Saturday, December 29, 2012

First Annual Sholem Aleichem Yiddish KlezFest- Sunday, December 30

First Annual Sholem Aleichem Yiddish KlezFest

Tomorrow, Sunday, December 30 


  • Andrea Pancur & Ilya Shneyveys - Klezmer Bavarian Oom-pah music (rare NYC appearance)
  • Jake Shulman-Ment - Fiddle kapelye with Deborah Strauss and Adam Moss 
  • Frank London & Friends - with Aaron Alexander, Ron Caswell and Lauren Brody
  • Steve Weintraub - Dance leader
  • Psoy Korolenko - Host and performer

1:30 - 4:30pm

Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center
3301 Bainbridge Avenue @ 208th Street - Bronx, New York
4 train to Mosholu Pkwy or D train to 205th Street
one block from Montefiore Hospital
admission: $10
info: 917-930-0295 or

It's gonna be a a great afternoon, don't miss it!

The year in Yiddish revivals, with a prologue by Molly Picon

Wow. It's been a year (pretty much to the day) since I revived this blog. I've covered everything from OTD Hasidim to masturbation mussar to the erasure of Jewish Communists from American documentary film. But my focus has always returned to my favorite topic: how we do and don't talk about Yiddish. The very first post I wrote for the blog was about an AP wire story on the 'revival' of Yiddish among college students. It's the story that keeps on giving, and give it did in 2012. Here is a surely incomplete survey of 'revival' stories from 2012.

I could list twenty articles like these to make my point: there is no revival. There is only a Jewish populace deeply confused about its identity and conflicted about the sacrifices it's made in the name of assimilation, Americanization, Zionism and the myth of a unified Jewish monoculture. The revival meme is a way of neutralizing those who would question the value of all those things; it frames their connection to Yiddish as cute, unthreatening, and incapable of maturing. To talk about Yiddish in terms other than its 'revival' is to tread on politically dangerous ground.

If my round-up of articles doesn't make my point, perhaps you'll be more impressed by the beloved pixie diva of Yiddish theater, Molly Picon.

In 1980 Molly Picon appeared on Israeli TV. There's a lot to unpack about her appearance (in which the show's host interviews her in English and she answers in Yiddish) but right now I'll just skip to the part where Molly herself proclaims a Yiddish revival. In 1980.

Around 3 minutes in Molly says that her Israeli hosts, including the Yiddish actor Shmulik Atzmon, are excited about the current Yiddish revival. All over the world, she says, there is a growing interest in Yiddish, especially among young people. They want to know 'Who are we?' and 'What have we lost?'

At Queens College, she says, six hundred students (!) study Yiddish and now in Europe and Israel, too, students want to learn Yiddish.

To which I have to ask, politely, what the hell? What in bloody hell happened between 1980 and today?

Well, for one, there has been an incredibly burst of creativity around traditional Eastern European music. Some call that the 'klezmer revival.'

And what about Yiddish language? The National Yiddish Book Center, established in the early 1980s, has obviously changed the face of Yiddish between then and now, systematically preserving Yiddish materials for future readers. But what about the classes where those readers will be educated? What about the learning? What about providing professional pedagogical resources for the next generations of Yiddish speakers? What about training the next generation of Yiddish teachers?

While there are some (too few) high quality resources for learning (and teaching) Yiddish today, it's nowhere near what you might think it would be for a language whose 'revival' was heralded over 30 years ago on Israeli TV.

More and more, real Yiddish literacy in the United States is in the hands of either academics (and quasi-academics) or the Hasidim who use it as a vernacular. These are the people who either have the resources to learn and use it or have a politico-theological reason for them to retain it as the language of everyday life.

As much as I love Molly Picon, even 600 students do not make a revival, or a revolution. A revival takes political will and institutional power. The day I see a Federation leader get up at the General Assembly and declare the importance of language transmission, the day I see a session devoted to planning for Yiddish language pedagogy at an educational conference, that's the day I will doff my Yiddish revival cap and herald a new age of Akvarious. Without these things-  communal prioritization, resources, a gigantic shift in our cultural conversation around Yiddish-  the much bally-hooed Yiddish revival is nokh vayt (still far off.)

Gawd, I depress myself sometimes.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

My last post about Gangnam Style אויף יידיש

First off, I want to say 'mazl tov' to Suri and Eli Leno on their recent marriage. It's not everyday your khasene goes viral. (Or maybe this is what the future will look like. On second thought, let's not go there.)

"But Rokhl," as no one's been asking me, "where's the English translation?"

So, for my own pleasure, if not yours, here's a link to the full studio version of Yiddish Gangnam Style with English translation for the Yiddish lyrics.

Also, these kids (Avrumy Kalisch and Tuli Brull) are adorable and they know how to get a party going. If you're getting married soon and were wondering about how you'd get your own personalized Yiddish wedding pop song, I think you've found your answer.

Lyrics composed and sung by

Avrumy Kalisch & Tuli Brull

פאר א געלאסענע חתונה
(For a beautiful wedding)
יעדער נעמט זיך צוזאםען
(Everyone come together)
סיז גיט חבורים עריבום
(Friends and witnesses)
צוזאמען איינס נאך אנאם
(Everyone, one after another)
פון אלע עקען פון שטאט
(From every corner of the city)
זענען מענטשען יעצט דא
(We're all here now)

So let's welcome khoson kale now

אזא הערליכע נאכט
(Such a magnificent night)
גארנישט קומט נישט דא צו
(Nothing compares to it)
ווען בכל כח טאנצט מען הויעך
(Dance with all you've got)
מיט שרי אין אלי
(With Suri and Eli (khosn kale)
סאיז א זיכערע זאך
(It's a sure thing)
אז מען ברענגט אראפ די דאך
(We're going to bring down the roof)

So everybody on the floor now

שמחה טוט גלאנצען
(Such a beautiful simkhe)
אינז גיי מיר טאנצען
(We're gonna dance)
לאמיר גיין
(Let's go)
מען גייט אנפאנגען
(We're gonna start)
טאנצען גאנגעם
(Dancing Gangnam!)

So let's go
Put your hands up in the air and gimme more

Woopaa Lenno Style
Hey, Suri Eli ....

Put your hands up
If you're sure that you want more
No, it's not enough
Pour some wine, another cup
Let it all out
Let's hear everyone shout
When we're dancing on the dance floor

Tonight no expectations
There's no rules, no regulations
Everybody just keep patient cause there's a party in the nation

We'll stop thinking we'll stop blinking w'ell be drinking
Ya we'll all be screaming 'gimme more'

יעצט אביסעל ערענסט
(Now, let's get a little serious)
פאר א סקאנדע לאמיר ווערען
(Just for a moment)
טי מיך נאר אויס הערען
(Listen to what I have to say)
ווען איך גיי א ברכה שערען
(I'm gonna share a brukhe)
אייביק אין א יעדע צייט
(Always, in every moment)
זאלסטי נאר וויסען פון פרייד
(You should only know from joy)
יעצט שרייטס אלע ער גייט נאר גייט
(And now, there he goes!)

(Note about English lyrics: Please don't complain about inexact translations. Pop songs rely more on the logic of rhyme than meaning. What rhymes in one language doesn't always make sense in another.)

(English translation by ani ha-koten with help from Gedalya Gottdenger)

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Memes of the British Atlantis

The BBC News Magazine has an article this week called New York, a graveyard for languages. No, please Doctor, don't sugar coat it!

Dr. Mark Turin looks at the linguistic economy of New York City. As a global capitol of immigration, it's home to a staggering variety of languages; some 800, according to researchers. You can see just the tip of that diversity, as Turin notes, in the many languages offered on subway signs, metrocard dispensers and night school advertisements. Lest you think New York City is a multi-lingual paradise: I have discovered, New York is not just a city where many languages live, it is also a place where languages go to die, the final destination for the last speakers of some of the planet's most critically endangered speech forms.

The unparalleled number of languages spoken here, as well as their uncertain future, makes New York a natural site of study for linguists and those interested in language preservation. Turin mentions the work of new-ish, NYC based non-profit, The Endangered Language Alliance . ELA's mission is to "further the documentation, description, maintenance, and revitalization of threatened and endangered languages, and to educate the public about the causes and consequences of language extinction."

Some languages have gone quiet in their place of birth but are still spoken here in New York City by immigrants who have brought their language with them. For example, the ELA has been working with two different languages, one a European ethnic minority language and one an Arawak (Native American) language from Central America:
'There are these communities that are completely gone in their homeland. One of them, the Gottscheers, is a community of Germanic people who were living in Slovenia, and they were isolated from the rest of the Germanic populations.' 
'They were surrounded by Slavic speakers for several hundreds of years so they really have their own variety [of language] which is now unintelligible to other German speakers.' 
The last speakers of this language have ended up in Queens, he says, and this has happened to many other communities. 
Garifuna is an Arawakan language from Honduras and Belize, but also spoken by a diaspora in the United States. 
Staff at the Endangered Language Alliance have been working with two Garifuna speakers, Loreida Guity and Alex Colon, to document not only their language but also aspects of their culture through traditional song, before these are lost without record.

This is all interesting, insofar as we've learned a bit about the hidden linguistic richness of New York City and the admirable work of the ELA. But as for analysis, the BBC is asleep at the wheel.

"But why do languages die?" Dr. Turin asks. Good question. After all, it's not just New York City which is increasing in spoken languages:
A recent Census Bureau report notes that in the United States, the number of people speaking a language other than English at home increased by 140% over the last 30 years, with at least 303 languages recorded in this category.
And as to why languages die, Dr. Turin offers this:

Communities can be wiped out through wars, disease or natural disasters, and take their languages with them when they go.
More commonly, though, people transition out of one mother tongue into another, either by choice or under duress, a process that linguists refer to as language shift.

OK. As a friend said to me the other night, heroyf bulltsushitn. [Stop bullshitting]

How can you write an article about multilingualism, linguistic preservation, and national identity in the United States and not mention the extreme currents of nativism at play? The places where languages other than English (and I suspect this largely means Spanish) are increasing are the places where you find, angry, armed movements looking to make English the official language and outlaw the use of any language other than English. I wish I was kidding about this.

This is about American-style capitalism, son. All those immigrants aren't coming here because America gives a shit about their language and folkways. They're here for 'economic opportunities' and because they're cheap labor which, if here illegally, can be exploited even more cheaply and with less regard for any kind of human dignity. Speak English, become a citizen, then maybe we'll pay lip service to celebrating your 'ethnic heritage.'

You cannot extricate questions of language survival from those of nationalism and politics. I mean, wigga please. It's no accident that Americans lead the world in monolingualism. Americans are PROUD of it. Monolingualism is an American value and has been for a very long time.

Ugh. And we haven't even gotten to the dumb Yiddish parts.

Somehow, an article about the endangered languages in New York City has to do with Yiddish, like, half the article goes into a long rehearsal of the 'facts' about the rise and fall of Yiddish in New York. Again, with no awareness or recognition of the violence of Americanization as a factor in the loss of Yiddish within one or two generations of immigration (which was actually a better record than most other immigrant languages.) Nope, Jews chose to flee to the suburbs and forgot to pack their Yiddish books. Oops!

Also, Yiddish is being revived thanks to the National Yiddish Book Center.

Also, the decades long existence of thriving Hasidish Yiddish newspapers may not be mentioned because it interferes with our 'death/revival' narrative.


Monday, December 10, 2012

Move Over Dschinghis Khan, Gangnam Style Has Arrived in Boro Park

It's not true that the Haredi community rejects secular culture. They just absorb it, turn it Yiddish and pretend like nothing ever happened.

The most famous example of this is probably the transmigration (or gilgul) of the 1979 Eurovision winning

Dschinghis Khan

Into Mordechai Ben David's  "hit" Yidn:

And now? Was there any doubt it would happen?

The Macarena of 2012, the video your great-grandmother has already probably forwarded to you, Psy's Gangnam Style

Has been turned into this, a Yiddish/English khasene song, first spotted at a Boro Park khasene in early December:

A khanike miracle.

Many thanks to my W'burg/BP informant for providing the video.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Gevalt! Yiddish Is (kind of) Alive in Canada

It's Khanike (Chanuka/Hanukkah) time and you know what that means? Obligatory article about the survival/struggle/revival/renaissance/zombie stagger of Yiddish in North America.

Last year that article was from the AP and called 'Gevalt! U.S. college students lead surprise Yiddish revival.'  The story was picked up all over the place, in newspapers and TV station websites. Khanike and Yiddish 'revival' stories go together like latkes and sour cream, I suppose.

This year we're shaking it up a bit. 'Yiddish Finding a Way to Survive in Canada' appeared this week in the Canadian Globe & Mail newspaper.

I don't have a lot to say about this genre that I haven't said before. Though at least they didn't call it a 'surprise' this year, so that's progress.

Nonetheless, I'm happy to see Kalman Weiser getting props in a national newspaper. He's a wonderful young scholar and, from what I hear, a great teacher. So, right on Kalman! 

And as a yomtov bonus, here's a terrific little clip of him speaking in Yiddish about speaking in Yiddish: 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The guttural tongue of their ancestors

Memes of the Yiddish Atlantis: As stated in the fine print of the Geneva Convention, journalists may not discuss new Yiddish entertainment or Yiddish academic news without invoking at least one meaningless cliche about the language and culture. 
Here's the thing. These little nuggets of common wisdom aren't just filler. They're signals that the writer has nothing to say on the subject and not the smallest bit of curiosity about it. Reciting the memes substitutes for any real context for the story and relieves the writer from the work of making something like a real historical, artistic or aesthetic judgment. After all, that would require actual knowledge of Yiddish language and history and, c'mon, that's just meshugene.
Grapevine: It’s Yiddish revival,  Jerusalem Post

Yiddish culture appears to be enjoying a revival in many parts of the world, including Eastern Europe, where it was stifled for so long; Western Europe, where it all but disappeared; and even Israel, where, under David Ben- Gurion, it was publicly banned.Now it is being taught in Israeli universities and other institutions, and in fact has been for some time.....

[Legendary Yiddish theater artists Mike Burstyn, Shmuel Atzmon and Bar Ilan University President Moshe Kaveh] will be part of strategic planning team proposed by Kaveh, with the aim of advancing Yiddish language and culture within and beyond academia.
Yiddishspiel, the Israeli Yiddish theater, has been in operation since 1987, 25 years. Yung Yidish (the Tel Aviv bus station based Yiddish organization run by Mendy Cahan) has been around for almost 20 years. What was arguably the most important Yiddish literary journal of the second half of the twentieth century, di goldene keyt, was published from Israel until 1995. The State of Israel is, and has been for decades, an important center of Yiddish culture and publishing. The new (and really interesting) partnership at Bar Ilan and the Rena Costa Center for Yiddish Studies is part of that long history. Why are we not allowed to recognize it as such?

Making Yiddish Theatre Matter in 2012, TDF Stages: a Theatre Magazine

From a review of the Folksbiene's new mainstage production, The Golden Land:
Although American Jews are arguably more assimilated than ever before, Yiddish—and by extension Yiddish culture—is enjoying a bit of a renaissance. Young Jews are increasingly studying the guttural tongue of their ancestors and seeking out live Yiddish entertainment in an attempt to reconnect with their immigrant heritage.
Just. Ugh. Guttural tongue? Really?

Bonus points, though, for working in a bunch of our other favorite memes. This includes the passive (aggressive) invocation of unspecified 'critics,' the ones who think anyone who does anything with Yiddish is fighting a losing battle rather than, oh, fulfilling an artistic mission or trying to make a buck. 
Yet Mlotek admits that some critics think he’s fighting a losing battle trying to keep a dying language and culture alive. “I have that argument all the time,” he says. “It’s no longer the lingua franca of American Jews, so what’s the point? The answer is simple: It’s not about reviving something that was popular once upon a time. It’s about bringing this culture to new audiences in a way that they can appreciate.

 Joe Berger would be proud.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Secret Histories and Self-Hatred: What Jew Spotting Says About Us

Just read a really interesting review of Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall Of Fame, a new collection of essays on Jews and sports by Marc Tracy and Franklin Foer. The Daily Beast's Spencer Ackerman presents a really smart critique not just of this particular book, but of the particular genre to which it belongs.
'The Secret History of Jews in Surprising Places' is a ubiquitous trope in contemporary publishing. Books on Jews and organized crime and Jews in punk are two excellent examples. Finding Jews where they're not supposed to belong, especially in mildly transgressive fields (say, making and performing in porn) is also a staple of magazines which rely on manufactured shock, like Heeb and Davka. 

There's a lot more to this narrative than simply giving voice to forgotten histories. After all, who says that Jews shouldn't be punk rockers or don't commit crimes? (Or don't make and consume porn, for that matter.) Why are these kinds of histories framed as 'secret' or 'hidden'? To whom are these surprises?
Ackerman notes that Jewish Jocks does a much better job of covering athletes of the past (baseball players, boxers etc.) than it does with contemporary Jewish athletes. When the authors get to the present day, boxers and ballers have been replaced with competitive eaters, team managers, and sports writers. What gives? 
If an inescapable premise of the book is that Jewish athletes need recognition, then the book ought to do a more thorough job of addressing the implications of their latter-day absence, before an anti-Semite steps into the void with a few theories.

There are any number of ways to address that absence. Here’s one: It means nothing. Nothing about who we are as a people or who we are as individual Jews follows from our endless cataloging of tribespeople in sports, crime, high finance, media or government war councils. It only reveals the anxieties of the self-appointed ethnic actuary. True, it can be fun to know that this-or-that athlete is Jewish. But if your Jewish son or daughter started to internalize the invisibility of Jewish athletes, you would probably want to instruct him or her that role models don’t come from just one community. It’s a short step to saying that Jewish athleticism is an indicator of Jewish virility, and before you know it you’re in the briar patch of self-hatred. And that’s an unfortunate subtext of this book, so much so that the editors discuss foreskins in the Greek gymnasia during the very first paragraph of their introduction. Guys: relax. [emphasis mine]
What's interesting about books on Jews and sports is not how many Jews have played professional baseball, but why it's so important to us to search out and tally them up.

I think we can extend Ackerman's point not just to the endless search for Jewish sports heroes, but to the related obsession with the over-representation of Jews in comedy, science, and shlock horror films (ok, I'm probably the only one obsessed with that one.) These kinds of narratives usually suffer from a fatal tendency to see (or hope for) some essential Jewish quality to porn, comedy, science or shlocky horror films. It's an intellectually lazy exercise and one, as Ackerman rightly points out, that says much more about the writers' anxieties than it does about their subjects.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Dark Corridor Filled with Nothing

Dark Corridor Filled with Nothing.... At the end of which is less than nothing-- a big pile of Yiddish books.

I've been waiting ages to use Dark Corridor Filled with Nothing as a pronouncement on the future of Yiddish. Happily, an intrepid Haaretz journalist has given me the opportunity with this new piece about Mendy Cahan and Yung Yiddish. It's called 'The haimisher mensch in the central bus station.'

First off, the disclaimer. I love Mendy. I love Yung Yiddish. I love bus station Yiddish. I prefer it over airport Yiddish, dentist waiting room Yiddish and train station Yiddish. What I can't stand is stupid, hacky, pointless articles about the Yiddish community. In my opinion, they hurt more than they help by recycling the same asinine, and flawed, cliches about Yiddish. You know, those putrid tidbits of common wisdom I call the Memes of the Yiddish Atlantis.

So. The rules say that any article written about Mendy and his enterprise must follow a certain pattern. I've written about this in much greater detail, here.

Past the vendors hawking cheap knapsacks, phone cards, plastic toys and greasy falafels, up the ramp beyond the STD clinic and the school for remedial driving, and around the corner from a Filipina-Israeli matchmaking agency and a kindergarten for African migrant workers’ children, is a dark corridor filled with nothing.

The bus station is an apt symbol for the journalist's perception of Yiddish: tainted by association with its neighbors and clientele.  And her reaction upon entering the Yung Yiddish space goes further: " stumbles, as if down Alice’s rabbit hole, into a wonderland."

Whoa. There's some serious Othering going on here. Are we really so alienated from our own recent past? Am I the only one disturbed by this?

Anyway, the requisite elements of a such an article are here. Mendy's work is minimized by his identification as a Yiddish 'enthusiast.' The journalist is astonished by the very existence of such a space (which has been in operation for decades);  astonished that Yiddish literature is more than 'Tevye the Milkman' in a thousand iterations.

Then there's the dour imagery to remind us that Yiddish is a linguistic ghoul, skulking about liminal spaces like the Tel Aviv bus station. The office is at the end of aforementioned dark corridor filled with nothing. And this gem:

Some might call it a Yiddish graveyard, but far better, suggests Cahan, would be to call it a library. A cultural center, even, where these books live on.
 As the kids say, LOL!

Then there's the requisite sprinkling of Yiddish words the author knows (or thinks she knows.) "Cahan turns to the back of the office and opens up a bisselleh door." A bisselleh door. Who knows, he only opens the bottom part, maybe? But anyway, who cares? IT'S A DEAD LANGUAGE NO ONE KNOWS THE DIFFERENCE. Who could even say what's correct or incorrect. Certainly not the subject of the story.

Or wait a minute....???
No one cares.

PS- Non-Jewish Arabs in Israel are learning Yiddish. 

More Memes of the Yiddish Atlantis

In this episode, Yiddish is brought in to make a sad analogy; Nova Scotia Gaelic is said to be having its "Yiddish moment." 

What is a Yiddish moment? Once flourishing minority language squashed in its place of birth, chugs along for a while in the New World, now on life support along with its few elderly speakers.

Tosh and poppycock. Ahistorical poppycock. 

The author sees Nova Scotia Gaelic at a crossroads as a minority language in Canada. It can go one way and be like Romansh, one of the four national languages of Switzerland, or it can go the way of Yiddish, and be the language of... well, no one, really, according to this article. In Switzerland you can get your phone bill in Romansh and the Romansh speaking population is aggressive about maintaining it as a civic language. Yiddish, on the other hand, has already passed over into the 'post-vernacular' of nostalgia and sentiment and is the civic language of no place and no government. If Nova Scotians aren't more aggressive, the author warns, Gaelic will go the way of Yiddish, rakhmone litslon.

There's a lot to unpack here. Though I don't know much (ok, anything) about the politics around Romansh and linguistic hegemony in Switzerland, I'm sure it's a lot more complex than what's sketched out here. In any case, I'll just focus one what concerns me, the use and abuse of Yiddish as a signifier, and one piece of the Atlantean meme:

Both [Yiddish and Gaelic] have some fluent speakers left, but with Yiddish as with Gaelic, most are elderly. Younger people who consider either language part of their identity rarely (not never, but rarely) know enough to hold down a conversation. It’s more typical for them to know snatches: songs, little sayings, a few words and phrases. Nobody who spends any time getting to know either Gaelic or Yiddish can avoid seeing that reality.

Fact is, those who study contemporary Yiddish agree that there are almost a million Yiddish speakers alive today. The majority of them are some flavor of ultra-Orthodox, mostly Hasidim. And, due to exploding birth rates, the population of contemporary Yiddish speakers skews heavily younger.

So, no. Sorry. Wrong. Maybe you don't like Hasidim, but you can't deny that they're Jews, there's a lot of them, and that they speak Yiddish every damn day. 

Gaelic is at a crossroads. It can continue to go the way of Yiddish, a language whose fluent speakers are mostly elderly and which is basically nonexistent as a language of government. Or it can go the way of Romansh and other small languages, and gradually but aggressively claim its right to be part of the modern world. 

In fact, if you want to go all Dubnovian, Yiddish is a language of civic life and governance. Of course, it's a totally internal, self-governing of the Hasidic kehiles, but nonetheless, go into any Hasidic community (In America, in Canada, in Belgium, in Israel) and you'll see a great deal of public life being conducted in Yiddish. 

Point being that those who had a political will, and a theological imperative, to maintain Yiddish as a vernacular have done so for themselves, without waiting for a Yiddish phone bill from the government. (Though you can buy a Metrocard in Yiddish in New York City.)

Faced with the grinding machinery of American assimilation, the majority of American Jews had no such collective will to maintain Yiddish. If the Jews of 1910, let's say, had been dealing with the same kind of linguistic discourse available to Canadians of 2012, perhaps then, things might have turned out somewhat differently. But obviously the two situations are completely different. Analogy fail. Let's hope Nova Scotia Gaelic fares a little bit better.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Yiddish Theater Updates

Couple of interesting items on the Yiddish theater calendar...

Yiddish Plays at Target Margin Theater

Target Margin Theater, under the direction of David Herskovits, has undertaken an ambitious two season exploration of Yiddish theater in English. The past couple of weeks have seen a full schedule of 'Lab' shows presented at the Brick Theater in Williamsburg. I saw Dukus last week and there's still a chance to see the remaining three shows:

    November 2 & 3 at 9:30 pm  
    Shulamis, or The Well and the Pussycat after Abraham Goldfaden 
    Lead Artist: Gil Sperling 
    Goldfaden’s classic operetta offers hum-along Schlagers such as “Rozhinkes mit mandlen,” mixed with male treachery, bride-snatching and infant mortality.

      October 30 – November 3 at 7:30 pm A DOUBLE BILL: 
      After Midnight by Samuel Daixel 
      Lead Artist: Stephanie Weeks
      The clock strikes Midnight. All is still. But is it? Something’s stirring, something’s budding, howling, falling. Something…
      *playing with*
      Cripples by David Pinski 
      Lead Artist: Ásta Bennie Hostetter
      Watch the most damaged members of society vie for the smallest piece of land: “That isn’t your place! … Since I’m standing upon it, it’s mine!”

      And the new season at The Folksbiene...

      A revival of The Golden Land, a musical about the Jewish immigrant experience in the United States, is now playing through December 2. (In English and Yiddish)

      Sunday Oct 28-Dec 2-
      2pm & 6pm
      Tuesday Nov 13 and 20
      Tuesday Nov 27
      Wednesday Oct 31-Nov 28
      2pm & 7:30pm
      Thursday Nov 1-29
      2pm & 7:30pm
      (no performances November 22)
      Friday Nov 23
      Saturday Nov 3, 10, and 24

At Baruch College Performing Arts Center, 28th Street and Lexington Avenue

Dybbuk Revival 2012: Hurricane Edition

The Yiddish Revival is sooooo 2011. From here on out it's all feigned surprise at the persistence of the Yiddishly undead all the time.

2012: Year of the Dybbuk Revival was first announced in my Forward review of Jason Haxton's Dibbuk Box. Much has happened since then in the space between worlds....

In June, Fernando Penalosa, a translator of Yiddish and Maya, among other languages, published a slim, but very exciting, volume of Dybbuk parodies with English translation and notes: Parodies of An-Sky's The Dybbuk.  These are parodies by well known writers and journalists from the time of the Vilna Troupe's original Dybbuk. A friend of mine just got a copy of this volume and instead of stealing hers I may need to go to Plan B and just buy my own. Hmmm....

On August 15 Yiddish vaudevillian Shane Baker and musician Benjy Fox-Rosen workshopped their new two-handed Dybbuk to great acclaim and greater puzzled looks.

At the end of August a new Hollywood movie opened, purporting to be based on the Dybbuk legend. The Possession was a decent enough horror movie, but had more to do with The Exorcist than actual Jewish folklore.

As fall races forward and we get closer to Halloween, Dybbukim are popping up all over. At the University of Maryland the Dybbuk Marathon Conference was scheduled for this weekend. According to the website:

The Dybbuk Marathon conference, "Dybbuks in the 21st Century: Why Are We Still Possessed?", the first of its kind unique combination of academic and artistic events devoted to the iconic Yiddish play, The Dybbuk, Or Between Two Worlds (1912-1914) by S. An-sky, will bring together established academic experts on dybbuks from the US and Israel, a new generation of scholars, students, artists involved in the ongoing revival of interest in dybbuks (souls of the dead possessing the living bodies) in the twenty-first century, as well as Jewish communities of the area, and general public.

And this week! A new production (with all new music) of Tony (Angels in America) Kushner's retelling of the Dybbuk. It's at Queens College, Goldstein Theater:

Special Preview Performance  Wed. October 31 at 7:00
11/1, 11/8 and 11/11 at 7:00
11/3 and 11/10 at 8:00
11/4 and 11/11 at 2:00
(Call the box office at 718-793-8080. Tickets will also be available at the door one hour prior to the performance.)

This isn't the first production of Kushner's Dybbuk. Back in 1997 he collaborated with the world-famous Klezmatics on a brand new score for the show. Those songs were then recorded for their CD, Possessed. It's a beautiful album and has one of the only Yiddish odes to marijuana that I know of. Get it!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Kosher Berger

Dear readers, I think by now you know how I feel about the New York Times unofficial eulogizer and number one frenemy of Yiddish, Joseph Berger. In a word, Do. Not. Want.

I was dismayed reading the my-god-it-must-have-been-a-slow-news-week profile of JB in the Jewish Week called 'Kosher Berger'. I'm not even going to touch this quease making piece of work. I don't have to, because Mishpacha magazine already did it.

You read that right. Michpacha magazine and I are on the same page. Sort of. A teensy tiny bit.

To be fair, Mishpacha likes Berger because a Berger byline means that a piece won't be negative on Israel. And they don't even have a problem with his gooey sentimentalism toward Orthodoxy and Yiddish. However, Mishpacha takes issue with Berger's defense of the Times and accusations of its anti-semitism. Now this, this is just beautiful:

And then he added, as they say, the kicker: “I don’t believe the Times is anti-Semitic, and the fact that we run stories about Yiddish and chassidim is proof of that alone.”  
On that, two points. That’s a bit of a non sequitur; the Times can well be anti-Israel without being overtly anti-Semitic (although, of course, many see anti-Israel sentiment as a stand-in, conscious or otherwise, for anti-Semitism). And the notion that charming human-interest stories appearing now and then about Yiddish and chassidim can somehow be pressed into service as the Times’ philo-Semitic credentials sounds like the journalistic equivalent of “…but some of my best friends are Jews.”  
Mr. Berger can make any case he’d like for the Times’ lack of anti-Jewish animus, but his use of such an unpersuasive — indeed, hackneyed — argument is surprising. Let him, by all means, carry on writing his often enjoyable slice-of-life profiles of Orthodox life. But he ought not to serve, by reason of them, as his newspaper’s rav hamachshir.

Dude, when Mishpacha magazine calls you a hack, it's time to do a serious journalistic kheshbn hanefesh.


There's a new video from international Hasidic pop star, brocade bekeshe and funky glasses wearer, Lipa Schmeltzer. It's called Mizrach (East) and it celebrates unity or achdus among all Jews. Well, among all kinds of male Jews. OK, maybe not all male Jews, but anyway.

The Mizrach at issue here is Israel and the division between its haredi and secular Jews. That division (and the bitterness it creates) is felt in the haredi community's (until now, legal) avoidance of national military service via the Tal law. "The law, enacted in 2002, provided a legal framework for full-time yeshiva students, mainly from the haredi community, to indefinitely defer military service."  That law recently expired and the government is now free to start calling haredi youths for military service.

As you can imagine, the military's absorption of a huge, restive demographic with highly specialized ... ahem... needs is both a logistical and cultural challenge. There's a lot of ill will from all sides mizrakh, maariv, tsofen, durem (east, west, south, north). Enter Lipa.

Lipa is a vocal supporter of haredi participation in the Israeli military and this video is an interesting, and in some quarters provocative, statement of his support. He dances with soldiers, he dances with frum yingermen. He wears funky glasses and hipster square Satmar briln. He's got multiple kippah changes. Lipa is Liberace in pelts and this is 2012 akhdus, baby! 

Check it out:

Monday, August 27, 2012

Golus Festival August 31-September 2

Golus Festival

So, you've been to Yiddish Farm this summer to see all the amazing stuff going down, right?

The summer long Yiddish immersion classes? Building a working farm from the ground up, in Yiddish? Building community among young (and sexy) Yiddish speakers? Secular, observant and Hasidic Jews collaborating to create a unique Jewish svive?


Well, if you haven't gotten a chance to visit Yiddish Farm, Labor Day weekend is your perfect opportunity. The second annual Golus Festival comes to Goyshen, NY, a short bus ride from New York City.

What's a Golus Festival, you may ask? For one thing, it's your opportunity to set up a tent on the gorgeous fields of Yiddish Farm and sniff the sweet end of summer air.

What else?

Full weekend includes:

* Yiddish classes* Lectures* Davening* All shabbos meals* Saturday night campfire

Sunday activities:
* Tour the fields* Feed the goats* Pickle cucumbers from the fields* Churn butter* Picnic with friends and family, and meet new people* Live music

What else? How about the Pester Rebbe, Yoely Lebovits, for entertainment.

Beards, butter churning and badkhones. (Three of my personal favorite things.) What more could you want? What the heck are you waiting for! Pre-registration is a must. Go. Now!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Yiddish Theater comes to South Fallsburg This Weekend!

New Yiddish Rep and the Rivoli Theatre present:

Yosl Rakover Speaks To G-d

Thursday, August 23rd 10 PM
Motzei Shabbos, August 25th 11 PM

Rivoli Theatre
845 436-5336

Sunday, August 19, 2012


On August 12th we observed the 60th anniversary of what has come to be known as the Night of the Murdered Poets. August 12th, 1952, 13 Soviet Jews were executed in Moscow's Lyubyanka Prison, as part of Stalin's larger plan to decimate Soviet Jewry. Five of those executed were writers. All had been leaders and public figures associated with the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Today, commemorations often include other prominent Soviet Jews murdered by Stalin in the same period, such as Shloyme Mikhoels. 

Modernist poet Perets Markish was among those executed in 1952. One of his most famous poems is Brokhshtiker (Shards.) From Brokhshtiker comes the image of a shpigl af a shteyn, a mirror on a stone. Shpigl af a shteyn is also familiar to students of Yiddish literature as the title of the most important anthology of Soviet Yiddish writing. 

Here's the title page of my very old copy:

And the list of authors found within:

For this year's August 12th commemoration, Australian animator Jack Feldstein created a short film set to Brokhshtiker. Feldstein uses a technique he calls 'neonizing' which is "a combination of live action video recording and public domain material..." The result, with Yiddishist Shane Baker reciting the words of the poem, is a beautiful new interpretation of Markish and his poetry.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Memorials, Music and (M)dybbuk: Coming Up

Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird at Lincoln Center, Sunday at 1

Did you know the Yiddish Pogues were in New York City? I didn't, either. Sunday at 1 pm Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird will be playing at Lincoln Center in a rare (and free) NYC appearance. Highly recommended.

If you can't make it on Sunday, Kahn and the Painted Bird will be playing at the Living Room on Ludlow, Thursday the 16th at 10 pm.

Memorial for the Murdered Yiddish Poets, Sunday at 3

And then at 3 (on Sunday) is the annual Memorial for the Murdered Yiddish Poets. From the Congress for Jewish Culture:

On August 12th, 1952, Stalin's regime executed, among other members of the Jewish Antifascist Committee, five Yiddish writers whose achievements represent some of the high points of 20th century literature: Dovid Bergelson, Itzik Fefer, Dovid Hofshteyn, Leyb Kvitko, and Moyshe Kulbak. 
This Sunday, August 12th, 2012 at 3 PM, the Congress for Jewish Culture together with CYCO Yiddish Books, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the Jewish Labor Committee and the Workmen's Circle will be holding a memorial
 to remember those and other Yiddish writers who suffered repression in the Soviet Union.

The event is free and open to the public, one need only register in advance at the following link:
It will take place at the Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street (between Fifth and Sixth Avenues) in Manhattan.
The program is in Yiddish and English. Professor Thomas Bird of Queens College will chair, with the participation of Boris Sandler, editor of the Forverts; Paul Glasser of the YIVO; Hy Wolfe of CYCO Yiddish Books will recite and sing poetry by the writers; Paula Teitelbaum, the folksinger, will sing two songs by Moyshe Kulbak (executed in 1937) and read poems by other writers; and the program will also feature two new short films using poems by Perets Markish as the soundtrack, one by neon animator Jack Feldstein and one by Paul Fischer.
Come, help us remember!

New Staged Reading of the Dybbuk, Wednesday, August 15th, 7 pm

The Dybbuk Revival of 2012 continues apace with a new staged reading (with music) of Sh. An-Sky's The Dybbuk. This new Dybbuk is the brainchild of Shane Baker and Benjy Fox-Rosen, two of my favorite young Yiddish artists.

You are hereby cordially invited to attend the wedding of the holy bride and groom. Stand with us under the khupe on Wednesday, August 15th, 2012 at 7 PM as Leah Bas Sender is married to Menashe Zoknlialke at the behest of her father, R' Sender Brinitzer. 
Potluck orem-moltsayt (seriously, bring a dish fit for a rich man's daughter's wedding). 
We present to you a staged reading of selections from The Dybbuk, by Shane Bertram Baker and Benjamin Haim Fox-Rosen with S. Z. Rapoport. Music combobulated by Benjamin Haim Fox-Rosen.

Free and open to the public. RSVP requested. Limited seating. Dress your Sabbath best.

at The St. James Building, 1133 Broadway, Suite 245 southwest corner of 26th Street and Broadway

And the Dybbuk's Dybbuk

Finally, a little Hasidic foygel reminded me that you can watch the original Yiddish Dybbuk on-line. Enjoy!

"Based" "on" "a" "True" "Story"

There are two ways to make a Jewish supernatural horror film. One, Jewish vampires and werewolves (American Werewolf in London, Fearless Vampire Killers). Or two, take supernatural elements from Jewish folklore and spin a story around them (the Dybbuk, the Golem). Option one presents a wider range of story elements, but presents the challenge of harmonizing supernatural cosmologies. Is a Jewish vampire repelled by a cross and holy water? Does the presence of Jews in a horror film necessarily destroy the illusions of a fantasy universe? 

Option two is more rare, I think, because most people, Jews and non-Jews, are unfamiliar with the world of the Jewish supernatural. The most developed body of Jewish supernatural lore comes from Eastern Europe and its Yiddish culture. And as with the Yiddish language, American Jews really haven't the slightest interest in Eastern European folk religion (and its spirit world). Which is too bad, because the potential for a really good, really creepy, really Jewish horror movie is there.*

Alas, there is a new 'dybbuk' movie coming out soon. And while I long to see a great Dybbuk for the 21st century, I'm fairly confident this ain't it. At the end of August, Lionsgate will release The Possession, a new film featuring a dybbuk in a box and a really creepy little girl possessed by said dybbuk. Oh, it's got Matisyahu's beard (z"l) attached to the character of Tsadok, a Kabalist exorcist. If you ask me (and, really, you should've) a brilliant move would've been to hire an actual Hasid (or recently ex-) to play the role of Tsadok. I'm thinking someone like Luzer Twersky. He's a young actor who comes from that part of the world (Hasidic Brooklyn) where they actually believe in this stuff. (Not fakelore like a dybbuk haunted winebox, but you know what I mean.) Ah well. Movies. You expect intelligent verisimilitude and you get Renee Zellweger in a shpitzl.

You can see the trailer for The Possession online. They're pushing the 'Based on a True Story' angle pretty hard. It's true that the movie bears a relationship to a real, purportedly dybbuk haunted, winebox, though that relationship is more commercial than familial. 

Back in 2004 the press picked up on the story of a haunted winebox that had somehow ended up on Ebay. The current owner of the box, Jason Haxton, just released his own book, describing his journey to discover the truth about the box. You can read my review of Haxton's 'Dibbuk Box' at the Forward. From what I see in the trailer, and what I've read about the movie, The Possession bears scant resemblance to the book, aside from both having dibbuks and boxes. And don't even get me started on what relation the book may have to 'reality.' In February I noted that the book had the uncanny authority of a Wonderbread bagel.

At least from the trailer, it looks like the producers were less interested in drawing on Jewish lore, and more content to recycle familiar horror movie tropes. The trailer itself is a callback to The Exorcist and its prototype 'little girl possessed by middle eastern entity' images of terror: little girl undergoing medical scanning, little girl suffering bodily possession, etc. The actress in The Possession even looks a bit like Linda Blair.

Watch the first minute and a half of the trailer and you'll know everything you need to know about the movie, aside from its lack of imagination. The requisite bearded university expert (it's beard vs. beard up in here) examines our mysterious object of evil, saying: "It says 'dybbuk'... Hebrew word for demon." 

Bahah. OK. Except no. "Dybbuk" contains the loshn koydesh root 'd-v-k' which means to cleave. The word dybbuk comes to us from the phrase ruakh medabek or 'spirit who cleaves'. We find Jewish folklore about dybbukim and possession arising in pre-Enlightenment Eastern Europe. Dybbukim were a kind of failed gilgul, or reincarnation of a soul. A dybbuk was believed to be the soul of a sinner fleeing his (always his) spiritual punishment. He would take refuge in a woman's body (always a woman) until driven out by the local mekubel or his non-union Ukrainian equivalent. The point being that dybbukim were not supernatural entities per se, they were discarnate souls just looking out for themselves. They had no larger agenda of evil. Not to put too fine point on it, but goyish and Jewish possession are totally different animals. Or animus. And The Possession seems to miss this distinction entirely.

As for demons, Yiddish does contain plenty of supernatural beings to be scared of. The most obvious 'demon' therein is a shed, a servant of Ashmodai found, for one, in IB Singer's short story 'The Last Demon' or, in Yiddish, Mayse Tishevits. (And, if you can read the Yiddish, it is infinitely better than the watered down, de-Judaised English translation. Ahem.)

But maybe these are the academic niggles of a humorless Yiddishist. After all, the real question is, will The Possession give me tingles in my scary place? Who knows, maybe Matisyahu will surprise us with his riveting screen presence and glatt Hasidish gravitas. And maybe we'll see a new twist on the quiescent evil lurking in small girls. 

Indeed, it is possible to shamelessly recycle horror tropes, sprinkle brazenly with homages to classic movies, and indulge in just the kind of fakelore which usually leaves me clutching at my pearls, and still end up with something that's fresh, fun and, most important, scary. I'm thinking of the recent Hammer studios reboot Wake Wood. I won't give too much away, but Wake Wood's protagonists are a young married couple who move into an isolated Irish village whose residents turn out to practice the kind of tweedy, Celt-ish earth magic found only in certain mid-century English horror films. Deliciously scary hi-jinks ensue.

In Jason Haxton's 'The Dibbuk Box,' a trail of mid- to large size catastrophes seem to follow the box around, pinging everyone with the bad luck to enter its orbit. The spookiest thing that happened to me was someone (presumably a publicist) arriving at my blog by googling 'dibbuk box' while I was reading it.  I'm still holding out hope that The Possession can conjure up a scare or two better than that.