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 ben Ephraim, 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 ben Ephraim, 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)

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Isaac in America:A Journey with Isaac Bashevis Singer (1987)

Yiddish Writers

“One can find in the Yiddish tongue and in the Yiddish spirit expressions of pious joy, lust for life, longing for the Messiah, patience and deep appreciation of human individuality. There is a quiet humor in Yiddish and a gratitude for every day of life, every crumb of success, each encounter of love. The Yiddish mentality is not haughty. It does not take victory for granted. It does not demand and command but it muddles through, sneaks by, smuggles itself amidst the powers of destruction, knowing somewhere that God’s plan for Creation is still at the very beginning.”
Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel Lecture, December 8, 1978

Isaac in America (1987): In this scene from the Academy Award nominated documentary, Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer [born 1902 in Poland–died 1991 in America] re-visits Coney Island and Brighton Beach and re-lives memories of his early years in New York. This is part of PBS-TV’s American Masters Film series; this was directed by Amram Nowak and broadcast in July 1987. This is a decade after Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (1978), the first Yiddish writer to receive this honour. This said that not only was there such a thing as Yiddish literature, but also that it is artistic and approaches high art, but in a far different way than, say, British, American or French literature. By way of comparison, Yiddish literature uses more humble language, and combines it with a great use of humour. Life is often absurd, or seems this way. It is also full of surprises. You can cry one minute; and laugh the next. As for Singer, this video clip shows how charming a man he was.
Via: Youtube

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Daniel Kahn: Hallelujah in Yiddish (2016)


Haleluye (2016)

Daniel Kahn [born in 1978; Detroit, Michigan], a klezmer musician now living in Berlin, Germany, sings a Yiddish version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (1984), which in Yiddish is “Haleluye.”  This is not a direct translation of Cohen’s lyricism, but an imaginative modern interpretation of the biblical story (of Melekh Dovid and Basheva as told in 2 Samuel 11) and of the moral questions raised as a result.

Kahn has taken Cohen’s personal search for love and meaning and given it something particular to the Yiddisher neshomah—that the search for truth and love, even while bathed in doubt and moral failure, can still offer praises to Adonai. This is a very Jewish song and its Yiddish version does it justice; I view it as equal to Cohen’s original version, which says a lot, most notably revealing the heart of the language and its people.

This interpretation was recorded at the studios of the Forward in September 2016 and posted online a couple of months later in November, just around the time that the death of Leonard Cohen was made known to the world, resulting in much sadness and, of course, reminiscences of the music and of the man who created it. A poet is an individual who can see things where others do not. The world, or humanity, becomes the recipient of his gift.

A final note: how this song became a reality can also be read in the Forward.

Haleluye Yiddish translation by Daniel Kahn, with help from Michael Alpert, Mendy Cahan and Josh Waletzky Geven a nign vi a sod, Vos Dovid hot geshpilt far Got. Nor dir volt’s nisht geven aza yeshue. Me zingt azoy: a fa, a sol, A misheberekh heybt a kol, Der duler meylekh vebt a haleluye... Dayn emune iz gevorn shvakh, Basheva bodt zikh afn dakh, Ir kheyn un di levone dayn refue Zi nemt dayn guf, zi nemt dayn kop, Zi shnaydt fun dayne hor a tsop Un tsit fun moyl arop a haleluye... O tayere, ikh ken dayn stil, Ikh bin geshlofn af dayn dil, Kh’hob keynmol nisht gelebt mit aza tsnue Ikh ze dayn shlos, ikh ze dayn fon, A harts iz nisht keyn meylekhs tron, S’iz a kalte un a kalye haleluye... Oy vi amol, to zog mir oys Vos tut zikh dortn in dayn shoys? To vos zhe darfst zikh shemen vi a bsule? Nor gedenk vi kh’hob in dir gerut, Vi di shkhine glut in undzer blut, Un yeder otem tut a haleluye... Zol zayn mayn got iz gor nishto Un libe zol zayn kol-mumro, A puster troym tsebrokhn un mekhule, Nisht keyn geveyn in mitn nakht, Nisht keyn bal-tshuve oyfgevakht, Nor an elnte kol-koyre haleluye... An apikoyres rufstu mikh, Mit shem-havaye lester ikh, Iz meyle, ikh dervart nisht keyn geule. Nor s’brent zikh heys in yedn os Fun alef beys gor bizn sof Di heylike un kalye haleluye... Un dos iz alts, s’iz nisht keyn sakh. Ikh makh dervayle vos ikh makh. Ikh kum do vi a mentsh, nisht keyn shiluye. Khotsh alts farloyrn say vi say Vel ikh farloybn “Adoynay” Un shrayen vi l’khayem “haleluye.”

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Living as a Yid

“Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn”

“Nit mit sheltn un nit mit lakhn ken men di velt ibermakhn.”
Ignaz Bernstein
Jüdische Sprichwörter und Redensarten (1921)

“She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her,
and happy is every one that holdest her fast. 
Proverbs 3:18, JPS Bible (1917)

“Wherever Jews live, there is life.”
—S.Y. Agnon

When Jews get together, notably at a celebration or simcha, one of the common sayings or expressions of joy is l’chaim or l’chayam, “to life.” After all, in the long history of the Jews, life was precarious, its continuation not certain, and thus its importance never taken for granted. Be happy when you can.

There is a touch of pathos or sadness mingled with the joy, much in the same way klezmer music, although played at simchas, is written in the minor key. Such, I think, shows beautifully the complex life of the Jew. Life can change very quickly, through outside forces in which you have no control. So, I am reflecting here on existential questions—not uncommon for Jews to think about or raise— that what you can indeed control is how to live your life. That is, in what manner you choose to live your life.

Of course, it is easier as a Jew to assimilate into the larger non-Jewish world, the velt of the goyim, as it were. Or so it seems. In many places of the world, this might seem unavoidable; in many places of the world, it might seem necessary for advancement in society, as was the case in Christian Europe only a couple of hundred years ago. One might not have to go as far as Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) or Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847), both of whom were born in Germany and both of whom became converts to Christianity.

Felix Mendelssohn is the grandson of Moses Mendelssohn [1729–1786], viewed as the father of the Jewish Reform movement in Germany, who, while living as an observant Jew, advocated for change (or reform) in the way that Jews lived, such as adopting the habits of the culture in which they resided. In his case, it was the adoption of German culture and language. He never thought, however, that Christianity was in any way the answer, and when approached by missionaries, rebuffed them.

Yet his writings and the tenor of the times in Germany inadvertently opened the door to Christianity, including for his own family. Other reformers, notably those that followed in America, took the ideas further than Moses Mendelssohn would have likely found reasonable or desirable. For example, kashrut, Jewish education, the prohibition against intermarriage or mixed marriages (Deut. 7:3-4), and mesorah, the transmission of Judaic tradition—long the fundamentals of Jewish life—were viewed as outdated and barriers to acceptance of and assimilation into the wider culture.

It is one thing to struggle with the requirements of Judaism, it’s another to discard them altogether. Without the moorings of traditional Judaism, without seeing it as important, there is little reason to remain a Jew. This is not an argument without merit. Perhaps it was then no surprise that Moses’ son, Abraham,  who had long broke away from Judaism, had his own son, Felix, and his siblings baptized in 1816; Felix was seven. There is no reliable record on what Felix later thought of it, but it is undeniable that Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E-flat major, opus 12, has a Jewish feel to it.

Heine had himself baptized as an adult in 1825, doing so only for economic reasons, but was immediately disappointed in this decision, writing: “I am hated alike by Jew and Christian," he wrote, Jan. 9, 1826; “I regret very deeply that I had myself baptized. I do not see that I have been the better for it since. On the contrary, I have known nothing but misfortunes and mischances.”

A Jew hiding in a church didn’t work out, as anticipated, for Heine, a very unhappy situation. Yet, the unhappiest situation of the many that I have read so far is of the children of Theodor Hezl [1860–1904], born as Benjamin Ze’ev Herzl in Budapest, Hungary, into an assimilated German-Jewish family. Herzl died young, age 44, of heart failure, not seeing the fulfillment of his Zionist dream. He had three children, all of whom died tragically young, all of whom were raised without knowledge of Judaism or Judaic culture.

Margarethe Trude [1893–1943], died at a Nazi concentration camp, Theresienstadt at the age of 49. Her brother, Hans Herzl [1891–1930], who had himself baptized and converted to Christianity after the death of his father, had an unhappy life; it ended when he shot himself on the day, September 15, 1930, of the funeral of his sister, Paulina Herzl [1890–1930], who had died from a drug overdose at the age of 40.

Hans was 39; he left a suicide note:
If a ritual can really calm our spirits and give us the illusion of being in the company of our beloved dead once more I can’t think of anything better than a visit to the Temple: there I can pray for my parents, ask their forgiveness and repent my apostasy before God. I am destitute and sick, unhappy and bitter. I have no home. Nobody pays any attention to the words of a convert. I cannot suddenly turn my back on a community which offered me its friendship.
Without prejudice, even if all my physical and moral impulses urge me to: I have burned all my bridges… What good is the penance which the Church has ordained for my “spiritual healing”! I torture my body in vain: my conscience is torturing me far worse. My life is ruined… Nobody would regret it if I were to put a bullet through my head. Could I undo my errors that way? I realize how right my father had been when he once said: “Only the withered branches fall off a tree – the healthy ones flourish.”
A Jew remains a Jew, no matter how eagerly he may submit himself to the disciplines of his new religion, how humbly he may place the redeeming cross upon his shoulders for the sake of his former coreligionists, to save them from eternal damnation: a Jew remains a Jew….I can't go on living. I have lost all trust in God, All my life I've tried to strive for the truth, and must admit today at the end of the road that there is nothing but disappointment. Tonight I have said Kaddish for my parents – and for myself, the last descendent of the family. There is nobody who will say Kaddish for me, who went out to find peace – and who may find peace soon….. My instinct has latterly gone all wrong, and I have made one of those irreparable mistakes, which stamp a whole life with failure. Then it is best to scrap it.
Truly, a tragedy of a tortured mind. I sense that had Hans’ father lived longer, and had he taught him the importance and necessity of lebedik vi a Yid (“living as a Jew”), things might have turned out different. While there is no way to validate as true this speculative argument of mine, Albert Einstein lent credence to it in a letter (September 8, 1932 ): “Your article about Hans Herzl moved me greatly at the time. His wasted life constitutes a warning to all Jews against defection from their people.”

Defection is a strong word, but entirely appropriate in this case. If you are going to die as a Jew—Lebn zolstu biz hundert un tsvantsik yor (based on the length of years given to Moshe, often called Moshe Rabbenu, or Moses in the Bible)—it is better that you live as a Jew. Aoyb ir zent a Yid tsu shtarbn, es iz beser vi lebn a Yid. I wish you a good and long life. 

Peretz ben Ephraim, September 15, 2017

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Yiddish Poets & Writers: J.I. Segal

Yiddish Poetry

This is the start of another short series, Yiddish Poets & Writers, which will bring to the attention of modern readers the important Jewish poets and writers of the early 20th century. I will start with the important Montreal Yiddish poets and writers and then plan to write about the New York Yiddish poets and writers—Montreal and New York City being important centres of Yiddishkayt. I might also include Yiddish poets and writers in Israel, who played a prominent role in the nation’s culture and literature. I begin here with J.I. Segal.

J.I. Segal and Elke Rosen, his wife, “with their daughter, circa 1930s,” the Jewish Public Library of Montreal says in the photo caption. Given that Sylvia was born in 1926 and Annette in 1929, this is either a photo of their daughter Annette (without her older sibling) or this is a photo of Sylvia taken in the late 1920s. The latter is more likely.

He is today considered the most eminent Yiddish poet in Canada, but outside of Yiddish-speaking circles, he is not as well known as he ought to be. J.I. Segal [Jacob Isaac Segal;1896–1954] was born Yaakov Yitzchak Skolar in Solobkovtsy, of Czarist Russia (and now Ukraine) in 1896, moving to Korets, Ukraine, at the age of three with his mother when his father died; the town was majority Jewish at the time. In Yiddish writing circles, he became known as Yud Yud Segal.

Segal came to Montreal in 1911 at the age of 15, aided by two older siblings, Nechmiah and Esther, who later published poetry, as well. Upon arriving in Montreal, he found work as a tailor in the garment industry, as many other Jewish immigrants did, and then later as a teacher at the Montreal Folks Shule, one of the first Yiddish-language day schools in Canada. He began publishing Yiddish poetry, first in Keneder Adler (“Canadian Eagle”) in 1915; and his first published volume of verse was Fun Mayn Velt (“From My World”), which appeared in 1918.

The Museum of Jewish Montreal says on its site:
Segal published ten volumes of poetry in his lifetime, including the first book of Yiddish poetry ever published in Montreal, Fun mayn velt (From My World; 1918), Mayn shtub un mayn velt (My Home and My World; 1923), and Dos hoyz fun di poshete (The House of the Simple People; 1940). Segal’s poetry was marked by his lyricism and detailed description, and by the contrast between his depictions of life in the shtetl and that of Jewish Montreal. He always considered himself a Yiddish writer living in Canada, rather than a Canadian writer of Yiddish verse, and in his writings he showed nostalgia for the towns of his childhood.
He lived at 4540 Clark Avenue (near Mont-Royal), not far from where I grew up as a child on Park Avenue. The Encyclopaedia Judaica says that Segal actually published 12 volumes of poems, including, it says, “Sefer Idish (‘The Book of Yiddish,’ 1950), the last collection published in his lifetime, and Letste Lider (‘Last Poems,’ 1955), published posthumously.” Segal was among the first poets in Canada to write about city life in such detail, the encyclopaedia writes:
He wrote poems of carefully observed cityscape and season and inward-looking poems, examining his moral worth and his purpose as a poet. He also wrote many times about Yiddish, the instrument and common bond of the culture he attempted to preserve.
Segal was fortunate to have left Ukraine when he did, because when the Germans invaded Solobkovtsy on July 9, 1941, they began to systematically murder most of the Jews from this town and from the surrounding areas. Korets suffered similarly between May 1942 and September 1942, when German soldiers methodically murdered a majority of the town’s 6,000 Jews. The shtel life that Segal often wrote about no longer existed, except in his poetry.

For more, I would suggest that you view the interview with his two daughters conducted by the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project (in Toronto; May 8, 2016). In addition, the English translation of a biography of J.I. Segal will be released on October 3rd 2017. It is titled Jacob Isaac Segal: A Montreal Yiddish Poet and His Milieu (2017), by Pierre Anctil; trans. Vivian Felsen.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Seymour Rechtzeit: Vos Geven iz Geven un Nito (1995)

Yiddish Performance of the Week

Seymour Rechtzeit: Vos Geven iz Geven un Nito (“What Was, Was, and Is No More;”1995): In “Great Songs of the American Yiddish Stage: Part 4: Schmaltz and Strudel,” the Milken Archive of Jewish Music writes about this song, written by David Meyerowitz [1867–1943]: “Meyerowitz wrote Vos geven iz geven un nito (What Was, Was, and Is No More) for a vaudeville star, Sam Klinetsky, who rejected it as too sentimental. Meyerowitz published it anyway, in 1926, with an English subtitle, ‘Memories of Days Gone By.’ It was made famous initially by Nellie Casman, one of the leading stars of the Yiddish stage, and was subsequently sung by such luminaries as Sophie Tucker, Lillian Shaw, Aaron Lebedeff, and Seymour Rechtzeit (1912–2002), who performed the song for the Milken Archive’s cameras in 1995.”

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Double Trouble by Menasha Skulnik (1964)

Double Trouble by Menasha Skulnick [1890–1970; born in Warsaw, Poland] with Abe Ellstein’s Orchestra. Skulnick, who came to the United States in 1913, was part of two worlds: Yiddish musical comedies at the Second Avenue Theatre and later uptown at Broadway. This song is part of the former, a comedic Yiddish ditty about a man who gets into more trouble than he bargained for, with some English words thrown into the mix, so-called Yinglish. The first line is as follows: Ikh zits mir in mayn buick, un for mir shtil un ruik, You can also view a clip of long-time contributor, Prof. George Jochnowitz, a linguist, sing an excerpt of this funny song, part of an interview with the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project. The interview was conducted on December 15, 2013
Via Youtube & Yiddish Book Center

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Leonard Cohen: Un Az Der Rebbe Zingt (1976)

Leonard Cohen [1934–2016; born in Montreal] performs part of a traditional Yiddish song, “Un Az Der Rebbe Zingt,” (“And when the rabbi sings”) in an unplanned concert at what is now the Arena-Besetzung in Vienna, Austria, in the summer of 1976. When you read the story behind this impromptu performance, you will appreciate the significance of this song and why Cohen likely sang it, so far from home. It is important to note that Cohen rarely sang this song in a public venue. Also important to note is that there are as many versions of this Yiddish folk-song as there are interpretations of it, as one can or would expect with a folk-song of unknown or indeterminate origin. (I could not find out who originally wrote the lyrics, so if someone knows, please let me know.) You can listen to some of the versions here, here, here and here.
Via: Youtube

Un As Der Rebbe Zingt
[Lyrics courtesy Jane Enkin Music]
Az der rebbe tantst (When the rabbi dances)
Az der rebbe tantst
Tantsn ale khasidim (All the Hasidim dance)
Tantsn ale khasidim
Ay didi day didi day, ay didi day didi day
Tantsn ale khasidim
Ay didi day didi day, ay didi day didi day
Tantsn ale khasidim

Az der rebbe zingt (When the rabbi sings)
Zingen ale khasidim (All the Hasidim sing)
Tshiri biri bim tshiri biri bom
Zingen ale khasidim

Az der rebbe trinkt (When the rabbi drinks)
Trinken ale khasidim (All the Hasidim drink)
Yaba baba bay 
Lekhayim! Yaba baba bay
Lekhayim! To life!
Trinken ale khasidim

Az der rebbe lakht (When the rabbi laughs)
Lakhn ale khasidim (All the Hasidim laugh)
Ha ha....
Lakhn ale khasidim

Az der rebbe veynt  (When the rabbi cries)
Veynen ale khasidim (All the Hasidim cry)
Oy oy oy oy oy vey’z mir, oy oy... Oh, woe is me
Veynen ale khasidim

Az der rebbe shloft (When the rabbi sleeps)
Shlofn ale khasidim (All the Hasidim sleep)

Az der rebbe tantst! (When the rabbi dances)
Tantsn ale khasidim (All the Hasidim dance)
Ay didi day didi day, ay didi day didi day
Tantsn ale khasidim

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Dramatic Utterances

Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn

“Di gantse velt shteyt af der shpits tsung.”
Ignaz Bernstein
Jüdische Sprichwörter und Redensarten (1908)

After seven years (and 2,300 posts), it was in August, and I was seriously considering that it was time to put this “blog to bed,” my baby, my labour of love. I was thinking that it is the right time, considering the circumstances and the tenor of the times. There was dwindling public interest, although my focus on yiddishkayt resulted in a slight increase in readers, a good and positive sign for which I am appreciative. 

Some say that the liberal ways of old are dying, it replaced by a harsh cynicism and apathetic escapism. Well, have not the ideas of doing good and being a mentsh, of mentshlekhkeyt, been dying for decades along with Yiddish? Some call it enlightened self-interest. I see much evidence of the second part of this phrase, but not much of the first. It is not even self-interest, but just plain selfishness, narcissism and indifference. This is viewed as acceptable and many agree that there is no need to change it. I disagree, and I also know that I am not alone in my disagreement, even if it seems this way.

It also seems that words have become devices of artifice; and the writer the maker of artificial worlds to obfuscate the truth. If “the writer” is good at this craft of deception, he is richly rewarded, notably if his words entertain by revealing nothing important or essential. This is not the same at all as “the artist” who uses art and imagination to reveal the truth, di emes. Yes, truth counts; even for those who deny its existence and importance and revel in di ummoralish lebn; they pretend otherwise by making a mockery of it. I think they know better.

After all, it is true and an astute insight as any other proffered today, that we all see (and feel) the world a certain way and read articles that support this interest. My views are found within the posts, where I have written so many words to say what I view as necessary and true. They also reveal my heart and my desire to be an “honest witness” of what I see and, better yet, what could also be, which takes seriously the ideas of living a good and moral life, di moralishkayt. Such talk is part of being a Jew. No apologies.

Some would say with criticism that my writing—including this post—is filled with (too many) dramatic utterances; I plead both my innocence and my guilt and defend myself with the written words of Rokhl Auerbakh [1903–1976], found in Oyf di felder fun Treblinke (1947) [In the Fields of Treblinka]: “The uncomfortable thing is that every one of us is similarly given to dramatic utterances (melitsa), which may either be appropriate or altogether superfluous, but can also be true, the plain factual truth” (107).

And that says it all. Should such voices be silenced, forgotten? So, after having read this in an end-note in The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey Through Language and Culture (2000), by Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish Literature at Harvard University, I can now resist the recurring feelings of weariness and meekness and muster the courage to continue, even if there are only a few readers. Or this is the way it seems; it always seems this way for the tired voices.

Now, I will leave you with this thought that my father taught me 50 years ago, which today still is true for me, even if few believe it, and even if it falls on deaf ears. A Yiddish statement of faith of the working-class folks, taken from the Der Arbeter Ring (The Workmen’s Circle), about the ultimate purpose of all this work: shenere un besere velt far ale.

—Peretz ben Ephraim, September 8, 2017

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky


“A city with many wise men will have many collectors of books.” 
—S.Y. Agnon

Outwitting History (2004) by Aaron Lansky
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

When Aaron Lansky started this ambitious project in 1980—to rescue Yiddish books from certain death—it was thought that there were no more than 70,000 Yidisher bikher in existence. How wrong this estimate was; by the time this book was written, almost 25 years later, Lansky says that his organization had already collected 1.5-million Yiddish books. And the number keeps growing at the Yiddish Book Center, which is “set on a ten-acre apple orchard at the edge of the Hampshire College campus in Amherst, Massachusetts.”

If you care even a bisl about Yiddish, this is a book that you will enjoy. His encounter with Mr. Temmelman, in a high-rise elderly building in Atlantic City in July 1980, explains much of what was and what is at stake:
It was a long afternoon. Every book he handed me had its story. This wasn't at all what I expected, and too spellbound and polite to interrupt, I fell hours behind schedule. But I did begin to understand what was taking place. Sitting together in that crowded apartment—he an eighty-seven-year-old man in a wool suit, I a bearded twenty-four-year-old in jeans and a T-shirt—we were enacting a ritual of cultural transmission. He was handing me not merely his books, but his world, his yerushe, the inheritance his own children had rejected. I was a stranger, but he had no other choice. Book by book, he was placing all his hopes in me. (45)
As for Yiddish language and culture, despite incurring the loss (chiefly a result of murder, really) of millions of Yiddish speakers by Nazi Germany during the war, it is doing remarkably well, not so much what it could have been, but what it can be. That is, what it can be under the circumstances of history. History can’t be undone, but we can learn from it. We can rebuild what was destroyed; it won’t be the same but it can approach similarity.

There are now hundreds of organizations and websites dedicated to all things Yiddish, including language, culture and music. It might be a resurgence, it might be a renaissance, it might be a cultural awakening on the value and importance of Yiddish. It is with this in mind that Lansky and the Yiddish Book Center aim to be a central repository for all things Yiddish, including what was thought lost.

He’s on the right track, and he has already done what many originally thought impossible. It is about saving literature, about saving Jewish literature, in particular, and about Yiddishkeyt. To Aaron Lansky, I say Yasher Koyekh. You have outwitted history.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Amerikaner Shadkhn (1940)

Yiddish Performance of the Week

Amerikaner Shadkhn (“American Matchmaker”), a 1940 Yiddish film starring Leo Fuchs and directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Even if you don’t know any Yiddish, and you watch it with English subtitles, the film is funny—the facial gestures alone make this endeavor worthwhile. The National Center for Jewish Film writes about this 87-minute comedy: “Leo Fuchs, known on Second Avenue as ‘the Yiddish Fred Astaire,’ plays an elegant and eligible bachelor who can never seem to close the marriage deal. Edgar G. Ulmer’s last Yiddish movie was also his most modern, an art deco romantic comedy about male ambivalence and Jewish assimilation. With its urbane, neurotic hero, American Matchmaker looks ahead to the films of Woody Allen.”

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Hester Street (1975)

Hester Street (1975): This wonderful film, which stars Carol Kane (Gitl), Steven Keats (Jake) and Mel Howard (Bernstein), directed by Joan Micklin Silver, is a beautiful period piece set in the Lower East Side of New York City in 1896. This film is based on Abraham Cahan’s 1896 novella Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, a telling of what Jews from Europe faced coming to America at the turn of the century. In short, the tension between the Old World and the New World. America, after all, was the land of invention and re-invention and new beginnings. It is as much about assimilation into di goyisher velt as about preservation of di yidisher velt, about how far Jews would go to adopt the ways of the non-Jewish world, chiefly as a way to fit in to the broader culture and not be viewed as griners (“greenhorns,” or old-fashioned and out of step with modern life). America offered so much to the Jews, so much that was denied them in Europe. As much as America was good for the Jews, and as much as this is true, not everything old should be forgotten. Such is the importance of tradition, which is why the film was made, its director says (She also made Crossing Delancey (1988), another NYC-based Jewish-themed film): “Interviewed by American Film magazine in 1989, Silver spoke about her choice of subject for Hester Street. ‘I thought, I’m going to make one that will count for my family. My parents were Russian Jewish, and my father was no longer living, but I cared a lot about the ties I had to that world. So that was how Hester Street started.’ ”
Via: Youtube

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Fyvush Finkel & Theodore Bikel: L’Chaim

Fyvush Finkel [born Philip Finkel in Brooklyn, NY; 1922–2016] & Theodore Meir Bikel [in Vienna, Austria; 1924–2015] perform a scene from Fiddler on the Roof, based on Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman (Yiddish: טבֿיה דער מילכיקער‎; “Tevye der milkhiker”), first published in Yiddish in 1894. “Fiddler” became a classic of American Yiddish theatre; and in this video clip, the two nonagenarians end by singing “L'Chaim”—to life. This is from NYTF’s 2013 Hanukkah concert. May their memories be a blessing.  The NYTF in New York City was founded in 1915, and is considered America's preeminent Yiddish theatre, the NYTF site says: “Founded under the aegis of the Workmen’s Circle, the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre became an independent nonprofit in 1998, with a commitment to make the world of Yiddish theatre accessible, enjoyable and relevant to new generations and audiences beyond its core Yiddish-speaking constituency. In recognition of its role in the Jewish immigrant experience, the theatre was renamed National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene.”

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: To the Shores of Palestine

Post-Holocaust Jews in Israel
Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn

This is a continuation of post-Holocaust Jewish immigration; last week’s post was on the United States of America and New York’s Ellis Island, the week before that  was on Canada and Halifax’s Pier 21; this week’ post is on British-controlled Palestine.

“Vos ken vern fun di shof az der volf iz der rikhter?”
Shirley Kumove
Words Like Arrows: 
A Treasury of Yiddish Folk Sayings (1986)

About 100,000 European Jews left for Palestine after the Second World War, part of the Aliyah Bet program of illegal immigration, with 70,000 successfully making it to its shores before the founding of the Jewish State, Israel, in 1948. They were called the Sh’erit ha-Pletah (Hebrew: שארית הפליטה‎), “the surviving remnant.” Both Canada and the United States were slow during the initial post-war period in welcoming the European Jews, who were waiting (languishing actually) in displaced persons camps (DP camps)—administered by the Americans, British and French. Thus, Palestine became for many Jews their only hope of a better life, despite the fact that Britain didn’t want the Jews in Palestine, preferring it remain majority Arab.

Lawrence of Arabia helped romanticize the Arabs, who, although themselves not white Christians, were preferable to the Jews, who collectively bore all of the sins of mankind. (Even so, the British lied to the Arabs, too, making promises it had no desire to fulfill.) There was (and continues to be) little self-awareness coming out of Britain; consider this narishkeyt. When U.S. President Truman requested that Britain allow 100,000 European Jews freely and legally enter Palestine, Britain refused. Not surprising. Its record in allowing Jews to enter Britain is not great; it is not even good, either before the war or after it.

Yes, we are well aware of the much-publicized Kindertransport  (“children's transport;” 1938-40), where 10,000 European children—the majority Jewish—left their parents and were permitted to enter Britain, but this was primarily a Jewish effort from beginning to end. How traumatic this must have been for the children, many of whom never saw their parents again—lonely survivors. A PR facade will not alter the facts of their life in Britain. Those Jews that it did admit during the war were often placed in internment camps, including 1,000 children from the Kindertransport program. These were called “the prior-kinder” and ”friendly enemy aliens.”

There is nothing more to add to the ledger of doing good, but there is much more to be said on the negative side. Britain failed not only to rescue and welcome Jews post-war, it also hindered all efforts to rescue Jews and bring them to Palestine, which was under its mandate. In short, Britain made it official policy to not allow Jews entry at all places which it controlled—both at home and abroad. The Jewish reugees that the British caught in its naval blockades after the war were also put in internment camps in Cyprus [53,510 survivors; August 1946–February 1949]. Such is a small taste of British policy towards the Jews, one that in Yiddish says, Das bleter a zoyer tam in meyn moyl.

Again, not at all favourable; and in my view detestable and cruel, if not outright immoral. Not very “Christian” of them. Or, perhaps, it was their Christianity that informed such harsh views. For example, the British did accept 86,000 DPs, including at least 8,500 former members of the 14th Waffen SS Galizien, part of Nazi Germany’s Ukrainian division, to work as farm labourers. It is true that the enemy in this story are the British, but this is a well-earned condemnation. Britain has never really been good for the Jews; with so many shortcomings, it has hardly been a welcoming land, let alone Di Goldene Medina.

This knowledge is important, given how it is much easier to view history through the lens of modern events and not through the reality of the times in which they happened. It is also equally important to see and understand how British policy towards the Jews in general, gave no choice to the European Jews, who found it necessary and morally defensible to defy British rule of law. (What would you do?) Despite the obstacles, including a naval blockade, 120 ships made the voyage; less than half were successful, but they managed to land 70,000 Jews from Europe, evading the “British wolf.”

There is, of course, the famous cases of the Exodus 1947, [see also here] which was sent back to Germany’s DP camps (which the British controlled assiduously) with its 4,515 passengers, Jewish Shoah survivors. Disgraceful. This compels me to turn a well-known Yiddish expression around, I say, a shande far di Yidn. [“A scandal in front of the Jews,” which should convey a sense of Gentile embarrassment.]

If the British were embarrassed, they didn’t show it and they didn’t stop their blockades. Even so, despite this knowledge, the European Jews risked the voyage, since they had nothing to lose and so much to gain. (“We shall open the barred gates of Palestine.”) After all, they survived the Holocaust, and anything would be better than remaining in Europe. From my point of view, British policy then seems both heartless and cruel and without a doubt anti-Semitic.

Nu, what else is new? It’s wasn’t unexpected news for the Jews, so with moral courage and determination, the European Jews were able to defeat such a discriminatory policy and achieve a decisive victory: Israel became a nation on May 14, 1948 (5 Iyar 5708), a refuge for the Jewish People, a place where Jews themselves can determine their history, without the need to give credence to the narishkeyt of the goyim (“the nations,” i.e., the non-Jewish world). To their credit, Israel accepted more than 652,000 Jewish refugees by 1950.

Afterward, it continued to provide a safe haven for millions of Jews worldwide, and which continues to this very day—the only Jewish-majority nation in the world. Given the non-Jewish world’s harsh and often hateful views of the Jewish People, this is no doubt a good thing. Any rational person would agree. Israel has become a place where Jews can defend themselves, where Jews can prosper, and where Jews can be and live freely as Jews, in keeping with the expressed aims of Yiddishkayt, not necessarily in the ways of Europe or North America, but remade through the modern Hebraic model of a vibrant and living state.

Peretz ben Ephraim, September 1, 2017