Friday, February 28, 2014

Where is Yiddish? Depends on Your Perspective

The Washington Post brings us an interesting chart from the Pew Research Center. The chart tracks language presence in the United States from 1980 to today. Because Yiddish had the most stark decline between then and now (from #11 in 1980 to dead last today) the Pew chart is labeled The decline of Yiddish, the rise of Tagalog. Which, ok, is pretty accurate.  The Washington Post's headline, however, is How We Stopped Speaking Yiddish. Which isn't just bizarrely non-descriptive of this charticle (the 'How' never comes up), it also speaks to the media's love of a good 'Yiddish in decline' narrative.

For comparison, Greek was at  #8 in 1980 with 401,000 speakers. Today it's at #14 with 307,000 speakers. In 1980 Yiddish had 315,000 speakers and today around155,000. (By the way, I'm pretty sure this is an underestimate given the population explosion in the Hasidic world and how that explosion does not show up in official records.) Between 1980 and today both Greek and Yiddish dropped six positions. 

So, why no tears for the dramatic decline of Greek? Italian? Polish?

While the Washington Post leads with the disappearance of Yiddish, Salon reprints Ross Perlin's Jewish Currents piece on Yiddish on the Internet. Perlin, a Yiddishist living in New York,  finds a thriving Yiddish world on line.

The Washington Post may have stopped speaking Yiddish, but there's a whole lot of folks typing, texting and publishing in it online. But you have to be interested in finding them.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Bentsi der Geshtokhener, Nebekh

Yiddish Murder Ballads

Another terrific post from Itzik Gottesman's Yiddish Song of the Week. This one features a recording of Leah (Leyke) Carey, star of the Yiddish stage.

Leyke brings us a Yiddish murder ballad, courtesy of her mother, who was in Zhitomir when the events of the song happened. Bentsi was not such a nice guy, an alfonse (pimp) who was dusted by a couple of his compatriots. Leyke sings Bentsi's tale in an impressive 15 verses.

There's some interesting vocabulary in the song. For example, a shayke is a gang. And ikh hob dir shoyn gefetst (I've done away with you). Stuff you don't use in your day to day casual Yiddish. I imagine. I mean, I don't know you. But I imagine.

Bentsi's turncoat friends are referred to as gite-briderlekh. Itzik translates gite-briderlekh as buddies but notes that it is slang for 'thugs'. I wonder, though, if this is the best translation.

I recall Max Perlman's theater song Ven du lakhst (When You Laugh). He also uses 'gite brider' in a negative sense, but it's not quite thugs. It's more like simply false friends who will abandon you when things are going bad.

ven du lakhst lakhn ale mit dir mit/ ven du vaynst, vaynsti far zikh alayn
gayt dir git feln gite brider nit/ gayt dir shlakht bisti elent vi a shtayn

BONUS: Here's Wolf Krakowski doing Perlman's bluesy lament of the world weary entertainer. That makes one bloody murder ballad of pimpery gone wrong and one reminder of why you shouldn't go into show biz. You're welcome.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

This Thursday at 7 pm - Peretz in a Time of Revolution פּרץ אין אַ צײַט פֿון רעוואָלוציע

A rare Yiddish-only, evening program at YIVO, this Thursday at 7. Not to be missed. 

Dr. Michael Steinlauf (Gratz College) will be speaking (in Yiddish) on I.L. Peretz and the failed revolution of 1905.

"In this talk, Michael Steinlauf (Gratz College) examines Peretz’s ideas during the 1905 Revolution when he developed his fullest articulation of the glories and dangers of building a modern culture in the diaspora."

Read this interview with Dr. Steinlauf  then go sign up for the lecture!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

I Can Identify

You know no one love/hates talking 'identity' more than I do. So I was thrilled to find out today that I was invited to take part in a sure to be provocative conference coming up this spring. It's called 'Rethinking Jewish Identity and Jewish Education' and it aims to bring together an eclectic group of people (that's why they asked me!) to think our way out of this identity quagmire.

As conference co-chair Jon Levisohn blogged earlier: Enough Identity, Already!

From the conference call for proposals:

The concept of “Jewish identity” has been fundamental to post-war policy discourse and scholarship on Jewish education.  With the possible exception of “continuity,” identity (and the attendant fears of its disappearance or weakening) has driven more philanthropic initiatives and educational policy than any other single concept.  
Yet recent research has exposed the problematic nature of this concept.  The combination of strong identity and low engagement, as demonstrated by the recent Pew Report, suggests that the very concept of Jewish identity can no longer shoulder the burden of Jewish educational efforts. The time has come to reconsider the notion of “identity” as the desired outcome of Jewish education.
Standard uses of “identity” by Jewish educators and policy-makers fail to capture the complex ways in which people understand their Jewish commitments, engage with Jewish communities, and enact Jewish practices.  
Approaching identity as an outcome offers a mismatched measure of Jewish education and poorly describes the various and shifting ways in which people live their Jewish lives.

Damn straight. 

The conference isn't until the end of March, but I can't wait!