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.