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 .

Yiddish Poets & Writers: Melech Ravitch

Montreal Yiddish Poets

Melech Ravitch addressing members at the 35th Annual Meeting of the Jewish Public Library of Montreal, on November 27, 1949. This would be the library building at the corner of Esplanade Avenue and Mont-Royal Avenue.
Photo Credit: Jewish Public Library Archives

The Yiddish writer Melech Ravitch [1893–1976] is the pseudonym used by Zekharye-Khone Bergner, born in Radymno, eastern Galicia (which today is in Poland), the son of Efrayim and Hinde Bergner (nee Rosenblatt), the latter of whom holds an important place in the annals of Yiddish literature for her portrait of shtetl life, which was published by her two sons after her death; Hinde Bergner is believed to have died “in the German extermination camp of Belzec in 1942,” the Jewish Women’s Archive writes.

Zekharye started to write in Yiddish in 1910, emboldened by the Czernowitz Language Conference (1908), the first international conference in support of the Yiddish language. During the first decade of the 20th century, he worked as a bank clerk, served as a soldier in the First World War and lived in Lemberg and Vienna. He changed his name to Melech Ravitch when he moved to Warsaw in 1921, when he began to be influenced by modernism, and where he belonged to a literary group called Di Khalyastre (“The Gang”); its other prominent members were Uri Tsevi Grinberg and Peretz Markish. Its purpose, it seems, was to rail against realism and to advocate for modernist Yiddish poetry.

As for this period, the Museum of Jewish Montreal writes:
In 1921, Ravitch moved to Warsaw and published Nakete lider (Naked Poems), in which he attempted to integrate the modernist themes of secularism and spiritual alienation with the Yiddish language and strongly East European context. A leading figure in Warsaw intellectual life (he translated Kafka into Yiddish in 1924, the year of the latter’s death), Ravitch served as executive secretary of the Association of Jewish Writers and Journalists in Warsaw, the epicentre of the Yiddish literary world, from 1924 to 1934. As the situation for Jews in Europe deteriorated, Ravitch decided to leave Poland, living briefly in Australia, Mexico, New York, and Argentina, before settling in Montreal in 1941.
Yet, another Jew who wandered around trying to find a place outside Europe to call home. After witnessing the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism, he saw no future in Europe and he left Poland for Australia in 1933 (warning others that they should leave, too). At that time, Ravitch saw Australia as a possible place where Jews could permanently settle, possibly in a part of Australia (the Northern Territory) that “nobody wanted.” He was armed with a letter from Albert Einstein and Jewish hopes of utopia; it was called the Kimberly Plan, which neither the Jews in Poland nor the Australian government supported.

While there, he helped establish the first Yiddish school—an I.L. Peretz school in 1937 in Australia, in the city of Melbourne. He served as its first headmaster and stayed in Australia until 1938, then moving on again, for a time in  Argentina, in Mexico and in New York City before coming to Montreal.

Ruinengroz (Ruin Grass), by Melech Ravitch. (Brno: Jüdischer Buch-und Kunstverlag M. Hickel, 1916 or 1917).
Photo Credit: YIVO

It was in Montreal, where he lived for more than three decades, apart from the two years (1954–56) that he lived in Israel, that he spent the most time after the war. When he first landed in Montreal, he more than likely lived in the old Jewish neighborhood of Mile End, near Park Avenue and Mont-Royal, in close proximity to the mountain and the Jewish Public Library, where Ravitch briefly took on the role as director shortly after his arrival in the city.

The Encyclopaedia Judaica writes: “During his active association there with the Yidishe-folksbyblotek (Jewish Public Library), he revived the Yidishe-folksuniversitet (Jewish People's Popular University) to offer adult education programming in Jewish and non-Jewish topics from 1941 to 1954.” He was very active in Montreal, the same article says; “In 1946 he and his brother H. Bergner published the memoirs of their family as recorded by their mother Hinde Bergner (1870–1942) on the eve of World War ii.”

I did find out that between 1965 until his death in 1976, he lived at 5413 Trans Island Avenue, near Lacombe Avenue, which is the same Snowdon area that many Jews resided in around this period. It was close, within walking distance, to the Jewish library after it relocated westward. He wrote prolifically, often of the life he left behind in Europe; he was, after all, almost 50 when he came to Montreal.

His most known works include  a comprehensive anthology Di lider fun mayne lider (“The Poems of My Poems;” 1954) and his two-volume series Mayn leksikon (“My Lexicon;” 1945–1947), which offer intimate portraits of Yiddish writers in Poland. His memoirs, Dos mayse-bukh fun mayn lebn (“The Storybook of My Life;” 3 vols., 1962–1975), describe his life in Galicia, Vienna, and Warsaw.

He viewed himself as “the first modernist of Yiddish literature,” recounts Irving Massey, son of Yiddish writer and organizer Ida Maze, who was a neighbour of Ravitch. He was married to Fania, a singer from Lodz; they had a son, Yosl Bergner, who became a famous painter who settled in Israel; and a daughter, Ruth Bergner, a dancer who settled in Australia. His brother, the Yiddish writer Herz Bergner, settled in Melbourne in 1938.

No doubt, Ravitch is one of the leading Yiddish literary figures with published works after the Holocaust. The poet and his poetry were acknowledged during his long career; he was awarded numerous literary prizes including the prestigious L. Lamed, Yud Yud Segal, and Itzik Manger Prizes.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Cantor Moshe Koussevitzky: Milchige, Fleiszige Iden

Yiddish Performance of the Week

Milchige, Fleiszige Iden 

I could not find out much information about this record other than it was made between 1930 and 1939 in inter-war Poland and that Koussevitsky is identified as the chief cantor (oberkantor) of the Warschauer Synagogue. This was the first record label in Poland, changing its name to Syrena-Electro in 1929. It was famous for its popular dance music, and for making records in both Polish and Yiddish. The record company, Wikipedia says, “was established in 1904 by Juliusz Fejgenbaum. It took the name of Syrena Rekord in 1908. The company produced gramophone records till the invasion of Poland in 1939. The company’s discography includes around 14,000 titles.” When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, it destroyed the record factories and the large collection of titles. What remains is found in private collections. As to who wrote the lyrics and the background behind the song, it is thus far a mystery. If someone could help solve it, all the better. Until then, enjoy this song.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Abraham Sutzkever on Poetry and Partisan Life (1959)

Abraham Sutzkever [1913–2010] recalls some of his experiences in the Vilna Ghetto, in the Narach Forest and as a Jewish partisan during the Second World War, both of which influenced his poems. This lecture, recorded on May 24, 1959, was given during a public program at the Jewish Public Library of Montreal. This wonderful library had many such lectures for the public. I plan to write more about this famous Yiddish poet in a future post. Here is an interesting fact: Abraham Sutzkever, one of the great poets of the 20th century and  Moshe Koussevitzky, one of the greatest hazzanim (cantors) of the 20th century, were both born in Smorgon, Belarus, or what used to be called White Russia. This was a town of no more than 40,000. And as Wikipedia writes: “In 1939 there were 375,000 Jews in Belarus, or 13.6% of the total population.” After the war, that number dropped by two-thirds, since the Nazis and their local collaborators murdered 66% of the nation’s Jews, or some 246,000 Jews. In this lecture, Sutzkever speaks about the particularities of the Vilna Ghetto, infamous for the massacre at Ponary; he says many things that are true, including what it is to be a poet, and notably a poet who is a witness to tragedy and loss.
Via: Youtube and Yiddish Book Center

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Montreal’s Jewish Public Library

“Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn”

Jewish Public Library of Montreal: Large crowd at Dedication Ceremony for New Library Building at 4499 Esplanade Avenue, in the Mile End neighbouhood, on October 04, 1953. 
Photo Credit: Federal Photos & JPL

I have long enjoyed libraries, since this is where the books are kept. One of my first libraries that I visited—I was six or seven when my father took me— was Montreal’s Jewish Public Library (Yidishe Folks biblyotek) at 4499 Esplanade Avenue at the corner of Mont-Royal Avenue, the first time that the library would have a building purposely built for it. This was a beautiful building in a beautiful location in Montreal’s Mile End neighbouhood: across the road from Fletcher’s Field and a five-minute walk from my school.

It was also supposed to be a permanent location, after decades of residing in temporary or rented premises. On October 19, 1952, a cornerstone was laid with great hope and with ideas of presence and permanence:
In front of a crowd of over a thousand Allan Bronfman delivered a moving speech on behalf of his brother Samuel. He spoke about the enduring Jewish spirit and traditions and the centrality of books. The speech ended with the line “Today as we dedicate this Library for its people, let us also dedicate its people for the Library.”
Also within the walls of the new building were two stones. One was a “grim memorial of the past” and the other a “bright augury for the future.” The first was a part of a pillar from the Tlomatzky Synagogue in Warsaw which was donated by the Polish government and the other was from Mount Zion and was made available by the Government of Israel
Another Photo, from a different angle, of the October 1953 opening, overlooking Mont-Royal Avenue and its beautiful grey-stone residences.  
Photo Credit: JPL Archives

Almost a year later, on October 4, 1953, there was a Dedication Ceremony, with many dignitaries and writers in attendance, including Samuel Bronfman, Dr. Jean Bruchési, H. Carl Goldenberg, S.I. Segal, Melech Ravitch, Jacob Shatzky and David Rome. Yet, despite its original intentions, the JPL would remain at this Esplanade location only for a little more than a dozen years. By the 1960s, the Jews were moving out of the area, and the building was sold to the Bibliothèque nationale du Québec, writes Zachary M. Baker in an excellent 2014 article (“A Goodly Tent of Jacob, and the Canadian Home Beautiful: The Jewish Public Library in the Civic Sphere during the 1950s”) for Canadian Jewish Studies:
On 18 June 1966, the Quebec government took possession of the property at 4499 Esplanade, on behalf of the nascent Bibliothèque nationale du Québec (formally established the following year), and the JPL moved to rented space on Décarie Boulevard, where it remained until Cummings House–the home of the Allied Jewish Community Services (now, Federation CJA)–opened in 1972. No longer would the JPL be housed in a building of its own.
There it has remained for more than 40 years at its present location at 5151 Côte-Ste-Catherine Road, at the corner of Westbury Avenue. It has become the building that 4499 Esplanade Avenue was supposed to be. By then, we had also moved westward, joining the rest of the Jewish community. I was once again a young patron (a teenager) of the library, no more than a short bus ride away.

My father also attended many lectures in Yiddish; sometimes I would go along, only to get a ride by car. Later on, I returned to the library as a member and used its services regularly, that is, until moving to Toronto almost five years ago. (Despite having a large Jewish community, Toronto no longer has a Jewish library; it closed in 2008 and sold off all of its books.)

No matter where it is located, JPL has always been more than a lending library; it has always been a people’s library and in the first decades of its existence completely a volunteer operation. The purpose of the JPL has always been clear:
The Folks-biblyotek was more than a library to its founders and members. David Rome states: “From day one the Jewish Public Library considered itself and was considered by others as one of the great institutions of the world, regardless of how small it was.”[19] Rather than a library whose main function was to circulate books, the Folks-biblyotek became a centre of culture, in particular Yiddish culture, for every element of the community.[20] Sack describes the Folks-biblyotek as “the focal point around which intelligent Jews focused their energy, in particular the intelligent Jewish youth.”[21]
As the library site says, it had modest beginnings: “The JPL opened its doors on May 1st, 1914 in a modest cold-water flat at 669 rue St. Urbain with a small collection of 500 books.” By the time that it moved to its current location in Montreal’s west end Snowdon neighbourhood, the size of its holdings increased to more than 150,000 items in five languages: English, French, Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian. the JPL celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2014; I hope it remains open for another 100 years.

True, it might not be (or seem) as cozy as it was on Esplanade Avenue, but alts shtendik oyskumen beser ven ir zent a kind vas hat gefunen a gut bukh tsu leyenen (things always seem better when you are a child who has found a good book to read.) I was fortunate to have spent so much time at the JPL. It is a beautiful and wonderful library that has given me many happy memories, in attending lectures, in finding particular books that I needed for the purposes of research and in just having the pleasure of finding a book to read while wandering through the stacks—a pleasure any book lover knows. A shaynem dank to the staff at the JPL.

—Peretz J. Greenbaum, October 6, 2017

Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project: Eva Raby, former director of the Montreal Jewish Public Library, describes the origins of  the “biblyotek un folks universitet,” and how Yiddish culture was like a religion for secular families like hers.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Gates of November by Chaim Potok

The Jews of Russia

“This book is about the Slepak family. It seeks to answer two questions. First. What conditions will drive individuals living in comfort at the very summit of a political system, suddenly to turn against that system and bring ruin down on their lives? And second: Can a single family serve as a microcosm that might shed light on what ultimately happened to all the peoples of the Soviet Union? This was once a land so filled with hope; than a slowly growing skepticism, and a slide into cynicism, disillusionment, alienation, rage, separation, and, in the end, a general disintegration.”

Chaim Potok, p. xiv

The Gates of November (1996) by Chaim Potok. The title is taken from a line in Alexander Pushkin’s famous novel in verse, Eugene Onegin (1833).
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Chaim Potok [1929–2002] is best known as a writer of American fiction infused with Jewish themes, found in such novels as The Chosen (1967), My Name is Asher Lev (1972) and Davita’s Harp (1987). This book is neither American nor fiction, but a true recounting of how and why one Jewish family in Russia (Volodya and Masha Slepak and their two children, Alexander and Leonid), part of what is now called the Former Soviet Union (FSU), wanted to leave it. It being a nation that failed to keep the promises of the Old Bolsheviks, one of whom was Solomon Slepak, the father of  Volodya.

A bit of background information on Potok, whom I consider a fine writer with a good moral questioning and critical eye; I have read all of whose books. Given his talent, I am not sure why he is not held in as high esteem as other Jewish writers of his generation like Bellow, Malamud and Roth. It might be that his novels are written for Jews who care about being Jewish, and who struggle with the ideas and ideals of Judaism, including truth and justice and righteousness.

This would undoubtedly make critics uncomfortable; and assimilated Jewish even ones more critical, all for very obvious reasons. I should know, since I too have wandered deeply into the opposing camp, seeking universality, only to eventually turn around to the particularities of what I know, to find comfort and familiarity in der Yidisher heym. After all, a writer can’t change his background, not if he’s honest. Potok was raised in an orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York, was ordained as a Conservative rabbi and holds a doctorate in philosophy.

It was in 1985, while visiting Russia, that Potok spent time with Volodya and Masha Slepak, this being the times of the Iron Curtain, where it was not a simple matter for Soviet citizens to apply for a visa and then hop on a plane to your desired destination. The Slepaks were dissidents; they were “refuseniks.” The USSR didn’t want anyone to leave, especially Jews. The Slepak Family did not want to stay and the Soviet government didn’t really want Jews like the Slepaks to stay. It was Kafkaesque.

Yet, they refused to let them go for political reasons, making them political prisoners. Such explains much about Soviet ideology during this time: from right after Israel won the Six Day Way in 1967 until the collapse of the USSR a little more than 20 years later. Although the Soviet Union was not Russia it was Russia when it came to the Jews and its systemic anti-Semitism–why it failed can be answered in why it failed the Jews, who at one time, in the beginning, wanted desperately to believe in the promises of the Old Bolsheviks, especially that all citizens were equal and would be treated as equals.

But that lie unraveled over time, the promises unfulfilled; it was doomed for failure from the very beginning, chiefly because it did not allow religious freedom and it persecuted the Jews more than the czarist regime before it did. It so effectively weakened the lines of cultural and religious transmission that a generation or two of Jews did not know what it meant to be a Jew. The Jews in the Soviet Union could not live as Jews; they were, as an example, forbidden to celebrate the holidays and festivals common to Jews around the world (like Sukkot) and all outward expressions of religious affiliation were discouraged, if not outright banned.

Yet, Jews, even if they considered themselves fully assimilated and acted so outwardly, could never be considered as full citizens, as Russians were—only because they were Jewish. All citizens were required to carry internal documents; the fifth line designated nationality or ethnicity. Even without such documents, Russians and Jews alike could generally spot a Jew, at times from a distance, not only by his face, but also by his mannerisms and way of walking and talking. This is what my wife and other Jews from Russia have told me. Jews stand out, even when they don’t want to.

Truly, this was not a place where Jews could comfortably live as Jews, whether religious or secular or in any way in between. A Jew knows this in his deepest soul, the yechidaheven if he does not know or understand this intellectually; he is awakened by the divine spark, dos Pintele Yidthis indestructible core of Jewishness that might be hidden or dormant for decades but can never be completely snuffed out. It is an idea that is steeped in kabbalistic thought. In such thought, the Pintele Yid resists the darkness and can’t accept or rationalize the evil as normal. This can also be viewed as  sparks of righteousness and justice.

The Slepaks were acting in accordance to this Jewish spark, this divine spark, which guided their conscience; they were among a handful of families who let this absurdity be known publicly, no doubt embarrassing the officials of the Politburo, who viewed such inconsistencies and irrationalities as unexceptional. In truth, they were, and very much so. Any hopes of sanity meant not only exposing the facts, but also doing so publicly and collectively, so as to ensure that insanity never returns, or as a minimum to reveal the symptoms of it.

For this reason, this book is also about the disease of totalitarianism (and, one can argue, of atheism), as much as it is about one family’s fight for their right to leave for Israel, and how their fight for freedom became the right for freedom for all Jews not only in Russia, but in all of the FSU. If freedom could not be found in the Soviet Union—and it couldn’t—it had to be found outside of it.

Volodya & Masha Slepak were finally free to leave, 17 years after they applied for an exit visa (their two boys were allowed to leave earlier, in the late 1970s); the couple landed in Israel a day before Volodya  Slepak’s 60th birthday, which was on October 27th, 1987. They were finally home.

Tonight, 15 Tishrei, begins the seven-day holiday of Sukkot (סֻכּוֹת;the “Festival of Booths”), or Succos in Yiddish, where it is traditional for Jews to build a temporary structure adjoining one’s dwelling called a sukkah. Or if you can’t build a sukkah (e.g., you live in an apartment building), you can make sure to visit someone who does have one to eat at least one meal in it. Moreover, most synagogues build sukkot for communal meals. This is one of the three Shalosh R’galim (pilgrimage festivals) cited in the Torah. It is  traditional to eat meals in the sukkah and shake the four kinds (arba minim), reciting the blessing over the lulav and etrog. This holiday is a joyous one.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Isa Kremer: Die Poiliche Juden (1922)

Yiddish Performance of the Week

Die Poiliche Juden (“The Polish Jews;” 1922): Isa Kremer [born in 1887 in Belz, Bessarabia; died in 1956 in Córdoba, Argentina] sings “Die Poiliche Juden” in this 1922 recording for a 78 record produced by Brunswick in New York City; this is recorded shortly after Kremer came to the United States from Europe, and a couple of months after her performance at Carnegie Hall. This song, composed by the Yiddish folk poet Mark Varshavski [1848–1907], has a piano accompaniment by Kurt Hetzel. Isa Kremer has both an interesting background and an interesting story as a singer of Yiddish folk-songs. Kremer began her musical career as an opera singer, but changed course after her marriage to Israel Heifetz and after meeting the intellectual writers of Odessa, writes the Jewish Women’s Archive: “After her marriage to Heifetz (twenty-seven years her senior) around 1912, Kremer became involved in the intellectual life of Odessa and was especially influenced by the circles of Mendele Mokher Seforim, Mark Warshawski, and Chaim Nachman Bialik. Bialik convinced her to sing Yiddish folk songs, which she started to collect. At that time only men, usually cantors, performed these traditional songs of home and hearth on the stage.” As for the town of Belz, it had 6,100 inhabitants, 3,600 of them Jews, by the beginning of the First World War; today, its total population is less than 2,500, and there is no Jewish presence. Belz, which changed hands many times in the last 150 years, is now part of Western Ukraine, close to the border of Poland. For more about the Jewish life of Belz, you should view the Belz Memorial Book, published in 1974, and made available by JewishGen and the Yizkor Book Project.
Via: Youtube

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Cantor Moshe Koussevitzky: El Malei Rachamim


El Malei Rachamim/Kel Maleh Rachamim/אֵל מָלֵא רַחֲמִים

Cantor Moshe Koussevitzky was born in 1899 in Smorgonwhich was then in Russian Poland (and now is in Belarus, near the Lithuanian border). Here he sings the pyet (“prayer-hymn”), “El Malei Rachamim” (אֵל מָלֵא רַחֲמִים; “God full of Mercy” or “Merciful God”) at a memorial service for Holocaust victims (date unknown), in keeping with Jewish custom and tradition of remembering the departed souls or “memoralizing the souls.”

This is a prayer said at funerals (including the walk to the grave), at Yahrzeits of relatives called up for an aliyah and at communal Yizkor memorial services in shul four times a year, including on Yom Kippur, which was yesterday on Shabbat. The other Yizkor services on the Jewish calendar are on Shmini Atzeret, the last day of Pesach and the last day of Shavuot.

Some say that this prayer dates to medieval times and the “Christian Crusades.” Mayle, this prayer is said with a purpose in mind (“Therefore, may the All-Merciful One shelter him with the cover of His wings forever, and bind his soul in the bond of life.”) To say that this is moving and emotional in an understatement; it stirs my soul like few prayers can, especially when done by a great hazzan (cantor) like Koussevitzky.

His beautiful tenor voice saved him a number of times, writes Neil W. Levin in the Milken Archive of Jewish Music:
During the Second World War—with the help of the Polish underground and the Partisans, according to some reports—Koussevitzky was able to save himself and his family from the Germans by retreating into Soviet Russia. While there, he adopted the name Mikhail Koussevitzky and, after the German retreat, sang operatic roles in such productions as Boris Godunov, Rigoletto, and Tosca at the Tiflis National Opera Company in Georgia. Returning to Poland after the war, he performed at a concert in the presence of the British and United States ambassadors, who interceded in order to obtain visas for him for both countries.
Koussevitzky chose the United States and New York City in 1947. He was the eldest of four brothers (Simcha, David, and Jacob), each who became well-known cantors, a rarity among families. Moshe Koussevitzky died in 1966 in New York City, and is buried in Jerusalem. His reputation as one of the greatest hazzanim (“cantors”) remains intact more than fifty years later; it is by him and handful of others to whom all cantors are compared and measured.

In the same article cited above, Levin writes: “At the time of his death, Koussevitzky was the hazzan of Temple Beth El of Borough Park, in Brooklyn—one of New York’s largest and most prestigious orthodox pulpits with a long tradition of hosting world-class hazzanim.”

The prayer, for men and women can be found below, along with the transliteration, as well as here. Immediately below are a few other cantors saying the El Malei Rachamim; each does justice to the words of the prayer.

Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt [1882-1933]
Via: Youtube

Cantor Shalom Katz [1915-1982]
Via: Youtube

IDF Chief Cantor Lt. Col Shai Abramson
Via: Youtube

Kel Maleh Rachamim: Prayer for the Soul of the Departed (Courtesy of

For a Man:

Hebrew and Transliteration:

O G‑d, full of compassion, Who dwells on high, grant true rest upon the wings of the Shechinah (Divine Presence), in the exalted spheres of the holy and pure, who shine as the resplendence of the firmament, to the soul of

(mention his Hebrew name and that of his father)

who has gone to his [supernal] world, for charity has been donated in remembrance of his soul; may his place of rest be in Gan Eden. Therefore, may the All-Merciful One shelter him with the cover of His wings forever, and bind his soul in the bond of life. The Lord is his heritage; may he rest in his resting-place in peace; and let us say: Amen.

For a Woman:

Hebrew and Transliteration:


O G‑d, full of compassion, Who dwells on high, grant true rest upon the wings of the Shechinah (Divine Presence), in the exalted spheres of the holy and pure, who shine as the resplendence of the firmament, to the soul of

(mention her Hebrew name and that of her father)

who has gone to her [supernal] world, for charity has been donated in remembrance of her soul; may her place of rest be in Gan Eden. Therefore, may the All-Merciful One shelter her with the cover of His wings forever, and bind her soul in the bond of life. The Lord is her heritage; may she rest in her resting-place in peace; and let us say: Amen.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Growing Up, Part 2

Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn

“Der seykhl iz a krikher.”
Ignaz Bernstein
Jüdische Sprichwörter und Redensarten (1908)

This is Part 2 of a two-part essay on Growing Up; last week was Part 1.


Nu, a funny thing happened as I got older, got married and had children of my own; I wanted to listen to and speak Yiddish; I yearned for the language of my youth. This was more than nostalgia, though that no doubt played a part in my thinking. There is a wonderful word in Yiddish, di yerushe (“the legacy”), which explains it, and how I would like this passed down to the next generation.

I wanted my children to understand the world of my parents and in particular that of my father, who was born in Poland in the early years of the 20th century, when there was a thriving di yidishe velt. I wanted this to survive with the best of health. If only the next generation could understand why this world is so important. It took me many decades “wandering in the wilderness” (appealing because it doesn’t appear wild) to appreciate it, and here I am.

Thank goodness that the Internet, and in particular Youtube, provides countless opportunities to listen to Yiddish performances, both old and modern. There is so much Yiddish taking place: for example, I have discovered singers like Chava Albertstein, Isa Kremer. Moishe Oysher and Aaron Lebedeff; and actors like Leo Fuchs, Menasha Skulnick, Bella Mysell, and Molly Picon.

Equally contributing to my education is the discovery of so many sites in the last month or so. I have added a section to my blog where I list these sites, now numbering in the dozens, a list that will no doubt grow. They are on the left, if you are interested.

While it might or might not be true that Yidn are smarter—there is really no universal standard way to measure such things, Nobel Prizes is only one measure—it is true, as our history shows, that Jews do ask the right questions. While intelligence is no doubt important—we can see what happens when there is a lack of it—it is more important that intelligence is used with the purpose of a moral good, or moralishkayt. This is seykl, or wisdom. With this in mind, I would suggest that a better barometer of a culture’s health and well-being is how it asks moral questions and, equally important, how it responds to them.

Such is a key and essential part of Jewish culture, both religious and secular, comprising di Yiddishe layt. The whole basis of Judaic culture is learning, debating, arguing (even or especially with God, the Creator of the Universe) and coming to an understanding, where and how we can apply moral knowledge to our world, with the purpose of making it better. Judaism is about the individual grappling with the great moral questions, alongside other Jews, and finding his place, more so his moral path (moralish drkh), in the world. This, among many reasons, is why I am a Jew.

As for Shakespeare, whom I mentioned in the first part of this essay—and I say this in earnest without any apologies—I find his writing tedious and boring, bereft of moral and philosophical significance. If you never read Shakespeare, you will be no poorer from it. But if you do read him, you will want this time lost returned to you. Such echoes the thoughts of that great Russian writer (and philo-Semitic) Leo Tolstoy in his essay, “Tolstoy on Shakespeare” (1906), which had the firm support of Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright.

Truly, I don’t have this English love and admiration of the Bard, but then again I don’t have this English cast of mind, but why would I? I am not English; I am not an Anglophile. His works do not speak to my soul, chiefly because they are based on Christianity, a foreign religion, an alien way of thought. As such, they are not easily accessible, and, moreover, they are hardly desirable. Now that I have said this, I feel better.

Since I am a Jew, I can easily access and value Yiddish works, both serious and comedic, both written and visual. I have discovered that Yiddish opens another world, rich in history and culture that resonates with me. That there is a wealth of Yiddish poetry and literature, of Yiddish music and drama, and of Yiddish art and humour that deepens our understanding of the human condition, and that certainly matters to me. Whether others outside Di yidishe velt view it as high art matters little to me. I doubt that it will, but why should it?

Mayle; this is not their world and it is important to say, how can it be? Equally important, because of who I am and the way I think, Yiddishkayt undoubtedly matters to me, even though I didn’t always want to acknowledge it. Well, I am a slow learner, but it is never too late. There is actually a Yiddish way of thinking (a Yidisher kop), which has everything to do with the language and the history of the people who spoke it the last 1,000 years. (Language, after all, informs thinking.)

Now that I am approaching my sixth decade, I am actually quite excited about having returned to my Yiddish roots, reclaiming it, so to speak, as my rightful heritage, finding its language rich and beautiful. Perhaps I can eventually surpass the level of my five-year-old self. (To the Yiddishists out there: do not hesitate to correct any errors in usage. A sheynem dank.)

—Peretz J. Greenbaum, September 29, 2017

Tonight is Erev Yom Kippur, the beginning of the traditional 25-hour period of fasting and prayer, where even the least-observant Jews around the world partake in some way. A typical greeting is Gemar chatimah tovah” (גמר חתימה טובה; “A good final sealing.”). Tonight is also when Kol Nidre (כָּל נִדְרֵי; Aramaic: “all vows”) is recited; it is not so much a prayer but a legal ritual. May you have an easy and meaningful fast.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Yiddish Poets & Writers: Rachel Korn

Montreal Yiddish Poets

Rokhl Korn reading one of her much beloved poems, “Fun Yener Zayt Lid” (On the Other Side of the Poem; 1962).
Via: Youtube

Rokhl Häring Korn [1898–1982], known as Rachel Korn, published eight volumes of poetry and two collections of fiction. It is as a Yiddish poet, however, that she made her reputation, recognized not only in Montreal but elsewhere. Korn was born in a village on the San River, where her grandfather owned land, on a farming estate called Sucha Gora (“Dry Mountain”) near Podliski, eastern Galicia (a region in southeastern Poland and northwestern Ukraine)in what is now part of Ukraine.

During the First World War, the family relocated to Vienna; after the war, they moved to Przemyśl (or Premisle in Yiddish), a city in southeastern Poland, with a sizable Jewish population, writes  the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe: “In 1921, Przemyśl was home to 18,360 Jews, who constituted 38.8 percent of the city’s total population.” Since most lived in rented accommodations, this was considered a shtuet

It was here that Rokhl Häring married Hersh Korn in 1920; when the Germans invaded, he did not survive the Second World War, murdered by the Nazis. Rokhl was fortunate that she was visiting her daughter (Irene)  who was attending university in Lvov, which gave both sufficient time to escape the German advancement, announced by artillery and bombs. It was short of a miracle that they did.

Her earlier poetry had to do with the land and imagery of nature. The Jewish Women's Archive writes:
In 1919 she published her first Yiddish poem in the Lemberger Tageblatt. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s she was a steady contributor to Yiddish literary journals and newspapers. With the publication of her early volumes of poetry, Dorf (Village, 1928) and Royter mon (Red Poppies, 1937), and her first collection of stories, Erd (Land, 1936), she was recognized as an accomplished and original writer. The profusion and directness of her nature imagery, the dramatic confrontations of village life as she pictured it and the intensity of her love poetry were all new to Yiddish literature.
While she was initially ardently pro-left, by 1939, she realized that communism was not good for the Jews, yet Korn, forced by circumstances, had to spend a decade in the Soviet Union, before being able to execute her exit. It was not a direct route, but a common one then for Jews. From 1941 to 1949, after the German invasion of what was USSR-occupied Poland, Korn wandered again to escape danger: to Tashkent to Fergana in Uzbekistan, and then to Moscow; and after the war, and repatriation, to Lodz and then Warsaw in Poland. She came to Montreal, via Stockholm, Sweden, with Irene, her daughter, in 1949.

I couldn’t find out precisely where Korn lived in Montreal when she first arrived, but I remember reading that she first settled in the old Jewish neighbourhood near the mountain, near the Jewish library and near Park Avenue—all places that are familiar and carry memories for me. Between 1958 and 1982, she lived at 21 Maplewood, in Outremont, which is near the mountain and the old Jewish community. Outemont is also home to a sizable number of Yiddish-speaking Hasidic Jews.

Now, it might be that for Korn there was little familiarity, but this was part of a bargain to gain something else: now that there was less of a need to physically wander around the earth, and she was free from decades of constraints, and free from the totalitarianism of Europe. This freedom allowed her and, possibly, compelled her to finally write about her losses, including the loss of a way of life.

Itsik Manger Prize (1974): Presentation of the Itsik Manger Prize for Yiddish Literature to Rokhl Korn, Israel, 1974. Rokhl Korn is seated right of the speaker; Prime Minister Golda Meir also seated at the table, is four seats to the right of the speaker. 
Photo Credit: Jewish Public Library, Archives; retrieved from the Museum of Jewish Montreal

Understandably, the tenor of her poems changed, reflecting what she had to undergo, her ordeals. The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe writes about Korn during these transitional years in Montreal:
Although Korn settled in Montreal, the anguish she had experienced in Europe remained at the forefront of her mind. Poet of sorrow and pain, she published two more collections of poetry (Heym unheymlozikayt, 1948; Bashertkayt: Lider, 1949) and another collection of stories (Nayn dertseylungen, 1957). About her writing, Elie Wiesel has said: “No one else has her ability to paint the landscape of a buried village or [her] eye to portray the rapport between a mother and her daughter, a vagabond and the sky, between a child and his longing” (in Korn, 1982).
We have longings for what we can not have, for what escapes our grasp, for what was once in our grasp. Nu, dos iz di emes. Again, it need be said that it is understandable that many of her poems were about loss, personal (family) and universal (way of life). Not only her husband but her large family in Poland were murdered by the Nazis. I found a fascinating and wonderful site, JewishGen, based in New York City, which has written testimony about the many Jewish communities destroyed by the Holocaust, as part of its comprehensive Yizkor Book Project.

About Korn, a daughter of Przemyśl, someone with the initials A.B. writes:
In 1962, the Y. L. Peretz Publishing House of Tel Aviv published Rachel Korn's anthology of poems, “Fun Yener Zeit Leid” [Poems from That Time], dedicated to the poet’s mother. The following dedication in the book is typical of the creative path and voice of the poet.
“The memory of my mother Chana the daughter or Rivka shall be sanctified.
My mother, who was the greatest audience of my first poems, lived together with me through the fate of the poor and the shamed. She always wished that I would dedicate a book to her, even if this was not meant to be. She lies somewhere in a forest with a German bullet in her heart – in her heart that was full of love for humanity, animals, the forest, and even a minute blade of grass.
My poems are the continuation of her snuffed–out life.”
This is a beautiful dedication. Korn spent the last three decades of her life in Montreal; and after so much wandering, this might have been a welcome relief for Rachel Korn. Yet, like many who were both victimized and traumatized by the catastrophe of eastern Europe, she could not forget. While Montreal might have provided safety and refuge, it was not the home she knew.

Yet, one way that Jews deal with tragedy is to both write and document, to keep alive the memories of the people and reveal their lives, with facts, with figurative language and with feeling and emotion—with the hope that future generations will know, and possibly understand, that these were real people living real lives. The poems and stories live on, and in taking on such endeavors,  Rokhl (“Rachel”) Häring Korn, has done us a service. Zi hat getan dos zeyer gezunt.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Molly Picon: Abi Gezunt (1938)

Yiddish Performance of the Week

Molly Picon, in the midst of Shabbes (Shabbos) preparationssings “Abi Gezunt” (So Long as You’re Healthy) in the pre-war Yiddish film, Mamele (1938). 
ViaYoutube & NCJF

Mamele stars Molly Picon (as Khavtshi Samet) & Edmund Zayenda (as Schlesinger) and directed by Joseph Green & Konrad Tom. The 97-minute film was shot in inter-war Poland, and is set in Lodz. This became Picon's trademark song and a staple of Yiddish theatre. The Jewish Daily Forward wrote (January 20, 2014) about this restored film, as cited on the site of The National Center for Jewish Film:
The setting is urban, the young men and women are 1930s fashionably dressed. There is nightclubbing, drinking, double-dealing, and– a handsome sweet musician across the courtyard. As tireless as the Energizer bunny, Picon is so delicious and quirky, you want to give her a knip in bekl (pinch her cheek).
In a dreamlike montage, she morphs — in stages — from a dancing little girl to a frail 78-year old dancing with her fingers and bobbing her head. Picon also launches the hit song “Abi Gezunt” (as long as you are healthy) which has become a standard for Yiddish performers down the decades. As for the romantic finale — it involves a scene-stealing ketzele (kitten) which will have cat lovers purring.” 
Yes, as long as you are healthy has been a trademark expression of Yidn everywhere. The lyrics were written by Molly Picon and the music composed by Abraham Ellstein [1907–1963], who was born in New York City’s Lower East Side. The lyrics are courtesy of the Milken Archive of Jewish Music.

Mamele Playbill (1938)

Abi Gezunt
by Molly Picon & Abraham Ellstein

a bisl zun, a bisl regn,
a ruik ort dem kop tsu legn,
abi gezunt, ken men gliklekh zayn.

a shukh a zok, a kleyd on lates,
in keshene a dray, fir zlotes,
abi gezunt, ken men gliklekh zayn.

di luft iz fray far yedn glaykh,
di zun zi shaynt far yedn eynem,
orem oder raykh.

a bisl freyd, a bisl lakhn,
a mol mit fraynd a shnepsl makhn,
abi gezunt ken men gliklekh zayn.

eyner zukht ashires,
eyner zukht gevures,
aynnemen di gantse velt.
eyner meynt dos ganse glik
hengt nor op in gelt.

zoln ale zukhn,
zoln ale krikhn,
nor ikh trakht bay mir,
ikh darf dos af kapores,
vayl dos glik shteyt bay mayn tir.

So Long As You’re Healthy

A bit of sun, a bit of rain,
a peaceful place to lay your head …
so long as you’re healthy, you can be happy.

A shoe, a sock, an outfit without patches,
three or four measly coins in your pocket …
so long as you’re healthy, you can be happy.

The air is free, equal for all;
the sun shines for everyone,
whether rich or poor.

A little rejoicing, a little laughter,
some schnapps with a friend once in a while …
so long as you’re healthy, you can be happy.

Some look for riches,
some look for power,
to conquer the whole world.
Some think that all happiness
depends only on money.

Let them all search,
let them all scrounge.
But I think to myself that
I have no use for such things,
since happiness is waiting at my doorstep.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

I.B. Singer’s Yiddish Speech in Stockholm (1978)


In this 15-minute sound clip you will hear Isaac Bashevis Singer’s speech, in Yiddish, which he gave at a banquet in Stockholm the night before he was presented with the Nobel Prize in Literature (1978). This is more than a speech on literature, since there are many fine speeches delivered in Stockholm and elsewhere that perform this very feat. No, this is a speech defending Yiddish literature and a people that choose to write in this language. This makes it different from other speeches of this kind; this also makes it memorable, both then and now.

This was originally broadcast by Efrayim Shedletzky on the Israel channel “Kol Yisrael” right after Purim in the following year (1979). Here is how he begins the speech, which uses classic Yiddish humour to set the tone:
Men fregt mikh oft, far vos shraybstu Yidish? Un ikh vel pruvn gebn oyf der frage an entfer. Mayn entfer vet zayn a Yidishlekhe - dos heyst, ikh vel entfern mit a frage oyf a frage. Der entfer iz: far vos zol ikh nisht shraybn oyf Yidish?!
[Trans: People often ask me, why do you write in Yiddish? And I will try now to give an answer to that question. My answer will be a Jewish one - in other words, I will answer the question with a question. The answer is: why should I not write in Yiddish?!]
Nu, iz es an andere entfer beser vi dos? Di emes, dos iz di rikhtik entfer. For the full transcript of the speech, you should go to this site, where you will also find a translation into English. Singer has a wonderful sense of humour, which comes through loud and clear. I would happily encourage you to listen to the full speech; you will enjoy it.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Jacob Glatstein: Yiddish Poetry After The Holocaust (1955)

Yiddish Poetry After the Holocaust (1955): Interview with Jacob Glatstein
ViaYoutube & Yiddish Book Center

Jacob Glatstein [also spelled Yankev Glatshteynborn 1896 in Lublin, Poland–died 1971 in New York City] gives good reasons why Yiddish poetry after the Holocaust changed direction. This is instructive for those who plead ignorance or apathy. Such historical thought and insight, to a large degree, proves instructive to those of us who are interested in 20th century Yiddish poetry and Yiddishkayt and the preservation of both.

This comes at a time when the voices of the past are most urgently sought for their lucidity and understanding of the Jewish People and, moreover, how the particular moral and philosophical needs can be met outside the boundaries of traditional religion, and yet still have the strength to ask the questions of faith that have kept the Jews as Jews. Never an easy life, but an authentic one, I would think.

Glatstein, like a poet-prophet, had foretold of the upcoming catastrophe in Europe, having written a series of poems in 1938 and 1939, the most famous being “A gute nakht, velt” (“Goodnight, World;” 1938). After the Holocaust, it became clear that Yiddish poetry could no longer mirror western civilization, di goyisher velt, which is to say that of “Christian Europe,” which had without remorse or mercy prepared the ground, the way, if you will, to the khurbn eyrope (חורבן אײראָפּע), the destruction of European Jewry. Under such dire conditions, now more than ever, Yiddish had to have its own authentic voice, Yiddish had to make its own derakh (path).

They, these voices, are today more than relevant, since memories fade and the circumstances and reasons that brought about the changes are too easily forgotten. But they shouldn’t be. This interview was conducted in New York’s Central Park by Abraham Tabachnick in 1955, more than 60 years ago. This digitized recording is part of the Frances Brandt Online Yiddish Audio Library of the Yiddish Book Center. The original recordings are from the collection of the Jewish Public Library of Montreal.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Growing Up, Part 1

Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn

“Der seykhl iz a krikher.”
Ignaz Bernstein
Jüdische Sprichwörter und Redensarten (1908)

This is Part 1 of a two-part essay on Growing Up; next week is Part 2.


Up until the age of five, when I started kindergarten, I spoke Yiddish and understood it, at least as well as any person of that age could. My father spoke to me in Yiddish and I responded accordingly, which made perfect sense, since this was my father’s mameloshn; my mother preferred English, having been born in Montreal, so she spoke to us in English and I in return.

My parents spoke to each other in Yiddish and (perhaps to their dismay) I understood mostly everything, or at least I knew when they were talking about me or my brothers, about something they didn’t want us to know when they thought I was asleep. I remember going every day to pick up the newspapers at the corner kiosk, and later at the store in the indoor plaza near our house: one of them was the Forverts (“The Jewish Daily Forward”), a daily Yiddish newspaper published in New York City since 1897; its founding editor was Abraham Cahan [1860–1951]. See also [here]. It was a veltele, a world within a world. I had a happy childhood.

At times, my father would want to discuss with me an article that he read and thought I would find interesting; often he was right, since I was a curious and inquisitive child. There was also the popular weekly Yiddish radio show that my father listened to religiously every Sunday at 11 a.m.: The Forward Hour, which was broadcast on WEVD from New York City. I did find the opening theme music memorable, and I would at times listen to the show with my father. I don’t remember him missing a program. (Hank Sapoznik gives a lecture (haltn a lektsye) on the importance of the show to the Yiddish-speaking community; it ends with a short piece of the show’s theme music.)

But as the years went by, my Yiddish skills declined as my English skills (and French to a much lesser extent) improved. After my father passed away, in 1980 (I just turned 23), I could understand Yiddish perfectly well, but I could hardly speak it. Given my desire then to assimilate into the Canadian culture, and become a “true Canadian,” Yiddish became less important and then unimportant, an artifact of the past, even an embarrassment. In response, I avoided all things Yiddish. Thus, with such thinking, my Yiddish understanding declined, as did my sensitivity to all things Yiddish.

It was as if I had (unconsciously) incorporated the thought, the narrative, if you will—no doubt influenced by my academic experience and the books that I read, that British culture, in the grand Shakespearean sense, was the height of western civilization, and perhaps of all civilization. That this was superior culture, while Yiddihkayt was decidedly inferior. Such was the message when reading British literature, that Marlowe’s Barabas, Shakespeare’s Shylock, Dickens’ Fagin or  George du Maurier’s Svengali (giving rise to the term “svengali”) were somehow a true representation of Jews.

Yet, being curious and inquisitive, I had questions when I read these works, such as this. How likely was it that Shakespeare or Marlowe ever met a Jew?  Jews were expelled from England in 1290 by Edward 1, and not readmitted until 1656 by Oliver Cromwell, which was not so much a formal readmission, but an implicit acknowledgement that the presence of Jews in London would be tolerated. It wasn’t until 1858 that Jewish males in England could take a seat in parliament and not until 1890 when Jews would achieve complete emancipation. By this time, “46,000 Jews lived in England,” writes the Jewish Virtual Library, a tiny fraction of the population.

Yet, the Jews—whether present or not—somehow represented a threat to Christianity; and so Jews and Judaism were continually put on trial and found not only wanting but guilty. That these works (and many others) were considered “artistic” and “high art” could not cover up the fact that I found them blatantly anti-Semitic. [I recommend that you read the article, “Shylock and Anti-Semitism,” by Morris U. Schappes, in Jewish Currents: June 1962.]

Undoubtedly, Shakespeare knew his audience and pandered to them and their Christian views, where Christian mercy was deemed more important than Jewish justice. Yet, as much as this is put forth in this play, Shakespeare’s characters generally show little mercy in most of his other plays. [I recommend that you read “Shylock Among the Hooligans,” by George Jochnowitz, posted on this blog: August 1, 2011.]

No doubt this play, deemed a comedy, was a hit, Shakespeare, the successful playwright-businessman, made a ton of money and the patrons went home satiated, satisfied and smug. It was one big laugh-fest. All’s well that ends well! That they, these “Christians” might have loved money, were miserly or mean-spirited, and schemed and manipulated others to obtain it (i.e., “filthy lucre”) seemed to have escaped their notice. Yet, such might be among the most universal traits that humanity shares. Mercy, on the other hand, is a rare quality and all the more rarer when much is at stake.

For years, I was both embarrassed and bothered that such a shallow portrayal was so well received in Britain, Canada and America, and particularly in the halls of academia, who in their appreciation and esteem of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Dickens found reason and justification to view “the Jew” as not trustworthy, not “Christian,” and thus not worthy of sympathy. What they found noble, I found troubling and disturbing, no matter how hard I tried to feel otherwise. Oy vey ist mir!

You see, it was not to be, particularly if I were to remain true to me. We are not on the same side; we do not think in the same way. Terms like “Judeo-Christian” obscure fundamental differences between Jews and Christians, between Judaism and Christianity; it is just another fancy word for Christian supersessionism. Acceptance of the Christian-based narrative (often called Judeo-Christian to appear inclusive when this is never the intent), so ingrained in western culture and civilization that we forget it’s there, meant a denial of myself and my Jewish heritage. This was a bad deal, no doubt, and deep in my Yidisher neshomeh, I knew it.

Even so, it took me a long time to do something positive about it; I had wandered off and I needed to return home. This will be discussed in next week’s post.

—Peretz J. Greenbaum, September 22, 2017

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Shana Tova 5778

Jewish New Year: 1 Tishrei 5778

Rosh Hashanah: Apples and honey and pomegranates (often as the second night as “a new fruit”) are traditionally eaten during this holiday; the kabbalah says that there are 613 seeds in a pomegranate, equal to the number of mitzvot in the Torah. Also traditional is a circular challah (often with raisins), symbolizing both continuity and sweetness for the new year. The challah is dipped in honey and eaten.
Photo Credit: My Jewish Learning

Today at sundown marks the beginning of the period in the Jewish calendar of Yamim Noraim (Hebrew: ימים נוראים‎), or the “Days of Awe.” This is traditionally called the High Holy Days or High Holidays, a ten-day period of introspection, self-examination, and repentance, with the chief aim of making positive changes in our lives. For this reason, this period is also called Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, or “Ten Days of Repentance.” The period starts with Rosh Hashanah (today), the Jewish New Year (5778), and culminates with Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. To those observing the holiday, let me wish you a healthy, happy and sweet year. The traditional greeting is Shana tova u’metukah, (Hebrew: שנה טובה ומתוקה) or “A good and sweet year.” In Yiddish, we say A gut gebentsht yohr, orA good and blessed year. ” No matter how you say it, the thought remains the same. Moreover, we Jews don’t only say “have a sweet year,” we also want to experience it through our senses. So, enjoy your apples and honey, your challah dipped in honey, the seeds of the pomegranate and the holiday meal that follows it.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Di Shaynst Vi di Zun (2001)

Yiddish Performance of the Week

Di Shaynst Vi di Zun (“You Shine Like the Sun”), a song from Leb un lakh (“Live and Laugh”), an operetta composed by Ilia Trilling with lyrics by Isidore Lillian; the original production was mounted at Herman Yablokoff’s Second Avenue Theatre in New York City in 1941; the playbill is below. Its cast included Menasha Skulnik and Bella Mysell. This version was recorded in Vienna, Austria, with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra conducted by Ellie Jaffee; with Cantor Robert Bloch as tenor and Nell Snaidas as sorprano.
Via: Milken Archive & Youtube

Photo Credit: Dorot Jewish Division, The New York Public Library. “Leb un lakh” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1941.

Production Details (as cited in The New York Public Library Digital Collections):

Kalmanovitsh, H., 1885 or 6-1966 (Author)
Yablokoff, Herman, 1903-1981 (Director)
Trilling, Ilia, 1895-1947 (Composer)
Lillian, Isidore (Lyricist)
Saltzman, Michael (Set designer)
Zaar, Moe (Choreographer)
Phillips, Norma (Choreographer)
Gross, Abe (Stage manager)