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: "...one 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!