Sunday, December 30, 2018

Unusual Jews

Happy almost goyish New Year! 
(Jump to the bottom for a couple juicy Yiddish events)

Despite having a disgusting cold, I just spent a magical almost-week at Yiddish New York. One of my personal highlights was having the honor of presenting my work to friends and colleagues. First, I gave an updated and expanded version of a lecture debuted last year called 'The Deathless Klezmer Revival.' In order to understand better what's been going on in the past oh, 46 years of the 'Klezmer Revival', I dove into some comparative revival history. Did you know about the ragtime revival of the '70s? I didn't before I wrote this lecture, but boy, do I now. In addition to doing comparative history, we talked about the elements of a revival, how they apply to the work being done on klezmer, and why the word 'revival' just won't go away. It was really, really fun.

My second lecture was completely new. 'The Most Unusual Jew I Know' was written in honor of my friend Shane Baker's yoyvl, his fiftieth birthday. I opened with a brief overview of Shane's multi-varied body of work, from literary translator to teacher to performer. But what I really focused on were Shane's influences: from the downtown camp extravaganzas of Charles Ludlam to the fabulous women of the Yiddish stage. All of those influences can be seen in his newest, and in my opinion, most significant, new work, a drag character called Mitzi Manna. It's in the persona of Mitzi that all these influences speak- across artistic milieux, across time, and across continents. Throw in a dollop of Judith Butler (no, but seriously) and you've got an extremely entertaining, and, if I do say so myself, provocative afternoon.

Shane as Mitzi Manna as the non-binary Jew

Both lectures are available for your Hadassah meeting, university Yiddish club or Hillel. I can even bring Shane, too, if you have the budget.

If you missed Shane's triumphant performance as Mitzi during Yiddish New York, you can still catch his brilliant new interpretation of MONISH, the classic Peretz prose poem about Yiddish romance. I thought I had heard everything there was to hear about Monish. Until I saw this production. I'm serious. You need to see this.

The show will be preceded by a concert by visiting pianist David Serebryanik, including Three Piano Pieces by Georg Kreisler; Gershwin's Preludes; excerpts from Viktor Ullmann's The Lay of Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke; as well as original preludes of David's own.


Wednesday, January 2nd
7:30 PM
Scorca Hall at Opera America
330 Seventh Avenue, 7th Floor
Admission $25

Get your tickets here

....Coming up later this week at the Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center in the Bronx, Sunday, January 6th at 1:30. Rukhl Schaechter, Editor of the Forverts will be speaking (in Yiddish) on possibly the most divisive topic in Jewish history, gefilte fish. Lecture followed by (if a devastating sweet vs. pepper brawl hasn't broken out) a performance by the fabulous Sasha Lurje

Contribution: $5 Members: Free.
Information: 917-930-0295

And finally, so much of what happens during the year in the Yiddish and klezmer world is facilitated by magic of Klezkanada. Please think about giving them an end of year donation to keep the magic going.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Yep, It's a Thing

My latest for Hey Alma, Yiddish Porn is Officially a Thing, is up now.

My editor made me take out the best pun, though. Annie Sprinkle has started a new chapter in her life as a fierce protector of water and educator on all things therein, leading to her being the sexiest example of kishmoy ken hu ever.

OK, I got it out of my system. Please click over and give it a (furtive) read!

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

My Great-Grandfather Wasn't a Bundist

It's the end of the year and I'm shaking things up a little. I've posted two long read essays over at Medium. One is called My Great-Grandfather Wasn't a Bundist and the other is called
Beyond Demographic Panics and Contraceptive Virtuosos: Building a New Jewish Agenda for 2019. Both are kinda self-explanatory, both contain many of the key themes of this year in the Jewish thought-o-sphere,  as well as some thoughts about the future. How's that for an exciting inducement to read?

From Beyond Demographic Panics

They're both pretty good, if I do say so myself, so please, click on over and take a read.


Saturday, December 1, 2018

Kortn-shpiln iz an umglik -- and other lessons from Yiddish Communists

Hey! It's Khanike and my new Golden City is here, all about the weirdness of everyone's favorite eight day festival of something something miracles? oppression? triumph of Jewish zealots? latkes?

In any case, it's a week to argue about our conflicts and contradictions. I guess that makes Khanike the best Jewish holiday!

Rather than think about the weirdness of the story of Khanike, my Golden City this week takes a look at how Khanike figures in stories by Sholem Aleichem and I.L. Peretz. It's all about got's vunders/holy miracles vs. the wheel of fortune.

Though card playing was considered treyf, there was one day a year it was not only OK, but encouraged. Not Khanike, but Christmas. As I learned from Michael Wex, because Torah study is often done for the merit of the deceased, no Torah could be learned on Christmas should, khas v’sholem, some of that merit find its way to the guy whose birthday was being celebrated by everyone else. What else to do but the spiritual opposite of learning Torah: spending the night playing cards.
It’s strange isn't it, that one of our most beloved Jewish festivals, Khanike, is so strongly associated with gambling. I speak, of course, of dreydl. Lucky for the gambling-mad hero of “Benny’s Luck,” “there was one week of the year when we were allowed to gamble. Did I say ‘allowed’? It was considered a good deed to gamble, a regular commandment! That was the week of Chanukah and we played with the dreydl.” Our narrator is perhaps exaggerating for his own justification. While the other boys enjoy playing dreydl, he alone is compelled to it. As we learn, his gambling doesn’t just cost him his lunch money, ultimately, it costs him his dignity.
As I note above, gambling, especially kortn-shpiln/card games, was strongly frowned upon in traditional Judaism. Playing cards was the literal opposite of what an erlikhe Yid was supposed to do. What's interesting though, is how that taboo lingered, even in the most secular, politicized Yiddishist circles. As I was preparing this week's column, I happened to pull a small booklet off my shelf. It's called Zingen Mir/Sing for Peace, and was assembled by Sam Liptzin. In it I found a song called Kortn-shpiln iz an umglik (Playing Cards is a Misfortune), words by Liptzin himself. (It's adapted from a pre-existing song called Libe iz an umglik). How odd that an anti-card playing song is not just being included in a Yiddish folksong collection in 1974, but that it was newly composed! Why? And for whom?

Kortn-shpiln iz an umglik - Playing Cards is a misfortune
Shpiln kortn iz an umglik oyf der velt/
in yeder hoyz, vu dos kumt nor arayn/
es kost-op azoy fil tsayt un gelt/
dertsu iz dos mentshlekh nit fayn
farvos nit lernen beser tsu visn/
un epes der mentshayt gor brengen/
kortn makht fun alts opgerisn/
kortn brengt-- shisn un hengn!
So, not to alarm you, but playing cards only brings misery into every house, it wastes time and money, wouldn't you be better off learning something and becoming a mentsh? Playing cards destroys everything! And it may just get you hung or shot. ...YIKES!

Zingen Mir is an eclectic collection of songs and contributors, with the Star Spangled Banner and We Shall Overcome next to songs from something called Sovetishn Buch- Yidishe Folks Lider (A Soviet Book of Jewish Folk Songs) and poems by Edith Segal. How to describe the milieu from which Zingen Mir arose? It's too easy to say stam Yiddish Communists. What does Yiddish Communists even mean? Zingen Mir is dated 1974,  almost 20 years post-Hungary, post-Kruschev revelations. Who are these people? What are they doing? What did they believe?

I have a slim volume of Edith Segal poetry on my shelf about the Rosenbergs. An ad in the inside of the English language side of Zingen Mir is for 'Tales of a Tailor: Humor and Tragedy in the Struggles of the Early Immigrants Against the Sweatshop'. (Translated from the Yiddish by Max Rosenfeld). Liptzin was a Frayhayt contributor from the very beginning. But I would say his most important contribution, and the way to understand people like him, is through their cultural work, writing poetry, assembling song books, producing texts for teaching, and so forth. The revolution was no longer forthcoming. This movement was now very solidly backward-looking. Which is not to discount the activism of people like Liptzin and his circle. (See especially the activism of the Emma Lazarus Federation for a fascinating example of ongoing radical consciousness.)

The book where I found the Peretz story I reference in my column was put out by YKUF (the Yiddish Communist cultural group) in the 1960s.  I think it's safe to say that these people are not motivated or driven in any real way by the dictates of the Comintern. Which is not to apologize for them or whitewash anything, only to offer a functional analysis of their world. (OK, this is already going very afield, I'm gonna rein it in....)

Given that very particular milieu, why do we find a song about the grave dangers of playing cards in Zingen Mir? I'm not entirely sure. My friend, the Yiddishist and folklorist Itzik Gottesman mentioned to me that there is a khanike feuilleton of Sholem Aleykhem in which he describes going to a khanike party in Kyiv and going around asking, as they do in the gemore, מאי חנוכה -what is khanike and why do we kindle lights? Instead of getting an answer, he is driven away by his friends who only want to play cards. I imagine this is exactly the kind of thing that a kultur-tuer like Liptzin would have read. He may have even grown up in a traditional home where there was a taboo against playing cards.  What matters is not just that the taboo lingered, but that a person like Liptzin, whose job it was to continually refine and repackage material that reflected the values of his peers, thought it was worthy of enshrining in a new 'folk' song so these Yiddish values would continue to be transmitted. And it worked! Here it is, end of 2018, and I can't stop thinking about how goyish it is to play cards.

Got's vunders! A khanike nes! zol zayn a freylikhn!