might be nice if I brought some champagne. When I called her back, though, Sonja told me not to bring anything. Not, oh, bring whatever dessert you like. No, she instructed me, very seriously: I was not to bring anything. 

 

When I went up to Sonja’s apartment that Friday night, something seemed off. On my previous visits, the apartment had always given off cozy cooking smells, like a hug waiting at the door. This time, the only thing I smelled was a hint of weed creeping out from the far end of the hall. I waited uneasily for Sonja to let me in.

 

This was the peak of winter and the sun had gone down hours before. Sonja led me in and my eyes took a moment to adjust. The apartment was in shadow, and flickering candles were scattered about. I suddenly remembered it was Friday night, the beginning of the Sabbath or Shabes, as Sonja called it. I had grown up with a vague idea of Yiddish, but never heard anyone speak it. Shabeswas a foreign country, and Sonja was my tour guide.       

 

At the dining room table three place settings were laid out, with beautiful fine china plates and silverware gleaming in the candlelight. Two unlit sabbath candles were waiting near the table.

 

Sonja had been waiting until I got there to light the candles. You’re really supposed to light them before the sun goes down, she told me, but it was more important that I be there when she did it. At that time, I knew almost nothing about traditional Judaism, having grown up in a very assimilated home in the suburbs. It was the time I spent with Sonja which awakened me to Jewish life, as well as its mysteries. 

 

I stood with Sonja at the dining room table and looked around for the other people. “Where’s Harry?” I asked. Sonja glared at me and I realized this was not an engagement party.

 

Then she motioned to me to sit down. Sonja and I were at either side of the head of the table. Between us, a third place setting waited in front of an empty chair. Sonja asked me if I knew what day it was. December 21st. Yes, she said, but what else? I thought for a moment. Solstice. The shortest day of the year. For the first time since I got there, Sonja smiled.

 

I must have looked exasperated because Sonja began to explain: “What you must understand is that our calendar follows the night sky. It’s the Christian calendar which serves the sun.  Our week won’t start until three stars are counted. Our holidays follow the moon. Shortest day, longest day, these are irrelevant to Jewish time.

 

But in Zambrow [a town near Bialystock, Poland where Sonja was born], there was one exception. Wintertime, the Shabes before the shortest day of the year, all of the widows who hadn’t remarried observed a holiday of their own. No men, no children, no married women. The widows shared a Friday night meal at the home of the last woman who had lost a husband. It was called shtumer Shabes.  *Aside from the blessings, they ate in total silence, and all of their deceased husbands were invited to join. It was considered a sign of respect, as well as a request that the deceased husbands intercede in heaven for the wives they left behind, that they should find new husbands who could take care of them or at least help provide for them.”

 

I gathered that the third place-setting was not for Harry, but Sonja’s deceased first husband, Wojtek, of whom she had often spoken admiringly.

 

Being young and dumb at the time, and intent on acting out the role of comforting social worker, I took Sonja’s hand. “Well,” I said, “it seems as if Wojtek has already blessed you with Harry.”

 

Sonja gently removed her hand from mine. “This is not for Wojtek. This is for the second one, Itche Meyer.”

 

Sonja rarely spoke about Itche Meyer. He had owned a newspaper kiosk in Times Square. An American relative bought it for him when he and Sonja arrived in 1948. He and Sonja had lived in this apartment for decades until he died sometime in the 1970s. But that was all I knew.

 

“Rukhele,” Sonja said, “I am what the rabbis calls an isha katlanis, a black widow.”

 

A split second of nervous laughter forced its way out of me before I could cover it with a cough. Sonja’s attitude toward rabbis - and anything that she perceived as too religious - was usually at least mildly sarcastic. 

 

She ignored my fake cough and continued.

 

“An isha katlanis is a deadly woman, a wife who has already killed two husbands. The rabbis** believe such a woman may not be allowed to take a third husband because it would be like murder.”

 

I pointed out that the Nazis, not Sonja had been responsible for Wojtek’s death. And hadn’t Itche Meyer died of a heart attack?

 

“Itche Meyer died of a broken heart” Sonja said. “He was a good man. I thought I could learn to love him. But he was a terrible teacher. All he could do was love. Until I started to hate him for loving me.” Sonja stood up and placed her palms on the table.

 

“Tonight, I invite him home for shtumer shabes. I must know that he forgives me and that I’m not a murderer. My marriage to Harry hangs on his blessing.” 

 

“But Sonja, I’m not a widow-“

 

“It’s America, he’ll understand.”

 

“But how will you -” Sonja cut me off.  

 

“I will light the candles and make kiddush and then we must not speak another word.”

 

Sonja lit the candles and quietly said the blessing over them, then over the wine. She lifted an embroidered cloth off a plate to reveal three bagels on a plate. She lifted two and said another blessing. 

 

A simple meal followed, with gefilte fish from the jar (I could see into the kitchen) and a thin chicken broth. Sonja bustled about silently dishing out food, making sure to give the greatest portion to the place setting in front of the third, empty seat. It was physically painful for me to just sit there and not say anything, especially after what Sonja had just laid on me. 

 

Just as I was finishing my second bowl of soup, our silence was broken by three loud knocks on the door. My heart jumped out of my chest and my spoon clattered noisily against the soup bowl. Sonja lived in a doorman building where all visitors and packages were announced via intercom. I looked over at Sonja, but she was calmly sipping soup. I started to ask a question and she shook her head. What question would I even ask?

 

When she decided the meal was complete, Sonja silently led me to the door and kissed me on the cheek. As I walked out into the hall, I almost stepped on a bouquet of white roses sitting on the ground. I bent down to pick them up. A card attached to the bouquet had two words written in pencil: mazl tov. I turned to hand the flowers to Sonja, but she had already closed the door. 

 

 

 

 

*silent Sabbath

**Yevamot 64b

 

 



Friday, August 27, 2021

Kum tsu mir (or, that time I translated Jimmy Buffett into Yiddish)

If you've ever studied a second language, you know there's a huge difference between the skills needed for passive reading comprehension, conversation, and translating from your native language into the second language. Translating into Yiddish was one of those things I just thought I'd never be able to do well, so why even try?

And then I tried.

See, this spring, everyone was talking about a "hot vax summer" and the resulting hedonism. Haha! But who knew then the hot vax summer was gonna be one big fizzle? I got a dybbuk in me (as one does) and decided I would translate Jimmy Buffett's 1973 hit Why Don't We Get Drunk (and Screw) into Yiddish.


My translation sat on my computer until I saw some very odd news. Jimmy Buffett himself was about to open another hotel in his worldwide lifestyle empire. This would be his first Margaritaville Resort in New York City, at Seventh Avenue and 40thStreet, the heart of the Garment District. In an “only in New York” turn of events, the newly opened Resort is the first of Buffett’s worldwide themed properties to boast an onsite synagogue, the historic Garment Center Congregation. If the universe was going to send me a message to bring my translation into the world, this was it. 

At one time, the Garment District employed thousands of Yiddish speakers, especially in the post-war era. To celebrate this unusual meeting of worlds, the Congress for Jewish Culture (Kultur Kongres, in Yiddish), commissioned a superstar group of top klezmorim to bring Kum tsu mir to life: Sasha Lurje (voice), Craig Judelman (violin) and Lorin Sklamberg (guitar, voice). Pay special attention to Craig Judelman's brilliant klezmer break during the instrumental section. Genius.

I couldn't be more thrilled with their interpretation. What a dream come true!


 


If you want to read more, we got some nice coverage from the good folks at Hey Alma and the Forverts, the Times of Israel, and the Jewish Standard.


If you watch the YouTube video of Kum tsu mir, you'll see you can toggle between Yiddish and English closed captioning. What I tried to do was more than a word for word translation, but rather a cultural translation, flipping the point of view from a man's to a woman's. 


One of the reasons I wrote it this way is that, obviously, I'm a woman and it's natural for me to write from a woman's point of view. More than that, there are very few modern Yiddish/klezmer compositions being written from a woman's point of view. There are a couple I knew of, but not enough. I wanted to give a shout out here to one of my favorites, which was definitely in the back of my head as I was writing my own translation. This is Golem's Come to Me from the Citizen Boris CD:



And finally, if you enjoyed Kum tsu mir, I'd ask you to consider a pre-yontev donation to the Congress for Jewish Culture. The song would never have been realized if not for the substantial support of the Congress. Please support artists and arts organizations bringing new Yiddish work into the world. Your contribution makes magic happen!