Saturday, November 25, 2017

Moyde Ani

#TooBlessedToFress. Another Thanksgiving has come and gone here in the States. My latest Rokhl's Golden City is all about how massively lucky Jewish music lovers are this year and how much we have to be thankful for. We've seen some exciting releases from Yerushe, Tsibele, Radiant Others, Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird, Josh Waletzky and oh, I'm sure I'm forgetting some. But if you've been reading the column the last couple months (and clicking through to the music!) I'm sure you're up to date. One of the things I want people to understand, above and beyond the music, is the variety of factors that have made this cultural windfall possible.

As I wrote in this latest column:
Over the years I’ve heard many well-meaning speeches by many (extremely) well-meaning people, all of whom want to “save” Yiddish. (I’ll keep this vague to spare the well-meaning guilty.) What connects these would-be saviors is that the idea of an already thriving new Yiddish culture seems utterly foreign to them. Since they themselves often don’t speak Yiddish, they assume no one else does, nor would they really want to. But Yiddish doesn’t need saving; what it needs is strategic investments, especially in people. The NYSCA grant that has supported Josh Waletzky’s work is just one example how small amounts of money can have a tremendous impact. A much larger example is Klezkanada, a yearly Yiddish arts retreat held together by a few superhuman volunteers in Montreal, a scandalously small budget, and the dedication of the thousands of students and teachers who have benefited from a yearly piece of Yiddishland.

Speaking of Klezkanada...One of the things I'm particularly enjoying this year is a new podcast called Radiant Others, featuring key players of the modern 'klezmer revival'. It's helmed by trombonist Dan Blacksberg and benefits from his insight as both a working music insider as well as a member of the younger generation of klezmorim with a unique perspective.

One of his latest interviews is with ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin and was recorded at Klezkanada. I was shocked to learn it was Slobin's first time at KK. I'm glad to see such a glaring absence was finally rectified. I also learned a lot about Slobin himself, though I've been a fan of his work for years.  It's not hyperbole to say that without Slobin's work there would be no 'revival' as we know it today. He brought out the English edition of Moshe Beregovski's Old Jewish Folk Music, a profoundly important resource for Jewish music that even today has no peer. Written resources for older European Jewish music are incredibly rare and much of what we know about the tradition today comes solely from Beregovski. Everything else comes from 78s, folios and music passed from musician to musician.



Consider this. When Mark Slobin was growing up in Detroit in the late 50s and early 60s, he never once heard the word 'klezmer'. He grew up in a Jewish community with a strong immigrant and Yiddish speaking presence. As he recalled it, at weddings there would be 'Jewish tunes' but 'klezmer' as a category? Absolutely not. In 1973 Slobin went to Afghanistan for enthomusicology fieldwork. Not long after he returned he met Lev Lieberman of the Klezmorim in San Francisco. That was the first time he heard the word 'klezmer' - in the mid 70s. By the late '70s the term 'klezmer music' was starting to be used in English to refer to a defined playing style and repertoire. Until that point, the Yiddish word klezmer, with a very few exceptions, referred solely to Jewish musicians.

So, in 1970 the term 'klezmer music' didn't even exist. By 1978 Slobin and a small, but growing number of enthusiasts, were playing something called 'klezmer music' and inaugurating what we now refer to as the klezmer 'revival'. In 1990, when I was in high school, I somewhat randomly became aware of this new and fascinating music, and that random discovery (in what felt like total isolation) changed the course of my life! Now in 2017, there is a whole generation of kids on the Jewish music scene who have grown up in a world where klezmer music has always been a thing. Not just a thing, but a birthright. Many of them have grown up at places like Klezkamp, Klezkanada and the like. It's kind of astonishing when you think of the rate at which American (and global, to a degree) Jewish culture has reacted, grown, and changed to encompass a whole new/old dimension of Jewish expression.

One of the things that jumped out from the Slobin interview was how pivotal moments in the 'revival' depended on grant money. Take 1978. The 'revival' is already underway and the young revivalists have begun to find the elders who would pass on style and repertoire. Most notably, Zev Feldman and clarinetist Andy Statman connect with Dave Tarras. At that point, Statman, Feldman and Tarras went on tour, with Slobin acting as academic advisor. The tour would turn out to be a landmark in the 'klezmer revival' and a venture only made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. As Slobin says in the podcast interview, it was at that moment that they realized there was a real, intergenerational audience for this music, and a phenomenon that would extend far beyond their cadre of enthusiasts.

I bring up the issue of money because, obviously, money makes the world go round. I've never understood why the Jewish community has been so reluctant to put money into music and culture when those are things that so tangibly connect Jews to their heritage and community. (Well, I have some ideas, but that's for another time.) I saw recently that the Jim Joseph foundation approved a $1.1 million grant to the National Yiddish Book Center for their Great Books program. I mean, bravo, honestly, I think that's wonderful.  Teacher training and curriculum development for Jewish literature is the kind of nuts and bolts thing that's necessary for deepening Jewish education for young people. But I can't help but be disappointed that an organization sitting on an enormous endowment gets yet another huge grant, and it's not even for Yiddish pedagogy. I wonder what might be possible if big Jewish non-profits put even a fraction of that money into thriving programs with proven track records for engaging young people with Yiddish language and art. Look at the world changing art that flowed from the 1978 Dave Tarras tour. Look at what was possible when young musicians and researchers found a home and support at the YIVO sound archive. The establishment of Klezkamp was made possible by the YIVO sound archive, its resources, and the group of people who gravitated there to do this new, exciting work. Think what more could be achieved with substantial mainstream Jewish support for the Yiddish language and arts community?

Anyway... I'm thankful to be alive at this wonderful moment in Jewish creativity, thankful to the elders and resources that have made it possible, thankful to be part of such a wonderful global community.




(This is Sarah Gorby accompanied by an instrument called the crystal baschet)

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Freedom is a Verb

Hey klez friends,

I meant to post this a couple days ago, so you'd have time to buy a plane ticket to Berlin to see Daniel Kahn celebrate the release of his new album, but life has a way of getting in the way. But on the bright side, I saved you the price of a ticket to Berlin!

Instead, enjoy the video for the first single (do we even say that anymore?) off his new album THE BUTCHER'S SHARE. I've been listening to it non-stop since I got it (direct from Berlin!) and friends, you will be, too. Daniel and the Painted Bird will be touring North America in May-June 2018, so hopefully you'll have a chance to catch them live, then.

If you're new to Kahn's music, read my profile from 2009 Partisan or Parasite and then catch up on his music here. How to describe it? The DNA is Springsteen, Woody Guthrie, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and the baddest midnight Klezkamp jamband you ever heard. It's a Brechtian shove with a Yiddish tam. Don't wait, just click.

Enjoy!


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

1917

My new GOLDEN CITY is up at Tablet and it's part of their 100th Anniversary of the Soviet Revolution week. In my column I talk about how younger artists have started to engage with the hopeful, utopian aspects of the Revolution, taking a playful approach to history. 

For almost 10 years [Psoy] Korolenko and [Daniel] Kahn have been bringing all kinds of revolutionary songs into their slightly mad dialectic. As the Unternationale, Korolenko and Kahn set Zionist, Bundist, and Communist anthems against each other. No longer matters of life and death, 20th-century anthems become just another text, to be mixed and remixed with a ruthless 21st-century playfulness.




Keep in mind, that playfulness has only recently become available as an artistic position. Insofar as the Cold War is over (if it is), we're only now starting to see what Yiddish studies, and new Jewish art, might look like without the fierce gatekeepers of anti-Communist hegemony on guard. What if we could talk about Jewish Communists without constantly relitigating the battles of the past?

In their superb introduction to the new translation of David Bergelson’s Judgment, Harriet Murav and Sasha Senderovich tackle a thorny problem, not just for readers of Bergelson, but for students of Yiddish history and literature: how Cold War politics warped the reception of Soviet Yiddish art in the West. 

In 1952 Bergelson was murdered on Stalin’s order. A decade later he suffered another execution, this one in the West, as his literary legacy was made and remade according to the politics of the day. Judgment, published in 1929 and untranslated into any language until 2017, became the boundary for the “acceptable” Bergelson. Murav and Senderovich note, for example, that in 1977 the hugely influential anthologists Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg introduced Bergelson to English speaking readers, but as regarded the last two decades of Bergelson’s work, it was “better to leave in the past.” For Howe and Greenberg, there was no point in translating any of it. 

Having recently read Judgment, a penetrating, darkly funny, and nuanced tale of shtetl Jews caught in the post-Revolution Civil War, the willingness to discard such an important work in deference to politics strikes the contemporary reader as bordering on literary malpractice....

Read more over at Rokhl's Golden City...


Thursday, October 19, 2017

Harvey, Mayim and Me

My latest for Haaretz: How 'Feminist' Mayim Bialik Insulted Countless Jewish Women


OOF. This has been quite a time, eh? Ever since the Harvey Weinstein story 'broke' last week my jaw has been on the floor and my stomach has been in knots. Each new story is simultaneously horrifying and numbing. Hollywood is an industry built on abuse. Our entire society is premised on men's toxic entitlement to women's bodies. Is it really going to be different now? Can women speaking their truth really 'shock the conscience' and change us, fundamentally?

None of us really know what, if anything will come of our sudden attention to sexual harassment, abuse and assault. But I do know we're all fumbling around, trying to make sense of our own stories and the endless stories now being shared.

Which brings me to Mayim. Mayim Mayim Mayim. Mayim Bialik managed to make her own mini-scandal last weekend when she published a New York Times op-ed in which she talked about her brush with Hollywood misogyny. But in her case, or at least, in the story she told herself, she managed to avoid sexual harassment by not being pretty enough but also smart and also dressing modestly?

Bialik's seeming suggestion that modesty, and not trading on one's sexuality, could protect a woman from assault just about broke the internet outrage meter, especially among Jewish women. For women of my age, especially, Bialik is not just a star, she is us. The funny, beautiful, undeniably Jewish overachiever with a wildly successful TV career AND a doctorate in neuroscience. She did it all and never compromised who she was.

But, what was apparent to me from her piece, in which she refers to herself with the same kind of scorn she got from her critics, is that Bialik did not manage to avoid the abusive side of Hollywood misogyny. Internalizing that kind of woman hating beauty bullshit is just a different kind of abuse, one that seeps into your soul and affects every choice you make. It's hard not to see Bialik's embrace of tsnius as a psychological reaction to the degrading ways she had her appearance dissected in the media. Ugh. Anyway...

Read my Haaretz op-ed here and Mayim's apology here.



Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Political Art and the Art of Politics: Arthur Szyk and More in the Golden City

Hey! Have you been following my new 'all things Yidd-ish' column over at Tablet? It's called, in all modesty, Rokhl's Golden City and it's a lot of fun, if I do say so myself.

This week I talk a bit about a 'new to me' made for TV movie, the 1959 Jazz Singer with Jerry Lewis. It's really interesting and SHORT and you should definitely immediately watch it before Yom Kippur.

I also touch on a new show over at the New-York Historical Society, Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art. As I say in my column:
"Szyk’s art is a gorgeous mix of medieval detail and modern themes and deserves to be seen up close and personally."
But there's so much more to the exhibit than getting up close with Szyk's breathtaking artistry. In an exhibit filled with incredible work, Szyk’s Zionist pieces are some of the most compelling, like Palestine Restricted (on the restriction of Jewish emigration into Palestine) and Modern Moses, a startlingly contemporary composition on Hebrew machismo, one that could easily be a 2017 IDF selfie.

In her review of the show, Alexandra Pucciarelli poses an intriguing question: why is it that a once ubiquitous talent such as Szyk is “barely remembered” today? Pucciarelli suggests ill timed family interference with Szyk’s artistic estate as well as Szyk’s position in between artistic movements and schools.

Szyk was an unclassifiable, multifarious cultural figure. A Polonized Jew with a strong affinity for his homeland, as well as traditional Jewish life and culture, he left Poland to join the Western European community of artists. Yet, he always identified as a ‘Jewish artist’- something controversial for Jewish artists even today. I’d argue that the urgent, unsentimental Jewishness of his art might have made his work uncomfortable for the gatekeepers of mid-century modern art, many of them highly assimilated Jews themselves.

And then there’s Szyk’s politics. Szyk was a passionate Zionist, a member of the Revisionist Zionist Bergson Group, even, yet his Jewish work (insofar as it’s featured at the N-YHS) never devolved into easy, simplistic binaries like muscle Jew vs victim, old Jew vs. new. (Don't get me wrong, muscle Jews and un-muscle Jews are there, they're just not being used in self-abnegating didactic tropey ways.)  It’s been a while, but perhaps now more than ever is the moment for the reclamation of a binary busting artist like Arthur Szyk.

That binary is the text, subtext and Ur-text of the outsize new collection of the comics of Eli Valley, Diaspora Boy: Comics on Crisis in America and Israel. Valley’s work, a lovingly grotesque style of satire, has no truck with the undecided. As Peter Beinart writes in the foreword, “Eli Valley’s cartoons are outrageous and absurd. That’s because we’re living at an outrageous and absurd moment in American Jewish life.” If you don’t already think both Israel and the US are being led by their own respective absurdities, you probably aren’t the audience for Diaspora Boy. For Valley, contemporary Zionism, and its enabling by American Jewish leaders, is a modern Golem run amok, something he makes gloriously, repulsively graphic in his cartooning.

Valley’s unsparing art hasn’t gone unnoticed by its targets. A particularly sharp cartoon featuring then ADL head Abe Foxman resulted in the Forward severing its relationship with Valley. In a recent interview Valley has said “That kind of McCarthyism is an enduring feature of the Jewish community. ...It’s support Israel or else, but without open discourse the Jewish community loses. We need to be questioning the accepted truths of the Jewish world."

Valley is right- intra-communal Jewish politics has always been a no-holds barred, at times exceedingly ugly, affair. It might be worthwhile to ask what politics had to do with whether or not Arthur Szyk's artistic legacy endured. Perhaps today it’s easier to reclaim him as a cultural figure now, when his politics have been sanitized by the decades since his death.

Consider: Szyk was a prominent member of the Irgun-associated Bergson Group. Many in the mainstream Jewish institutional world did all they could to oppose the Group’s larger than life cultural and political actions. Preferring quiet diplomacy, some Jewish leaders pressed the US government to have Bergson himself deported. “Nahum Goldman, co-chair of the World Jewish Congress, told State Department officials in 1944 that Rabbi Stephen Wise regarded Bergson as “equally as great an enemy of the Jews as Hitler” because he believed Bergson’s activities would increase antisemitism in the United States.” If only Godwin’s Law had been invented a few decades early.

History is complicated. It’s easy to get swept away by the romance of the Bergson Group. Its spectacles like We Will Never Die cried out for Europe’s Jews at a time when President Roosevelt was doing his best to sweep the Jewish refugee crisis under the rug. At the same time, the Irgun was, among other things, responsible for the infamous 1946 King David hotel bombing, an act of terrorism which killed 91.

But to accuse Jews of creating anti-Semitism (as has been said of Peter Bergson, and Valley, and indeed countless other Jews who have taken unpopular positions and voiced uncomfortable truths) is an insulting absurdity, one which absolves those responsible for Jew hatred in the first place.

Monday, April 17, 2017

A Night in the Old Marketplace Returns to New York City

Holy shit. This fall will mark my 20th anniversary living here in the Big Apple.

I think I'm gonna need some more time to digest that little milestone. And to accept the fact that I am officially no longer 'young.' I mean, I'm Yiddish young, but not young young. Alas.

In 2007 (that is, a decade ago, wow, time flies) I saw a staged performance of a new song cycle based on I. L. Peretz's epic play, Bay nakht afn altn mark (A Night in the Old Marketplace). The lyrics were by Glen Berger and music was by none other than the East Village's own one man klezmer revolution, Frank London. 

Peretz, revolutionary Yiddish theatre, a haunted Polish well and Frank London, you can imagine, I was excited to be there. But A Night in the Old Marketplace went much further back than 2007. This 'new' Bay nakht had been in the works for a decade, and, as it turned out, I had been there ten years prior, desperate to get in, when a very early version of the song cycle was performed downtown. But on that evening, in the fall of 1997, I was just another nobody, new to New York and despite my eagerness (or maybe because of it) I was cruelly denied. Happily, I not only got in to see the show in 2007, I got press comps this time. Getting older (or at least just surviving) has its perks.



Since then, A Night in the Old Marketplace has existed mostly as a fantastic cast album, but this year Frank has been taking the show on the road- Brazil, Denmark, Italy and Canada. And now, New York, on May 4 and 6th. (scroll to the very end of this for more info on tickets and a preview)




In honor of this new staging of A Night in the Old Marketplace I'm sharing what I wrote about it in 2007 for Jewish Currents. I think it goes without saying, read this, then get your tickets immediately.




DEMONS AND DARKNESS: INTERPRETING PERETZ AND MARGOLIN

(MAY-JUNE 2007)

I. L. Peretz worked on his epic play, Bay Nakht Afn Altn Mark (“Night in the Old Marketplace”) for almost ten years. It was first published in 1907, and revised multiple times until his death in 1916. The play barely has any dramatic arc, almost a hundred characters (many of whom have only one line), and framing devices within framing devices within framing devices. It’s a sprawling modernist collage that picked up all the big themes of Peretz’s work, with stage directions that require million-dollar budgets. It’s what I might colloquially refer to as an Attention Deficit Disorder mess.

Bay Nakht has only been produced five times, but it’s catnip to the most ambitious and avant-garde Jewish artists of each generation. It’s no surprise to find that Bay Nakht has a new life in the hands of three of the most interesting Jewish artists of our generation. Composer Frank London, writer Glen Berger and dramaturge Alexandra Aron have been working on their version for almost as long as Peretz revised the original. I remember when it first came around in the fall of 1997. I was new to New York and circled the listing in the paper.

If you’d ever been to Fez, you’ll recall its location on Great Jones Street, a coordinate that’s cute and charming when you’re strolling, but not so cute when you’re still new to the area and hoping to get into a show and it’s 7:55 and you realize you didn’t call to find out if there might be tickets left. I inched into the packed anteroom of Fez with about fifty other Jews. Shmushed against each other, we were pushed back against the wall as the artists swept past, down the hall and then downstairs to the club. I recognized Frank London (He’s famous, he’s in the Klezmatics!). Then he was gone, trumpet case slung over his shoulder. The bitchy lady at the entrance told us, without pity, that the show was sold out.

That was ten years ago. Just a few weeks ago, I made up for that night by attending the premiere performance for the new CD, A Night in the Old Marketplace, featuring words and music by Frank London and Glen Berger. I even got press tickets for me and my date. It took ten years, but at least I didn’t have to pay!

This new Night in the Old Marketplace exists for the time being only as a song cycle; it hasn’t been produced as a full stage production. What I saw a few weeks ago at the Barrow Street Theater was singers playing different roles, with Glen Berger as the Narrator. It was an incredible performance that featured not only London’s frequent collaborators (like Lorin Sklamberg of the Klezmatics) but also amazing Broadway talents like LaTonya Hall, who blew everyone away with her version of “Meet Me in the Old Market Place.” 

Over the course of ten years of work on this production, the concept of how it would be presented changed, too. (One version over the years compressed all hundred characters into one, with the badkhn taking center stage and singers as mere accompaniment.) The new production provides a more coherent narrative, while still focusing on the major themes of the text: the conflict between tradition and modernity, between faith and rationalism, and between free will and fatalism. Can human beings challenge the ineffable plan of God? Is true revolution, political, mystical or religious, ever a viable option? Those conflicts, in Peretz’s original text, are cloaked by the freewheeling “tragic carnivalspiel” (as Peretz termed it) created by the unstageable stage directions and the huge cast of characters, both living and dead, including talking buildings and a gargoyle.

According to Nahma Sandrow’s study, Wandering Stars, Peretz’s friends begged him to make the play “less a poem and more a play, with a tighter plot and more distinguishable characters. Peretz insisted that the truly Yiddish style, which would one day be acknowledged as such, was all in cryptic hints, and in interpretation of what is hidden.” While I sympathize with the stubbornness and avant-garde spirit of Peretz, the impressionist poetry of Bay Nakht meant that after devoting so much of his life to working and re-working the text, Peretz died without seeing it come to the stage.

One of its most famous productions was by the Moscow Yiddish Theater. According to Sandrow, it “recreated Bay Nakht in the image of the revolution, chopped out lines, characters, and added new ones.” In a way, the latest production has also been recreated in the image of its producers — not in the apocalyptic spirit of 1925, but in the pragmatic yet revolutionary image of the Jewish avant garde of 2007. Much of the first act has been eliminated, along with the many layers of framing devices. A love story, which appears as just one of many ripples of drama among the original swarm of characters, has been moved to the top of the narrative. Sheyndele and Nosn, the thwarted lovers, are reunited when Sheyndele is one of the many dead brought back to life by the mad badkhn. The dead klezmorimcalled up from the otherworldly well in the center of the market (an image from Peretz’s childhood), play for Sheyndele and Nosn’s supernatural wedding. The badkhn hopes to frustrate God’s plan by taking the dead from their graves and, in a key mystical image of the new show, reassembling the shards of the glass broken at the wedding.

The familiar plot about thwarted lovers attempting to reunite comes to hold much of the tension and meaning originally created by the sprawl of eighty characters, each proclaiming his or her own conflict (the oppressed worker who died on the job, the poor Jew and the hussar who killed him, etc.). But in straightening out the narrative and performing it totally in English, the new production in some ways resembles the Moscow Yiddish Theater’s more than it fulfills Peretz’s dream of a cryptic Yiddish art. In fact, it was the creators’ intention to make a piece of Jewish art that was not about Jewishness. “The music is totally rooted in Jewish music,” Frank London told me. “The story is a totally Jewish story, the world it’s in is a totally Jewish world, the knowledge you have to have to understand it is a Jewish knowledge, the essential dialectic of the entire work is Jewish. Yet not for one second is what we’re doing about being Jewish. It just is.”

At the turn of the century, Warsaw was the international capital of Yiddish literature, and Peretz sat in the center, writing, teaching classes, encouraging young writers and generally creating a sense of possibility around the future of Yiddish art. Yet the world of Yiddish art was in flux. The failed revolution of 1905 threw many into doubt about what would become of any of the revolutionary movements, both political and artistic. For Peretz and the young artists he inspired, revolutionary art was not necessarily being matched by the creation of revolutionary audiences..."

***********************************************************************

OK: get your tickets here: www.bit.ly/MarketplaceFF20  and use code FF20 for 20% off

And check out this trailer for more spooky klezmer goodness:
https://www.facebook.com/folksbiene/videos/10154389420376332/








(as originally seen in Jewish Currents)

(originally appeared in the May-June 2007 issue of Jewish Currents)

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Accounting for the Counters: Important New Scholarship on the State of Jewish Demography

I just saw an intriguing article in the Times of Israel, Numbers game: Do Jewish leaders manipulate existential fears with statistics? It's about a new collection of academic essays, a joint American-Israeli project, called Taking Stock: Cultures of Enumeration in Jewish Life. One of the co-editors is Deborah Dash-Moore, a giant of modern American Jewish history scholarship, so I was extra intrigued to read about this new volume. The topic is demography, a subject, you probably know, near and dear to my heart.
In their book, “Taking Stock: Cultures of Enumeration in Contemporary Jewish Life,” editors Michal Kravel-Tovi and Deborah Dash Moore examine what they call modern Jewry’s “profound cultural investment in quantified forms of knowledge and representation.” From Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, to Massachusetts’ tucked-away Yiddish Book Center, nine essayists pondered how Jews “take stock” of themselves and the world around them. The pieces are handily divided by the editors into sections for counting the dead, the living, and objects.
After a section focused on numbers in Holocaust commemoration and Israel’s memorial culture, the spotlight shifts to Jewish demography in the Jewish state and the United States, including — most provocatively — the manipulation of numbers by political and communal leaders.
Hmmm. "...the manipulation of numbers by political and communal leaders..." Sounds familiar. Now, where have I heard that before? Oh yeah, in my October op-ed for Haaretz, How the Jewish-American Elite Has Manufactured the Intermarriage 'Crisis'.  [full text yanked from behind the paywall here.]

I know, I know, I don't have a fancy degree, so if you didn't like what I had to say, maybe you'll enjoy it more coming from a bunch of (extremely smart) academic types. I'm most interested in reading my comrade-in-Yiddish Josh Friedman's essay:

For Kravel-Tovi, “Taking Stock’s” most eye-opening essay on American Jewry was Joshua B. Friedman’s, “Let’s Start with the Big Ones: Numbers, Thin Description, and the Magic of Yiddish at the Yiddish Book Center.” 
As the world’s first museum devoted to Yiddish, the Massachusetts-based center has “rescued” thousands of Yiddish books from attics and basements around the world since 1980. Although fewer than five percent of the collection is on display in the center’s shtetl-themed campus, the evocative installation demonstrates what Friedman and others call “the wetness of numbers,” or their ability to personalize what might appear as dry statistics.

I haven't even gotten Taking Stock yet but I'm already convinced it's the smartest thing that's been written about Jewish demography in the years since the publication of the massive Pew report in October 2013. More to come, no doubt, once I've actually read it...



Friday, April 7, 2017

Wishing You a Nonsense Free Springtime Festival - My Latest for Haaretz

Last week slimy Brexit cheerleader and nasty little UKIP troll Nigel Farage trolled us once again, this time claiming (incorrectly) that Cadbury had removed 'Easter' from its Egg Hunt promotion. If it wasn't bad enough stirring up outrage with his fabrications (remind you of someone?) Farage had to drag us into it, tweeting "...we must defend our Judeo-Christian culture and that means Easter."

What the fuck you mean by 'our' culture you racist little toad?

Ugh.

Turns out Farage has been selling this 'Judeo-Christian culture' bullshit for a while. In 2014, for example, he was on TV calling for 'extreme measures' to stop homegrown non-white terrorists. Makes you wonder what kind of 'extreme' solution Farage had for homegrown white terrorists like the killer of Jo Cox, Thomas Meir... Oh wait, he has none.

Anyway... plenty of Jews took umbrage at Farage's fantasy about Judeo-Christian culture, especially British culture. I mean, where does herding all your Jews into a tower and lighting it on fire fit into this picture?

Genug shoyn with this Judeo-Christian nonsense. My latest at Haaretz is about the uses and abuses of this imagined affinity between Jews and Christians. Did you know a pastor who 'laid hands' on the President will be hosting a Messianic seder? Did you know the President's pastor (prosperity preacher, Paula White) claims Passover as part of her "spiritual heritage"? These pastors lurve them some Passover, but why isn't the love returned by Jews?
For Jews in Eastern Europe, rather than being seen as a “supernatural, miraculous season” (as Paula White fondly describes the time of Passover) Easter was a time of dread. Violence against Jews often peaked around religious holidays. The infamous Kishinev pogrom of 1903 started on Easter Sunday amid ‘fake news’ of the day that two Christian children had been murdered to provide blood for Jewish matzah. In Yiddish, Pentecost, the seventh week after Easter, was known as ‘di grine khoge’, the (non-Jewish) holiday of terror.  
Pastor White can imagine herself into the Exodus narrative, celebrate as many seders as she wants, and for all I know, write new, pro-Trump (kholile) verses of Chad Gadya. She can do this because, not to put too fine a point on it, Passover has never been a symbol of mortal terror for her or her followers.
You can read more here:






(p.s. In these days of shrinking independent media many news sites, like Haaretz, put their content behind paywalls. I hope you'll think about supporting Haaretz so it can keep publishing terrific journalism and the occasional op-ed by yours truly)

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Where Do Statistics Come From?

The 2013 study Pew survey of American Jews served up some sobering statistics, most notably, that the intermarriage rate for American Jews was now over 70%.

There were lots of other statistics contained therein, like that almost half of American Jews didn't even know alef-beys. For some reason, that statistic barely got any play. But the intermarriage number... hoo boy. 

Now, three years later there's lots of talk about the meaning of these numbers. Lots of 'three years later' blather, and now, I'm one of the blatherers! See, some things do change! 

Over at Haaretz I wrote about how the intermarriage 'crisis' is more of an opportunity for certain establishment types to make themselves seem important at a time of communal danger.  If you've been reading my blog, you won't be terribly surprised to see what I have to say on the subject. I want to understand why the intermarriage numbers are framed as a crisis above, and independent of, the dismal state of Jewish education and literacy in the U.S. Why is 'intermarriage' more crisis-worthy than the many other dismal dimensions of American Jewish life? 

I looked to the sociological theories of Rogers Brubaker for a clue. Brubaker studies ethnic conflict and the way that 'groups' are called into existence by what he calls 'ethnopolitical entrepreneurs.' What if the 'intermarriage crisis' frame is a kind of ethnic conflict used by those entrepreneurs to increase a feeling of 'groupness'? After all, nothing coheres a group more than heightening previously unseen boundaries (and fear of crossing them).

A few weeks after the Pew report hit in October 2013, many of us got an email from the Forward, subject line 'Does the American Jewish community have a future?'


Dear Friend,
By now, you probably have heard the statistics: 32% of Jews under age 30 say they have no religion, and the majority of those without religion have Christmas trees. Fully two-thirds of the Jews with no religion are raising their children without any Jewish identity at all. As historian Jack Wertheimer told the Forward, “It’s the story of a community contracting.”
If young Jews were choosing some kind of secular engagement over a religious one, Jewishness itself would not be at risk. But even ethnic and cultural identifiers are disappearing. America’s full acceptance of its Jewish citizens has led many more to leave their Jewish identity entirely behind.



"The statistics" mentioned in this email didn't just happen. They were called into being by the institution now using them for fundraising - Jane Eisner was the catalyst behind the Pew Foundation taking on the 2013 survey. In January of that year she wrote an editorial calling for a Jewish marriage agenda, saying that whether her kids (my generation) would marry, and if so, would they choose to marry Jews, was what kept her up at night.


Now, I don't know if Jane Eisner's kids will marry Jews, and I'm not that worried about it. But if you got that email, chances are you've at least given it some thought because those who shape the cultural conversation, Eisner and the Forward, and Jack Wertheimer, prominently (though not exclusively), missed no opportunity to hammer home the looming demographic dangers. (Dangers they themselves are involved in uncovering.) 


Luckily, Eisner and the Forward presented both problem and solution (signed by Forward publisher Sam Norich):



What is to be done? The Forward has been out front in raising that question and looking for answers. For us, it’s personal – we feel a direct responsibility to our community and its continued vitality. If you share that feeling, I hope you’ll join us in sustaining our ongoing discussion of the Jewish future. Stay informed. Participate in the debate. And take an active part in supporting the Forward’s continuing role by making a donation. Your membership contribution makes it possible for us to keep the spotlight on the defining issues of our community.

I think it can be true that Jane Eisner (and Sam Norich, and everyone at the Forward) cares deeply about the future of Jews while at the same, also true that they have interests that diverge dramatically from those of average Jews and that as ethnopolitical entrepreneurs, they have an investment in groupmaking that does little to nothing to solve the problems they claim to be tackling and a lot to do with making themselves, and their institutions, be seen as essential to American Jews.

We need information about the American Jewish community and the Pew study was a crucial (if deeply flawed) opportunity to take a snapshot of where we are. That's a good thing. But taking a minute to understand how statistics get made, and why, can also be a crucial part in planning for the future. And, as I point out in my Haaretz piece, it's the past that got us to the future, and it's too important to ignore in the present.




Wednesday, October 5, 2016

How Do You Say Email In Yiddish

How do you say 'email' in Yiddish ?


I'll admit, this New York Times piece about the new Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary isn't aimed at me. I'm probably one of a relatively small number of Times readers who already knows how to say email in Yidish. Or rather, one of a small number of readers who knows (and uses) the terms (blitspost or blitsbriv) suggested by the lexicographers behind the Dictionary, Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath and Dr. Paul Glasser. I'm also one of even fewer readers (I imagine) who bought the Comprehensive Dictionary soon after it came out and uses it in the ordinary course of business.


Please don't mistake that for a brag. If it were, it would surely be the lamest brag ever. But it's to make clear that I consume mainstream journalism about Yiddish with an entirely different set of expectations than the average reader. Now, according to some people, I expect way too much from journalists. According to some people, any publicity for Yiddish is good publicity. To both of those arguments I say HOGWASH. (Or else I would've given up these kinds of blog posts ages ago.)


As I've discussed elsewhere, the way we talk about Yiddish is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Joe Berger has been on the Yiddish beat for the New York Times for 30 years. Our mainstream (non-Yiddishist, non-specialist) discourse around Yiddish is exemplified and magnified in the Berger oeuvre. Yiddish is constantly represented as dying, inherently humorous, weak or any of the many icky tropes regularly invoked by journalists like him. The lachrymose vision of Yiddish culture flogged by Berger and his ilk translates to very real, negative consequences for Yiddish. Grants are turned down because Yiddish is obviously dying. Educational programs that treat Yiddish as a legitimate part of Jewish learning are scoffed at. Artists invited into Jewish schools and camps are explicitly told not to dare bring any Yiddish into the classroom.


So. Back to the Comprehensive Dictionary. It truly is a milestone in modern Yiddish scholarship. It's the product of decades of lexicographical collection (and some good old fashioned neologizing) and will be prized by Yiddish students and speakers for years to come. Here's what a good article about the Dictionary might look like. Larry Yudelson gives a beautiful background on the Schaechter family, on the project of modern Yiddish scholarship, and on the extraordinary talent and skills of the people who finally brought the project to fruition.


What does the paper of record have to say?


Those terms [email, transgender, bingewatch] came into popular usage long after the language’s heyday, when it was the lingua franca of the Jews of Eastern Europe and the garment workers of the Lower East Side and was the chosen literary tongue for writers like Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Though the Holocaust and assimilation have shrunk the ranks of Yiddish speakers — once put at over 11 million worldwide — to a relative handful, Yiddish still needs to keep itself fashionably up-to-date.

So two of its conservationists have produced the first full-fledged English-to-Yiddish dictionary in 50 years and it is designed to carry Yiddish into the 21st century and just maybe beyond. After all, Yiddish has always had a canny way of defying the pessimists.




"How Do You Say Email in Yiddish" opens with a number of familiar tropes about Yiddish, dearly beloved above all by Berger, such as:

  • Yiddish as the province of a specialized, politicized sub-group of Lower East Side garment workers as opposed to millions of Eastern European immigrants who came to the US and maintained a Yiddish infrastructure far longer than comparable immigrant groups

  • Characterizing Schaechter-Viswanath and Glasser as "conservationists" instead of linguists and scholars. The "conservation" trope precludes a discussion of Yiddish as productive and generative, even on a small scale. 

And then...
The 826-page Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary, with almost 50,000 entries and 33,000 subentries, is the work of Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath, a Yiddish editor and poet, and Paul Glasser, a former dean at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the major repository of Yiddish language, literature and folklore.

  • The characterization of YIVO as a "repository" rather than as a world class site of scholarly research. Notice how repository is passive whereas a center of research would be active. This trope functions to diminish activity related to Yiddish research.


So, the first problem is the layers and layers of asinine tropes. But what about the story itself. Why is this Dictionary important enough for NYT column inches? For one thing, as minority languages around the world disappear at a shocking rate, the question of language growth and maintenance is more and more urgent, and hardly exclusive to Yiddish. But this is what Berger sees.

Whether the new words, many of which were coined by the editors, will be widely embraced remains an open question.

Guess what? Berger never asks a non-Hasidic Yiddish speaker. I promise you, it's not like he doesn't have our phone numbers. Mant of my Yiddishist friends have spoken with him for background on stories. Even yours truly, on one memorable occasion.


Who does he ask?


“Any word that you’ve got to scratch your head to come up with they’ll use the English word,” said Yosef Rapaport, a Hasidic journalist and translator who is the media consultant for Agudath Israel of America, the umbrella group for ultra-Orthodox Jewish organizations.

Good lord. Where do I even begin? A journalist who does a story about Modern Yiddish research and then goes to the Agudah for comment strains credulity. The European, self-consciously modern project of Yiddish scholarship, of which Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter was a (figuratively) towering figure, is light years away from the American Yiddish used by haredi, Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities today. Some of them may end up using this dictionary, but this project is not for them because, the sad irony is, there is very little demand for Yiddish scholarship within the communities that use Yiddish most widely today. But this is how Berger puts it:


Hasidim and other ultra-Orthodox Jews tend to absorb new English words just as they are for convenience’ sake without any guilt that they are bastardizing the purity of Yiddish. Email becomes email, though spelled in the Hebrew script that Yiddish adopted when it arose among Ashkenazic Jews in German-speaking lands during the 10th century. 
“For Hasidim, Yiddish is not about culture; it’s about using language in a utilitarian way,” Mr. Rapaport, the Hasidic translator said.


It's hard to believe that a writer who just published a book about Hasidim could write something so remarkably inapt and ahistorical. Though Hasidic communities may not have an investment in Yiddish as a high culture language, one of the main reasons they continue to use Yiddish is, while not on par with loshn-koydesh (biblical Hebrew and Aramaic), Yiddish is viewed as a language infused with Jewishness, and holiness. (Yiddish-only communities are also a form of social control, but that's another story.) When Berger credulously quotes Rapaport as saying it's not about 'culture' he betrays his ignorance of what 'culture' is and how Yiddish functions in the Hasidic world.

Furthermore, there were always (non-religious) Yiddish institutions in the United States which happily Americanized Yiddish as much as possible, the Forverts being the most famous example.

And this brings me to my main complaint. There is tremendous tension inherent in maintaining a minority language within a hegemonic monolingual environment. It's a valid question to ask who this dictionary is for. (Of course that would require to talk to people who DO care about the proper Yiddish word for computer or transgender.) It's also a difficult, contentious question of how to maintain and grow a language which has experienced radical, traumatic loss of speakers. Can neologisms like blitspost be imposed from 'above'? In the days of democratized media and education, is there an 'above' anymore? How have other minority language communities handled these questions? And for secular leaning Yiddish students and speakers, what is to be the relationship between them and the Hasidic/Haredi Yiddish world? What kind of linguistic interchange is possible?

I'm sure I've only scratched the surface of this topic, but that should suffice for now. It's possible that a few people will read this article and buy a copy of the dictionary for their favorite Yiddish curious friend. But at $60, it's unlikely to be a popular stocking stuffer this Khanike. Rather than another lament for the disappearance of Yiddish disguised as a light human interest story, Yiddish needs more journalism that takes it seriously. It needs journalism that educates general audience readers about the accomplishments of modern Yiddish scholarship, and most importantly, it needs people who can explain why Yiddish is not just an important world language, but a vital piece of the yerushe (birthright) of millions of Jews around the world.