Sunday, May 24, 2020

Warsaw: A City Divided

Just a quick note to let you know that you can now watch Warsaw: A City Divided in a couple different ways, including streaming on Amazon. Last fall, on the 80th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland, I reviewed the film for the Jewish Review of Books. The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest ghetto established by the Nazis and one of the first in Poland, holding over 400,000 Jews, almost 100,000 of whom died inside it.

"Today, only a few scattered pieces of the ghetto walls that imprisoned them still stand, including fragments between properties as well as the sections of the wall that are were part of buildings.
Unlike Auschwitz or Dachau, the Warsaw Ghetto cannot be visited in any meaningful way. And yet, the ghetto looms large in Holocaust memory. The uprising there in 1943 is still the most famous act of modern Jewish resistance. In addition to Yom HaShoah, many Jews, especially those with family connections to the Warsaw Ghetto, observe April 19, the date of the beginning of the uprising, as a sacred day.
Though the movie makes effective use of Nazi archival materials, they never take over the film. Indeed, A City Divided is one of a handful of new documentaries that focus less on describing the crimes of the Nazis and more on the experience of the victims. These films are reshaping not just what we know about the Holocaust, but how we know it. A City Divided also joins A Film Unfinished (2010) and Who Will Write Our History (2018) as a sort of Warsaw Ghetto trilogy. Although they were produced and directed by different teams, all three have archival footage and written documents at their center. Viewers can examine the same “story” through three different lenses—German, Jewish, and Polish.    
There’s a remarkable moment at the end of A City Divided. The Chief Rabbi recalls how one day a resident of the Muranow neighborhood built on top of part of the ghetto came to him for help. “There are spirits in my apartment, can you do something?” Finding restless ghosts at the site of the former ghetto is almost too on the nose. And yet, we often see ghosts because we need to see ghosts."

You can now buy Warsaw: A City Divided on DVD from LOG TV or stream it via Amazon

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Shtumer Shabes Update

Alas, my dream of bringing Shtumer Shabes in front of a live audience is officially on hold for the foreseeable future. As I write this, all of New York theater is dark, a very scary thing for theater artists and lovers.

But if you're interested in learning more about Shtumer Shabes,  allow me to direct your attention to the following:

This week Alex Weiser had me as a guest for one of the YIVO lunchtime livestreams. This was a really fun - and brief! - chat.

One of the things Alex and I talked about was 'Shin is for Shtumer Shabes,' the April 29th livestream program the Shtumer Shabes cast did for the 14th Street Y in lieu of our staged reading. 'Shin is for Shtumer Shabes' was an Orson Welles-inspired show about making Yiddish theater, featuring a couple of very short excerpts of the play, as well as interviews with folks who have been carrying on the Yiddish theater tradition. 

We're all still figuring out these new virtual tools, so I hope you'll forgive the unpolished feel of the show.

And finally, if you haven't read the interview Miryem-Khaye Seigel did with me about the play, you can check it out here at the wonderful Digital Yiddish Theatre Project.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Shtumer Shabes/Silent Sabbath

UPDATE: Alas, New York theater is going dark as part of the effort to contain this [EXPLETIVE DELETED] virus. Our LABA FEST will not be going ahead during the first week of April but it looks like it will be rescheduled for May, mit gots hilf/God willing... I will post here as soon as we have the official rescheduled May date. 

In the meantime, you can read an interview I did about the play over at the wonderful Digital Yiddish Theatre Project.

If you've already bought your ticket GOD BLESS YOU. It looks like you'll be able to use that ticket for the rescheduled show. More information will be posted as soon as I have it.

I'm obviously very sad and disappointed to have to make this announcement, but I believe that our best hope of keeping this virus in check is by taking drastic measures now. Thank you and keep washin' those hands. -xxrokhl

Exciting news: My new play, Shtumer Shabes/Silent Sabbath, will have a one night, sneak preview performance on April 2. 

This year I have the good luck to be a LABA fellow at the 14th Street Y. My play will be part of the week-long LABA Fest, featuring a number of my talented colleagues.

If you're interested in seeing the play, get your tickets now. It's a small house and will probably sell out.

Shtumer Shabes: Presented by the Theater at the 14th Street Y

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Broadway Danny Gumby and the Yiddish Side of Eddie Murphy

I was at brunch today with my friend Ari and he mentioned an old Saturday Night Live sketch I had never seen. It's a What If scenario: what if a Jewish family like the Franks had been hidden in an attic in Amsterdam, but the people hiding them had never remembered to let them out. My jaw dropped as Ari described the premise, that the family was so annoying it wasn't worth it to the Dutch family living downstairs to free them. Yikes.

I was also intrigued when he mentioned that Eddie Murphy played one of the members of the Jewish family. I assumed he did it in white face makeup, similar to what he used for Coming to America, but no, it's just him, doing his thick as shmalts 'Yiddish' accent with a black satin yarmulke perched on his giant wig.  

When I went to find the clip on YouTube, though, I stumbled on something else. It's Eddie Murphy returning to Saturday Night Live in 1982, to promote his new movie, 48 Hours.

In the opening monologue, he tells the story of buying a house on Long Island. It's haunted by the ghost of the Jewish man who died there. The ghost turns out to have a special enmity for Eddie, and uses a Yiddish word to insult him which I won't spell out here.

Like a lot of words from that era, this particular word is now unacceptable, but back then, its use was utterly unremarkable. In my experience, the adults who used it did so, to be totally honest, in the same way they used the Yiddish words for 'gentile.'  Not so much as a pejorative, but to underline our own separateness from everyone else. Which is not to claim it wasn't used in a more overtly racist way, but only that that wasn't my experience.

I grew up on Long Island, and, to understand Long Island, you have to understand that it's one of the most segregated places in the country. Eddie Murphy grew up partly in Roosevelt, one of the few heavily African-American towns on Long Island. It wasn't always that way, of course. In the 1950s, rather than allow African-Americans into the neighborhood, almost all of the white residents sold their houses and took off, aka 'white flight.'

If you're a real Long Islander, you know that, aside from Eddie Murphy, the most notable product of Roosevelt* is Howard Stern. Stern claims his white, liberal, Jewish parents refused to leave the neighborhood out of a sense of principle

In this light, you can read Murphy's joke about the ghost of the Jewish man in his new house as a comment about the despicable history of racial restrictions and housing covenants, legal devices meant to enforce segregation in housing. Eddie Murphy may have become a millionaire who could afford to buy a house in the fanciest, whitest part of Long Island, but you better believe that there will always be someone to remind him that as an African American man, he doesn't belong there. The ghosts of Jim Crow are always there, even in supposedly enlightened New York. It's also a reminder to white, American Jews that, very often, they were more than innocent bystanders in the story of American segregation.

Two years later, Eddie Murphy returned to Saturday Night Live and performed in 'The Family in the Attic.' The problem with 'The Family in the Attic' is that it's not just offensive, it's unfunny, which frankly, is even more unforgivable. It's also weird to think that this aired only four years after the death of Otto Frank.

The one intriguing aspect of the skit is that Mary Gross plays what one supposes is the 'Anne Frank' character, now a grown up woman, and sex crazed from being hidden in the attic for decades. 

It's well known today that the standard edition of Anne's diary was censored and that all her references to sex and her own sexuality were removed by her father, Otto. Did they have an awareness of what had been removed from the diary when the sketch was written in 1984? Or was it just kind of obvious that someone cooped up in isolation for decades, whether man or woman, would be pretty desperate?

And then we come to Broadway Gumby Rose, SNL's takeoff on the then new Woody Allen movie, Broadway Danny Rose. I believe this is from the same night as 'The Family in the Attic.' A bunch of old 'Yiddish' showbiz types are bullshitting at a deli when in comes Broadway Gumby Rose. Eddie Murphy does his angry Gumby shtik, but with a Yiddish flavor.

It's mildly funny, I guess?

Eddie Murphy brought out his old Jewish guy shtik again in 1988, for Coming to America, this time with astonishingly realistic makeup by SFX king, Rick Baker.

According to this video, Baker based the makeup on his father in law, Nestor, who is not Jewish. You can even spot him in the background of a couple of shots.

There's really no earthly reason 'Saul' needs to be in Coming to America except to show off Eddie Murphy's virtuosity as a mimic. Inadvertently, 'Saul' foreshadow Murphy's later box office success in such vehicles as his Nutty Professor remake, where he disappeared into elaborate makeup once again.

Also, I'm sorry, yes, this joke may be a thousand years old, but it's still funny:

Anyway, I'm curious what you, dear readers, think about Eddie Murphy and Jewface. Is there anything more to it than a comic falling back on instantly recognizable, and tested, 'funny' voice?

*Bad on me for slighting Chuck D. and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy. Apologies.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Like Ashes and Yortsayt Candles...

Like many American Jews, I don’t know much about my family history before their arrival in the United States. For one thing, I’m a third generation American. My grandparents were born here, and even if they had lived to transmit our family history to me, they themselves had no first hand knowledge of our lives before

American Jews breathe forgetting like oxygen and history cannot compete. 

Nostalgia tastes good, like a pastrami sandwich on fresh rye bread. History tastes of guilt, like ashes and yortsayt candles. It makes demands upon the individual, it takes work. Nostalgia is a false friend, one which soothes guilt, but whose fruit is self-deception.

A perfectly apposite moment comes in Red Shirley, the late  Lou Reed’s 2011 documentary about his elderly cousin, garment worker and labor activist Shirley Novick. 
Novick is describing how she bought a mandolin upon arriving in Canada from Poland in 1929. Reed’s only response is “Oh come on.” 

Presented with this unexpected point of contact between the 99 year old former garment worker and himself, Reed can form no response other than incurious disbelief. Had Reed paused a moment to ask why she bought it, he might have discovered that it was not chance or whimsy that brought Shirley to buy that mandolin, but, something akin to the same forces that drove Reed himself to pick up the guitar in the early 1960s. 

Shirley was a young woman at a time when mandolin orchestras were the rage for young working class lefties, especially in the garment industry. Dozens of mandolin orchestras thrived in New York and other centers of Jewish labor activism. Picking up the mandolin was an obvious way for a young greener to make friends in a new country. Not that Lou, or the audience, ever get the chance to make the connection.

At the time Red Shirley was making its way around film festivals, Reed told the press:  "I realized if I didn't do this, a connection to a lot of things would be lost forever. So there was great impetus to do this.” 

But Reed’s explanation for making the movie rings hollow. What he ended up doing was indeed the opposite of capturing some kind of fragile historical truth. He didn’t just miss every opportunity to learn more about Shirley, he, for reasons that may now be impossible to uncover, actively chose to distort key aspects of his cousin’s life. 

The woman who was known for decades as Shirley Novick is presented in the film as Shulamit Rabinowitz. Shulamit (or, as she would have been known in Yiddish, Shulamis) Rabinowitz was born in Poland, but came to New York as a young woman where she became an outspoken organizer in the garment industry and a high profile member of Yiddish Communist circles.

How is it possible that in the (albeit brief) 27 minutes of Red Shirley the word ‘Communist’ is not even uttered once? It could be that Lou’s family didn’t approve of Shirley’s marriage to a high profile Communist like Paul Novick. It’s hard to say. 

Memory is a muscle and American Jews have allowed theirs to waste away. Indeed, that wasting effect is cumulative. What is allowed to wither in one generation will have small chance at being reclaimed by the next.

Lou Reed went in search of the radical Jewish past. Led by nostalgia, he ended up rewriting history. 

By a quirk of fate, I was at Shirley Novick’s funeral not long after Red Shirley premiered at the New York Jewish Film Festival. I even sat a few seats away from her very surly cousin, Lou. I’m one of the very, very few who saw the movie and knew enough to be alarmed by its distortions, knew the people whose lives were being erased.

The Talmud tells us that while they are gestating in the womb, Jewish babies possess knowledge of the entire Torah. Right before they are born, an angel's touch removes that knowledge, making the subsequent acquisition of Torah a process of remembering.

I became a born again Yiddishist in college. My adult life has been spent in this kind of remembering, a re-acquisition of memories, a scrabbling at dreams in languages always at the far end of my tongue. 

That work of remembering is exhausting. Simply learning Yiddish at the end of the 20th century - the language of millions of American Jews and tens of thousands of volumes of literature - was a labor of extraordinary difficulty. 

Anyone who studies Yiddish today, even at this moment of so-called revival, knows that it is a source of social friction. Because we all know Yiddish is a dead language; we all know Yiddish had to die for Hebrew to live. It is the logic of internalized brutality, where losers may be pitied, may even be mourned, but they must, at all costs, remain buried.

I have seen how easily the story of history’s ‘losers' can be casually (or maliciously) overwritten. Who will remember Shirley Novick as she was? Who will be able to correct the historical record? Decades from now, who will look back and want to claim Shirley as their own?

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Doikayt and Decolonization

I closed out 2019 by fulfilling a longtime ambition: attending the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) conference as an invited member of a conference panel. 

Alllll the excited emojis.

I was the sole journalist in an otherwise all-star lineup of young academics. We came together to talk about the modern meaning(s) of the Bund. I joined David Slucki (Monash), Josh Meyers (Harvard), Jacob Labendz (Youngstown State), Caroline Luce (UCLA), and Mindl Cohen (Yiddish Book Center) for what turned out to be a truly fascinating and productive conversation. It was a pleasure to meet so many great folks whom I had previously only known virtually. 

I read Mindl's doctoral thesis on doikayt in preparation for our discussion and I highly recommend it if you want to go deeper into the pre-war Bundist zeitgeist. Of course I've read David Slucki's The International Labor Bund After 1945: Toward a Global History. And both Josh and Caroline have books coming out soon about very different moments in Bund history. I have a feeling they will be 'must reads' on the subject and I'm eagerly awaiting both of them. 

As I said during our panel, I was there as a humble polemicist among serious scholars. My paper, on doikayt (hereness) and decolonization, was expanded and translated into Hebrew for the latest issue of Haaretz's Judaism supplement magazine. It was then published in English as 'Why Modern Anti-Zionists Love the Bund.' If my goal were to piss off every possible corner of the Jewish Left I'd be making solid progress on that one. I guess you have to take your wins where you find them.

As a bonus to those of you who read to the bottom, here's the video from Itzik Gottesman's recent YIVO talk about Yiddish Christmas. Enjoy!

Tevye the Icon

Yiddish Fiddler (aka Yiddler) was the unexpected off-Broadway hit of 2019. What else could I do but honor it's January 5th closing with a grumpy op-ed about linguistic oppression for JTA. Audiences may love Tevye, but they're a lot more mixed on the language he speaks.

I'd been wondering why Yiddish is always tagged as 'guttural' and after seeing myself described with that word in a newspaper article, it occurred to me that:
If one had to locate Yiddish within the popular imagination, it would be found in the primeval Jewish throat.
The success of Yiddish “Fiddler” shows that Yiddish, from afar, can attain a certain symbolic stature in the public eye of the theatre class. But the intimate experience of Yiddish, up close and personal, still speaks to nothing so much as lingering discomfort, and an estrangement between observer and object. 
Yiddish is often characterized by its guttural “ch’s.” But Hebrew, with just as many guttural sounds, rarely seems to get tagged as such. As late as 1930, Zev Jabotinsky was arguing that the ideal Hebrew pronunciation would “First of all … have to avoid the Yiddish ch, which is like the hoarse cough of someone with a throat disease.” Ouch.

Read more at JTA ...