Thursday, August 18, 2016

Dress British, Think Yiddish (Theater)

Through the wonders of social media I recently made the acquaintance of playwright/journalist/historian/mid-western Jew of all trades, Max Sparber. Max has an extremely impressive list of produced plays and publications, so I was flattered when he asked if he could read my play, A Brokhe/A Blessing. We got to talking about the challenges of creating new works in Yiddish/English/Yinglish and one thing led to another and Max wrote a nice little piece about my play over at his blog Dress British Think Yiddish.

I particularly enjoyed this part, both as an artist, and as ME, an artist with a big, challenging play that I would REALLY like people to see one day before I'm too old to enjoy it:

I can already tell that there are some meddling dramaturgs out there who want to know 'why Yiddish?' And this is a play that offers a solid answer to the question: It is a play about a specific immigrant experience, and this was the language spoken by this group of immigrants, and they were in a neighborhood where the language still had everyday currency, where even American-born Jews could understand and respond, to some extent. It’s a play that Yiddish makes sense in, and wouldn’t make sense if absent.
But, as I said, I am not interested in why questions. You probably have noticed that I am interested in how questions. How do we make a play? How do we stage a scene? How do we communicate something unfamiliar to an audience? 
This play has a lot of fascinating hows in it. And the ones that interests me the most right now are the following: How is this play going to get a production? How is it going to have a life beyond that production, which is rare for new plays? And how am I going to get a chance to see it? [emphasis mine]

Anyway, go over to Dress British Think Yiddish and check it out, plus Max's adventures in learning Yiddish in Omaha (OMAHA!), some truly original cocktails and the odd ode to Cel-Rey.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Master of Ceremonies

Maybe you haven't heard? Joel Grey just published a memoir and it is fabulous. Being a Mickey Katz obsessive, I had a special incentive to read Master of Ceremonies. (Mickey Katz is Grey's father).

Which isn't to say that I wasn't curious about the glittering, decade spanning career of Mr. Grey himself, just the opposite. I adore Joel Grey and Master of Ceremonies doesn't disappoint as juicy showbiz memoir. I just published a short (too short) review over at the Jewish Book Council website. (I'm planning a longer think piece, too, about the second generation of Yiddish-American entertainers.)

As you would imagine, Master of Ceremonies devotes a considerable amount of time to Grey's participation in the creation of Cabaret. One of the incidents he talks about is how, during previews, there was a bit of controversy around the song If You Could See Her (The Gorilla Song). It's the MC's love song to a woman in a Gorilla suit- a thinly veiled commentary on racialized bigotry on the eve of the Nazi era. At the end of the song the MC delivers a rather manic punchline just to really hit the whole thing home: "If you could see her through my eyes/She wouldn't look Jewish at all." As Grey relates it, Jewish groups protested quite loudly, and quite stupidly (having missed the whole point of the song) and so the producers were forced to change the lyric. Obviously, the lyric got changed back for the movie and Grey's performance here is just. so. perfect. He is a national treasure and if you don't believe me, watch the video. And buy Master of Ceremonies!!!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Spirit of Cable Street and the Dread of BREXIT

At this point you probably never want to hear the year's most awful portmanteau ever again: BREXIT. It's ugly, it smells like xenophobia, and the success of the campaign to leave the EU (endangering migrants and refugees in the process) can't help but give one a slight shudder as it pertains to the electoral chances of a certain orange demagogue.

BUT! Before you close the tab on BREXIT, please give a read to my latest op-ed at Haaretz,  'They Shall (Not) Pass': Brexit Vote Shows How Cracks in Anti-racist Coalitions Could Win Trump the White House

I look at the Battle of Cable Street (1936) and what it might have to say at this moment of isolationism and racial scapegoating. Art, history, solidarity: these are my comforts in unsettled times.  

(A note on paywalls and such: The future of journalism is uncertain to say the least. I'm proud to be contributing to Haaretz, one of the best internationally oriented papers out there. As I'm sure you've noticed, Haaretz keeps most of its content behind a paywall, because producing quality journalism is freaking expensive and only getting expensiver. You should get a subscription to Haaretz. Seriously. HOWEVER, if you cannot afford a subscription, and you want to read what I've written, go to a social media link to the article, through Twitter or Facebook, and click through there. That will take you to the full article. And if you enjoy what you read, please think about subscribing.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Red-Baiting Crawls Back from the Political Fringe

I have a new op-ed up at the English edition of Haaretz. The topic is red-baiting and the target, unsurprisingly, is Bernie Sanders. The perpetrator is a bottom of the barrel, hard-right finger wagger, Dennis Prager.

As offensive as it is, Prager's line of attack is dangerous not just because it is red baiting, or because it seeks to exclude a large portion of American Jews who don't share the same values as the uber-conservative Prager. Rather, it betrays a kind of nihilistic world view, one which sees no potential in Jews who are not already exactly like him.  
But most Jews are not like Prager. Even those who are like him are likely to change positions over time.  If it can be said that there is any one experience shared almost universally by modern Jews, it is the journey, the movement between and among states. Whether if it's as a migrant from country to country, or moving from religious to non-religious (and vice versa), or even returning to Jewishness altogether (as so many new Israeli citizens have done) it is this dynamic quality of Jewish life which defines us, and which teachers like Prager ignore, at their own peril. 

Normally I wouldn't engage with the patently absurd ideas of someone like Prager, but like so many odious concepts these days, red-baiting seems to be coming back into vogue on the right, and I think we'd all do well to be extra watchful.

read more here

(A note on paywalls and such: The future of journalism is uncertain to say the least. I'm proud to be contributing to Haaretz, one of the best internationally oriented papers out there. As I'm sure you've noticed, Haaretz keeps most of its content behind a paywall, because producing quality journalism is freaking expensive and only getting expensiver. You should get a subscription to Haaretz. Seriously. HOWEVER, if you cannot afford a subscription, and you want to read what I've written, go to a social media link to the article, through Twitter or Facebook, and click through there. That will take you to the full article. And if you enjoy what you read, please think about subscribing.)

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Selfie That Broke the Social Justice Internet - My Op-Ed for Haaretz

This week I published my first op-ed for Haaretz (English language edition.) It's on the rise (and fall) of Belgian viral selfie phenom Zakia Belkhiri. What happens when anti-racist/anti-Islamophobia activists don't see any problem with the most vile kind of anti-Semitism?

Zakia Belkhiri Took a Selfie of anti-Semitism on the Left
Belkhiri’s stumble wasn’t an exception in the contemporary social justice narrative, it was another example of how the global Left systematically fails to include the Jewish struggle for self-determination, both cultural and political, within its framework of national and personal liberations.
read the rest here)

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Puttin on the Blitz

Netflix recently made the 1990s cult cartoon classic Animaniacs available for streaming. Off and on for the last couple weeks, I've been binging on the madness of the Warner Brothers (and the Warner Sister). Unlike most reminders of the 90s, it's been an exercise in the most enjoyable kind of nostalgia.

I already knew there were a ton of adult jokes I didn't get at the time. (I was 18 when Animaniacs debuted but I really didn't know shit, and yes, the references on an after-school cartoon went over my head), but I've been taken aback on this rewatch, never more so than tonight. 

Episode 31 features a segment set in 1939 Poland, Puttin' on the Blitz. It's a Rita and Buttons segment. Rita and Buttons (a singing cat and dopey dog) take a wrong turn and end up in the middle of occupied Poland. That's kind of a WTF for a kid's cartoon like Animaniacs. Then again, Steven Spielberg was an executive producer of Animaniacs. On a hunch I looked it up- this episode was aired in 1993, the same year as Schindler's List. Go figure.

Rita and Runt have to hide from German soldiers  and cross paths with Nazis searching for the leader of the "Polish underground." The leader has to hide his daughter until they can meet up later at the train station and escape. While hiding, the daughter is saved by scrappy cat Rita (voiced by Bernadette Peters.)

Now, the story never mentions Jews or the Final Solution. It's actually pretty silly, in keeping with the rest of the show. So, why was it so jarring for me? Well, first of all, my generation isn't used to seeing World War II as a normal part of pop culture, especially as comedy fodder. There was a time, though, when war was just a part of the cultural conversation, even for kids, even for comedy. My favorite example being:

And second- where ARE the Jews? One of the criticisms that's been aimed at Schindler's List is that, for what is possibly the most famous 'Holocaust' movie of all time, the story is about a heroic non-Jew and the question of non-Jewish responsibility. And, I mean, are Rita and Runt supposed to be stand-ins for the Jews? Or... I don't know.

I don't think it's a coincidence that this segment came out the same year as Schindler's List. It even features one of the most famous images from that movie- a little girl in a red coat.

Anyway, I think it's an interesting look at the way that serious topics get filtered down through layers of pop culture, especially when you have artists like Spielberg, who are involved at every level.

Go to 7:55 and check it out for yourself.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

No pressure but...

A very young kid in a very large Borsalino just walked into traffic to hand me this important piece of election literature. Stakes are high, as this kid reminded me. Still time to have your say! Vote!

More Proof That Yiddish Is Not Inherently Funny or Radical NEW YORK PRIMARY EDITION

An informant in Israel sent this to me and it was too good (ok, not good, but MIND BOGGLING) not to share right away. Go here and listen to the Yiddish language jingle now playing in support of a certain orange candidate.

Style: Mashup between contemporary badkhones and a used car commercial
Vocab: Shtitsn-support; Vote- vote (hasidish Yiddish isn't known for it's purity of vocabulary)
Political Context: Hasidim and the ultra-Orthodox in New York are generally considered a reliable voting bloc for conservative candidates.

Listen, laugh, cry, scrub your earballs, and then l'man hashem, go and vote for someone with a D after his or her name.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

On why I can't stand the word 'secular'

More blasts from the pasts... Today on Twitter I had a brief exchange with writer Dan Mendelsohn Aviv about the exquisite whims of our Jewish philanthropy billionaire class. The question of 'secular education' came up. Predictably, I rolled my eyes and (digitally) exclaimed WHAT EVEN DOES IT MEAN? AND DON'T SAY SPINOZA!
I told Dan I had an essay somewhere in the archives (from way way back in the day, in the previous incarnation of this blog) that touched on my very heated up feelings on 'secular' as a category of analysis.
I'll be real: this essay is almost ten years old and if written today, would probably be a bit different. But, if you're interested in some (a lot of) push back on the religious/secular thinking as usual, give it a read.

The New Generation Gap- What Synagogue Jews Can Really Learn from Secular Jews 

In "The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Secular Judaism", Professor Jonathan Sarna attempts to find a continuity of Jewish American secularism. This continuity includes the Revolutionary War era Free Thinkers, Louis Brandeis and, most importantly, the political Yiddishist movement of the 20th century. But there is no real connection between them, at least not in the way Professor Sarna proposes. In fact, Sarna misrepresents who the political Yiddishists were by associating that deeply Jewish, and successful, movement with individuals like philosopher Baruch Spinoza and the occasional Jewish Free Thinker. 
The political Yiddishists get a double insult from Sarna, because he also misrepresents the complex reasons (both internal and external) for their inability to maintain a mass movement into the 21st century. It's my belief that that misrepresentation is part of a larger narrative, one which reveals our failure to maintain a truly substantive, fulfilling Jewish American culture. It also reveals a desire to conflate the Yiddish language and the political Yiddishists, and then sweep them both into the dustbin of irrelevance as we say borekh shepotrani (the blessing said by a father on his son's bar mitzvah) for any responsibility to the continuity of Eastern European Jewish culture.

Sarna's so-called Jewish secular continuity supports an increasingly untenable fallacy: that for American Jews, cultural=secular=atheist=assimilated. In this equation, of course Louis Brandeis can be understood in relation to the political Yiddishists. But Louis Brandeis was a Jew in the only ways he knew how- eating pork, celebrating Christmas and visiting his Frankist grandparents when they laid on the guilt. With all due respect (I myself am a Brandeis grad), Louis Brandeis was about as Jewish as a Wonderbread bagel. It's well documented that Brandeis was very uncomfortable with overt Jewishness and a lot more comfortable with Pilgrims than Jew-ish Jews, especially those from Eastern Europe. In his book Are We One: Jewish Identity in the United States and Israel, Professor Jerold S. Auerbach notes that "Brandeis easily discovered so much in common between Zionism and Americanism because he knew so little about Judaism." Brandeis was able to discover the formula for American Zionism because that formula depended upon a conception of Jews, and future Israelis, in which Jews and Israelis were modern day Pilgrims who embodied the highest Enlightenment ideals of the West and specifically of the United States. But just because Brandeis believed (or wanted) Jewish values to be identical to American values didn't make it so.  
Louis Brandeis obviously felt a connection to other Jews and that connection motivated his political work on the behalf of Zionism. But his kind of Jewishness, (essentially kinship networks and political Zionism) left little chance for Jewish continuity. There was precious little Jewish substance to his kind of Jewish 'secularism.' Sarna points out that Brandeis found his own particular and individualistic Jewish identity "hard to transmit to his children." Why is this a surprise, to Brandeis, or to us? And why does Jonathan Sarna claim Louis Brandeis for the secular Jewish continuum at all?