Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt: Shir Hama’alot

Chazzanut/Cantorial Music

Shir Hama’alot by Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt  
Via: Youtube

From Psalm 126 in the Hebrew Bible, Shir Hama’alot (שיר המעלות; Hebrew for “Songs of Ascent”), is essentially a song of gratitude to God for being freed from captivity, for fulfilling a dream of returning to Zion. The melody was composed by Cantor Pinchas Minkowski​ [1859–1924] and made popular by Cantor Rosenblatt [1882–1933]. 

I found it noteworthy and interesting that religious Zionists lobbied for Shir Hama’alot to be Israel’s national anthem, writes Neil W. Levin for the Milken Archive of Jewish Music:
Some religious Zionist groups, already disaffected by the secular nature of the Zionist movement, lobbied for a biblical text. They usually proposed Psalm 126, shir hama’alot b’shuv adonai et shivat tziyon (A song of ascents: When God brought back those who returned to Zion ...), which refers to the restoration following the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian captivity. For religious Zionists, that would at least have provided the desired acknowledgment of a Divine parameter to the modern Zionist enterprise.
But Hatikvah was chosen (Herzl disliked it, but he died in 1904), chiefly because the early pioneers liked it (officially adopted by the members at the 18th Zionist Congress in 1933; it only officially became Israel's national anthem in 2004). Not in serious contention was the biblical Psalm 126 and its references to a return to Zion from Babylonian exile (“When the LORD brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like unto them that dream” (verse 1), since this is what it seems what the Founding Fathers of Israel (and not of Zion) wanted, that is, for the new nation to be unlike the old nation.

This might explain the reluctance of the secular leaders to use a biblical Psalm, avoiding its use would allow the new nation to separate it from its past and make a new history that starts only with the history of Zionism, which dates only to the late nineteenth century. Some view this as a tragic mistake, and it may well be. Not to return to old arguments, but it does seem that this verse suggests that the national dream of the Jews cannot be separated from the ideas of national redemption through the work of God.

Supporting this view, Rav Kook writes: “The Zionist movement could not have convinced millions of Jews to uproot themselves if not for the people’s deep-rooted longings for the Land of Israel. It is our faith and anticipation of redemption that enables the realization of Israel’s national segulah.” [Hebrew for treasure; segulah here is understood as a spiritual quality; Israel has a unique potential for greatness.]

The Zemirot Database gives the following lyrics for the prayer/song:

שיר המעלות
שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלות 
בְּשׁוּב ה' אֶת שִׁיבַת צִיּון 
הָיִינוּ כְּחלְמִים: 
אָז יִמָלֵא שחוק פִּינוּ 
וּלְשׁונֵנוּ רִנָּה 
אָז יאמְרוּ בַגּויִם 
הִגְדִּיל ה' לַעֲשות עִם אֵלֶּה: 
הִגְדִּיל ה' לַעֲשות עִמָּנוּ 
הָיִינוּ שמֵחִים: 
שׁוּבָה ה' אֶת שְׁבִיתֵנוּ 
כַּאֲפִיקִים בַּנֶּגֶב: 
הַזּרְעִים בְּדִמְעָה בְּרִנָּה יִקְצרוּ: 
הָלוךְ יֵלֵךְ וּבָכה נשא מֶשֶׁךְ 
הַזָּרַע בּא יָבא בְרִנָּה נשא אֲלֻמּתָיו

Shir Hama’lot
Shir Hama'alot,
B'shuv Adonai et shivat tziyon
hayinu k’chol'mim.
Az Y’male s'chok peenu ulshoneinu rina.
Az yom'ru vagoyim
higdil Adonai la'asot im eleh; higdil Adonai la'asot imanu hayinu s’meicheim.
Shuva Adonai et shiviteinu ka'afikim banegev.
Hazor’im b'dimah b'rinah yiktzoru.
Haloch Yelech uvacho,
noseh meshech hazarah,
bo yavo v’rinah noseh alumotav.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Jan Peerce: Der Chasene Waltz (1963)

Yiddish Performance of the Week

Der Chasene Waltz
Via: Youtube:

Der Chasene Waltz,” which dates to 1947, is sung beautifully by operatic tenor Jan Peerce [born in 1904 as Jacob Pincus Perelmuth in Manhattan’s Lower East Side—died in 1984 in New York, NY]. The recording is the last track on side B of the album, Jan Peerce Sings Yiddish Folk Songs, which was released in 1963. The orchestra is conducted by Abraham Ellstein.

This musical composition is by Romanian composer Iosif Ivanovici [1845–1902], who published a waltz, “Valurile Dunari” (Romaian: Waves of the Danube) in 1880 on which this tune is based. This Yiddish arrangement is by Henry Lefkowitch, with words by Chaim Tauber. This was a favourite of my parents and their friends, and I suspect many of their generation. Yes, it was sentimental and a bit overplayed, making it ripe for criticism, but for some reason I enjoyed it too.

Der Chasene Waltz
Arr by: Henry Lefkowitch
Yiddish lyrics: Chaim Tauber

Akh, yene nakht, yene gliklikhe nakht
hot freyd on a shir far undz beyde gebrakht.
Tsum ershtn mol ven ikh hob dikh gezen [gezeyn],
geshpilt hot dan di muzik azoy sheyn.

Tsvey yunge hertser mir zenen geven [geveyn],
libes gefiln umshuldik un reyn.
Gedrikt hob ikh dir azoy tsertlikh tsu mir,
zikh ayngelibt bald in dir.

Koym zikh dervart, fun der shul nor aroys,
gefayert a khasene, glik azoy groys.
Gedenkstu di nakht, s'hot geshpilt di muzik,
dem zelbn valts fun glik.

As sung by Jan Peerce
Kum, tants mit mir
Undzer valts fun amol
Gehat nor mit dir.
kh'hob dikh lib on a tsol.

Tsum ershtn mol,
Ven ikh hob dikh derzen [derzeyn]
Geshpilt hot men dan
Undzer valts azoy sheyn.

Tsvey yunge hertser
Mir zenen geven [geveyn]
Libe's gefiln
Umshuldik un reyn

Gedrikt hob ikh dikh
Azoy hertslikh tsu mir
Zikh ayngelibt
Bald in dir.
Koym zikh dervart
Fun der shul nor aroys
Gefayert a khasene,
Glik azoy groys

Gedenkstu di nakht
Hot geshpilt di muzik
Dem zelbn valts fun glik.

Lebt nokh di nakht
Yene gliklikhe nakht
Freyd on a shir,
Far undz beyde gebrakht.

Khotsh zilber di hor,
Un di fis zenen mid,
In harts klingt nokh alts
Undzer lib', undzer valts.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Cantor Zavel Kwartin: Ribono Shel Olam (1928)

Chazzanut/Cantorial Music

“They see the hazzan as the true spokesman for their buried feelings,
who evokes with his prayers their longing for a better future.”
Zavel Kwartin, Mein Lebn (1952)

Ribono Shel Olam by Cantor Zavel Kwartin
Via: Youtube

Cantor Zevulun Zavel Kwartin  [1874–1952] landed in 1920 in the United States, his reputation preceding him, whereby he gave a series of successful concerts and was then appointed cantor of Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan. He achieved great fame as a hazzan, possibly also being the highest-paid hazzan during what was called the Golden Age of Chazzanut. Kwartin had a rich baritone voice, as you can hear in this rendition of a heartfelt prayer to the Master of the Universe; the prayer is taken from the Talmud (Berakoth 55b), and this improvisation on this traditional prayer is by Cantor Kwartin and arranged by Solomon G. Braslavsky, who plays the pipe organ [see here]. He published three volumes of his musical compositions: the two-volume set, Smiroth Zebulon in 1928, and T’filos Zevulun in 1938. As for his yichus, Kwartin was born to a wealthy Chassidic family in Ukraine in pre WWI  Russia and died in the United States (in New York and arranged to be buried in Israel). For more on this cantor, there is a wonderful article on Chazzanut Online.

Friday, November 24, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Being Chosen, Part 1

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

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

.בָּנִים אַתֶּם, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם: לֹא תִתְגֹּדְדוּ, וְלֹא-תָשִׂימוּ קָרְחָה בֵּין עֵינֵיכֶם--לָמֵת

“For thou art a holy people unto the LORD thy God, and the LORD hath chosen thee to be
His own treasure out of all peoples that are upon the face of the earth.”

During Rosh Hashanah, a rabbi gave a vort, saying the following: “Do others influence you or do you influence others?” So much is said in one line; so much history is contained in a few words. For a long time, I was the recipient of outside influences, as I have written about in a previous post in this column. When you wander, you discover many new things, including that old things are valuable.

Even though this was more than a decade ago, I continue to write about the lure and power of new ideas to influences and shape your views and thought life, which is why I write about such matters—as a warning of sorts to my fellow Yidn. Our ways do not require such change as to greatly alter what hundreds of generations of rabbis have passed down to us, what generations of  Jewish teachers and thinkers have written about and codified.

There is beauty in tradition; there is stability in the realm and reality of traditions that have been handed down to us from generation to generation. This is common to all religions and to all peoples. In Judaism this is known on mesorah, which is denoted as “enduring and traditional practices that are based on solid halachic and/or hashkafic (ideological and attitudinal) considerations, when such considerations are not formally codified or patently evident.”

People often avoid tradition because it places demands upon them. Take, for example, when the Torah ( תּוֹרָה‎,; Hebrew for “instruction, teaching”) commands the Jews to be Ohr LaGoyim (“a light unto the nations;” Isaiah 42: 6). This is a prophetic command that reveals an essential mission of the Jews to the greater world. This is a command as old as Judaism itself, an idea so much part of Jewish thought, an idea that remains a central tenet of Judaism,

Yet, it has all but been ignored and hardly acknowledged by world Jewry as important, apart from a notable example: Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim, under the leadership of the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson [1902–1994], of righteous memory, started a campaign in 1983 to make known to the world the Seven Noahide Laws, a universal morality that applies to all humanity. The Rebbe’s speech is both powerful and inspiring; it was given on 19 Kislev 5744, or November 25, 1983. The date’s significance is not lost on the audience, it being less than a week before Khanike (or Hanukkah).

This speaks about responsibility to teach the world, to teach “the nations,” if you will, of the source of the love of doing good. That source, Judaism tells us, is God. The Jews have to believe this, as well, for this to be effective on a grand scale. It is hard to believe, no doubt, because it sets one people apart from all others. It sets one people as teachers or instructors to the world. There are historical reasons why Jews are called “People of the Book.”

“The Book” or Hebrew Bible says that related to the idea of “being a light” or bringing light is that of being the “Chosen People” (as noted in Deuteronomy 14:2), which is misunderstood by many who don’t apprehend the deeper meanings of the original Hebrew text, including some Jews who are uncomfortable with this idea as to the purpose of the Jews among the world’s peoples. Simply put, what makes the Jews stand apart from the rest of the world is the Torah and the 613 mitzvot; without these there really is no Judaism, there really is no Jewish People. Such is the importance of mesorah.

The central event in Judaism is matan Torah—the Giving of the Torah—in the wilderness at Sinai. This historic biblical event was done in front of all of the people, the full nation of Israel, and not hidden like some secret initiation ritual. Judaism is based solely on national revelation and not on any one man performing miracles. The Jews were chosen for a purpose, which includes revealing monotheism to humanity, to reveal the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This is clearly written in the Torah. Jews stubbornly stick to the Torah, or at least some do.

Teaching your children Torah (chinuch), the Torah says, is a parental responsibility: “And you shall teach them to your sons and speak of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up” (Deut. 6:7). People tend to do what they view as important or what they see as easy. To be sure, Jews have a great responsibility, which in the long run is better to accept for very good reasons. Those that don’t accept often find succeeding generations no longer self-identifying as Jews. Such is understandable as it is regrettable.

When Jews live in the West, and this is where most Jews reside, they live within its long-standing culture and traditions (read: Christianity). Yet, as much as it has shown more tolerance in recent times, it has nevertheless replaced the Torah with its own revelations and understandings, which are, historically, in word and deed anti-Torah and anti-Judaic. Some, perhaps much, is good and moral and beneficial to humanity, but it is based neither on Judaism and thousands of years of enduring Jewish traditions nor on Torah learning. In short, it is not mesorah.

No doubt, it is easy to get swallowed up in the larger culture and be influenced by it, instead of Jews influencing it for good.

Yet, this is precisely what the Torah says Jews are required to do. That, out of necessity, the Jews have turned inward and found other modes of ritual and expression of Torah—outside the Beit HaMikdash (Hebrew: בֵּית־הַמִּקְדָּשׁ‎,or Holy Temple)—is a direct result of the history of anti-Judaism. That the Jews failed historically, until recently, to reveal to the world the important ideas contained within Judaism is a sure sign that the world did not want to hear what the Torah had to say. Such is a sign of how much animosity was directed at the Jews during most of the history of the last, 2,000 years or so.

Yet, throughout it all, Jews have clung tenaciously to the Torah, a quality that even, I would argue or suggest, the most assimilated Jew finds admirable, if not noble. Such are the ideas that the world is now ready to hear, initiated in modern times by Chabad-Lubavitch, but an idea that other Torah-educated Jews can also carry out. Such is what that eminent scientist, Waldemar M. Haffkine [1860–1930] wrote in A Plea for Orthodoxy (Menorah Journal; April 1916):
By dint of endless trials and failures, the Nations are coming to recognize in the Commandments handed down to them by the Jews the only possible foundation of a prosperous and orderly life. (p. 13)
Words to heed. Many educated and intelligent Jews are also finding this to be not only a laudable endeavor, but also a good one worthy of their efforts.

Gut Shabbes
Peretz ben Ephraim,
November 24, 2017
6 Kislev 5778

This week’s parsha is Vayeitzei (וַיֵּצֵא; Hebrew for “and he left”), found in Genesis 28:10–32:3. It contains the well-known passage of Jacob’s ladder of angels ascending and descending in a prophetic dream that Yaakov had on Mount Moriah; the stones that he had used for a pillow while dreaming were turned into a monument, which he named Beth-el, or a house of God.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Cantor Moshe Koussevitzky: Aneinu (1959)

Aneinu by Cantor Moshe Koussevitzky [1899–1966]; Aneinu (עֲנֵנוּ; “Answer Us”) is a prayer of supplication added to the Shemoneh Esreh on a fast-day or ta’anit. There is no fast day coming up this month, so this is not the reason that I post this video. The next fast day is Asarah B'Tevet (10 Tevet), which is considered a minor fast day since it begins just before dawn and ends after nightfall. It falls this year on the secular or civil calendar on December 27th. This recording is taken from the hazzan’s visit to a conservative shul, Congregation Beth El in Waterbury, CT, on Sunday May 3rd 1959. As for Aneinu, I like the prayer itself and how it is sung with such emotion and sincerity by Cantor Koussevitzky. It would seem a simple enough request to Ribbono Shel Olam: Aneinu. (Maybe we don’t want to really hear the answer; maybe we are not ready for it.) You can also hear Aneinu in a studio recorded version, High Holiday Prayers: Volume 2 (first song on side 1), here.
Via: Youtube

Beth El Synagogue in Waterbury, Connecticut (at 359–375 Cooke Street), dates to 1929. It is built in the Byzantine style and has a prominent hemispheric dome. It was designed by Nathan Myers and built by Shapiro & Sons. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) in 1955. The building, however, is no longer owned by Beth El; when the Conservative congregation faced a declining membership, it sold it in 2000 to Yeshiva Gedolah of Waterbury. The Orthodox Jewish school, on the other hand, is doing well.
Photo CreditConnecticut Jewish History 2:1 (Fall 1991), 139

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Teiman: Music of the Yemenite Jews (1992)

Teiman: Music of the Yemenite Jews

This documentary is part of The Spielberg Jewish Film Archive’s “A People and Its Music” and of the Israel Music Heritage Project. The Spielberg Archive contains archival material from 1911 to the present, more than 18,000 titles, making the largest archive of its kind in the world. It is part of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which writes
The Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive was founded in the late 1960s by Professor Moshe Davis and other historians of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The first Director was the late Dr. Geoffrey Wigoder and the Archive originally bore the name of its first donor, Iranian-Jewish businessman Abraham F. Rad, who Provided his support for a number of years. In 1987 a generous donation was received from the American filmmaker Steven Spielberg, after which the Archive was renamed after after him.
This documentary gives some insight into the Yemenite Jewish culture, including the centrality and importance of traditional music and how it fits in to greater Israeli society. One of the most famous Israeli singers, Ofra Haza [1957–2000], was born into a Yemenite Jewish family; her voice propelled her to international recognition, bringing much joy to the world.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Nellie Casman: Yosl Yosl (1923)

Yiddish Performance of the Week

Yosl Yosl, also known as “Oh, Yossel, Yossel,”  was written by Nellie Casman [born in 1896 in Proskurov, Russia–died in 1984 in New York City] and Samuel Steinberg, her husband. The song was made famous in English as “Joseph, Joseph” by the Andrew Sisters in 1938. The English lyrics were written by Sammy Kahn.
Via: Youtube

Yosl Yosl
by Samuel Steinberg
& Nellie Casman

mayn khayes geyt mir oys,
ikh fil ikh halt nit oys,
mayn harts tut mir vey gor on a shir
es iz mir heys un kalt,
un ikh ver groy un alt
un veyst ir mentshn vos es kveylt mir
di libe brent a shrek
ikh fil ikh shtarb avek
nokh mayn yoslen, mayn darling, mayn dear
a bokher a sheyner
mir zol zayn far zayne beyner,
yosl, ikh krapir nokh dir!

oy, oy, oy, yosl, yosl, yosl, yosl,
oy, oy mayn khayes geyt mir oys on dir.
oy, oy, oy, yosl, yosl, yosl, yosl,
dayn malke zitst nokh alts un vart oyf dir.
oy, oy, oy, yosl, yosl, yosl, yosl,
ikh kholem yeder nakht nor fun dir,
un git der yeytser hore
mikh a mol a tore,
yosl, ikh krapir nokh dir!

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Bundists of Israel (2012)

Bunda’im (2012): An excellent documentary film on the Bund in Israel, on how they brought their ideas from Poland to Israel, living on a small island of Yiddishkayt as best as they could in the larger sea of Zionism. The Bundists were effectively social democrats, with the organization founded in 1897, the same year as Zionism, with which they differed politically. My father was a member of the Bund in Poland—officially named the General Jewish Labour Bund in Poland (Yiddish: אַלגעמײַנער ײדישער אַרבעטער בּונד אין פוילין‎; Algemeyner yidisher arbeter bund in poyln)—and spoke often about it with great fondness to me. The Bund was dissolved, along with other non-communist parties in Poland, in 1948, when single-party rule became effective. When my father came to Canada, in 1951, he joined Der Arbeter Ring (Yiddish: דער אַרבעטער־רינג; The Workmen’s Circle), an organization that held similar values. Such Jewish values of the Bund were passed down to me, most notably a concern for human welfare and for a just society; such are good, humane and righteous, as are the people who discuss them—they greatly remind me of my father.
Via: Youtube

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: ‘Dad, Why Are You Here’?

“Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn”
“A sach mentshen zeyen, nor vainik fun zai farshtai’en”
Yiddish saying

“and Pharaoh said to his courtiers, ‘Could we find another man like this, 
who clearly has the spirit of God within him?’”

My dad died the day after my 23rd birthday, almost four decades ago. A few days after the funeral, which was on a cold Sunday in early November, I had a dream. I was looking out the second-story window of our family duplex and saw my father walking on the street in front of the house. I was both confused and excited. I ran down the stairs as fast as I could.

My dad was walking slowly and deliberately, so I easily caught up with him a few doors from where we lived. I said, “Dad, why are you here?”  But, I said this in Yiddish: Tate, far vos zenen ir do? He turned around slowly; his face was blank, white and pale, without life. His eyes were stitched tight with black thread. Three ragged rows of black thread; nothing neat about it.

In my dream, I was shocked and horrified by what I saw as unnatural. He was alive, yet his eyes and his face were without life. My father walked away without speaking, without turning around and without any explanation. I never saw him again in a dream. This brief episode left me shaken and with many unanswered questions. I believe that such dreams have important, even essential, meanings.

I do not completely understand this dream: I am in no way like the biblical Joseph of the Torah (Yosef ben Yaakov ben Yitzchak ben Avraham), an interpreter of dreams. His spiritural gift of interpreting dreams got him initially in trouble with his brothers, but his correct interpretation (see Genesis 41) so impressed the Pharaoh that Joseph was immediately raised into a position of authority in ancient Egypt. Such is a rare case and stands out for a reason.

My dream was more personal with less far-reaching economic and political implications. So, when I visited a psychologist afterward and asked him about it, he dismissed it as “only a dream.” He was no believer in Freud and dream interpretation. So I can only hazard an educated guess, based on some combination of rationalization, emotion and life experience.

In my dream, I was happy to see my father, but realized later that he was no longer physically present; his lack of sight and his lack of speech showing me this. Or, perhaps, I was projecting my feelings of uncertainty as to the future onto my father. Many would say that I am making too much of this dream, but here it is almost 40 years later, and I can still recall it as it were yesterday. Clearly, this must mean something to me.

This coincides with my belief that some dreams have a purpose. Perhaps this dream meant that my father could no longer guide me, at least not in the same sense as his physical presence could. The loss was great.

Gut Shabbes
Peretz ben Ephraim,
November 17, 2017

This week’s Torah portion or parshah is Toldot (תּוֹלְדֹת; Hebrew for “generations”) found in Genesis 25:19–28:9); it begins with the birth of twin boys, Esau born first and Jacob second (Esav and Yaakov in Hebrew). In a reversal of tradition, the younger receives the blessing from his father, Isaac, which, although achieved by deception with the help of his mother, Rebecca, is nevertheless viewed as God’s will, chiefly because Jacob is more suited for the role. This parshah is ultimately about many things that are important and instructive, including on how the struggle between brothers for their father’s favour and blessings plays out today.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1: ‘Jeremiah’

Lamentation: The third movement of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1, Jeremiah, with Nan Merriman [1920–2012], mezzo-soprano and Bernstein [1918–1990] conducting the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. This was recorded in 1945, a few years after Bernstein completed it. “The work was finished on 31 December 1942, and is dedicated to my father,” a 24-year-old Bernstein writes. No doubt, horrific events in Europe and in particular the massacre of Jews—the People of the Book—inspired the completion of this work. Those familiar with the tenor of the prophetic books of the Jewish Bible will understand this music’s descent into sadness, speaking of the unconscionable loss and an appeal to the Heavens to remember the promises made. Can one understand (and accept) the incomprehensible and yet remain faithful? It does not seem humanly possible, but many do. One reviewer writes: “The symphony concludes with a Lamentation delivered in words as well as music. The musical sources here are identified by Mr. Gottlieb as ‘the Ashkenazic cantillation of Lamentations 1:1, the liturgical penitential mode used on S'lichoth (Service of Forgiveness) and from a High Holy Day mode, and finally, free cantorial improvisation. Thematic allusions to the first movement indicate that the Prophecy has been fulfilled . . . ’ The Hebrew text sung by the mezzo-soprano is from the Book of Lamentations, Chapter 1, verses 1-4; Chapter 4, verses 14-15; and Chapter 5, verses 20-21; the text given here in English is from the King James Version.” The Jews identity the Book as Eicha (אֵיכָה; Hebrew for “How”); the Hebrew text can be found here.
Via: Youtube


Book of Lamentations

How doth the city sit solitary,
That was full of people!
How is she become as a widow?
She that was great among the nations.
And princess among the provinces.
How is she become tributary!

She weepeth sore in the night,
And her tears are on her cheeks;
She hath none to comfort her
Among all her lovers;
All her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
They are become her enemies.

Judah is gone into exile because of affliction.
And because of great servitude;
she dwelleth among the nations,
she findeth no rest.
all her pursuers overtook her
Within the narrow passes.

Jerusalem hath grievously sinned...
How doth the city sit solitary
...a widow.

CHAPTER 4.14-15
They wander as blind men in the streets,
they are polluted with blood,
so that men cannot
touch their garments.

Depart, ye unclean! they cried unto them,
Depart, depart! touch us not...

CHAPTER 5.20-21
Wherefore dost thou forget us forever,
and forsake us so long time?...
Turn thou us unto thee, o lord...

Wikipedia writes: “The work was premiered on January 28, 1944, at the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh with the composer conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. The soloist was Jennie Tourel. It was premiered in New York City on March 29, 1944, at Carnegie Hall, again with Tourel as soloist.”

Monday, November 13, 2017

Di Shvue

Yiddish Performance of the Week

Di Shvue (“The Oath”) was a poem written by S. An-sky in 1902, which became the anthem of The Bund. I will write more about “the Bund” later. An-sky is the pseudonym of Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport [1863–1920], a Russian-Jewish intellectual who wrote in Yiddish such works as  The Dybbuk (1920), a play and Hurbn Galitsye (1920)about the destruction of Galicia during the First World War. The Bund anthem is here sung by Zahava Seewald.

Di Shvue
by S. An-sky Brider un shvester fun arbet un neyt Ale vus zaynen tsezeyt un tseshpreyt, Tsuzamen, tsuzamen, di fon iz greyt, Zi flatert fun tsorn, fun blut iz zi reyt! A shvue, a shvue, af lebn un teyt. Himl un erd veln undz oyshern Eydes veln zayn di likhtike shtern A shvue fun blut un a shvue fun trern, Mir shvern, mir shvern, mir shvern! Mir shvern a trayhayt on grenetsn tsum bund. Nor er ken di shklafn bafrayen atsind. Di fon di reyte iz heykh un breyt. Zi flatert fun tsorn, fun blut iz zi reyt! A shvue, a shvue, af lebn un teyt.
****************************** The Oath Brothers and sisters in toil and struggle All who are dispersed far and wide Come together, the flag is ready It waves in anger, it is red with blood! Swear an oath of life and death! Heaven and earth will hear us, The light stars will bear witness. An oath of blood, an oath of tears, We swear, we swear, we swear! We swear an endless loyalty to the Bund. Only it can free the slaves now. The red flag is high and wide. It waves in anger, it is red with blood! Swear an oath of life and death!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Jewish Partisan Returns

Jewish Resistance

“Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.”
—Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

A Partisan Returns: The Legacy of Two Sisters

Narrated by Tovah Feldshuh [born in 1952 in New York City], this film was released by the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation (JPEF), which is based in San Francisco, California. It writes the following short blurb about this documentary: “Former Bielski partisan Lisa Reibel journeys back to her home in Belarus for the first time after nearly 65 years. Experience how her story of escape, struggle and success affects her family [of] three generations.” This non-profit organization has made a dozen excellent documentaries about Jewish courage and survival in the face of evil.

There was Jewish resistance; there were Jewish heroes; and their story needs to be heard to counter a misinformation campaign and to correct wrong perceptions. Here is what JPEF writes: “Most people have never heard of the 20,000-30,000 Jews who fought back against the Nazis as Jewish partisans. These Jews were responsible for blowing up thousands of armored convoys and thwarting the Nazi war machine in countless ways, including rescuing people from the ghettos, procuring food and medicine, tending to wounded soldiers, sabotaging German communications and supply lines, punishing collaborators, sheltering civilians and saving thousands of Jewish lives.”

The Bielski Partisans organized the largest Jewish resistance during the war, and thus saved 1,236 lives. These men, viewed as Jewish heroes, have their story told in the popular film, Defiance (2008). The reason why they did what they did is simple enough to understand, says the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: “After the Germans killed their parents and two brothers in the Nowogrodek ghetto in December 1941, three surviving brothers of the Bielski family—Tuvia (1906–1987), Asael (1908–1945), and Zus (1910–1995)—established a partisan group. Initially, the Bielski brothers attempted only to save their own lives and those of their family members. They fled to the nearby Zabielovo and Perelaz forests, where they formed the nucleus of a partisan detachment consisting at first of about 30 family members and friends.”A fourth and much younger brother, Aharon [1927–], also joined the group.

While the Talmudic injunction cited above is related to someone standing trial before a judicial body for capital crimes, there is a religious/spiritual element found within its thinking: that life is sacred and the taking of someone’s life should never be done easily and thoughtlessly and without justified moral reasons. Killing your enemies, those that declare that they want to kill you, falls under such a justified moral reason, as does the defeat of evil and the use of collective self-defense. There are times, sadly, that evil has to be used to ward off a greater evil. But this should never make us “evil.”

Moreover, even then, this should never be done with happiness, but with much sadness—that this was the only real and possible choice. Martin Buber[1878–1965], a Jewish existentialist philosopher,  elucidates this thought in an essay, “Hebrew Humanism” (1941), found in The Martin Buber Reader (ed by Asher D. Biemann, p. 162) about this necessary balance imposed on the Jewish People:
It is true that we are not able to live in perfect justice, and in order to preserve the community of man, we are often compelled to accept wrongs in decisions concerning the community. But what matters is that in every hour of decision we are aware of our responsibility and summon our conscience to weigh exactly how much is necessary to preserve the community, and accept just so much and no more; that we not interpret the demands of a will-to-power as a demand made by life itself; that we do not make a practice of setting aside a certain sphere in which God’s command does not hold, but regard those actions as against his command, forced on us by the exigencies of the hour as painful sacrifices; that we do not salve, or let others salve our conscience when we make decisions concerning public life.
Good words, indeed. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: My Muslim Lawyer

Muslims & Jews
“Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn”
“Der emes kumt aroys vi boyml afn vaser.”
Ignaz Bernstein,
Jüdische Sprichwörter und Redensarten (1908)

“Therefore he who loves peace, runs after peace, offers peace, and answers peace, the Holy One, blessed be He, will make him inherit the life of this world and the life of the world to come, as it is written [Ps. xxxvii. 11]: “But the meek shall inherit the land, and shall delight themselves because of the abundance of peace.” 
End of Tractate Derekh Eretz Rabba and Zuta
Babylonian Talmud, Book V

After my cancer diagnosis, I was unable to work, so I applied for a disability pension, having paid into the government program for decades—since age 18 in fact with my first summer job. Perhaps even before that, davka, with my many part-time jobs. When I made my initial application for disability, in the midst of chemo treatment, I was quickly denied. The intake social worker said this would happen; in fact, he said this happens in more than 90% of cases. He also advised getting a lawyer to handle all appeals, which I did.

I couldn’t afford the services of a private lawyer, so I got a community lawyer, who works for a small fee, essentially pro bono. The lawyer assigned to me was a British-educated Muslim woman who wore a hijab. I think that she was originally from Pakistan. She was professional, knowledgeable, and as I later found out, kind. My case required two appeals, the last to an administrative tribunal.

I remember this day very well, as one remembers days when truth is revealed, or at least when one gets some insight into it.It was a cold blustery March day where my wife and I had to go downtown by subway to a typical grey nondescript government building. When I entered the building I had a strong foreboding feeling. I would soon find out why. After sitting in the waiting room for about an hour, we were called in.

The adjudicator was unremarkable except for the fact that she wore a large cross around her neck and a correspondingly large scowl on her face. This government official was immediately hostile to my lawyer and completely ignored me, saying that I would have a chance to speak later. I never was allowed to speak. For the 10 minutes that we sat in this airless windowless room, she spoke to my lawyer in an overtly hostile and belittling way. I was stunned.

In the hallway afterwards, I remember saying to my lawyer: “How could she speak to you in this way? She was unbelievably rude.” My lawyer was calm and composed, reassuring me that my case would work out. A few days later, in a follow-up telephone conversation, she said that she had made a formal complaint against this adjudicator; no doubt, she had a justified reason to do so and I was heartened that she did. Such persons, who make important life-altering decisions, too easily abuse their power and do so thoughtlessly.

After filing more appeal forms, a few months later, in July, I received a formal letter from the provincial government informing me that I had won my case, or, rather, they were not refusing my request for a government disability pension. Although I was exhausted, I had felt vindicated. Moreover, I felt that justice was served and my dignity restored in accordance with derekh eretz. As one rabbi writesIn general, to have derech eretz usually means to live ethically, responsibly and with dignity, and to be considerate of others.”

Such is always important. I immediately called my lawyer. She had already known, having been advised a day earlier. As per agreement, I was supposed to give her a set percentage of what the government gave me in terms of back payment. She refused and said she was happy to help. No doubt, her faith and beliefs influence her thinking. Now, this particular lawyer works for a private law firm where she handles cases of family law; she works as a community lawyer essentially for nothing. Without her expertise, I most certainly would have lost.

Now, one case does not reveal everything, but my personal experience tells me something. For one, I was fortunate to have this lawyer, and that Muslims and Jews have much in common. Some people care about peace and actively pursue it; it is true that some efforts are small while some are large, but the effort is nevertheless made in accordance with a person’s abilities and knowledge. Peace is always a worthy and laudable goal. For more on what Muslims and Jews have in common, see here, here and here.

Gut Shabbes
Peretz ben Ephraim,
November 10, 2017

Monday, November 6, 2017

Cantor David Bagley: Moscow Conservatory (1989)

Yiddish Performance of the Week

Cantor David Bagley [born in 1932 in Vilna, Lithuania]and chief cantor of Beth Shalom Synagogue in Toronto, sings a medley of Yiddish songs at the Moscow Conservatory (1989), including old-time favourites, Oyfen Pripitchik, Tumbalalaika and Those Were the Days, the last based on an old Russian folk-song. This was part of the Gila & Haim Wiener Cantorial Festival  held in Moscow in June 1989. By the reaction in the audience, this was much more than a cantorial concert. It was a brief entry into di velt fun Yiddishkayt.
Via: Youtube

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Al Kol Eleh

Al Kol Eleh (“For All These Things”) is a song written by Israeli composer and singer Naomi Shemer [1930–2004], who wrote a song called “Of Sting and Honey,” which became identified by its chorus, Al Kol Eleh. The song is published in Book Three (Sefer Gimel) of Shemer’s large collection of songs and poems. In many ways, this is a prayer to the heavens—to the Creator and Master of the Universe, to Ribbono Shel Olam—composed in popular song form, to act towards the Jewish People in accordance to His beneficence, munificence and mercy, and, of course, for the sake of shalom. The Jewish Women’s Archive writes the following of this quintessential Israeli-Jewish singer: “In 1979, when her sister Ruti was widowed, Shemer wrote ‘Of Sting and Honey’ for her as a song of encouragement. Yossi Banai sang it on a television program and included it in his one-man show, ‘Simon, Little Moïse and I.’” Yossi Banai's version can be heard here. This version above is created and produced by the Jewish Community of Argentina; I like that it uses and combines the voices of many individuals who all come together to form the Jewish community. My youngest son, who is in Grade 4, has learned this song as part of this year’s Remembrance Day ceremony at his school, which my wife and I plan to attend this week.
Via: Youtube

Al Kol Eleh
by Naomi Shemer

Al hadvash ve’al ha'okets
Al hamar vehamatok
Al biteynu hatinoket shmor eyli hatov.

Al ha’esh hamevo’eret
Al hamayim hazakim
Al Ha’ish hashav habayta
min hamerkhakim

Al kol eleh, al kol eleh,
Shmor nah li eyli hatov
Al hadvash ve'al ha'okets
Al hamar vehamatok.

Al na ta'akor natu’a
Al tishkakh et hatikvah
Hashiveyni va’ashuva
El ha’arets hatovah.

Shmor Eli al ze habayit
Al hagan, al hakhoma
Miyagon, mipakhad peta

Shmor al hame’at sheyesh li
Al ha’or ve’al hataf
Al hapri shelo hivshil od

Merashresh ilan baru'akh
Merakhok nosher kokhav
Mish'alot libi bakhoshekh
nirshamot achshav.

Ana shmor li al kol eyle
Ve'al ahuvey nafshi
Al hasheket al habékhi
ve’al ze hashir.

Al kol eleh, al kol eleh,
Shmor nah li eyli hatov
Al hadvash ve’al ha’okets
Al hamar vehamatok.

For All These Things

Every bee that brings the honey
Needs a sting to be complete
And we all must learn to taste the bitter with the sweet.

Keep, oh Lord, the fire burning
Through the night and through the day
For the man who is returning
from so far away.

Don’t uproot what has been planted
So our bounty may increase
Let our dearest wish be granted:
Bring us peace, oh bring us peace.

For the sake of all these things, Lord,
Let your mercy be complete
Bless the sting and bless the honey
Bless the bitter and the sweet.

Save the houses that we live in
The small fences and the wall
From the sudden war-like thunder
May you save them all.

Guard what little I’ve been given
Guard the hill my child might climb
Let the fruit that’s yet to ripen
Not be plucked before its time.

As the wind makes rustling night sounds
And a star falls in its arc
All my dreams and my desires
Form crystal shapes out of the dark.

Guard for me, oh Lord, these treasures
All my friends keep safe and strong,
Guard the stillness, guard the weeping,
And above all, guard this song.

For the sake of all these things, Lord,
Let your mercy be complete
Bless the sting and bless the honey
Bless the bitter and the sweet.

Bless the sting and bless the honey
Bless the bitter and the sweet.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: My Father’s Tefillin

Jewish Rituals
“Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn”

“And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, 
and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes.”

It lay conspicuously on the top shelf of my parents’ bedroom closet; I was eight or nine and I wrapped the old worn leather black straps around my thin arms. The straps were too long for my thin arms, so instead I started to play with them. They were interesting and unusual. It was my father’s tefillin; I had seen him doing such a wrapping ritual only one time, yet I copied him.

I don’t know what happened to my father’s tefillin. After he died, my mother started to give away my father’s clothes and all that belonged to my father—another ritual, a different ritual. I never saw his tefillin again. I eventually received my own set of tefillin, after I had children and after I initiated my trek back to the long-standing traditions of Judaism and its rites of passage into adulthood.

It would be many years, however, before I understand the significance of this Jewish ritual, and even longer before I took it seriously. This describes one of the many strengths of Judaism; it is never too late to begin something good. As to the importance of physical rituals in connection with seeking truth and making it a reality, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1800–1888) writes:
A truth, in order to produce results, must be impressed upon the mind and heart repeatedly and emphatically. Merely to acknowledge the essential principles of righteousness and love, is not sufficient to actually build up such a life.
The ritual itself is important, one of many that help Yidn to direct their minds and hearts to better move along the path of love and righteousness, or as it is often called, Torah im Derech Eretz (Hebrew: תורה עם דרך ארץ). So, when I put on tefillin, I join the Jews of both the past and the present in fulfilling one of the obligations of Judaism.

All beginnings are hard, as is the case of all new rituals. it takes time and effort. If you want to put on tefillin and it is your first time or you have not done this in years, there are many good videos to give you guidance, including the ones found here, here and here.

Gut Shabbes
Peretz ben Ephraim,,
November 3, 2017

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Bociany by Chava Rosenfarb

Yiddish Novels

Bociany (2000) by Chava Rosenfarb [born in 1923 in Lodz, Poland; died in 2011 in Lethbridge, Alberta Canada]. The title means “storks” in Polish, named after the large, long-legged, long-necked water bird with noticeable bills. I am not sure if this was the writer’s intent, an allusion of sorts, but there is also a village in Poland with the same name, about 60 km north of Lodz, Rosenfarb’s home town. Rosenfarb lived in Montreal between 1950 and 1998, where the bulk of her literary efforts were realized. Afterward, she migrated westward, first to Toronto and then to Lethbridge. Originally published in Yiddish as Botshani in 1982. The novel, the writer’s website says, is “named after an imaginary Polish village, Bociany, based loosely on the lives of Rosenfarb’s parents, follows the intertwined fates of a young boy and girl from the shtetl of Bociany who meet again as young adults in the city of Lodz, where they marry.” The novel, set in pre-war Poland, looks at the relations between the Jews living in a village and the surrounding Christians. Rosenfarb herself translated this novel from Yiddish into English. The English translation, part of a two-volume set that includes Of Lodz and Love (2000), earned Rosenfarb the John Glassco Prize for Literary Translation for 2000.
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum