Sunday, October 22, 2017

What’s the Matter with the Klezmer?: The Peter Sokolow Story

The Peter Sokolow Story: A nice entertaining short documentary film on klezmer music, as told by Peter Sokolow (aka “Klezmer Fats”), who started playing klezmer in “the Catskills” in 1958 as a college student. The Catskill Mountains, approximately 100 miles or 160 kilometres north of New York City, was viewed then—reaching the height of popularity post-war, a reputation that lasted until the late 1970s—as an idyllic and ideal vacation spot for Jews to spend summers away from the sweltering city, where hotels like Brown’s, Grossinger’s and the Concord became popular with their all-inclusive packages for kosher food, entertainment and activities. There were many well-known Jewish performers and comedic acts, and there was also klezmer, or Jewish music, which was then considered primarily as dance music for weddings, bar mitzvahs, dances and other such Jewish community celebrations. The last few decades, however, has seen klezmer become a genre of its own, possibly driven by nostalgia and marketing. The Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project writes: “Sokolow tells his compelling life story, from growing up the son of a musician in New York, to performing for the Yiddish-speaking communities in the Catskills, to ultimately discovering and mastering klezmer under the mentorship of some of the genre's most renowned musicians. As he sits at his piano, Sokolow ponders whether cultural authenticity will persevere or become a vestige of the past.” Who can tell? Yet the past seems better in so many ways; and klezmer does have a soulful searching sound grounded in the past traditions. Afilu azoy, shpil mir a kleyn klezmer.
Via: Youtube & Yiddish Book Center

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Eat, Survive & Celebrate

Heimishe Essen/Jewish Soul Food 
“Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn”
“A sated soul tramples honeycomb,
but to a hungry soul all bitter is sweet.”
Proverbs (Mishlei) 27:7

One of the greatest pleasures of life is eating. Truly. It is a mekhaya and few would disagree, certainly none of the Jews that I know. Food plays a central role in the lives of Jewish families, regardless of their level of religious observance. Friday night Shabbos dinners as well as yontif (holiday) meals are often large family gatherings, with plenty of food on the table.

No one appreciated a good meal like my father, who enjoyed a good bowl of soup, even in July. My father rarely talked about his years growing up in the inter-war years in Poland, or in the war years or in the immediate post-war years in Europe, but he did tell me one story when I was a yingeleh, which I translate roughly from Yiddish: “I was walking around for days looking for food, for something to eat; I finally found something in a garbage bin, which I ate because I was hungry. You don’t know what hunger is, Perkeleh,” using the diminutive form of my name as a term of endearment.

No, not really, but I have been hungry, but for no longer than 25 hours. Growing up as I did, I now like to have our fridge packed with food. It’s a feeling that many children of East European Jews share. I have no plans on finding first-hand  out what my father and his landskayt from Poland faced during the war (“the krieg” or “the milkhume”), but I would like to know by words of knowledge what he experienced.

I have a desire to understand. My father is long gone from my presence, as are his friends, so this seems unlikely. So, I read about the experiences of others more famous, contemporaries of my father (who was born in 1911), to gain some understanding. There are other ways, filled with meaning. Fasting for Yom Kippur is not the same, but the 25-hour fast comes the closest. What joy there is in breaking the fast and having that first bite of challah or matzah ball soup. It tastes better than usual, better when you are not denied food. Even writing about this is whetting my appetite.

In our family, as is common with many Jewish families (and immigrant families, in general, I suspect), “wasting food is a sin.” Such was the message; and as much as I like my boys to not “waste food,” I do not make them guilty about it. There is no good reason to do so, and, moreover, I would like them to remain open to trying different kinds of foods—not always easy with younger children. But, there are surprises, like my two boys’ love of sushi, which my wife learned to make at home.

Now, I have eaten foods prepared from different regions of the world, but when I want to eat something that brings comfort, I turn to my long-time favourites: the heimish foods of the Askenazic or Eastern Europe Jews; beet borsch (sometimes with flanken), matzah ball soup, chicken soup with lokshen, beef brisket, varinikes, holishkes. The list is seemingly endless. Over the years, I have come to enjoy Sephardi and Israeli recipes like baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, tomato soup with Israeli couscous, lubiya, and Sephardi spiced chicken rice with lemon and mint relish.

These recipes are found in many good Jewish cookbooks, but the one that I and my wife use as a valuable reference guide time and time again is Jewish Cooking: the Traditions, Techniques, Ingredients, and Recipes (2002), by Marlena Spieler; she writes a message of comfort in the “Introduction”:
For Jews, eating is a celebration of survival. A meal enjoyed with family, friends and community means “we are alive”, and we are grateful. A basic tenet of the Jewish table is that good food is a gift from God. Jews take every opportunity for offering thanks and appreciation, with blessings for the food and also for the good health that allows them to enjoy it. However different, culturally, Jews might be, we are united by beliefs and laws, as well as an interwoven history—in the way we pray, speak, eat, drink and celebrate life; the laws of Kashrut that guide what we eat and how we prepare it, and the prayers that sanctify it all. Our food is more than just a cuisine represented by recipes; it is part of the glue that holds us together. (p.7)
Now, this is geshmack writing, especially the part about health, prayer, gratitude and survival—each of these words is worth thousands more, telling a tale of who we are and what we can and wish to beWe continue to discover and learn, even as we return to the old familiar foods of our past. The taste is both the same and different.
—Peretz J. Greenbaum, October 20, 2017

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Declaration of Human Rights in Yiddish

Human Rights/Mentshlikhe Rekhtn

Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Yiddish
Via: Youtube

The “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” adopted by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), in Paris, France, on December 10, 1948. Article 1, which in English reads:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
And in Yiddish reads:
Yeder mentsh vert geboyrn fray un glaykh in koved un rekht. Yeder vert bashonkn mit farshtand un gevisn; yeder zol zikh firn mit a tsveytn in a gemit fun brudershaft.
It is neither a universal document nor a perfect document, but an attempt through compromise to do something good, to make a statement, to provide a secular vision bathed in humanistic language. How well it has educated or changed the world towards good, after almost 70 years, is debatable. How much it is valued and cited today by a majority of the world’s nations is also debatable, as are the merits of the United Nations itself as a world body devoted to goodness, to fairness, to justice.

The words sound nice, the height of humanistic language. Yet, the words become insincere to the point of absurdity when nations with clear records of denying human rights sit on human-rights councils and other UN organizations. Such is the way it is.

I know; this is politics. a concession to the way that the world is and will be for a long time. As is the knowledge that in a good many nations of the world—all members in “good standing” of the U.N.— its governments don’t give its citizens the kinds of human freedoms commonly found in western civilization, which they view as immoral, corrupt and unrestrained. Yes, they have their own history, their own understanding of government and what it means to rule.

I doubt that human rights will ever become universal, since there is little appetite for it in many parts of the world, including in nations who wield much power and influence in the world. You can’t force human rights; you can only encourage its adoption, which seems less important today than seven decades ago. Such is the way it is.

Looking around, I find most of the world as inhabitable places, as places in which I would not want to live. There are only a handful of places in the world in which I would want to reside. I am fortunate that I live in Canada, where human rights are part of the laws of the land.

The Yidn have long fought for it, for human rights and justice, for the freedom to live as Jews, for the right to exist as a people, long before the U.N. was formed, long before the U.S. existed, long before western civilization, and rarely receiving the recognition they deserve. When the Yidn fight for human rights, workers rights, etc., many others benefit. Such is the way it is.

There is no Yiddish nation, of course, but there is a Yiddishlayt, places where Yiddish and the people who spoke Yiddish was allowed to thrive, which goes hand in hand with human rights and religious freedom. Such places are no longer in Europe, but in New York, Montreal and Israel. For the record, the complete “Declaration” in Yiddish can also be heard and read here.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Anna Hoffman: Chicken, a Yiddish Song (1922)

Yiddish Performance of the Week

Chicken, a Yiddish Song:
Via: Youtube and Yiddish Penny Songs

Such is indicative of what often passed for amusement and entertainment in 1920s America among Yiddish speakers of New York City’s Lower East Side, where Jews then resided in large numbers. I am not sure if the general population enjoyed this song. Anna Hoffman was a major star of New York musical comedy. On Yiddish Penny Songs, where I first heard this song, Jane Peppler writes:
This song and Ikh bin a boarder bay mayn vayb are probably Rubin Doctor’s most famous songs. It was recorded by several people back in the day including Nellie Casman, and unlike most of the penny songs, it continues to be recorded to this very day, probably because people who don't know any Yiddish are happy to recognize the word “chicken” in the lyrics.
And who doesn’t like a good chicken song? Kmet vi geshmak vi a frish hindl aoyf shabbes.

Chicken, (aka Tshiken)
by Rubin Doctor

Ikh veys fun a guter zakh
Vos iz gut far ale glaykh
A chicken, oy, oy a chicken.
Geyt ir af a simkhe, a bris
Est nor nit keyn fleysh, keyn fish
est chicken, est nor a chicken.
Keyn mol vet ir zikh baklogn
Dreyen vet aykh nit der mogn
Un baym hartsn vet aykh keyn mol drikn.
Libe mentshn, folg mayn fraynt
Vilt ir zayn gezunt un fayn
Est chicken, est nor a chicken.

Chicken, chick chick chick chicken
S'iz a maykhl vus vet aykh derkvikn
A pulke, a fis a shtikl beylik
S'iz geshmak dos yeder kheylik
Chicken, chick chick chick chicken.

Meydlekh zaynen ikh bakant
Un me ruft zey do in land, chicken
Yeder hall un yeder stoop kukt oys vi a chicken coop
Mit chicken
An alte moyd fun fertsik yorn, dar un mies un opgeforn
Paint un powder un ale zibn glikn

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Chaim Grade: The Simple Jew in Yiddish Literature (1958)

Chaim Grade [born in 1910 in Vilnius, Lithuania—died 1982 in New York City, USA] gives a powerful lecture on the important place, and thus significance, of modern Yiddish literature in Jewish History. For one, it lifts and ennobles the simple Jew; many stories in Yiddish literature are about the simple pious Jew, written with feeling by writers who are secular but who were given a religious education. Such is the paradox of Yiddish literature. This is from a lecture held at the Jewish Public Library of Montreal, on December 7, 1958.
Via: Youtube & Yiddish Book Center

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: My Jewish Punim

Old School
Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn

“Dos lebn iz nit mer vi a kholem—ober vek mikh nit oyf.”
Nahum Stutchkoff
Der Oytser fun der Yidisher Shprakh (1950)

When I was a student at McGill University, I applied for a part-time job at the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association (“the M.A.A.A.”) for a front-desk position. This was around 1981, when the principal was David Lloyd Johnston, who later became Governor-General; and the chancellor Conrad Fetherstonhaugh Harrington. McGill was every much an elitist British institution of higher learning.

It was established in 1821 from a bequest of land and money (£10,000) from James McGill (1744–1813), a fur trader originally from Scotland. The university was originally called the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning before it bore the name of its benefactor. I happen to know a lot about McGill, because I was a tour guide—giving tours peppered with facts to prospective students and their parents—for many years.

The M.A.A.A. was equally British, equally elitist, and considered a pre-eminent place to play squash, have a few drinks and conduct business and, perhaps, make a few ethnic jokes. It dated to June 1881. It was, after all, a private men’s club for the anglo elites. I paid this no mind, since I was referred to this position by the university’s job-placement service for students. It was also then that I admired the British, which I wrote about in a previous post for this column. I thought that I would make a good impression.

I was met by a tall thin man with a thin mustache; he was impeccably dressed and well-mannered. The interview took place with both of us standing up in the lobby; it was short and perfunctory. I knew right after that I had no chance of getting the job, even though I was dressed appropriately: white shirt, classic blue McGill tie (with diagonal stripes), grey slacks and blue blazer with black oxfords on my feet. My hair was combed, my nails trimmed, my teeth brushed. All this could not compensate for one thing. I guess that he didn’t like my Jewish punim.

My mother had told me that McGill University had a quota system in place for Jews, and that Jews had to get better marks than non-Jews to get admitted; this lasted from 1920 till after the war, and for medicine until the 1960s. Many universities in America had similar restrictions, chiefly as a way to keep universities white Protestant; merit and marks were not as important as appearance.

To be fair, my personal experience took place decades later, and at a private institution, not a public university, and nothing of this sort happened to me at McGill. It was a relatively minor form of anti-Semitism, closer to bigotry I think, and I hardly gave it much thought afterward (I had, after all, suffered much worse as a child, including name calling and physical attacks.) That’s the way it was back then, and sad to say it was expected and no one made a fuss about it. I did not tell anyone this story, until recently.

I guess that this is the primary meaning of Old School.

—Peretz J. Greenbaum, October 13, 2017

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Klezmatics: Simkhes Toyre Time (1994)

Simkhes Toyre Time is the forth song on Jews With Horns, the third album by American klezmer group, The Klezmatics, released in 1994. This song was written by Mark Varshavski [1848–1907], originally titled “Kinder, mir hobn simkhas toyre” (Children, It’s Simkhas Toyre). Tonight at sundown, following Sukkot, begins Shemini Atzeret (“the assembly of the eighth day”), followed the next day by Simchat Torah (or in Yiddish, Simkhes Toyre); “rejoicing in the Torah”), which completes the series of holidays during the Jewish month of Tishrei. Outside Israel, these holidays last two days: 22 and 23 Tishrei, while in Israel, they are combined and last only one day (22 Tishrei). Simchat Torah also celebrates the reading of the last Torah portion or parshah (Deuteronomy 34) and the proceeding first one in Genesis—thus showing that the Torah is a never-ending circle. There is much dancing in shuls, with congregants holding Torah scrolls, dancing around the bimah, which is called hakafot.
Via: Youtube

Simkhes Toyre Time
by Mark Varshavski

Oy Kinder mir hobn simchas toyre Simchas toyre oyf der gantzer velt Toyre is di beste shkoyre Azoy hot der rebbe mit undz geknelt Oy, oy, oy oy oy Freilach kinder ot azoy! Rendlech faln fun ale zek, Freilach on an ek. Khtosh ikh bin an orem yidl Un es dart mir gut der moyekh Simkhes-toyre, zing ikh a lidl Un makh a gute koyse oykh Dvoyre, gib mir di naye kapote Ikh vel zi onton take atsind. Ikh vil dir zogn: altsding iz blote Abi m'iz borekh-hashem, gezint. Dvoyre, gib-zhe nokh a glezl Fun dem yontevdikn vayn. Vos hostu aropgelozt dos nezl? A ruekh in mayne sonims tatn arayn! Oy vey, Dvoyre vos hostu moyre? - Kh'bin a bisl freylekh kh'kon nit shteyn? - Dvoyre-lebn, um simkhes-toyre Ver iz nit freylekh zog aleyn! Tsi es dreyen zikh mit mir di gasn? Tsi es dreyt zikh mit mir di shtib? Dvoyre, ot hostu beemes genosn - Lebn, zolstu, dos lebn is lib! Simkhes-toyre - fun got a matone - Zol undz tomid heylik zayn! Afile di shtern mit der levone Zenen gegangen trinken vayn .