Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Streets of Fire is Finally on Netflix!

(Crosspost from my movie blog)

A couple months ago I wrote about the neon-and-leather fairy tale flop, Streets of Fire. It's finally arrived on Netflix (can't believe I paid to see it in February!) so I'm reposting my essay, in case any of you are curious about the movie...


Have you seen The Warriors (1979)? I consider it one of the finest American films of the last fifty years, and not just because director Walter Hill had the audacity to make a movie about New York gangs and dressed them like this.

Anyway, this isn’t about that. Sorry.

After The Warriors, Walter Hill had an odd career trajectory, with huge hits like 48 Hours (1982), and daring flops, like Streets of Fire (1984). You can see flashes of The Warriors in Streets of Fire: the heroes fight to make it across a city, there’s an epic gang battle, and the camera lovingly returns to lonely train station after lonely train station. But none of it can possibly add up to the gripping sweep of The Warriors


In 2017, after decades lingering forgotten on the outskirts of pop culture, Shout Factory reissued Streets of Fire on Blu-Ray. The film is now undergoing a bit of a reconsideration, quietly going from neglected flop to cult classic, especially among viewers who weren’t even alive in the 1980s. If you check Twitter, it seems someone is always discovering and subsequently flipping their wig over its many virtues: the bangin’ soundtrack, Ry Cooder score, Hill’s odd fixation on suspenders, and the amazing cast, including an extremely young and hot Willem Dafoe. What’s not to love?

LOL what the fuck?

Well, it turns out, a lot. What’s so fascinating, and ultimately disappointing, about Streets of Fire, is that despite the insane amount of talent both behind and in front of the camera, it’s painfully clear what made the movie flop in the first place. The script simply stinks. The dialogue sounds like a first draft and the characters are forced to say witless, obvious things, over and over. The inane dialogue is in stark contrast to the movie’s gorgeously rendered visuals. Streets of Fire immerses you in its darkly sexy, gritty world, where even the puddles are full of sex and neon. I understand why so many want to claim the film for a neglected masterpiece. If only the human beings in it had more depth than the puddles!   


Sure, the movie is supposed to be stylized. I can get down with stylized. But there’s stylized and then there’s just undercooked. If you only watched the first few minutes, though, you’d have a very different impression of the film. The opening is a killer; a breathless set piece which drops us right into the movie’s brilliantly conceived nether-world, amping up the excitement with a nightclub number and introducing us to the story's beautiful damsel in distress, Ellen Aim (Diane Lane). But where The Warriors told a story almost without words, seamlessly melding action and immersive visuals, Streets of Fire is weighed down by its dreadful script, punctuated by exciting musical moments. I’m sure that at the time, Streets of Fire was dismissed as a symptom of the MTV-ification of the movies. 


I was alive during the '80s. I remember well the panic about music videos and what destruction they were wreaking on our culture. There was moral panic (over, of all things, a Duran Duran video FFS) as well as aesthetic panic. We were warned that fast paced ‘MTV style’ cutting was going to be the death of all things right and good with cinema, as if Sergei Eisenstein himself hadn’t died for all our sins right there on the rapid-cut Odessa Steps sixty years earlier. But, really. C’mon. Rapid cutting can be good! Music videos can be good! The problem is not the pernicious influence of music videos. 

And not every music-video inspired movie need be as bad as something like Flashdance (which, curiously, like Streets of Fire, also feaures Lee Ving in a supporting role…anyway…). If Walter Hill had wanted to make long form music videos, then he should have had the courage of his convictions and just done that. It worked for Jon Landis and Thriller! Streets of Fire would work a lot better if you think of it as a bunch of spectacular, high production value music videos, vaguely connected by a cartoonish storyline.   


The script isn’t the only problem with Streets of Fire. Walter Hill made the fatal mistake of hanging the movie on Michael Pare, who plays Tom, the roguish anti-hero called home to rescue his ex-girlfriend. Standing still, Pare looks like a GQ model. In motion, he’s got all the sizzle of wet firewood. His lack of screen appeal is all the more apparent because he’s up against Willem Dafoe, playing the villainous gang leader who kidnaps Ellen. 

It’s Dafoe’s first real starring role and he’s magnetic. You see him and think, yupthat’s what a movie star looks like You see Michael Pare and you think, yup, that’s what a sub-par hunk looks like, the type Menachem Golan might pick up in the duty-free on his way home from Cannes if they’re all out of Dudikoff.  Pare never exhibits the slightest bit of humor or self-awareness, a pre-requisite for any good anti-hero. Pretty much everyone in the movie is dour and unnecessarily mean.


Perhaps most unforgivably, Hill cast Rick Moranis as Billy Fish, Ellen Aim’s obnoxious manager-cum-boyfriend. Just as Moranis was sliding into his golden era of comic triumphs in the 1980s, Hill handed him this absolute turd of a role, though he does his best with the material at hand. I dare say, a less talented, and less lucky, performer would have had his career utterly derailed by such an unfortunate turn. 

In a film where most of the dialogue is clunky and the characters are underwritten, Billy Fish is the clunkiest and flattest. Was it a coincidence that the one Jewish-coded character in the movie is a greedy little shit who can’t stop talking about money? He’s constantly berated for being short, which gets really tired after about the tenth time. Hill might as well have placed a Kick Me sign on him and called it a day for character development. 


Hill came so close to stumbling onto what would’ve been a brilliant casting choice. No director or writer has yet spotted the untapped potential in casting Moranis in a really juicy bad-guy role.** If you go all the way back to SCTV, you see the range of his personas, far beyond the cliche nerds, and Moranis can rage hard like nobody else. 

Larry Siegel is just one of my favorites.

Having Moranis play a psychopathic gang leader would’ve been utterly unexpected, and absolutely delicious. I still hold out hope that in one of the endless pieces of licensed Marvel garbage now keeping the movie industry afloat, someone somewhere will understand this and convince Moranis to make a big comeback as a Marvel villain. I'm asking you, Where is the villainous short king we deserve???? 

Of course people are obsessed

Willem Dafoe has said that playing the Green Goblin in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies was one of his all-time favorite roles. It was both a critical and fan favorite and even I, a person who hates comic book movies, I have to agree that it was a very good thing. I will (happily) eat my comic book hating hat if it’s Marvel which ends up finally giving us the nerd-to-America's dad-to-anti-hero character arc for which we've already waited too damn long.   

**Arguably Mel Brooks had the genius to do just that, casting Moranis as Dark Helmet in Spaceballs, giving us a taste of what might still be...

Monday, April 5, 2021

Commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on April 19

On April 19, the Congress for Jewish Culture, along with Friends of the Bund, Jewish Labor Committee and Workers Circle, will once again observe the anniversary of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  It's always a moving event, with music and speeches and fellowship. The event is usually held at the stone in the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial Plaza (der shteyn), in Riverside Park.

But because we cannot gather at the shteyn this year, the event will be live online, at the Congress for Jewish Culture website  and at its YouTube page. The program will begin at 1 p.m.

...I've written about cinematic and documentary depictions of the Warsaw Ghetto here, and about the ghosts of the former Ghetto, here.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Adapting Jewish Literature: Yentl and A Tale of Love and Darkness (video)

"Without hubris you will never be an artist..." -my teacher, Ruby Namdar

Last week I had the honor of joining Ruby Namdar, Fania Oz-Salzberger, and Eitan Kensky for a delightful and thought provoking discussion of Yentl and A Tale of Love and Darkness. The video of that event is now available to watch.

Many thanks to Stanford University and Moment Magazine for inviting me and making it happen.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The Lives and Legacies of Jewish Women Who Resisted the Nazis (video)

I'm pleased to say that video is now available for the live webinar I moderated on the role of Jewish women and resistance. 

Wagner College professor Lori Weintrob led the program, called "Heroines of the Holocaust," based on her research and teaching at the Wagner College Holocaust Center. We were also lucky to have a survivor named Rachel Roth and her family as special guests during the program. 

It was a really special program and I hope you'll watch it.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Jewlia Eisenberg and the Music of the Spheres

(read more about the new-old Yiddish rituals of mourning in my latest column

A few days ago we got the terrible news that Jewlia Eisenberg was avek in der eybikayt, she had passed into the next world. It's always a tragedy when someone is cut down in their prime. It hurts even more to lose an artist like Jewlia. More than just talented, she was a force of nature; a holy vessel of song; a generous, optimistic, expansive soul. I felt so lucky every time I got to be with her. My heart and my thoughts are with her partner, AnMarie, and the rest of her family....

I had first seen Jewlia and Charming Hostess at Tonic, some time in the early 2000s. I was immediately smitten with her, her music, and the incredible musicians she worked with. I had never heard anything like this. I didn't even have the words to describe what they were doing. How often can you say that?

On one of Jewlia's visits to New York she visited me at the law firm where I worked. This was probably sometime around 2014 or 2015. We had lunch in the fancy firm cafeteria, sitting by the wraparound windows, where you could eat your panini and enjoy the view of Fox News HQ. I remember Jewlia telling me about her work as a ritual facilitator and officiant in the Bay Area, a world away from midtown. Though I rolled my eyes at the thought of getting too into god, by the end of our lunch, I was making plans to fly to Oakland just to be able to pray with her and her khevre.  

Even after we had become friends, I remained a dedicated Jewlia superfan. I was sitting front row, of course, at this 2013 show at Barbes, where I took this picture.

Jewlia at Barbes in 2013 

Jewlia was one of the very first artists I profiled as a journalist. I wrote about her in my Rootless Cosmopolitan column in Jewish Currents in 2006. (Apparently not available online)

I'm still trying to get my mind around losing her. I knew she was sick and had been for a very long time. And yet. In a year which has seen such unbearable loss, losing Jewlia feels especially unbearable.

How painfully apt then, that my last column ended up being delayed, coming out the day after we learned the news about Jewlia's passing. The topic was the one year anniversary of the pandemic, and Yiddish rituals of grief and mourning. For this column, I learned about the skilled mourning women of Ashkenaz, the klogmuters, who wailed and ripped their clothes and performed grief for the community. 
I interviewed my friends who are researching and reclaiming the practice of feldmestn, the ritual measurement of a graveyard with string and use that string to make neshome likht (soul candles). 

Like the badkhns, the klogmuters' wailing work consisted of variations on established themes and set patterns. With her work as a ritual facilitator, and her interest in women's poetry, I think Jewlia would have been fascinated by the functional poetry of the klogmuters. All we can do now, though, is wail in her memory, the best we can.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

This Song is Your Song

Today we had our event celebrating the new Yiddish translation of Woody Guthrie's classic ode to America, This Land is Your Land. I joined Forward Editor-in-Chief Jodi Rudoren and Forverts writer Jordan Kutzik, along with musician-archivist Lorin Sklamberg, translator and Yiddish expert Michael Wex, and the singer of Dos Land iz Dayn Land, Daniel Kahn. We had a really fun conversation about the why and how of translating from English into Yiddish. If you couldn't make it live, you can watch the video now.

The funniest part, for me at least, came when I noted that in the Yiddish translation, Daniel had inserted a reference to the groyse ozeres, the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes are, of course, one of America's natural wonders and a perfect fit for a song like This Land is Your Land. But it also struck me as a very personal reference to Daniel's homeland of Detroit. Though I, a parochial New Yorker, confessed I had never actually seen any of the Great Lakes. At which point, Michael Wex chose to chastise me in front of the crowd, reminding me that I had been to Toronto (in fact, countless times) and had enjoyed walking along one of the Greatest of lakes.  Oops. To make up for my unintentional insult to the great nation to the north of us, I'll encourage everyone to listen to the folksinging group The Travellers doing their Canadian version of This Land is Your Land.

Of course, it's well worth your time to watch Daniel perform the song (again).

And finally, for the last couple months I've been OBSESSED with this extremely funky version of This Land is Your Land by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. Sharon sings the verse that's often omitted, in which the singer comes across a PRIVATE PROPERTY sign (and walks right past it). If you've never heard this version, PLEASE drop everything and listen right now.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

How Do You Get to Second Avenue?

[I'm very pleased to tell you about a new, in-depth Digital Yiddish Theatre Project piece on my play, Shtumer Shabes. Read it here.]


You know that moment? When a Broadway show finally opens? The drama critics rush to the phone booths to dictate their reviews to their various newspaper copy desks. 

Before the cast can even finish their champagne toasts at Sardi’s (I imagine), the late edition newspaper is being delivered, along with the critics’ verdicts, and, by extension, the show’s future. It's one of my favorite movie magic moments. It’s all so brutal, but dramatically efficient. 

Life isn’t always so dramatically efficient. Or, maybe, not in the ways we ache for. 

At the end of November, 2020, I presented excerpts from my new play, Shtumer Shabesat the Vancouver Chutzpah! Festival. This was as close as I was getting to my big opening moment amid the bleakness of 2020. Afterwards, though we didn’t all retire to Sardi’s together (halevai!) I got some truly wonderful messages from the folks who watched, especially the many Yiddishist world friends who had “attended.” 

One of the great surprises was getting warmly positive feedback from the non-Yiddishists, too. Their enthusiasm made me feel like just maybe, I could write accurate, compelling drama about a highly niche subculture and still make make something watchable for all audiences.  

And yet, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat unsatisfied. In November, there had been no opportunity for me to spy on the audience and see who laughed and who didn’t, no post-show shmoozing in the lobby, no face-to-face rehash. The delicious intimacy of theater was lost in the move to the virtual space. And I had poured so much into the text: carefully researched history, character details, in-jokes and lowbrow gags, and maybe even the memory of an old lover repurposed for my own dramatic use. The feedback I did get was lovely, but at a melancholy distance. 
So I was all the more thrilled when a few weeks ago, Yiddish literature scholar Sonia Gollance told me that she would be writing about Shtumer Shabes for the Digital Yiddish Theatre Project (DYTP). Sonia’s piece, Shtetl Gothic on the Virtual Stage, is out now and I’m not ashamed to say it made my damn month. It's an in-depth look at the reading we did, touching on the text, the performances, and the technical challenges of this new kind of performance. 
Going from critic to playwright is a harrowing prospect, if you think about it too much, which I try not to. Such a path holds way too many opportunities to be tripped (if not worse) on one’s own prior arrogance. So it was all the more gratifying to read, for example, that my “play is full of the kind of ‘thick’ Jewish cultural literacy that she regularly champions in her other work.” Whew.

Further, Sonia writes:
It is also rare to see a production that so accurately captures the highs and lows of graduate student research–the joys of discovery, the comradery of an enthusiastic but highly specialized community, the uncertainty, the dependence on an advisor’s approval. Yet other aspects of Shtumer shabes feel more universal…It is precisely because Kafrissen has so carefully conveyed these more specific worlds that she can powerfully and convincingly meld the universal and the particular…

Who knows what the immediate future holds for live theater, but I'm very cautiously optimistic that we will soon be making small steps toward live performance and being together again in theaters of all shapes and sizes. I'm hoping my play can be part of that in some way. And if you want to bring it for workshopping at your theater or cultural space, of course, be in touch right away.


Sunday, February 14, 2021

Guns, Ghosts, and Girls: All About the Yiddish Love Song

Do you believe in ghosts? I'm open to convincing, but the only proof I'll accept is when (not if) Leonard Cohen's ghost pays me a visit to whisper sexy ghost things by night. And, with all due respect, sir, I've been locked in my apartment for 11 months. What are you waiting for?

Leonard Cohen singing I'm Your Man is surely responsible for at least 55% of the unrealistic heterosexual expectations held by women across the world. Not that I hold it against him. Unless he wants me to.

For my column this week, I took a look at some of the best Yiddish love songs, with picks by me, as well as a couple of my esteemed friends. 

What exactly is a love song, anyway? One of my favorites has always been Nellie Casman's Yosl, Yosl. In it, a woman is waiting for her lover, Yosl, to make up his mind. Yosl, that cad, is taking his time, while in the meantime, she's being married off to another guy. But our narrator cannot get Yosl out of her mind. 

Baym trinken, baym esn, ken ikh im keynmol fargesn/Yosl, du ligst mir nokh in zin
(While drinking, while eating, I just can't forget him/Yosl, you're always in my thoughts)
If you've ever felt your very life essence trickle away as that special someone took their time to realize you were perfect for them, if you've ever had occasion to unironically say to someone ikh krapir nokh dir (I'm expiring for you) well, you may relate. But is it love? Now, some 20 years after first hearing it, I wonder if Yosl is even a real person. Maybe Yosl is a Fight Club style figment of the narrator's fevered imagination? Let's be real, some of us are just addicted to the drama.


Another friend named Oy Avram as a favorite love song. It contains one of the best (and most over the top) images found in Yiddish song:

Oy, Avram, ikh ken on dir nit zayn!
Ikh on dir, un du on mir
Iz vi a klyamke on a tir!
Gedenkstu, gedensktu, oyf dem bulvar
Ikh der kluger un du der nar?
"Oy vey, Rivkenyu, gib zhe mir dayn piskenyu!"

Oy Avram, I cannot live without you
I without you and you without me
Is like a doorknob without a door!
Remember the day on the boulevard
I was clever and you were silly?
"Oy vey, Rivkenyu, give me your lips!"

I didn't have enough room to include what is perhaps my all-time favorite version: the hair-metal triumph of Yiddish Princess:


Two of my respondents named In Droysn Iz Finster (It's Dark Outside) as their favorite Yiddish love song. My friend Sarah Biskowitz, a senior at Smith College, described her very sweet association with the song:

"My favorite Yiddish love song is In Droysn Iz Finster because I remember the TA Allison Posner and RA Adah Hetko singing it during the Steiner summer program 2018, where I started learning Yiddish. While it may be a romantic love song, it reminds me of the camaraderie and warmth I have found in the Yiddish community thanks to my teachers, mentors like Allison and Adah, and friends." Awwwww. That made my cynical heart smile.

You can see Allison and Adah perform it together here (with English subtitles):


When I was at the YIVO summer program in 2019 Lorin Sklamberg taught us a song from the Ruth Rubin archive, a real heartbreaker called Mayn Harts, Mayn Harts.

Mayn harts, mayn harts veynt in mir,
Az ikh darf zikh sheydn itst mit dir;
Mayne gedanken – ahin-aher,
Mit dir tsu sheydn iz mir shver.

My heart weeps within me
Since I must now part with you. 
My thoughts - this way, that way, 
To part from you is terrible.

I dare say the words aren't so different from many other love songs. But there's something about the tune that elevates it to extraordinary. Lorin and Polina Shepherd sing it on their gorgeous new choral (and more) album, 150 Voices. You can see them perform it live, here:


But if I can be a little pushy, allow me to give you a firm push toward the Ruth Rubin archive where you can hear the journalist Israel Freed sing an unaccompanied version, which Rubin recorded in 1967. This is taking nothing away from Lorin and Polina, but I've listened to Freed's recording at least 15 times in the last few days. There's something about it, the depth of feeling both in the melody, and his stunning performance, that just pierces me right through....


In my column I made all too brief mention of Shtil, di nakht iz oysgeshternt (Quiet, the night is full of stars) as one of my favorites. It's one of those songs that can still get me choked up: the subject, the imagery, the tune, everything. The song is credited to Hirsh Glik and celebrates one of the female fighters of the Vilne Partisans, Vitka Kempner. It's quite possibly one of the only Yiddish songs in which learning how to use a gun figures prominently.  

Shtil di nakht iz oysgeshternt
un der frost hot shtark gebrent,
tsi gedenkstu vi ikh hob dikh gelernt,
haltn a shpayer in di hent

The quiet night is full of stars
And the frost strongly burned;
Do you remember how I taught you
To hold a gun in your hand?

The Wikipedia entry on the song cites folksong collector Ruth Rubin on another interesting aspect of the song's imagery. It uses three different Yiddish words for weapon: "shpayer (a local word from Vilnius), nagan (a Russian term referring to Nagant M1895), and pistoyl (a German term) – to denote an automatic pistol. Perhaps this was meant to show multiculturalism of the region."

There are many fine versions of Shtil, di nakht but this one by Daniel Kahn and Sasha Lurje just rips my heart in two.


To end on a lighter note, I'll close with two songs about the marriage of Yiddish food and Yiddish love. First, one of my favorite albums: the bawdy songs of a certain Goldie Schwartz, aka Patsy Abbott. Pretty much every track on Patsy's Yiddish Songs Mama Never Taught Me is gold. And many (most?) touch on matters of the heart (and lung, and liver, and other body parts.) But if I had to choose one to close with, I'm going with Mein Butcher. I can't even begin to translate the lyrics (both single and double entendres), but the gist is, all the ladies go to this butcher. His meat is extremely satisfying and he even throws in a little "bone." I think you get the picture.

And what comes after you visit the butcher? Why, the brisket, of course. Here's Rick Moranis* singing about his mother's legendary brisket. It's the sexy, jazz-y, lounge-y tribute that shabes dinner always deserved.  (*Honorary English language entry)

It occurs to me that just as kids never want to hear what their parents had to do to bring them into the world (ewwww!!!), perhaps it's in poor taste to put the neighborhood butcher in such close proximity to a beloved mama's brisket. But you didn't come here for good taste, anyway, did you??? In other words, I wish you all a lovely Valentine's Day, no matter how you get there.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

On Wandering - New Podcast Episode Out Now!

Wayyyyyyy back last spring, Clarissa Marks asked me to be a guest on her podcast On Wandering. Though we recorded months ago, luckily, almost nothing has changed between now and then (LOLSOB). 

We talked about going from 0 to Weirdo as a born-again Yiddishist, how I started writing cultural criticism, and the secret to getting your creative projects done. Clarissa is a wonderful, thoughtful interlocutor and it was a delight to spend time with her. Hope you'll check it out!

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Salomea Perl Book Talk This Spring at YIVO

One of the pleasures of my work is discovering and sharing new Jewish art and culture. In the case of The Canvas and other stories, the new translation of Salomea Perl's Yiddish stories, it's a new-old discovery. We finally have all of Perl's exquisite Yiddish stories gathered in one place, a hundred years after their publication. And we have a brand new translation by Ruth Murphy, presented in a beautiful bilingual edition, making it perfect for those who want to work on their Yiddish reading skills with the aid of simultaneous translation.

I wrote about The Canvas in my recent column on the Jewish obsession with genealogy. Perl herself was writing at the time Sholem Aleichem created his mytho-genetic family tree of modern Yiddish literature. He named Salomea Perl's erstwhile friend and publisher, Y.L. Peretz, as the father on that tree. But Perl, who eventually fell out with Peretz for unknown reasons, received no such mythologizing. As far as we know, she only published seven Yiddish stories in her lifetime, and after her death, they fell into obscurity.

After publishing the column in which I talked about The Canvas, YIVO asked me to lead a conversation about it, and the literary life of Salomea Perl. It's going to be on May 25 and because it will be online, there's no excuse not to see it. We've put together a fantastic group of folks for the talk: Canvas translator Ruth Murphy, literary scholar Justin Cammy, and master teacher of Yiddish literature, Anna Fishman-Gonshor. See you in May!