Friday, December 27, 2019

The Yiddish Decade

It's almost the end of the 2010s, in case you hadn't heard. Jewish Week is running a decade's end wrap up series and they were kind enough to commission something from me. My contribution is a reflection on The Yiddish Decade. It should more properly be called the Yiddishist Decade, but that's really for the quibblers among you.

It won't surprise you that my major theme is the insanity of New York real estate. Biology may have been destiny once upon a time, but around these parts, it's location, location, location.

And as it pertains to Yiddish, I’m now old enough to have had my hopes raised, and utterly dashed, more than once by tantalizing plans and promises for a new, centrally located, brick-and-mortar social space for New York’s thriving Yiddishist community. Not only did we NOT get that dedicated space, our existing spaces kept slipping away:
The loss of CYCO’s prime location was reported as the “nail in the coffin of Yiddish.” But since I moved here over 20 years ago, the churn of unchecked development has increased every year, pushing everyone but the wealthiest residents to the edges of the city. Yiddish is no more a victim than the countless other linguistic, cultural and artistic communities lacking millionaire benefactors.
That reference to "millionaire benefactors" was not accidental. I didn't have room to get into it for the JW piece, but the longer I reflected, the more pissed off I became, and I kept coming back around to the saga of Makor.

In 2001, mega-donor Michael Steinhardt made a historic donation to the 92nd Street Y. He gave the Y a Central Park West brownstone whose purpose was to serve as a clubhouse for young, well to do Jewish singles. As the New York Times reported at the time: 
The five-story, 22,000-foot brownstone will become the eighth center in the Y's chain of cultural institutions. It is valued at $16 million and has a cafe, a 72-seat screening room and an art gallery. ... 
''I am convinced,'' Mr. Steinhardt said, ''that the 92nd Street Y can give Makor programs and synergy and marketing muscle that will take it to the next level of visibility and impact.'' Later, he said he was ''thrilled to have made this shiddach,'' using the Yiddish word for an arranged marriage.
Unlike the Y, Makor has a specific mission: to attract people in their 20's and 30's to events that will teach them about Jewish culture. The center will be renamed the 92nd Street Y Makor/Steinhardt Center and will retain its current focus. Its annual budget and programming will be managed by a committee of board members from the Y and Makor.
In 2006, the 92nd Street Y was looking for funds for renovation of its original Upper East Side location. The leadership of the 92nd Street Y decided to sell the CPW Makor brownstone, now valued at $25 million and use the profit to fund the renovation.

Makor was relocated to a Tribeca location, where it remained between 2008 and 2013. 

I was a fairly frequent visitor to the CPW Makor townhouse, but I think I visited its Tribeca location maybe once or twice in five years. As I recall, to get there you needed to cross a pedestrian bridge, pray, and be prepared to never see your loved ones again, because it was in such a god forsaken spot.

In 2013, the 92nd Street Y executive director released a letter explaining their decision to close the Tribeca location and say goodbye to Makor forever:
"We believe 92Y can best serve the community now and in the future by investing our resources into our flagship location uptown on Lexington Avenue...” 
But the organization would continue “to invest in strategic partnerships and technologies that allow us to offer our programs and create communities far beyond the walls of any building — livecasts, online classes, partnerships ..."

So, to summarize. At the turn of this century, mega-donor Steinhardt buys a $16 million townhouse to serve as a social club for the coveted young, single Jewish demographic. Like with Birthright, a big part of the agenda was getting these unicorns into physical proximity (and serving them in the swanky style to which they were presumably accustomed.) 

Pretty quickly, Steinhardt donates the new social center to the 92nd Street Y to be run and programmed by them. In less than a decade, the 92nd Street Y decides to use Makor (now valued at $25 million) as a piggybank for their own needs and by 2013, Makor was no more. All those magical NYC singles were expected to find their needs met on the Upper East Side, or be on their own.

So, that was a $16 million investment down the toilet in a matter of less than 15 years. Of course, $16 million is pocket change for Steinhardt, whose fortune is estimated at $1 billion. And it's not like the choices of the 92nd Street Y are going to redound to the Jewish singles whose interests were supposedly being served. No one is going to throw up their hands and say it's just pointless to try to reach them or that this was the nail in the coffin of Jewish singles. It would be laughable.

Of course, during those same years,Yiddishists watched many offices/spaces of legacy Yiddish organizations either shrink radically, or disappear altogether, for want of far, far smaller cash infusions. 

And indeed, the brutalities of the real estate market were inevitably interpreted as the death of Yiddish and lost offices were the nail in its coffin

In my opinion, the only Yiddish organization that came out ahead at the end of the decade is YIVO, with a state of the art, centrally located space and (relatively) bright financial future. And YIVO is terrific and hosts many wonderful, irreplaceable classes, events and meetings. But (for various reasons) it can never take the place of a social center run for the benefit of artists and activists.

Just imagine if some donor (mega- or not) had seen fit to donate just a fraction of that Makor money to Yiddishists and other Ashkenazic culture workers. Ours is a demographic which, if anyone actually bothered to ask, skews quite young. And our achievements, mostly on the wispiest of budgets, are quite impressive. 

But maybe don't imagine what might have been, because the reality is just too damn infuriating.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Catching Up

In case you don't follow me on social media, I thought I'd give you an update on what I've been doing.

*For the holiday of Sukes/Sukkot, I wrote about the magic of the pitom in Yiddish literature
*The Jewish Chronicle published a truly nonsensical attack on Yiddler and the Yiddish language. I wrote a response for Haaretz. 
*I scratched just the very top layer of the topic of non-Jews in Yiddish
*We dove into post-Revolution Russia and the pogroms that changed Jewish history forever and set the stage for the Holocaust
*Do you hate October and pink themed merchandise as much as I do? Then read this op-ed I wrote for JTA
and finally... 
*I reviewed French journalist Piotr Smolar's new memoir about three generations of his family, <<MAUVAIS JUIF>>. I was most interested in his grandfather, Hersh Smolar, known to Yiddishists as the long time editor of the Warsaw Folks-shtime and the man who 'broke' the story of Kruschev's secret speech and the decimation of Yiddish culture in the Stalinist era. Hersh's biography is still waiting to be written.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Coming on November 4: Rokhl Oyerbakh, The Bridge Between Wartime and Postwar Testimony

I wanted to make sure you're all aware of a truly special  conference coming up on November 4th: 

Rokhl Oyerbakh, The Bridge Between Wartime and Postwar Testimony

Presented by the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University Library

I just got the official program and it looks amazing. Talks go from Oyerbakh's formative years as a public intellectual to her participation in the Oyneg Shabes group in the Warsaw Ghetto to her tireless work gathering testimony and evidence in the post-war period.

Oyerbakh is a hero of mine and I wrote a little bit about her legacy here. I'm very much looking forward to this groundbreaking examination of her life and work.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Paul Robeson

(Go and read my new column on Paul Robeson and Yiddish and then come back and read the rest)

Once he was asked why, being so critical of the United States, he did not move to the Soviet Union. “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country,” Robeson said, “and I am going to stay right here and have a part of it.” 

from We Are Long Overdue for a Paul Robeson Revival by Peter Dreier

This year two anniversaries are bringing attention to the life of one of the towering American personalities of the 20th century: Paul Robeson. It's the 100th anniversary of his graduation from Rutgers University as well as the 70th anniversary of the Peekskill Riots, a shameful chapter in New York history sparked by a benefit concert at which Robeson was the headliner.

This week, my Golden City column is on the theme of Robeson and Yiddish. As usual, my only problem was too much material and not enough room. But I still managed to feature some great stuff and I hope you'll click over and read and enjoy.

It's disheartening that these days, more often than not, when Paul Robeson is the subject of serious discussion, it's being done by people who are pursuing an anti-Communist agenda, and, by extension, pursuing their case against Robeson as a tragic Stalinist dupe. For these people, the tragedy of Robeson's life was Stalinism.

I hardly think we need to gloss over Robeson's mistakes or apologize for his apologetics. As a matter of respect, we should be able to remember Robeson as a real person, who, along with his outsized talents, had his very human flaws.

But let me be clear. there was one great tragedy of Paul Robeson's life, and one alone: American white supremacy. 

Imagine that he was exactly one generation removed from American slavery and managed to get himself to a prestigious private college where he was only the third African-American to ever attend. 

  • At Rutgers Robeson was the star football player, yet, he had to be benched when the team from Washington and Lee wouldn't take the field against an African-American player.

  • He was Rutgers valedictorian and a Glee club member but couldn't travel with or socialize with the Glee club

  • After law school he suffered similar humiliations at the white law firm he joined. He finally left the law after a white stenographer refused to take dictation from him.

  • In 1924 he was starring in a Eugene O'Neill play in Greenwich Village but couldn't find a restaurant in the neighborhood that would serve him.

  • In 1940, when in Los Angeles to give a concert, he was refused a room at the fancy 'Whites Only' hotels. The Beverly Wilshire finally rented him a room, but at a much higher price, and on the condition that he registered under a fake name.

And on and on and on. This is only the tiniest sample of what Robeson, an extremely privileged and visible African-American of his time, experienced. You could literally be the most famous man in the world, but in the eyes of white Americans, and American law, you were just another *******.  To me, the emphasis from some quarters on Robeson's 'crimes' seem like a diversion away from those with real power, the people who created and sustained systems of inequality and oppression, both in the US and the USSR.

Even if Robeson had repented and issued his own denunciations of Stalin? Would that have saved Feffer? Or Mikhoels? Or one human being? The only thing that stopped Stalin's madness was his own death. The outsized denunciations of Robeson ascribe to him a level of power that borders on delusional.

Anyway, there is still much to be explored in Robeson's work and legacy and I hope you'll click over to my piece and be inspired.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Queer Yiddishkayt

It’s June! Happy Pride!

My new GOLDEN CITY is up and it’s on the theme of Queer Yiddishkayt. I realized, too late for the column, that this is the 30thanniversary of the Klezmatics’ first, landmark album, Shvaygn iz Toyt (Silence = Death.) Though musically it was quickly surpassed as the band matured and delved deeper into Jewish music (and made many exuberant collaborations), it still stands as bold statement on who the band was and what they were about. Taking the album name from the AIDS activist ACT-UP slogan, the Klezmatics asserted their sexual-political commitments and suggested that if silence was deadly to gay and lesbians, so to was silence a kind of cultural death. Yiddish would be silent no more. 

One of the things I note in my piece is that not only has the intersection between Queer and Yiddish been an important site of new art and scholarship, Queer Jews (and non-Jews) have been wildly over-represented in the klezmer (and Yiddish) ‘revival’ from the very beginning. Naturally, people both within and without the scene have asked Why? Is it because Yiddish cultural spaces are less tied up with the heteronormativity and misogyny of traditional Judaism? Is it because they are an escape from the macho bs of Israeli culture? Or that they exist outside the exhausting battle between American Zionism and the Israel-skeptical?

To be honest, I think the answer is a little of all of those, and maybe more. More importantly, I’m not sure I’m so interested in the question. I think spaces where queer Jews are underrepresented should be more concerned with what is keeping folks away

Of course, queer Jews, and queerness, have always been with us. Before our time of sexual liberations, though, Yiddish queerness was often submerged and sublimated in a galaxy of ways that will no doubt keep scholars busy for another hundred years. When I set out to write my column on Queer Yiddish I remembered something that piqued my straight-girl gaydar a few years ago.

If you imagined Fellini’s Satyricon as a documentary about Jews and narrated by David Attenborough, you’re in the general vicinity of Peter Davis’s oddball documentary The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt. Shot in the early 1980s, it’s mostly about a particular crew of old timers at Sackett Lake and their desire to cling to their summer ways, even as their children abandon the old traditions.

I found a bad bootleg of the movie on YouTube a few years ago. What really got my attention was its depiction of a Catskills ‘mock wedding.’ A man and a woman (each in drag) are married in a parody of a Jewish wedding, to the positively bacchanalian screams of their ‘guests.’ 

According to the not-David Attenborough narration, the mock wedding, once found all over the Catskills, and now out of fashion for twenty years, is being revived today (1983), with a mix of Jewish and Christian elements. At the khupe, the ‘bride’ suddenly gives birth to a plastic babydoll. The scene is extremely weird, and the terrible quality of the video heightens the eeriness. You could easily cut it up and pitch The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Beltas a found footage folk horror movie, the story of an isolated group of Ashkenazi Jews on a lake hiding a secret pagan fertility cult.

The transgressive qualities of the mock wedding make it a natural for contemporary reappropriation. Fittingly, at least one drag wedding happened at Klezkamp, itself a reworking of the Jewish Catskill experience.  The participants were an eclectic Klezkamp mix, with music by an actual Hasidic band leader and dancing led by a scholar of Hasidic dance. The bride’s dress, made of paper, was constructed by another dance leader, moonlighting as a designer.  

In 2005, the klezmer punk band, Golem, staged a drag wedding at the Knitting Factory. It made enough of a stir to be featured in the national edition of the New York Times.

Band leader Annette Ezekiel discovered the tradition in a book about the Catskills. As to the impulse behind it, she told the Times, "I suspect they did it in the Catskills for the very reasons that we are: that carnivalesque desire to make fun of social rules and hierarchies. After all, these were new immigrants trying to assimilate into American life, and yet they had their Jewish traditions. I think this was their way of letting loose, turning tradition on its head, celebrating it, making fun of it."

In The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt, mock weddings are explained as being an easily produced piece of amateur theater, especially suited to the more frugal hotels with smaller entertainment budgets.

It struck me as curious that drag would be considered standard fare for Jewish entertainment. Today, in an era when many working within Yiddish are especially alert to the queer subtexts of Ashkenazi culture, I wondered if the Castkills drag wedding was another piece of that queer history, hiding in plain sight.

Turns out, it’s not quite that simple. Mock weddings are found all over the United States. Often, their purpose is not to ritually let loose lurking alterity, but to reinforce existing norms. In the South, mock weddings were associated with blackface performance and both were used to reinforce boundaries of race and sex.

Pleasure is subjective. It's possible the Catskills drag weddings were about all these things: negotiating the demands of tradition and assimilation, reinforcing and subverting gender roles, as well as providing cheap entertainment. Perhaps, as in the American South, Catskill mock weddings were a way of expressing anxiety about social norms and reminding everyone how absurd it looks for men and women to trade roles. And, surely, some of the participants simply enjoyed dressing in drag.

Is the mock wedding a mostly forgotten vein of Jewish gender playfulness, still awaiting further investigation? Absolutely. Would I go so far as claiming it as a site of historic Yiddish queerness? Probably not.  

Then again, I shall reserve final judgment until I read the definitive paper in In Geveb.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Future of the Past of Yiddish Cinema

My latest Golden City is up and in honor of this summer's Film Forum retrospective **, it's all about Yiddish Cinema.

In the last few years we’ve seen a mini-explosion of new films entirely or partly in Yiddish: Felix and MeiraRomeo and Juliet in Yiddish, and Menashe to name a few. I asked Sara Feldman, preceptor in Yiddish at Harvard University, what she thought these films had to say about the future of Yiddish cinema. Feldman teaches a course on Yiddish cinema at Harvard, one of few such academic courses in the world. She told me that “much of the current revival of Yiddish film is not conscious of its connection to classic Yiddish films, but rather emerges from a desire to portray the lives of contemporary Yiddish-speakers in Haredi communities. …”

It's understandable that filmmakers will be inexorably drawn to the stories of the modern Hasidic community. It's an exotic world apart, right there in the middle of Brooklyn. And it also makes sense that those who want to create new Yiddish drama will set their stories in a community where the presence of Yiddish is natural. But it's a challenging proposition for outsiders to pull off.

First, there's the question of who will be in their Yiddish movie? A number of fine Yiddish speaking actors have emerged from the ex-Hasidic community recently. As I was researching this latest column I messaged my friend Eli Rosen. He's in Berlin right now shooting a new mini-series based loosely on the story of Deborah Feldman, a Hasidic woman who left the community and moved to Germany. The production is in English and Yiddish. Eli only started acting recently but he's been busy with many Yiddish speaking roles, appearing in numerous plays, tv shows, independent films and more.

Then there's the question of the outsider's gaze upon the Hasidic world. There's a very real danger of falling into romantic and exoticising tropes about the 'tragic' lives of those on the inside. And filmmakers who don't speak Yiddish may end up making artistic choices that create unintended subtexts, as in Menashe. The director chose to cast one of the main roles with an actor who came from outside Hasidic Brooklyn and speaks a distinctly different kind of Yiddish. Young Ruvn Niborski was a fantastic find for the role of Menashe's son, but his presence is an interesting slippage of the mimetic veneer of what I called the first Yiddish mumblecore

I spoke to Harvard Yiddish professor Saul Noam Zaritt about Menashe and the figure of the Hasid in modern Yiddish cinema. He pointed out that it was Menashe Lustig (who plays Ruvn's father, the title role of Menashe) who had to conform his Yiddish to Ruvn's, because young Ruvn wasn't going to be able to speak Borough Park Yiddish. This raises questions about the impossibility of 'authenticity' of modern Yiddish cinema as it tries to square the circle of 'ethnographic fiction.' “This authenticity is so important to the film maker trying to repair the objectification of the Hasidic figure. But in clinging to this authenticity they usually reconstitute these objectifications.”

Zaritt told me, “Menashe is a movie that begins from a documentary perspective, and so it evokes a sense of perfect mimesis. All parts of the film have to conform to that conceit, even if the reality is a bit messier.” The film “invades his most intimate of worlds”, yet Menashe Lustig as Menashe the movie character “must change the way he speaks in order for it to remain legible as ‘Yiddish’ film, in order to preserve the sanctity and coherence of that world.” 

I don't think outsiders should stop trying to make movies about the Hasidic/Haredi world, but it's important we unpack the narrative and cinematic implications of outsiders telling these stories. 

One story I'd love to see told in Yiddish is that of Sarah Schenirer, mystic visionary, mother of the Bais Yakov school system. I see her story as akin to another mystical visionary who joined a community of women: Hildegard of Bingen, a woman powered by wild talents and driven to serve God in radical ways. Surely there's some former Bais Yakov girl out there who went to film school and watched too many Ken Russell films...

...Eric Goldman started researching his foundational book Visions, Images & Dreams: Yiddish Film Past and Present in the late '70s, when any scholarship on the field was scattershot and difficult to find, forget about actually locating the movies! Since then, there has been some amount of scholarship on Yiddish cinema, including J. Hoberman's essential Bridge of Light. But the corpus of Yiddish film has exploded in the last few years, and even Goldman's 2010 revised edition is now out of date. Given recent exciting developments in academic Yiddish studies overall (as with the journal In Geveb) it looks like the scholarly study of Yiddish film may finally catch up. When I asked Harvard's Sara Feldman where she saw the academic study of Yiddish film going, she said "...I expect that the new generation of young, queer Yiddishists will expand the work that has already begun regarding queer subtexts in Yiddish film..." At this point I have to give a shout out to drummer, bandleader and film archivist Eve Sicular, who has been researching and presenting on queerness in Yiddish cinema for years and really laid the groundwork. She speaks frequently on the Yiddish celluloid closet and has generally broadened the way we think about the tradition. She's also a maven of movie music in general and if you're in DC this week, you can catch her Music in Yiddish Cinema lecture and concert at the JxJ festival

LATE ADDITION**I just learned that there will a couple very special pre-screening events including:  
Sunday 26 May at 3:50 - Shane Baker introduces The Dybbuk  
Wednesday 5 June at 12:30 - Shane Baker sings comic Yiddish songs with Steve Sterner at the piano as an introduction to American Matchmaker  
Sunday 30 June at 1:35 pm - Shane Baker recites the Yiddish bullfight poem by way of introduction to Overture to Glory
Sunday 23 June at 3:10 - Yiddish film historian Jim Hoberman introduces Mir Kumen On 

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Archival Treasures

My latest GOLDEN CITY is up and it celebrates the hidden heroes of the Yiddish world: the archivists. Really, it was just an excuse to go downtown and finally see the new home of the Forverts and, most importantly, hang out with Forverts archivist, Chana Pollack. 

(1944 Forward Association board ballot, courtesy of the Forverts photo archive)

I won't say too much about my visit with Chana because I want you to read the column. But even given the ups and downs the Forverts archive has been through, its very existence something of a gorgeous miracle. In this age of declining heritage media, it’s far from certain that a publication will even be able to retain its own archive. The recent case of Johnson Publishing, the parent company of Jet and Ebony, is an object lesson in the vulnerability of magazine archives..

Since 1942 Johnson has been the owner and publisher of Ebony and Jet. Over the decades it assembled an astounding archive of some five million photographs. (Compare that to the 40,000 photos held by the Forward, many of which were purchased from news services.) As the climate turned sour for magazines in the last few years, Johnson Publishing tried to use its photo archive to stabilize its finances. It first tried to sell the archive outright and then used it as collateral for a loan from a venture capitalist firm. That firm happened to be run by Mellody Hobson, a high powered financier who happens to be married to a director you might have heard of, George Lucas. 

Johnson Publishing ended up defaulting on the loan. The latest news from various law suits related to Johnson's finances make it look like the photo archive will be acquired by Hobson and Lucas. In recent court filings, they argued that, despite the archive’s high-tech preservation system, it was sitting on uninsured rental property and thus incredibly vulnerable. That may be lawsuit filing exaggeration but... still. Y i k e s.

This article says the archive may yet end up in a museum. It’s not a terrible outcome, or rather, no worse than the many sad endings of many other beloved publications and their associated commodifiable assets. Ebony and Jet will continue in some form, with new owners. But considering how integral their photographs were to their identity, their future seems questionable. The archive will take on a new kind of life elsewhere, possibly with a new audience for its riches.  

But consider this: At one point Johnson Publishing was the largest African-American owned business in the country. Its photography documented the Civil Rights struggle and won Pulitzer Prizes. Johnson’s five million photograph collection is far larger than the 300,000 photographs at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the mere 37,000 items held by the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Johnson Publishing’s photo archive could be the largest extant photographic archive documenting African-American life. Its dispersal via lawsuit may turn out to have serious, unintended consequences. The constitution and control of archives are of utmost importance in writing history, all the more so when it comes to minorities and marginalized peoples. 

I'm reminded again that with no Office of Patrimony (or something similar), precious American historical materials can end up at the mercy of the free market.  As legacy publications face uncertain futures in the face of declining ad revenues (and the domination of social media)  I hope that the story of Johnson Publishing's photo archive will spur a conversation between commercial publications and archival and museum specialists. How can these different sectors come together to make long term plans for commercial archives?It remains to be seen...

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Who Will Write Our History

Brief post to say I have a think piece up at Tablet about the remarkable new movie Who Will Write Our History. The movie is part dramatization, part documentary, which manages to balance story telling with traditional talking heads. In the piece I argue that WWWOH isn't just essential viewing, it can, and should, make us reevaluate the state of Holocaust education.

Today, as even the youngest generation of survivors reaches old age, anxiety about the disappearance of firsthand testimony has risen, and we’re seeing more public concern about a looming demographic reality: “The youngest survivors are in their mid-70s, with most in their 80s and 90s. In a future no longer beyond the horizon, no one will remain to testify firsthand to Nazi Germany’s systematic effort to exterminate the Jews in the territory it controlled.”  
Some have turned to technology to fight the clock. The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center recently unveiled their New Dimensions in Testimony oral history project, featuring holograms of 15 Holocaust survivors. Each of the 15 participants has gone through a rigorous filming and testimony process, making it possible for museumgoers and students to ‘interact’ with the simulated survivors.
There’s no question that first person survivor testimony will continue to have an important place in contemporary Holocaust education for Jews and non-Jews. But the release of Who Will Write Our History has the potential to effect a sea change in the way we think about Holocaust education. Indeed, I would go so far as to call it the most important Holocaust movie in decades. Who Will Write Our History is the first Holocaust documentary that centers victim stories along with the written and visual materials they created to document their lives.

Of course a 90 minute movie cannot begin to communicate the whole story of the Oyneg Shabes as told by Sam Kassow’s book or the vast treasures of the archive. This beautiful and sensitively done documentary adaptation of Kassow's book is, in a sense, an appetizer, an introduction to the story that is only now finally available to Jews all over the world. We should see it as an invitation to rethink our relationship to the Jews of Poland, not as a faceless mass of victims created between 1939 and 1945, but individuals shaped by life before the war, and who fought to live, and die, with dignity.

Who Will Write Our History is playing now at Quad Cinema and theaters around the country.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Three Identical Strangers

I have a new piece up at Hey Alma about one of 2018's most intriguing documentaries, Three Identical Strangers. I found the movie compelling, but, as you will see in my analysis, I was disappointed that the filmmakers didn't, or couldn't, explore the particular Jewish dimensions of the story:
Three Identical Strangers is a story about power: the power of social service agencies to create, and destroy, families, as well as the power of the scientific establishment to turn human beings into subjects. One of the urgent questions raised by the movie is what, if anything, will it take to force the powerful to admit fault to the powerless? 
That all the players in the triplets’ story — social service agency, scientists, parents, babies, even the newspaper editor who broke the story — were themselves Jewish, makes the whole thing even more disturbing. In this story, rather than conflict between Jews and non-Jews, the key distinctions fall along lines of social standing, education, and class. And yet, the filmmakers seem reluctant to explore the deep, complicated Jewishness of the story.

There's one aspect of the story, or my take on it, that didn't make it into the piece. Three Identical Strangers is a movie propelled by the question of nature versus nurture and the belief that the nature/nurture equation could be solved if we just had enough data. 

But what seems equally important to me is a third variable, self-knowledge. The ability for a human being to know who they are, and where they come from, is as crucial to the fulfillment of human potential as genes or environmental blessings. The triplets and twins in Peter Neubauer’s study were cruelly denied that self-knowledge.

In 2019, American Jews, especially those of Ashkenazi heritage, are similarly adrift, cut off from their specific histories. If you've been a reader here before, you already know the many ways and wherefores of this situation. I was reminded again of our dilemma of historical amnesia at the gorgeous, recently closed Jewish Museum exhibit CHAGALL LISSITZKY MALEVICH. The exhibit, on tour from the Centre Pompidou, is a fascinating look at the city of Vitebsk, a second tier provincial city which, for a few years, was at the cutting edge of modern art. What you don't get from the exhibit, though, is that the city was almost 50% Jewish and Yiddish speaking. 

I'll bring just one example of how the exhibit misses an opportunity to bring out the particular Yiddish quality of Vitebsk and its art scene. An entire set of Lissitzky's Had Gadya lithographs is on display. It was published by the Yiddish language culture organization the Kultur-Lige. The lithographs themselves are captioned with the Yiddish words on top and the Aramaic on the bottom.

iz gekumen di kats un fartsukt dos tsigele
At the Jewish Museum, however, the explanatory cards that accompany the series of lithographs only refer to the Aramaic text. I started grumbling out loud and ended up talking to a couple of older ladies next to me. They had no idea that there was Yiddish in the illustrations, or even that Yiddish was written with Hebrew letters. 

If the curators can't even be bothered to accurately describe the artworks, no wonder they describe the Kultur-Lige-  the Yiddish cultural organization of the early post-Revolution period par excellence-  as "an organization that promoted Jewish culture."


Despite the care and resources put into the show, these errors of omission end up obscuring as much as they illuminate, and for an American Jewish public, which, in the main, cannot tell the difference between Aramaic and Yiddish, this is yet another tragic missed opportunity to educate.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

A Very un-Yiddish Scandal

I'm two-thirds of the way through the new Amazon Prime mini-series A Very English Scandal and let me say, I'm kind of obsessed. I'm not usually that interested in political scandal stories, but if you're any kind of Anglophile, you will be sucked in immediately by its dry, semi-horror semi-comic tone, sweeping green vistas, and numerous cozy pubs. In between the buggery, attempted murder and the endless search for one National Insurance card. Also, Hugh Grant is a revelation as Jeremy Thorpe.

But, this isn't about that. First, let me say, there's absolutely nothing Jewish about A Very English Scandal. Isn't that the whole point of being an Anglophile? The fantasy world where one's own angst is blissfully non-existent?


I was indeed taken aback in episode one, when the Hugh Grant character (Jeremy Thorpe) takes his new would-be lover, Norman Scott, back to his *mother's* house and, once there, woos him (??) by playing this duet with his mother, I mean, Ursula.

(Apologies for the very stupidly shot video. Stay with me.)

Anyone who's spent a minute in the world of klezmer would recognize this tune, sometimes labeled as a Cirba and usually as Hora Staccato. I know it from versions by Moishe Oysher, Oysher and the Barry Sisters, as well as Dave Tarras. 

Here's Moishe Oysher and the Barry Sisters absolutely killing it. Apologies for the video; I couldn't find the version I wanted on Youtube. 

In the past, it had never occurred to me that this tune that felt so incredibly Yiddish might actually be... not.

But, it did occur to me just now, when the producers of A Very English Scandal decided to use it for a particular emotional moment. This very powerful man, Thorpe, has brought home a very vulnerable younger man, Scott, and is in the process of wooing- or more like wowing- him into doing what he wants. But, still, it struck me as odd that the producers would choose this tune, of all things, for that moment, especially when Hugh Grant appears to be struggling to keep up with his violin finger miming. Why pick a piece that was so difficult to pull off? And so Jewish??? 

A little more research showed me that this Hora Staccato is not by Moishe Oysher, or even Dave Tarras, but was composed in 1906 by a Roma violin virtuoso named Grigoraș Dinicu. The tune probably gained its greatest fame with another virtuoso, Jascha Heifetz. Heifetz often saved Hora Staccato as a show stopping encore number.

So, that makes a lot more sense. Thorpe was a very confident, indeed, arrogant man. Of course he'd pull out a literal virtuosic show stopper to try to impress his young friend, and of course he'd think he had the chops to pull it off. Faster, he cries. That moment so perfectly encapsulates Thorpe's arrogance and vanity, some of the very qualities that would, we know now, end his career in total ignominy.

Anyway, Hora Staccato is a great tune. And I'm glad I can give props to the real composer, the great Grigoraș Dinicu.