Friday, January 20, 2012


Hey! I'm on the virtual pages of the Yiddish Forward. Pretty cool, huh? The English Forward also gave this blog a nice shout out the other day.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Yiddisher Than Thou

Have you seen this? 'Mother Tongue: A passionate, crusading Yiddisher tries to keep the Eastern European language alive in the cosmopolitan center of the Jewish state', appeared in Tablet magazine on January 12th. It's about the inimitable Mendy Cahan, he of the crooning and the Tel Aviv bus station, and the whole Yiddish against all odds in Israel thing.

Let's unpack, shall we?

Previous discussions of journalism about Yiddish (especially that of Joseph Berger) are useful here to show how vocabulary, style and rhetorical devices tell a story of their own, one that may or may not be in tune with that told on the surface of the text.

The baffling appearance of the word Yiddisher is the first thing to give us pause. Yiddisher? Is the author by any chance referring to Mendy's membership in a Jewish, anti-fascist street gang of 1930s London? Because I thought he wasn't talking about that anymore.

Or is this the quality of being more Yiddish than the next guy? Well, Mendy probably is more Yiddish than you, more Yiddish than I, more Yiddish than the mohel at Max Weinreich's bris. Mendy isn't Yiddisher, he's Yiddish-est.

Oh. Wait. Not Yiddish-est, but Yiddishist, I think, is the word we were looking for. A person for whom the use of Yiddish has both personal and political valence. Why did Tablet have to make up a word when there was a perfectly good, widely used term already available. But ok. Moving on.

The text of Mother Tongue confirms the existence of yet another category of bankrupt journalistic cliches about Yiddish. This one presents the hapless Yiddish administrator, one whose viability as a leader is as dubious as the half dead, mish-mosh creole he's single handedly reviving. 

We've seen this trope before, in Joseph Berger's story about CYCO, two summers ago. This is how Berger describes Hy Wolfe, director of CYCO:

Mr. Wolfe shamelessly admits that he is praying for a white knight to offer him free space. He wouldn’t object if that savior demanded his head in the deal. 
“I’m the wrong person for this job,” Mr. Wolfe admitted. “They need someone who knows what he’s doing on a computer. I can’t type. I only know Yiddish literature.”
Now take a look at how Daniella Cheslow characterizes Mendy:
[Mendy is] the first to concede he is not the best administrator: He owes roughly $40,000 to city hall for overdue property taxes, he smokes Camel cigarettes inside his library of 40,000 old books, and his meager budget provides the collection with no protection from Tel Aviv’s oppressive summer humidity.
Well, when you put it that way, let me get out my checkbook!

But seriously, reading these articles, what funder wouldn't be moved to pour money into Yiddish, the most quixotic of fool's errands?

From Berger: "Things have gotten so dire that Mr. Wolfe’s companion in the quixotic hunt for a new home is Shane Baker, a 41-year-old Episcopalian from Missouri who fell in love with Yiddish and leads a sister organization that stages folk-singing coffeehouses." 

From Cheslow: "But Cahan, who speaks Hebrew and English as well, also bears a quixotic passion for fully living in the half-dead language he loves."

Quixotic shmixotic. You gotta love a guy who sees the glass is half alive; a Yiddish optimist, if you will.

Mendy Cahan, son of Vishnitz hasidim, is a Belgian-Israeli song and dance man, proprietor of the world's only (I think) bus station based Yiddish center, Yung Yiddish, and all around Yiddish force of nature. Mendy is a one of kind talent who really does it all, poetry, performance, art, community organizing. I've had the pleasure of meeting him a handful of times when he was in New York, finding him to be as charming as you would imagine a man who writes and performs his own Yiddish translations of Jacques Brel. In a word, SWOON!

As Cheslow points out, Mendy has been organizing/collecting Yiddish books since 1990. His organization, Yung Yiddish, isn't just a repository of Yiddish books. Among many other things, it hosts a rocking klezmer melave malke in Jerusalem. And Mendy's Yung Yiddish Purim shpil was, in the words of a Jerusalem based friend of mine, 'off da hook.' 

Yes, Yung Yiddish is, and has been for years, on the edge of financial peril. At the same time, it is, and has been for 20 years or so, a dynamic source of creativity and fellowship in the Israeli Yiddish scene. 

Now, wait, before you get excited about somebody, anybody having some modicum of success in promoting and teaching Yiddish, remember it's our duty to remind them of their failure to achieve a wildly unrealistic goal they never set for themselves:

From Berger: "On a recent afternoon in a Riverside Park playground, a slender, dark-haired man was introducing his 2-year-old boy to hopscotch. The scene was classic American father and son, except that they were speaking Yiddish. The man, David G. Roskies, who teaches Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has no illusions that he and the sprinkling of other Americans who are raising their children in this Jewish vernacular are sparking any major revival." 
From Cheslow: "For all the recent enthusiasm in Israel for Yiddish, however, its biggest champions acknowledge that reviving the language is an ongoing struggle. The generation of people who speak it as a mother tongue is aging." 
What is the point of this story? Is it to tell the story of Mendy Cahan and a Yiddish 'revival' in Israel? Because that story has been written many times. As in the United States, it can seem that Yiddish in Israel is only a legitimate subject of journalism when framed as 'dead' or 'reviving.' As I pointed out before, the narrowness of the Yiddish!Revival! narrative keeps the conversation about Yiddish at the stingiest level of superficiality, ever and always rehearsing the salient plot points of Yiddish's demise and resurgence; in this case, the official apparatus to suppress Yiddish in Israel, the vigilante violence against Yiddish speakers, the patronizing or vulgar voice in which Yiddish is invoked in Israeli popular culture, if at all. 

All of these things are true and and only partially true. For example, (according to Joshua Fishman) from the 1950s to the 1970s the publication of Yiddish books in Israel increased by 500%.  At the same time, the number of books published in Yiddish far exceeded the number published in other world languages. In 1970, 54 Yiddish books were published in Israel but only 8 in French and 6 in German. In fact, the world center of Yiddish publishing had shifted to the state of Israel. Not a revival of Yiddish as a vernacular, ober s'iz oykhet nisht keyn kleynikayt.

The position of Yiddish in Israel is a lot more complicated than toggling between 'alive-ish' and 'dead-ish.' Cheslow writes that Mendy is "determined to save the language from extinction in the Jewish state..."Though it's not as sexy, the future of any minority language lies not with any single person or project but with the emergence of a cultural will to preserve and institutional support to transmit. Mendy is a tremendous asset to the Yiddish community in Israel, but he cannot 'save' Yiddish. And I don't really think that's his goal. I suspect Mendy persists in his project for the same reason anyone is drawn to expressing themselves in Yiddish: it's a vital part of who he is. Within Yiddish the fragments of a modern identity are brought into conversation: French cabaret crooner, Hasidic bokher, twenty first century Israeli. Yung Yidish is as much a personal expression of one man's rooted cosmopolitanism as it a 'crusade' to save Yiddish.

What would happen if journalists were not allowed to talk about reviving, saving, or tekhias hameysim when it came to Yiddish. What if Yiddish had to be confronted as more than "a language often confined to old folk songs?" Unfortunately, most journalists writing about Yiddish don't know anything about Yiddish and kal v'khoymer, they don't know any Yiddish. Without any kind of grounding in the language and culture it is near impossible to go further. Cheslow can refer to Mendy's band Mendy Cahan and der Yiddish Express, but she can't offer any insights into his choice of songs, his interpretation, the possible resonances found in his Yiddish version of Ne Me Quitte Pas. 

Though these articles are written with the best of intentions and seek to bring attention to worthy organizations desperate for financial help, it is clear the journalists writing them (and the editors editing them) cannot (or will not) go deeper than the confines of the Yiddish!Revival! narrative. And, as demonstrated earlier, this narrative is not a friendly one. The revival narrative is patronizing and reinforces the very cliches about Yiddish which are used to marginalize and delegitimize it. Articles like Mother Tongue keep people talking about Yiddish, but that conversation, in my opinion, is going nowhere, fast.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Shane Bertram Baker via the magic of Vaudephone!

Check out this fantastic clip of Shane Baker performing astounding feats of mesmerism most foul.

If you like that (and even if you don't) you should see Shane live, this February 18-19, as he brings his show, The Big Bupkis! A Complete Gentile's Guide to Yiddish Vaudeville, to the JCC in Manhattan

But don't take my word for it. Read this totally impartial profile of Shane from a major national newspaper.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Men Act, Women Watch John Berger Talk About Painting

It's art history. It's Marxism. It's feminism. It's cultural criticism. With just a dash of fun, ironic fonts. This is John Berger's legendary BBC documentary, Ways of Seeing.

If In Search Of created a generation of paranormalists, Ways of Seeing launched the senior theses of a thousand wannabe radical art historians. (Myself included)

(This is the first of four pwogwams)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Tantshoyz Yiddish Dance Party, January 25th

Yiddish Party People! Tantshoyz is the best. Tantsyhoyz is da bomb. Tantshoyz will make your thighs burn for the next three days. I've said it before and I'll say it again, you make me feel like Yiddish dancin'.

Come out to the East Sixth Street Community Synagogue on Wednesday, January 25th at 8 pm.  Live band, live dancing, live booze. You got something better to do?

ס'קומט באלד אן

Two upcoming Yiddish events not to be missed:

This Thursday, a rare New York appearance by two men on the cutting edge of jumpsuit and beard technology, brothers by a different mother and father, Daniel Kahn (Detroit, Berlin) and Psoy Korolenko (Moscow, Outer Space).

At the JCC of Manhattan, Thursday January 12, at 8:00 pm. $20.*

And Sunday, January 29th at 1:30 pm at the Sholem Aleichem Center in the Bronx, California based operatic bass, Anthony Russell, performing the repertoire of Yiddish legend Sidor Belarsky. Belarsky is probably best known to the movie going public through the use of his version of Dem Milner's Trern in the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man.

*I may or may not be in the back pouring vodka shots.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Is This the Infamous Mussar Shmooze All the OTD Blogs Warned Me About?

This guy wants to warn us about the khilul hashem of masturbation. He delivers his shmooze with a deeply disconcerting sangfroid. Maybe that's how they get you. I mean, how do you respond to that? I'd stop, wouldn't you?

Also, once a week?  

Friday, January 6, 2012

Rootless Cosmopolitan, Born in the Final Days of Cut and Paste Publishing

In late 2002 I got some news from the ed. board of a magazine called 'Heeb'. My angry letter to the editor was going to be published in their next issue. However, the letter would be edited down to a shadow of its enraged glory. Well, rage that beautiful can't be locked away for long. I conceived of a vehicle for my angry 'Heeb' letter, as well as my angry rants, angry lists and angry doodles. Rootless Cosmopolitan, a 'zine about Roots and Culture (yes, I was dating a reggae musician at the time) was born. Full text of the angry letter which started it all is on the front page.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Get On My Bookshelf!

Hey, you guys learned about Dibbuk Boxes in Hebrew school, right? You know... haunted Jewish wineboxes. (Well, we didn't call it a haunted Jewish winebox in Hebrew school. We called it a haunted 'usish' winebox, but whatevs.) The Dibbuk Box contains mysterious tschotshkes and a couple bottles of liquor your parents got as housewarming presents in 1977.

And every time it's opened it it will fuck. shit. up.   ptoo ptoo ptoo.

OK, you remember all the words to Hatikvah and you don't remember your Dibbuk Box lessons? For shame. Good thing I'll be reviewing that shizz for the Forward.
A series of eerie events slowly unfolds when a wine cabinet sells at an estate sale in Oregon. It is soon sold and resold on eBay’s Internet auction, and each new owner becomes desperate to get rid of the box along with the health problems, accidents, or death they claim came with it.     Jason Haxton, the curator of a medical museum in a small Missouri town, learns of the mysterious cabinet and is intrigued by it as an artifact to be studied and researched. He places a bid on eBay and soon finds himself the proud owner of the dibbuk box. But as he carefully investigates and records everything he can about this unusual item said to be possessed by a Jewish spirit, Haxton discovers far more than he bargained for. In this true account, a dark story comes to light—a story that began at the time of the Holocaust and seems to have come full circle.

And here's something I won't be reviewing on account of it being edited by two of my favorite professors of all things Yid-ish, Joel Berkowitz and Barbara Henry, so I'm a little biased.  But take it from an impartial observer, you should read Inventing the Modern Yiddish Stage: Essays in Drama, Performance, and Show Business and/or assign it for your Jewish studies classes. Pre-order now!!!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Straw Man

As noted in my previous postthe theme of Yiddish!Revival! is a journalistic evergreen, no matter how long the so-called revival has been going or how often the same article is written.

Any 'revival' is contingent upon death. The phoenix isnt reborn until he has become ash. Thus Yiddish!Revival! articles must invoke, to some degree, the death of Yiddish, whether by Holocaust, by assimilation or by simple neglect.

For some writers, however, invoking Yiddish's death, or futility, becomes more than just a perfunctory genre element, but a theme all its own. The most mundane story can be transformed into a referendum on the legitimacy of Yiddish merely by employing a false or disingenuous counterpoint, otherwise known as a straw man argument.

What's a straw man argument? For instance, if a man (or woman) tells me that Feminism is irrelevant because all feminists hate pornography, or all feminists do this or believe that.  My actual, feminist, opinion on the subject is irrelevant, to say the least. At that point I know we're not having a conversation or even a debate. I'm merely serving as target practice for his (or her) wisdom. A straw man argument signals both a lack of interest in a subject and, often enough, lurking hostility.

When it comes to Yiddish, straw man arguments often include (but are not limited to) the propositions that 1. Yiddish can never be revived as a vernacular  and, relatedly 2. Yiddish culture is a futile or quixotic pursuit.

I don't know any Yiddishist, no matter how hardcore (and I know the hardest of the hardcore), who claims his efforts will, or are intended to, revive Yiddish as a vernacular among a significant portion of the Jewish population. And I've never met a Jewish musician who spent any time worrying about whether or not his/her efforts could replicate the vibrant Jewish culture lost in the machinery of Americanization. The musicians I know are too busy recording, jamming, writing, and sometimes even practicing, to waste time worrying. 

The Yiddishists I know 'do' Yiddish for the pleasure of speaking the language and for the richness it brings to their lives and to their communities. Not to convert the masses to Yiddish, not to diminish Hebrew, not to return everyone to the muddy streets of Pinsk.

And yet I find an odious 'on the other hand' too often injected into stories about the vibrant, forward looking world of Yiddish arts and culture. As a result, otherwise optimistic narratives acquire a musty, lugubrious tone and an innuendo of failure whispers behind what should be considered success stories. A few examples:

"It would be misleading to suggest that the crowd of 25 that listened to Mr. Levitt the other day was as fervent as a mosh pit. With all those illnesses, there was a weary, fatalistic air about the room..."(Lifting Spirits with Music Passed Down Through the Generations, Joseph Berger, New York Times, 11/30/2010)
"To some the enterprise could seem pointlessly nostalgic, since Yiddish is flourishing only among the Hasidim, for whom it is the lingua franca, and virtually vanishing elsewhere with the passing of Jews who came to the United States from Poland and Russia before and after World War II.... The resurgence of klezmer gives everyone a sliver of hope." (No Need to Kvetch, Yiddish Lives On in Catskills, Joseph Berger, New York Times, 11/25/2010)
"On a recent afternoon in a Riverside Park playground, a slender, dark-haired man was introducing his 2-year-old boy to hopscotch. The scene was classic American father and son, except that they were speaking Yiddish. The man, David G. Roskies, who teaches Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has no illusions that he and the sprinkling of other Americans who are raising their children in this Jewish vernacular are sparking any major revival."  (For Yiddish, a New But Smaller Domain, Joseph Berger, 10/11/1987)
"The survival of Yiddish in America is an on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand story. Yiddish, once the language of the Jews of Eastern Europe, is undoubtedly moribund, with its last full-throated speakers, Holocaust survivors, now well into their 80s and 90s. (A smattering of their children speak it through sheer willpower whenever they can buttonhole a comprehending ear, but some, like this writer, grew up nagging parents to speak English and regrettably saw their first language wither.)" (Shop Speaking Tevye's Language Needs Rich Man's Aid, Joseph Berger, 8/25/2010

In each of these articles the 'other side of the story' only serves to undermine its subjects. Dave Levitt has no interest in causing senior citizens to mosh. David Roskies wouldn't claim to be interested in sparking a full scale revival of Yiddish as a vernacular. And the woes of the CYCO bookstore owe less to the 'death of yiddish' than to the mass digitization of Yiddish literature. (No one wants to pay if they can get it for free, a problem shared by the music, motion picture and television industries.)

But this straw man is impervious to facts and, to my own great dismay, it observes no respectful distance in the darkest times.

Last week we lost a woman who was, among her many achievements, at the heart of modern Yiddish music, Adrienne Cooper. Amid the grief of the community she helped create, it was a not-insignificant comfort to see Adrienne's life recognized with an obituary in one of the most influential newspapers in the world, the New York Times. But even in this, her unparalleled achievements could not be allowed to stand unchallenged:

Though the movement Ms. Cooper helped start in the 1970s and ’80s was often described as a Yiddish revival, less sentimental observers acknowledged that a true revival of the spoken language among secular Jews was unlikely, given that people who had learned it in their homes, like Holocaust survivors and children of turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrants, were dying out. But because of the teaching and organizational work of Ms. Cooper and a handful of others, klezmer has become a popular current of the music mainstream and Yiddish courses are given at scores of colleges.(Adrienne Cooper, Yiddish Singer, Dies at 65, Joseph Berger, 12/28/2011) 
And that's the third paragraph.

Who are these 'less sentimental observers'? Who are these people who cannot encounter living, breathing Yiddish culture without also cursing it by passive-aggressive clap trap? Who on earth, I ask, would come to praise an irreplaceable cultural icon by calling her life's work "quixotic"?

Inserting these dour straw men isn't a matter of good journalism. After all, the articles cited above are soft, human interest pieces ostensibly intended to celebrate their subjects. Any 'controversy' therein is a projection of the author.

If I may take the liberty (and I'm sure I'll hear from those who feel I cannot), I think I can safely say that for those of us who engage with Yiddish culture in some sort of meaningful, creative way, what we want is to have our projects taken seriously by the Jewish community. We want resources and respect for projects which are successful on their own terms. We want to have our music, our play groups, our institutions, our lives' work judged, if they must be judged, on their own merits, not against some bullshit  'common wisdom' which isn't so wise, or so common.

But when you frame it as Berger does with such relish, Yiddish culture today is a 'wistful' (a favorite word of his) failure. 

But whose failure is it? Is it ours? Or is it the failure of the author who writes that he, himself, regrets nagging his Holocaust survivor parents to speak English and who wishes he hadn't let his first language, Yiddish, 'wither away'. 

With friends like these, Yiddish needs no enemies.


No, not OTB. And, oh my, not OTK.

No, OTD. Off the derech. The state of having left the traditional/Orthodox/Hasidic life and community. Also, a state of mind wherein one's soul is already at the diner eating a cheeseburger with a beautiful blond girlfriend even while one's body is eating kugel at a plastic covered dining room table.

The OTD experience has spawned a universe of its own blogs. I'll admit that I'm about five or six years late to this phenomenon. Many of the best OTD blogs have been inactive for quite a while as their owners have either worked out their issues and begun new lives or made peace with things as they are.

My gateway blog was actually Frum Satire. Frum Satire is disappointingly light on actual satire. But it got me hooked on the sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, most times horny, genre of the Yeshiva memories story. That, in turn, led me to Yeshiva Forum for more.

Different from the Yeshiva/youth oriented content of Frum Satire and Yeshiva Forum are the Chasidic/Ex-Chasidic blogs. A good place to start is Unpious, an excellent group blog with a lively mix of stories, reviews, rants and links to all things OTD.

Chasidic OTD blogs are utterly compelling. For one, they remind of why I first fell in love with reading blogs. I'm nosy, too curious for my own good. The inner life of the person next to me on the subway is way more interesting than a single episode of some fake reality show. Stumbling on a good personal blog is like catching my across-the-airshaft Israeli neighbors walking around naked. Which they did a lot. If they weren't going to close the drapes I wasn't going to look away.

The Chasidic OTD blogs are, in their own way, as sensational as the naked Israelis. Many of the best ones come from the extremes of the Hasidic universe, especially Satmar. What is it like to grow up in Brooklyn and be almost totally alienated from English and American culture? What is it like to feel trapped in a community, in a marriage to someone you met for an hour at the age of 18? What on earth do I, a thoroughly American, high achieving, child-free, Yiddish romantic have in common with a Williamsburg Jew? A good question.

As some of you probably know, at one time (and another) I was involved with a gentleman of the chasidic persuasion. After all this time he remains mysterious to me, a mystery inside an enigma wearing a dirty hoodie. And though he came from a place far removed from the isolation of Satmar Williamsburg, I'm still trying to penetrate the psyche of the chasidic yingerman. Reading OTD blogs feels like a window onto that mindset.

Not all of the Chasidic OTD blogs are serious. Some are downright dada. Some are incredibly well written, as well as funny and fascinating.

So, I shared mine. What are some of your favorite OTD blogs? I only mentioned English blogs, as I find chasidic Yiddish thick as fog and I'm lost inside it. But maybe you're not? Do tell in the comments.

And now, just for reading, here's a gift for you, because sometimes, the grass really isn't greener and you have to just accept what is, vos zol zayn, vet zayn.

(For Olga)

Monday, January 2, 2012


By now you have probably heard the news. Last week we lost Adrienne Cooper, our friend, teacher, mentor, boss, activist, mother, spiritual mother, eyshes khayil and tireless inspiration.

(from the Yiddish Divas website)

Even after the beautiful memorial yesterday at Anshe Chesed, her loss feels unreal, shocking. How could she be gone? Adrienne wasn't just at the center of the Yiddish/Klezmer world, she seemed to be one of its permanent features, she had always been there and always would, in fact, just like a parent. In a scene where continuity was a hard fought battle, Adrienne was gor mamoshesdik, a solid link in the chain of continuity.

One of the best tributes to Adrienne has been this radio piece by Jon Kalish for WNYC. No story about Adrienne is really complete unless you get to hear her magnificent voice.

This tribute  by Jeffrey Shandler is also beautiful.  And please go to the terrific Jewish Women's Archive for a growing collection of memories and stories of Adrienne's life and her impact all over the world.

And please, if you don't own Adrienne's latest CD 'Enchanted' please buy it right away. It was one of the absolute best Jewish music CDs of the year.

We all owe so much to Adrienne. Now we owe it to her to honor her life and her legacy by keeping alive her vision of artistic exploration and social justice. Adrienne's family has asked that if you wish to make a donation in her memory, please do so with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.