Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Life After Life

[UPDATE: Part 2 of the After Life Podcast on Jewish Music, What is it About Music, available here, finally!]

I was emailing with a Hasidish friend of mine today. He's a sharp, funny, very well-read guy who has made some kind of peace with his community. Well, maybe less peace than a negotiated state of grudging tolerance. 

For the last couple of months he's been talking about doing a podcast. Blogs in general seem to be losing readers, and OTD blogs peaked a few years ago as the creative outlet of choice. Podcasts, on the other hand, are still gaining momentum. 

Of course, podcasts present unique challenges for those for whom anonymity is key. With a blog it's easy to hide behind a persona and carefully control how much personal info is revealed. With a podcast, well, it's a lot harder to disguise one's voice. And, as my friend wrote to me "Calling attention to oneself is frowned upon here in my circles."

So,  I'll have to wait for my friend's podcast (and my anticipated guest appearances therein as the gawking Yiddishist.) In the meantime, I've discovered a great new podcast called The After Life created by two young ex-Hasidim.  Hosts Sol Feuerwerker and Ushy* Katz are both working toward their undergraduate degrees.  Both are science oriented with delightfully soft,  liberal arts tendencies. 

Their latest episode about Hasidish music was particularly interesting to me. Ushy and Sol profess their continuing love of musicians like Hasidic rock star Lipa Schmeltzer. And they wonder, how is it possible to reject the chauvinism and narrowness of the Hasidish world and yet still love its music, especially when that music is full of the exact same shtus they wanted to leave behind. For example, songs on the theme of shelo asani goy (thanking god for having not been made a goy.) How does a modern, liberal, areligious person relate to such a sentiment?

(a slice of my iTunes library)

I've wondered the same thing. I grew up with plenty of Jewish chauvinism, but the kind that was less... overt. I've chosen to learn Yiddish and engage with many parts of Jewish culture which are difficult to harmonize with my own values. I have tons of songs in my iTunes library espousing values I wouldn't claim as my own, including multiple Ani Ma'amins. I'd hardly say I believe in God, let alone with a perfect faith. Doesn't mean I don't enjoy the songs and appreciate them on their own terms. 

(shiker iz a goy)

It gets stickier though, when it comes to expressions of prejudice or negative stereotypes about other peoples. Like with shelo asani goy. Or, the song shiker iz a goy. I realized a while back I had never heard this song performed (though I've heard it referenced a million times.) It seems that it never made it into the modern Yiddish/klezmer repertoire. But go on youtube and you can see shiker iz a goy hasn't disappeared in the frum community. 

Anyway, negotiating the tension between cultures, American, Hasidish, Yiddish, Jewish-American, is an on-going process, one shared by many of us, not just those who have moved from one culture to the other. I'm looking forward to hearing more from the guys of The After Life, especially their part 2 on Hasidish music.

*Ushy? Sam? Am I not supposed to say anything? 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Zelmenyaners: A Family Saga

There are plenty of English translations of Yiddish literature. But excellent, eminently readable translations? With fantastic notes and explanatory introduction? Pretty rare, I'd say. So I'm happy to tell everyone about a new translations of Moyshe Kulbak's classic comic novel The Zelmenyaners.

I've reviewed it here. Go to Amazon and buy a copy for yourself. You'll thank me later.