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.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Finding Happiness at the Maison du Bonheur

Self-care can mean a lot of things: staying hydrated, meditating, saying 'no' as often as necessary... what I discovered this summer is that seeing beautiful films, in a beautiful setting, is at the core of my self-care. And for me, that means temples of cinema like Metrograph and Quad Cinema. A few weeks ago I saw a movie so beautiful and striking that I went straight to the canteen (at Metrograph) and started writing a review. My review of MAISON DU BONHEUR is up now at Lilith magazine and I hope you'll give it a read.

I also talk a bit about another summer pleasure, the recent Miriam Schapiro show at the beautiful Museum of Arts and Design. Viva la femmage!

Thursday, May 10, 2018

My Kingdom for a Quest Bar

*This post not sponsored by Quest Bar, though it could be. Call me, Quest people.

My new GOLDEN CITY is up over at Tablet and it's got some great stuff. I review the latest incarnation of Jacob Gordin's The Jewish King Lear and gush over the unveiling of the Ruth Rubin Legacy archive.

Two great events that didn't make it in, but you need to know about, BOTH ON THURSDAY MAY 10th DON'T ASK ME WHY!

First, at the New York Klezmer Series at Funky Joe's, it's Jordan Hirsch's Overnight Kugel. When Jordan brought his big band to Yiddish New York in December I literally thought the floor was going to collapse under us from all the insane dancing and we would definitely not be invited back to the Town and Village Synagogue. Thank god the night ended, floor intact.

Overnight Kugel is inspired by the music of clarinetist Rudy Tepel- an undersung journeyman clarinetist who only came to klezmer after a touring career as a big band member. He's part of that post-war mid-period American klezmer scene when the music shifted noticeably to a more chasidic style. This is the lost weekend of American klezmer, the terra incognita that came before the great klezmer reclamation of the mid-70s. This is straight ahead party music- wear comfy shoes.

Jordan Hirsch's Overnight Kugel at New York Klezmer Series
455 West 56th Street, Funky Joe's
Workshop starts at 7 and concert and jamming at 9

I swear, I'm not making this up- I was just wondering what the deal was with Andy Statman's Village residency when I happened to click onto THIS on Facebook:

I'm sorry, if you don't know who Andy Statman is, you're just going  to have to do a silent google of shame. And then make plans to see him and his power trio (if you're not going to the NYKS that is...)
Andy Statman Trio
Charles Street Synagogue Synagogue, 8 pm


Finally, Monday, May 14th, 7pm at YIVO, an intriguing new piece of Yiddish theatre in translation. It's a staged reading of EYNE FUN YENE by Paula Prilutsky (spouse of noted folklorist Noyekh), first produced in Warsaw in 1912 by the Ida Kaminska theater. The huge cast has something like 12 women and 3 men which OMG is alone worth making the trip to YIVO. Are you intrigued? I'm intrigued. More info here

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Khanike iz freylekh!

Khanike iz freylekh...

Well, to be honest, the world feels like it's spinning out of control, like an errant dreydel dancing on the edge of your coffee table and everyone's just holding their breath for as long as humanly possible. And yet, amidst all the mishegas, life goes on. Candles are lit, blessings are said, gifts are exchanged. We all gotta breathe, eventually.

This week over at Tablet my Golden City has a khanike tam. I have some advice as to what to give  the Yiddishist in your life, and just as importantly, what not to give. I snuck in some political commentary, too. You'll just have to click over and read it.

Living in New York I’m acutely aware how lucky I am to be in the pipik of global Yiddish culture. It’s sort of like your mom telling you to clean your plate because kids in Africa are starving. I guilt myself for not appreciating what my non-New York Yiddishist friends would kill for. So, in the spirit of not wasting a drop, I returned to the IPC and the marvelous Russian Revolution, A Contested Legacy exhibit for a special evening of spoken word and song. Using the memoirs of African-American and African-Soviet writers, Yevgeniy Fiks has created a program that brings to life the difficult negotiation of race and religion in a place where racism and anti-Semitism were supposedly a thing of the past. Yelena Shmulenson read from the memoirs of my new obsession, Lily Golden. Operatic bass Anthony Russell’s breathtaking a capella performance of Izi Kharik’s Mayn Yugnt alone made the trip across town worthwhile. I swear no one breathed until his final note. It’s amazing how one song, in a language almost no one in the audience understands, can say just as much as a stack of memoirs...

I’m FINALLY catching up on season three of Hulu’s Difficult People and, knowing the show won’t be coming back for another season (boo!), I’m savoring every minute. This season is even more Yiddish than the last. Highlights include Jackie Hoffman’s character Rukhl staging a Yiddish dybbuk exorcism when she mistakes her IDF drop-out husband Gary (now hiding in their basement) for an evil spirit. Difficult People’s minyan of ten JSwipe matches is the new shul I won’t daven in.

On strong zeitgeisty recommendations I also started watching the new Amy Sherman-Palladino ode to late ‘50s New York, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Where Difficult People wants you to fall in love with a bunch of mean, narcissistic jerks, Mrs. Maisel tries way too hard to make you fall in love with the excruciatingly lovable Miriam ‘Midge’ Maisel, the Manic Pixie Divorcee who leaps from abandoned housewife to liberated woman in the time it took me to warm up soup.

The makers of Mrs. Maisel spent a king’s ransom on exquisite sets and costumes and it’s probably worth watching just for the period porn. But none of the characters actually talk like it’s 1958, rather, it’s a 2017 sounding 1958, with no racism or homophobia and only the mildest of sexism. The Jewishness of the Maisel and Weissman clans is ersatz, reconstituted from a freeze dried packet of cringy cliches that never quite taste right. I understand American Judaism is eclectic, but when you make ‘Yom Kippur dinner’ a dramatic plot point, with the rabbi as a guest, and then don’t show even one character in shul, excuse me, Temple, on Kol Nidre, I must cry foul. Feel free to @ me...

One of my Golden City gift recommendations was Eddy Portnoy's terrifically fun BAD RABBI. As Eddy points out in the introduction, “The prewar Yiddish press, a complex mix of shtetl folklore and urban poverty, reveals multitudes of mediocre Jews... And for the most part, historians have ignored them.” Which brings me to my final recommendation. Podcasts are the final frontier for oral history, especially among the less than reputable among us. Some of you may recall my love for The Rialto Report, a podcast devoted to interviews with stars and producers of the Golden Age of porn. The history of porn has a distinctly Jewish flavor, mostly (but not entirely) in its producers and financiers. A new podcast focused on the seedy era of 42nd Street, Tales of Times Square,  is even more Jewish, featuring interviews with everyone from theater owners, film bookers, over the hill boxers and more, many with a distinct Yiddish tam, all taped in the early 80s, when the area was on the cusp of its radical revitalization.

Unlike The Rialto Report, Tales of Times Square heavily privileges its male voices. Nevertheless, I found myself with a lump in my throat listening to the story of one Uncle Lou, a limo driver and devoted fan of the strippers and burlesque queens on the scene. While paging through his beloved scrapbook of polaroids, Lou reveals how his connection with the girls stems from being an orphan and identifying with the vulnerable. Born in Poland in 1933, Lou’s parents were murdered and he was sent to the United States at age 6, where he lived in an orphanage until he was 16. It’s an unexpectedly moving moment on the city’s sleaziest street. Podcasting at its finest.

Wishing everyone a joyous festival/איך ווינטש אײַך אלע א פריילעכן

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Moyde Ani

#TooBlessedToFress. Another Thanksgiving has come and gone here in the States. My latest Rokhl's Golden City is all about how massively lucky Jewish music lovers are this year and how much we have to be thankful for. We've seen some exciting releases from Yerushe, Tsibele, Radiant Others, Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird, Josh Waletzky and oh, I'm sure I'm forgetting some. But if you've been reading the column the last couple months (and clicking through to the music!) I'm sure you're up to date. One of the things I want people to understand, above and beyond the music, is the variety of factors that have made this cultural windfall possible.

As I wrote in this latest column:
Over the years I’ve heard many well-meaning speeches by many (extremely) well-meaning people, all of whom want to “save” Yiddish. (I’ll keep this vague to spare the well-meaning guilty.) What connects these would-be saviors is that the idea of an already thriving new Yiddish culture seems utterly foreign to them. Since they themselves often don’t speak Yiddish, they assume no one else does, nor would they really want to. But Yiddish doesn’t need saving; what it needs is strategic investments, especially in people. The NYSCA grant that has supported Josh Waletzky’s work is just one example how small amounts of money can have a tremendous impact. A much larger example is Klezkanada, a yearly Yiddish arts retreat held together by a few superhuman volunteers in Montreal, a scandalously small budget, and the dedication of the thousands of students and teachers who have benefited from a yearly piece of Yiddishland.

Speaking of Klezkanada...One of the things I'm particularly enjoying this year is a new podcast called Radiant Others, featuring key players of the modern 'klezmer revival'. It's helmed by trombonist Dan Blacksberg and benefits from his insight as both a working music insider as well as a member of the younger generation of klezmorim with a unique perspective.

One of his latest interviews is with ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin and was recorded at Klezkanada. I was shocked to learn it was Slobin's first time at KK. I'm glad to see such a glaring absence was finally rectified. I also learned a lot about Slobin himself, though I've been a fan of his work for years.  It's not hyperbole to say that without Slobin's work there would be no 'revival' as we know it today. He brought out the English edition of Moshe Beregovski's Old Jewish Folk Music, a profoundly important resource for Jewish music that even today has no peer. Written resources for older European Jewish music are incredibly rare and much of what we know about the tradition today comes solely from Beregovski. Everything else comes from 78s, folios and music passed from musician to musician.

Consider this. When Mark Slobin was growing up in Detroit in the late 50s and early 60s, he never once heard the word 'klezmer'. He grew up in a Jewish community with a strong immigrant and Yiddish speaking presence. As he recalled it, at weddings there would be 'Jewish tunes' but 'klezmer' as a category? Absolutely not. In 1973 Slobin went to Afghanistan for enthomusicology fieldwork. Not long after he returned he met Lev Lieberman of the Klezmorim in San Francisco. That was the first time he heard the word 'klezmer' - in the mid 70s. By the late '70s the term 'klezmer music' was starting to be used in English to refer to a defined playing style and repertoire. Until that point, the Yiddish word klezmer, with a very few exceptions, referred solely to Jewish musicians.

So, in 1970 the term 'klezmer music' didn't even exist. By 1978 Slobin and a small, but growing number of enthusiasts, were playing something called 'klezmer music' and inaugurating what we now refer to as the klezmer 'revival'. In 1990, when I was in high school, I somewhat randomly became aware of this new and fascinating music, and that random discovery (in what felt like total isolation) changed the course of my life! Now in 2017, there is a whole generation of kids on the Jewish music scene who have grown up in a world where klezmer music has always been a thing. Not just a thing, but a birthright. Many of them have grown up at places like Klezkamp, Klezkanada and the like. It's kind of astonishing when you think of the rate at which American (and global, to a degree) Jewish culture has reacted, grown, and changed to encompass a whole new/old dimension of Jewish expression.

One of the things that jumped out from the Slobin interview was how pivotal moments in the 'revival' depended on grant money. Take 1978. The 'revival' is already underway and the young revivalists have begun to find the elders who would pass on style and repertoire. Most notably, Zev Feldman and clarinetist Andy Statman connect with Dave Tarras. At that point, Statman, Feldman and Tarras went on tour, with Slobin acting as academic advisor. The tour would turn out to be a landmark in the 'klezmer revival' and a venture only made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. As Slobin says in the podcast interview, it was at that moment that they realized there was a real, intergenerational audience for this music, and a phenomenon that would extend far beyond their cadre of enthusiasts.

I bring up the issue of money because, obviously, money makes the world go round. I've never understood why the Jewish community has been so reluctant to put money into music and culture when those are things that so tangibly connect Jews to their heritage and community. (Well, I have some ideas, but that's for another time.) I saw recently that the Jim Joseph foundation approved a $1.1 million grant to the National Yiddish Book Center for their Great Books program. I mean, bravo, honestly, I think that's wonderful.  Teacher training and curriculum development for Jewish literature is the kind of nuts and bolts thing that's necessary for deepening Jewish education for young people. But I can't help but be disappointed that an organization sitting on an enormous endowment gets yet another huge grant, and it's not even for Yiddish pedagogy. I wonder what might be possible if big Jewish non-profits put even a fraction of that money into thriving programs with proven track records for engaging young people with Yiddish language and art. Look at the world changing art that flowed from the 1978 Dave Tarras tour. Look at what was possible when young musicians and researchers found a home and support at the YIVO sound archive. The establishment of Klezkamp was made possible by the YIVO sound archive, its resources, and the group of people who gravitated there to do this new, exciting work. Think what more could be achieved with substantial mainstream Jewish support for the Yiddish language and arts community?

Anyway... I'm thankful to be alive at this wonderful moment in Jewish creativity, thankful to the elders and resources that have made it possible, thankful to be part of such a wonderful global community.

(This is Sarah Gorby accompanied by an instrument called the crystal baschet)

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Freedom is a Verb

Hey klez friends,

I meant to post this a couple days ago, so you'd have time to buy a plane ticket to Berlin to see Daniel Kahn celebrate the release of his new album, but life has a way of getting in the way. But on the bright side, I saved you the price of a ticket to Berlin!

Instead, enjoy the video for the first single (do we even say that anymore?) off his new album THE BUTCHER'S SHARE. I've been listening to it non-stop since I got it (direct from Berlin!) and friends, you will be, too. Daniel and the Painted Bird will be touring North America in May-June 2018, so hopefully you'll have a chance to catch them live, then.

If you're new to Kahn's music, read my profile from 2009 Partisan or Parasite and then catch up on his music here. How to describe it? The DNA is Springsteen, Woody Guthrie, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and the baddest midnight Klezkamp jamband you ever heard. It's a Brechtian shove with a Yiddish tam. Don't wait, just click.


Wednesday, October 25, 2017


My new GOLDEN CITY is up at Tablet and it's part of their 100th Anniversary of the Soviet Revolution week. In my column I talk about how younger artists have started to engage with the hopeful, utopian aspects of the Revolution, taking a playful approach to history. 

For almost 10 years [Psoy] Korolenko and [Daniel] Kahn have been bringing all kinds of revolutionary songs into their slightly mad dialectic. As the Unternationale, Korolenko and Kahn set Zionist, Bundist, and Communist anthems against each other. No longer matters of life and death, 20th-century anthems become just another text, to be mixed and remixed with a ruthless 21st-century playfulness.

Keep in mind, that playfulness has only recently become available as an artistic position. Insofar as the Cold War is over (if it is), we're only now starting to see what Yiddish studies, and new Jewish art, might look like without the fierce gatekeepers of anti-Communist hegemony on guard. What if we could talk about Jewish Communists without constantly relitigating the battles of the past?

In their superb introduction to the new translation of David Bergelson’s Judgment, Harriet Murav and Sasha Senderovich tackle a thorny problem, not just for readers of Bergelson, but for students of Yiddish history and literature: how Cold War politics warped the reception of Soviet Yiddish art in the West. 

In 1952 Bergelson was murdered on Stalin’s order. A decade later he suffered another execution, this one in the West, as his literary legacy was made and remade according to the politics of the day. Judgment, published in 1929 and untranslated into any language until 2017, became the boundary for the “acceptable” Bergelson. Murav and Senderovich note, for example, that in 1977 the hugely influential anthologists Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg introduced Bergelson to English speaking readers, but as regarded the last two decades of Bergelson’s work, it was “better to leave in the past.” For Howe and Greenberg, there was no point in translating any of it. 

Having recently read Judgment, a penetrating, darkly funny, and nuanced tale of shtetl Jews caught in the post-Revolution Civil War, the willingness to discard such an important work in deference to politics strikes the contemporary reader as bordering on literary malpractice....

Read more over at Rokhl's Golden City...

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Harvey, Mayim and Me

My latest for Haaretz: How 'Feminist' Mayim Bialik Insulted Countless Jewish Women

OOF. This has been quite a time, eh? Ever since the Harvey Weinstein story 'broke' last week my jaw has been on the floor and my stomach has been in knots. Each new story is simultaneously horrifying and numbing. Hollywood is an industry built on abuse. Our entire society is premised on men's toxic entitlement to women's bodies. Is it really going to be different now? Can women speaking their truth really 'shock the conscience' and change us, fundamentally?

None of us really know what, if anything will come of our sudden attention to sexual harassment, abuse and assault. But I do know we're all fumbling around, trying to make sense of our own stories and the endless stories now being shared.

Which brings me to Mayim. Mayim Mayim Mayim. Mayim Bialik managed to make her own mini-scandal last weekend when she published a New York Times op-ed in which she talked about her brush with Hollywood misogyny. But in her case, or at least, in the story she told herself, she managed to avoid sexual harassment by not being pretty enough but also smart and also dressing modestly?

Bialik's seeming suggestion that modesty, and not trading on one's sexuality, could protect a woman from assault just about broke the internet outrage meter, especially among Jewish women. For women of my age, especially, Bialik is not just a star, she is us. The funny, beautiful, undeniably Jewish overachiever with a wildly successful TV career AND a doctorate in neuroscience. She did it all and never compromised who she was.

But, what was apparent to me from her piece, in which she refers to herself with the same kind of scorn she got from her critics, is that Bialik did not manage to avoid the abusive side of Hollywood misogyny. Internalizing that kind of woman hating beauty bullshit is just a different kind of abuse, one that seeps into your soul and affects every choice you make. It's hard not to see Bialik's embrace of tsnius as a psychological reaction to the degrading ways she had her appearance dissected in the media. Ugh. Anyway...

Read my Haaretz op-ed here and Mayim's apology here.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Political Art and the Art of Politics: Arthur Szyk and More in the Golden City

Hey! Have you been following my new 'all things Yidd-ish' column over at Tablet? It's called, in all modesty, Rokhl's Golden City and it's a lot of fun, if I do say so myself.

This week I talk a bit about a 'new to me' made for TV movie, the 1959 Jazz Singer with Jerry Lewis. It's really interesting and SHORT and you should definitely immediately watch it before Yom Kippur.

I also touch on a new show over at the New-York Historical Society, Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art. As I say in my column:
"Szyk’s art is a gorgeous mix of medieval detail and modern themes and deserves to be seen up close and personally."
But there's so much more to the exhibit than getting up close with Szyk's breathtaking artistry. In an exhibit filled with incredible work, Szyk’s Zionist pieces are some of the most compelling, like Palestine Restricted (on the restriction of Jewish emigration into Palestine) and Modern Moses, a startlingly contemporary composition on Hebrew machismo, one that could easily be a 2017 IDF selfie.

In her review of the show, Alexandra Pucciarelli poses an intriguing question: why is it that a once ubiquitous talent such as Szyk is “barely remembered” today? Pucciarelli suggests ill timed family interference with Szyk’s artistic estate as well as Szyk’s position in between artistic movements and schools.

Szyk was an unclassifiable, multifarious cultural figure. A Polonized Jew with a strong affinity for his homeland, as well as traditional Jewish life and culture, he left Poland to join the Western European community of artists. Yet, he always identified as a ‘Jewish artist’- something controversial for Jewish artists even today. I’d argue that the urgent, unsentimental Jewishness of his art might have made his work uncomfortable for the gatekeepers of mid-century modern art, many of them highly assimilated Jews themselves.

And then there’s Szyk’s politics. Szyk was a passionate Zionist, a member of the Revisionist Zionist Bergson Group, even, yet his Jewish work (insofar as it’s featured at the N-YHS) never devolved into easy, simplistic binaries like muscle Jew vs victim, old Jew vs. new. (Don't get me wrong, muscle Jews and un-muscle Jews are there, they're just not being used in self-abnegating didactic tropey ways.)  It’s been a while, but perhaps now more than ever is the moment for the reclamation of a binary busting artist like Arthur Szyk.

That binary is the text, subtext and Ur-text of the outsize new collection of the comics of Eli Valley, Diaspora Boy: Comics on Crisis in America and Israel. Valley’s work, a lovingly grotesque style of satire, has no truck with the undecided. As Peter Beinart writes in the foreword, “Eli Valley’s cartoons are outrageous and absurd. That’s because we’re living at an outrageous and absurd moment in American Jewish life.” If you don’t already think both Israel and the US are being led by their own respective absurdities, you probably aren’t the audience for Diaspora Boy. For Valley, contemporary Zionism, and its enabling by American Jewish leaders, is a modern Golem run amok, something he makes gloriously, repulsively graphic in his cartooning.

Valley’s unsparing art hasn’t gone unnoticed by its targets. A particularly sharp cartoon featuring then ADL head Abe Foxman resulted in the Forward severing its relationship with Valley. In a recent interview Valley has said “That kind of McCarthyism is an enduring feature of the Jewish community. ...It’s support Israel or else, but without open discourse the Jewish community loses. We need to be questioning the accepted truths of the Jewish world."

Valley is right- intra-communal Jewish politics has always been a no-holds barred, at times exceedingly ugly, affair. It might be worthwhile to ask what politics had to do with whether or not Arthur Szyk's artistic legacy endured. Perhaps today it’s easier to reclaim him as a cultural figure now, when his politics have been sanitized by the decades since his death.

Consider: Szyk was a prominent member of the Irgun-associated Bergson Group. Many in the mainstream Jewish institutional world did all they could to oppose the Group’s larger than life cultural and political actions. Preferring quiet diplomacy, some Jewish leaders pressed the US government to have Bergson himself deported. “Nahum Goldman, co-chair of the World Jewish Congress, told State Department officials in 1944 that Rabbi Stephen Wise regarded Bergson as “equally as great an enemy of the Jews as Hitler” because he believed Bergson’s activities would increase antisemitism in the United States.” If only Godwin’s Law had been invented a few decades early.

History is complicated. It’s easy to get swept away by the romance of the Bergson Group. Its spectacles like We Will Never Die cried out for Europe’s Jews at a time when President Roosevelt was doing his best to sweep the Jewish refugee crisis under the rug. At the same time, the Irgun was, among other things, responsible for the infamous 1946 King David hotel bombing, an act of terrorism which killed 91.

But to accuse Jews of creating anti-Semitism (as has been said of Peter Bergson, and Valley, and indeed countless other Jews who have taken unpopular positions and voiced uncomfortable truths) is an insulting absurdity, one which absolves those responsible for Jew hatred in the first place.