Monday, December 11, 2017

Myron Cohen: Situational Stand-Up Comedy (1951)

American Humor

Myron Cohen [1902–1986] in a stand-up routine from “The Kate Smith Evening Hour” (November 21, 1951; NBC-TV).
Via: Youtube

There was a time when comedians were using intelligence and wit to be funny, describing everyday situations in their routines and seeing the comedy in such slice-of-life situations. Such describes Myron Cohen, who once said: “Audiences are the same everywhere, whether you’re in Vegas, South Africa, or Rockland. They all want to hear about something that happens to human beings.”

Cohen throws in a few Yiddish words, which his audience invariably understands. Of course it is also about timing and mannerisms, which were the necessary skills that the best-known mavens of comedy developed through years of being on stage in big-city nightclubs and in vacation spots of the Catskills (“the Borscht Belt.”) In the end, one had to be funny in a way that audiences found funny and without vulgarity or profanity, whose use today is excessive.

I will end with another Cohen joke: Two women in the Bronx are hanging their clothes out to dry (“trikenen”). One woman asks the other (“anderer”), “Have you seen what’s going on in Poland?” The other replies, “I live in the back—I don't see anything.”

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Vladimir Horowitz: Träumerei (1986)

Robert Schumann’s Träumerei, from Kinderszenen No. 7 (German for “Scenes from Childhood”), opus 15/7;  Schumann [1810–1856] completed this set of 13 childhood pieces in 1838. This is played magnificently by Vladimir Horowitz [1903–1989] during his triumphant return to Moscow on Sunday, April 20, 1986. I posted this piece a number of years ago, in October 2010, and it came to my mind again, feeling in a Romantic mood. Speaking of that Horowitz concert in Moscow, I enjoyed every bit of it, when I tuned in, entranced like in a dream, that Sunday to “CBS Sunday Morning” with Charles Kuralt, now so many decades ago, but unforgettable. It was a masterpiece. I am sure that you would agree. What stands out is Horowitz’s playing of Schumann's Traumerei (German for “Dreaming”), the best I have ever heard; yes, tears were streaming down my cheeks. It was perfection and I could only wonder what these Muscovites were feeling when they heard it—the sound of freedom, I imagine.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Returning Home

Di Yidisher Heym
“Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn”

כִּֽי־קָר֥וֹב אֵלֶ֛יךָ הַדָּבָ֖ר מְאֹ֑ד בְּפִ֥יךָ וּבִלְבָֽבְךָ֖ לַֽעֲשׂתֽוֹ
Devarim 30:14
“Rather,[this] thing is very close to you;
it is in your mouth and in your heart,
so that you can fulfill it.”

All beginnings are hard, and become harder as one gets older. Yet, it is never too late to do good, to become what you must, to fulfill your destiny. Truly, being a Jew is not easy; it never has been, and it can be hard even when times are or appear favourable. Even if life is better today in a few places of the world, the demands of being and living as a Jew continue to be great.

They are certainly greater than not being a Jew, than living like everyone else by “hiding one’s light under a bushel.” Truly, it is always easy to assimilate, to become swallowed up in the majority culture (read: Christian in some places, secular in others) dominant around us. It is really that easy, especially when one is ignorant of Judaism and carries ideas of it that have been formed by others. As for the majority Christian culture in the West, it’s not that such a culture is necessarily “bad” or “evil,” although many times throughout history it has acted with malice toward the Jews, since it suffers from supersessionism. In balance, however, Christianity has in fact produced much beauty in the way of art, literature and music, which I both appreciate and enjoy.

The same cannot be said for atheism, which poses the greatest evil to humanity, since it cares not much for truth and beauty and relies chiefly on a limited understanding of history matched to relativistic morals with nothing to keep man’s hubris in check. There is also within its thinking, especially when applied politically, a desire for vengeance and murder, and, moreover, for doctrinal purity. Marxism, Fascism, Nazism and Maoism are all horrible manifestation of this, as is the political system of North Korea. An attack on God and the Torah (replaced by a complete faith in one man) always produces horrible conditions for its citizens. As much as all these political ideologies are irreligious, they are also all inhumane. It is not the appearance of evil, it is pure evil. Ask anyone who has lived under such a regime.

For obvious reasons, Jews ought to stand clear of such noxious inhumane ideas, and most do, but even seemingly benign beliefs (e.g., Eastern Religions) should be avoided and not be embraced, even if they appear personally beneficial. The reasons are evident enough for anyone to apprehend. The chief argument is that such outside wanderings and meanderings and the taking in of foreign ideas are not the right path for a Jew; such is not di rekht veg. This only leads to more confusion and sadness, not only individually but also collectively. Jews have a clear responsibility to bring a moral message of goodness and understanding to the world. To do so, he must live as a Jew, which suggests thinking like a Jew.

Far vos? Because this is a great part of the message, which can only be done within the confines of long-standing and enduring Jewish tradition and understanding found in Judaism (mesorah). The Torah that the Jews received at Har Sinai remains the bulwark against misunderstanding and ignorance, and it belongs to all Jews. It is written: “The Torah that Moshe commanded us is the heritage of the congregation of Yaakov” (Deut.33:4).

It is really that simple an explanation. Jews have to walk a different path than most of the world, directed by the dictates of the Torah and by our enduring and illustrious Jewish history; most Jews know and apprehend this idea living deep in their Yidisher neshomah and some happily and eagerly return to the right path, even decades later. B’emes, it is never too late.

I am, after all, one of those Jews called ba’al teshuvah (בעל תשובה; Hebrew for “master of repentance”) or as it is called in Israel, chozer b’shuva (חוזר בתשובה; Hebrew for “returnee to the faith”), who about a decade ago consciously made the choice to return. It was the right decision and an important one in a life with many such decisions. Now, years later, I understand more, and am not as ignorant as I was in my early adult years, where I had the need to wander.

Perhaps it is like the story of the Jewish Prodigal, a morality tale in the form of a parable (a moshl) of a Jew, who wanders far away to the foreign land of Hellenistic Greece and after suffering miserably for years, returns to di Yidisher velt and to the Jewish home of his birth. This might not always be easy, yet in doing so, he does teshuvah. He returns home, and his Yidisher neshomah is rewarded.

Gut Shabbes
Peretz J. Greenbaum
December 8, 2017
20 Kislev 5778

This week’s parshah is Vayeshev (וַיֵּשֶׁב‎; Hebrew for “and he lived”), found in Genesis 37:1–40:23 It contains the story of Yosef (Joseph), who receives a many-coloured coat from his father, Yaakov (Jacob); and of Yosef's dreams, foretelling of his rise in leadership, which engender jealously from his brothers. Yaakov favours Yosef, which is clear in this story.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Handel’s Messiah: Hallelujah Chorus (1956)

Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah.
Via; Youtube

This piece is here performed by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein; and the Leonard Westminster Choir, directed by John Finley Williamson. This was recorded at the 30th Street Studio, New York City, 1956. This piece of music is not only beautiful but also enduring. “Hallelujah” is an English transliteration of the Hebrew word, Halleluya (הַלְּלוּיָהּ; “to praise God”). This joyful expression of thanks and praise, הַלְּלוּיָהּ,is found many times in the Book of Psalms (תְּהִלִּים; Hebrew for “Tehillim”); and it connotes a sense of joyous praise in song. Such is what this “Chorus” does, making it one of the greatest pieces of music ever composed by George Frideric Handel [1685–1759], who composed this English-language oratorio in 1741.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus: Kalifornyer Kholem

Yiddish Performance of the Week

Kalifornyer Kholem by Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus (2014)
Via: Youtube

Filmed as a live performance at Symphony Space, NYC, the Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus, with Binyumen Schaechter, conductor; Shinae Kim, pianist; and Andrew Roth, soloist, perform a Yiddish rendition (“Kalifornyer Kholem”) of  “California Dreamin’, ” a song made famous by the Mamas and Pappas, an American folk group, in 1965. The song was written in NYC in 1963, possibly on such as day.

Here is some background on how the Yiddish rendition came into being, the  Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus writes:
As a student at the University of Pennsylvania in 1984, Stephen M. (Shloyme-Khayim) Cohen thought it would be fun to arrange the Mamas and the Papas' popular song, "California Dreamin'" for chorus. Many years later, in 2001, he decided that what would make it more special still was to have it be in Yiddish, and not as a direct translation, but rather with a Jewish touch. Some years after that, our conductor, Binyumen, who knew Cohen mainly from Yugntruf's annual Yidish-Vokh retreat, heard the arrangement himself. He loved it and wanted the JPPC to sing it. However, Cohen's arrangement called for a lengthy flute solo in the middle, and the JPPC didn't have a flutist.
Furthermore, the JPPC at that time lacked a strong bass section that could handle the low key. So, with Cohen's permission, Binyumen set about making the piece user-friendly for our chorus. He raised the overall key so that the bass section (at that time consisting of only 3-4 baritones) could sing the low notes. He cut out the flute section and replaced it with an exciting, upward modulation to a repeat of the refrain. And he made a few other tweaks here and there. Ironically, when we gave the NYC premiere of this arrangement in June 2012, the key was now too high for the tenors, and so the tenor solo had to be sung by an alto! But all's well that ends well: now, our chorus has a much stronger bass section, so we've returned to the original lower key for the 2014 performance at Symphony Space (NYC) heard in this YouTube video, making it easier for the basses and the tenors, and allowing for the soloist once again to be, as intended, a tenor.
This is a fun song and nothing more. The lyrics made me laugh, as would be the case for anyone who spends a winter in a place that has snow, freezing rain, bare trees and grey overcast days—the opposite of California. 

Original English words and Music: John and Michelle Phillips Yiddish words and Choral arrangement: Stephen M. (Shloyme-Khayim) Cohen Edited: Binyumen Schaechter

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Cantor Moshe Ganchoff: Aleinu

Chazzanut/Cantorial Music

Aleinu by Cantor Moshe Ganchoff
Via: Youtube

Cantor Moshe Ganchoff [born in Odessa, Ukraine, in 1904–died in Brighton Beach, New York, in 1997] sings Aleinu (Hebrew: עָלֵינוּ‎, “it is our duty”), the prayer that comes at the end of the three daily services. The prayer was alluded to in a previous post (“Being Chosen, Part 2”); continuing this discussion, I would add that it conveys the fundamental values of Judaism, most notably about the Jews being a unique (or particular) people who collectively have a unique mission for humanity. The Jews, since their inception as a people long ago, have been marked for uniqueness and distinctness; such is what the Torah says time and time again (see, e.g., Exodus/Shemot 19:5; Leviticus/Vayikra 20:26; and Isaiah/Yeshayahu 54:10). For the prayer itself, go to the “Zemirot Database” found here; and for a more detailed rabbinical discussion of the prayer, go here. For a discussion of the unalterable and enduring unique connection between God, Torah and the Jews see here.

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Being Chosen, Part 2

Di Toyre Sprakh
“Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn”

This is Part 2 of a two-part series; Part 1 was last week.

עָלֵינוּ לְשַׁבֵּחַ לַאֲדוֹן הַכֹּל
[Aleinu l'shabeach la'Adon hakol]
Beginning of Aleinu

The Jews view the giving of the Torah, at least those who believe in its importance, with great seriousness and view it as an inheritance to safe-keep and treasure. Accordingly, the most religiously observant Jews living in modern times have come up with ways to safeguard this treasure and the enduring mesorah surrounding it: educating their children in chinuch, studying Torah, doing mizvos, avoiding compromising situations, working on middos, enjoying simcahs, and leading a moral and good life.

Yes, it is a circumscribed life, and on the surface it appears difficult and unappealing, yet many communities exist along such lines, viewing it as a duty, a responsibility and a necessity of keeping and staying on the right path. For many reasons, such communities are growing in America, with younger generations learning from older ones and continuing the chain of tradition (mesorah) that rabbis say dates to Moshe Rabbenu. Doing so can make life more simple, and even more meaningful, knowing that you are following an enduring tradition.

Of course, many disagree. Modern progressive Jews who still view themselves as Jews might have strongly differing ideas on how to live, but few would doubt the importance of the Torah as a historical document, even if they generally ignore today the traditions of their grandparents and great-grandparents. Yet, there is great wisdom to be found here, including the purpose of the Jew as the moral agent for good and as a bearer of peace to the world. Most would agree that working toward goodness and peace is a worthy endeavor.

For example, in how to change the world for good, Michael Laitman [born in 1946 in Vitebsk, Belarus], kabbalist, Jewish philosopher and student of Rav Baruch Ashlag [1907–1991], gives what I believe to be a bold answer to this question in his article, Why Do People Hate Jews?:
Over several essays, Rav Ashlag expounded on the reasons why there will not be peace in the world until there is unity and brotherly love throughout the world. He also explains that the more the world suffers from the adverse consequences of what researchers, Twenge and Campbell, call “the narcissism epidemic,”[31] the more people will turn their anger against Jews. Subconsciously, people expect the Jews to pave the way for a better society, namely to be “a light unto nations.” Until the Jews carry out this task, the animosity and accusations against them will grow.
Dr. Laitman says that unity, especially in Israel is necessary for Jews to carry out this task, this mission, if you will. This does not mean negating disagreement, but harnessing it in a good way, and not in a destructive narcissistic manner that is so common today, where “today” is a time period of the last few decades. Moreover, that other major religions have tried to take on the role does not relieve or release Jews of their moral and spiritual responsibility.

Israel was founded as a secular state, in a sense to be like all the other western democratic nations. In many ways it has achieved this goal—politically, economically and socially— but the Torah and the weight of its teachings states that this is not the true calling of Israel, it is not the true calling of the Jewish People. Consider the Aleinu (Hebrew: עָלֵינוּ‎, “it is our duty”), the prayer that comes at the end of the three daily services, alludes to this responsibility:
It is our duty to praise the Master of all
to ascribe greatness to the Author of creation,
who has not made us like the nations of the lands
nor placed us like the families of the earth;
who has not made our portion like theirs,
nor our destiny like all their multitudes
. (1-6)
That we Jews have long been reluctant to openly acknowledge our destiny can be found in the history since the destruction of the Second Temple, itself a result of infighting and disunity among various factions. Since this tragic event,  Jews have focused on survival and revival of its ancient traditions and its numbers. That Judaism and the Jews are doing well today is a testimony of our enduring history; and some would add is a testimony of God’s enduring promises.

One is reminded of the instructive story found in the Book of Jonah (Sefer Yonah), a prophetic book read on Yom Kippur. God commands Jonah to go to the capital of Assyria, Nineveh, to tell the people to repent. Jonah is reluctant to do so, since these people are the enemies of Israel. After getting swallowed up by the whale, Jonah does tshuvah. When the whale spits him out he lands on the shores of Nineveh and completes his mission. The people repent, led by the king, and the city is spared judgment, receiving instead God’s mercy.  

This is an important message that the world needs to hear; this is an important message that only the Jews can deliver to the nations: the need for repentance (tshuvah, literally “return”) before expecting God’s mercy or compassion (rachamim). Truly, the Jews have done much, but there is more that needs to be done. The Jews (and their tiny numbers, less than 0.2 percent of the world’s peoples) have stubbornly persisted and established great houses of study, or batei midrashot, often in the midst of hostile territory in Europe. That is, until the evil of the Holocaust destroyed in a few years what existed for centuries in Europe.

Even so, the Jews rebuilt outside Europe, chiefly in America, in Canada, in Argentina and in Israel. In the long history of the Jewish People, it has been Jewish faith in the Torah, starting with Avraham Avinu and continuing with the promises made at Har Sinai with Moshe Rabbenu, that have kept the Jews as Jews. While doing so, Jews, Judaism and Jewish thought and ethics have made great contributions to humanity, notably in establishing monotheism, which led to so many great benefits to humans. This is di geshikhte fun di Yidn.

The Yidn continue to write history, to do the good that the Ribono shel Olam commanded them to do in the Torah. In twelve days (25 Kislev) begins the holiday of Hanukkah (or Khanike, in accordance to YIVO standards), which is as much a story about doing good in the face of evil as it is about miracles. Kol zman dos kleyntshike likhtele brent, ken men nokh farikhten. (“As long as a small light burns, it’s not too late to set everything right.”)

Gut Shabbes
Peretz J. Greenbaum,
December 1, 2017
13 Kislev 5778

This week’s parshah is Vayishlach (וַיִּשְׁלַח‎, Hebrew for “and he sent”), found in Genesis 32:4–36:43, which contains the passage where Yaakov wrestles with the angel and comes out not only victorious but also with a change in name, to Israel (“he who prevails over the divine”).