A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.
“Yidlife Crisis” has been a long time coming.
Back in the good old days — 60 or 70 years ago — there were Yiddish comedy serials on the radio, featuring the same cast of characters week after week. Unlike their English counterparts, however, these shows never made the jump to television. Thus, “Yidlife Crisis” can be considered the first Yiddish sitcom.
The comedy, which had its premiere in August at the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto, has already had a big impact in the online Yiddish world, at least judging by my own Facebook feed. So far there are four episodes in the series, which can be seen on the show’s website and YouTube channel.
Shortly before the Toronto premiere I talked to the show’s creators, Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion, to find out the backstory behind the project.
Elman and Batalion, who wrote the scripts for the show and play the two main characters, Chaimie and Leizer, are no amateurs. Both are professional writers and actors with an impressive list of mainstream film and TV roles to their credit. So what inspired them to make “Yidlife Crisis”?
Photo: Fumie Suzuki
So, there in a gazebo on the boardwalk in Coney Island are The Brothers Nazaroff, taking refuge from the steamy afternoon sun. It is 92 degrees and horribly humid outside as the five Nazaroffs start playing and singing. A Hungarian documentary crew is shooting with two cameras as the brothers sing “Lucky Jew,” so I have to be on my toes to stay out of the camera shots. My t-shirt is drenched with sweat but I realize that as awful as it is being outside in the heat and humidity, watching these spirited Yiddish musicians play their raucous repertoire does indeed make me a lucky Jew.
Billed as a “Yiddish supergroup,” The Brothers Nazaroff is a tribute band to an obscure Russian immigrant in New York known as Nathan “Prince” Nazaroff. The man is known mostly by hardcore Yiddish music lovers. He is called an outsider, though he did record an album for Moe Asch’s Folkways label in 1954 and Nazaroff promoted himself as an established entertainer. None of The Brothers Nazaroff are actually brothers or Nazaroffs. Danik Nazaroff, Pasha Nazaroff, Meyshke Nazaroff, Zaelic Nazaroff and Yankl Nazaroff are in fact Daniel Kahn of Painted Bird fame, genuine Russian Psoy Korolenko, Michael Alpert of Brave Old World, Bob Cohen of the Budapest-based Di Naye Kapelye and Jake Shulman-Ment, widely regard as one of the best working klezmer fiddlers on the planet.
Thanks to Cohen’s connections in the Hungarian arts scene, a well-funded documentary on the Nazaroff project was begun. Various Nazaroffs were flown to New York for the film, which will also shoot in Paris and Berlin, where 35 year-old Daniel Kahn is based.
A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.
The Congress’s office space, on Broadway just off 26th street, was perhaps one of the last heymish places for Yiddish culture in New York. The walls were covered with bookshelves, and old pictures and posters hung on the wall. The Congress had only been there since 2009, but the room was previously occupied by Itche Goldberg, the longtime editor of the journal “Yiddish Culture,” who passed away in 2006 at the age of 102.
The day the Times article appeared, the Congress invited students from the Uriel Weinreich Program in Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture — a summer program run by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and Bard College — to come and take Yiddish books that remained on the shelves. The rest off the books will go to the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, and archival materials will be donated to YIVO.
It was depressing to see how the shelves were emptied, and how boxes of books and other treasures were scattered underfoot. It wasn’t the first time I had helped shut down the office of an old Yiddish organization. Around 10 years ago I helped empty the rooms of the Bund in New York, throwing out thousands of copies of the Bundist journal “Undzer tsayt.” When the Yiddish League moved to a smaller office a year later, we also had to dispose of many books, and I and other YIVO students carried away a bundle.
But the Yiddish League, unlike the Bund, is still active in the Yiddish world, and we hope that the same thing will be true of the Congress for Jewish Culture.
Photo: Simon Annand/JW3
The second act of David Schneider’s new play, “Making Stalin Laugh,” opens in 1935, the year the Moscow State Yiddish Theater decided to mount a production of “King Lear” with its legendary director Solomon Mikhoels as the lead. Lear, Mikhoels tells the cast as the party apparatchiki watch over his rehearsal, is a “tragedy about the slow disintegration of a man’s illusions. Illusions don’t shatter overnight,” Mikhoels states, “they wither.”
A comedy within a tragedy, “Making Stalin Laugh” — premiering this month at London’s JW3 — is also about the slow withering of illusion: in this case, the notion held onto by Mikhoels that Jewish culture could survive in a state that saw Yiddish and Judaism as anachronisms, antithetical to revolution and progress.
“Making Stalin Laugh” follows the fate of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater from around the time of its production of “The Travels of Benjamin III” in 1927 until the assassination of Mikhoels by the Ministry for State Security in Minsk in 1948, the closure of the theatre company in 1949, and the Night of the Murdered Poets on August 12, 1952. Having been arrested on charges of espionage and treason, the Soviet Union’s most prominent Yiddish writers were executed as part of Stalin’s wider campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans.”
A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.
On April 24 Yiddish Book Center founder and president Aaron Lansky announced that his organization will receive the National Medal for Museum and Library Service. The award will be presented by First Lady Michelle Obama in a ceremony at the White House on May 8.
The medal is the highest honor awarded by the U.S. government to museums and libraries that serve the public good. In a press release, The Institute of Museum and Library Services wrote: “In its 20th anniversary year, the medals program celebrates excellent institutions that have made a significant impact on individuals, families and communities across the nation.” The winners were selected from among dozens of nominated institutions that “demonstrate innovative approaches to public service, exceeding the expected levels of community outreach.”
After the ceremony Storycorps will visit the Book Center to conduct oral history interviews about the Center’s mission.
In an email to Yiddish Book Center members announcing the award, Aaron Lansky wrote: “The award recognizes our pioneering work in rescuing Yiddish books and making them available to readers around the world … We’ll be proud to accept it as a recognition of the Yiddish Book Center … and even more so as a tribute to the indomitable spirit of Yiddish itself.”
A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here
Menachem Kipnis is known to Jewish history as a cultural figure who worked across several fields. Born in Uzhmir, Ukraine in 1878, Kipnis distinguished himself as a singer, ethnomusicologist and journalist. As a singer he was the first Jewish tenor in the Warsaw Opera (1902-1918) and along with his wife, Zimra Zeligfield, he was among the most important early singers of Yiddish folksongs.
As an ethnomusicologist Kipnis collected songs all over Europe and published them in two important pioneering anthologies of Yiddish folksongs. As a journalist he wrote articles about music in various Yiddish and Hebrew newspapers. He was also well-known for his reportages, which recounted the lives of ordinary Jews whom he encountered on the streets of Warsaw. For these articles, which were published in the Warsaw-based newspaper Haynt as well as in the New York-based Tog, as well as occasionally in the Forverts, Kipnis took his own photos of his interview subjects.
Kipnis died in the Warsaw ghetto of a brain-aneurysm in 1942. After his death, his wife Zimra kept his massive archive of papers, diaries, music and photographic negatives with her in the ghetto. She refused to turn her husband’s archive over to Emanuel Ringelblum, who had asked her to let him preserve it as part of the secret archive he administered called “Oyneg Shabbos.” Kipnis’s archive disappeared without a trace after Zimra Zeligfield’s deportation to Treblinka.
A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here
Can you say with certainty that someone sings in an authentic Yiddish style? Fortunately, we have materials to help us figure it out — the records and CDs of folksingers, the recorded compilations from Ruth Rubin, Sofia Magid, Ben Stonehill and others; the recordings in the “Vernadsky Library” in Kiev, and the homemade family recordings that show up from time to time.
Meanwhile, it’s clear that you can’t speak only about one style, or even several. It all depends on the age of the singer, their birthplace and where they grew up.
Even in my family, two singers can sing in completely different styles. My grandmother Lifshe, from the small town Zvinyetshke, sang with a lamenting, sad voice, inviting listeners to sympathize with the suffering she expressed. My mother, from the larger city of Chernowitz, sang with less ornamentation but with a more secure feeling.
In the new recording from Brooklyn resident Herschel Melamed, “A Long Life In Yiddish,” you also hear a folksinger who sings in an authentic folk style. The CD includes 18 songs, and although the project was not undertaken as a commercial enterprise, it looks and sounds professional. In fact, two discs were produced with the same songs: one without musical accompaniment, and the second with the help of musicians Avi Fox-Rosen and Alec Spiegelman.
Herschel Melamed was born in Opalin, Poland and grew up in Luboml, where he worked in his brother Kalman’s shoe shop. At the beginning of the Second World War he became a soldier in the Polish Army and was later sent by the Soviets to a communal farm in the Ural Mountains, where he spent the war. His daughter Myra told me that he might have stayed there, but he learned that his younger brother Laizer had survived, so he left the communal farm and traveled westward to Chernowitz, where he married and where his daughter was born.
In the mid 1980s several key figures in the klezmer revival movement had day jobs at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. So, perhaps it was only fitting that The Klezmatics were given a lifetime achievement award at YIVO’s Manhattan headquarters November 19. After cocktails and dinner at the Center for Jewish History’s atrium on West 16th Street, the band performed a lively set in an auditorium after being introduced by Jeffrey Shandler, chair of the Jewish Studies department at Rutgers University.
Shandler, a former YIVO staffer, told the crowd that the band “offers all of us a provocative model of how to respond to the destruction of Europe’s Yiddish culture during World War II, not to accept its devastation, not simply to preserve its fragments, but to respond to destruction with creativity. And to do so brazenly, smartly and playfully.”
After noting that The Klezmatics have collaborated with such cultural luminaries as Itzhak Perlman, Chava Alberstein, Theodore Bikel, Tony Kushner, Neil Sedaka and John Zorn, Shandler said, “I mean Neil Sedaka and John Zorn alone is remarkable.”
Lorin Sklamberg, who has worked on and off at YIVO since 1987 as assistant to the assistant director, Yiddish typesetter, graphic designer and assistant director of KlezKamp, currently works there part-time as a sound archivist. Asked to comment on how klezmer music has evolved over the years, Sklamberg told The Arty Semite: “The music had been cut off for 20 years. People weren’t passing the music on in the United States past the late 1950s. So, to be able to take up that mantle was a challenge and our great joy.”
A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here
A recently released music video weaves together the classic Yiddish hit “Mein Yiddishe Mame” (“My Jewish Mother”) with a modern hip-hop tribute to a more contemporary Jewish mother. In its first two weeks on You Tube, the video received a whopping 11,000 hits.
“Mein Yiddishe Mama,” which was written by Jack Yellen and Lew Pollack in the early 1920s, was made famous by singer Sophie Tucker, cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, and later, the Barry Sisters. In 1928 it was featured as one of the five most popular songs on American radio. It has since been translated into other languages including Spanish, Hungarian, Polish and Finnish.
In the music video, produced by Sparks Next, 32-year-old cantor Mayer Goldberg sings a heartfelt rendition of the song, while images of young Jewish mothers and their children flash across the screen — young mothers preparing dinner, or older mothers affectionately stroking their grown daughter’s faces.
As soon as Goldberg finishes singing the Yiddish version of the song, a young singer from the Jewish rap group “Brooklyn Mentality” comes on to tell, in hip-hop style, about his youth, his rebellion against his mother and other figures of authority:
Yiddish folksong expert, researcher and anthologist Chana Mlotek died on November 4 at age 91. Mlotek maintained a decades-long association with the Forverts and with the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, where she was the institute’s music archivist.
When I worked with Mlotek at YIVO, people would come to the archives and say, “I only remember one Yiddish song from my mother, and of that song I only remember one line. And, unfortunately, from that one line I only remember two or three words.” When visitors told her the two or three words, you couldn’t even be sure they were speaking Yiddish. But Mlotek, who was once dubbed the “Sherlock Holmes of Yiddish song,” always took the matter seriously, and almost always found what the person was looking for.
On many occasions I was also one of those inquirers, searching for obscure songs. And Mlotek often found copies of them, not in printed books, but in collections she had cultivated over many years.
Mlotek, together with Ruth Rubin, reestablished the field of Yiddish folksong research in America after the Holocaust. Before the war the field had been in bloom — the YIVO Ethnographic Commission collected more material than any other YIVO commission or department. The idea of collecting folklore inspired dozens of folklore circles and hundreds of collectors in cities and towns across Eastern Europe, starting from the founding of YIVO in 1925, until 1939.
A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.
The first words in the trailer for the new Yiddish-language film “The Pin” are “Ikh ken nit khapn dem otem” — “I can’t catch my breath.” The movie, currently playing in New York, takes place primarily in a barn in an unknown location during the Second World War, and the two main characters, Jacob (Grisha Pasternak) and Leah (Milda Gecaite), are two young Jews who fall in love while hiding from the Nazis. Due to a terrible fear of being buried alive, Leah makes Jacob promise that he will poke her body with a pin should she die, in order to make sure that she is really dead. Decades later, the same Jacob, volunteering as a shomer in a funeral home in Canada, notices that the body lying before him is Leah’s, the same woman he once loved and to whom he made that gut-wrenching promise.
Naomi Jaye, 40, the Canadian director and writer of the film, told the Forward that the script’s inspiration came from two sources. The first was the television-show “Six Feet Under,” which follows a family that runs a funeral-home, and which led Jaye to become “fascinated with death.” Jaye believes that this fascination led her to become interested in the mass-murder of Jews conducted by the Einsatzgruppen during World War II, which were characterized by open-air shootings followed by burials in hastily dug mass-graves.
The second inspiration was a story about her own grandmother, Leah Jaye. Like the Leah in the film, her grandmother was terrified of being buried alive and had asked her son, the director’s father, to poke her body with a pin to be certain of her death. “I was really interested in this act,” Jaye said, “because it is both an act of love and yet at the same time it’s a violent act. I became very interested in this, in how the two elements come together.”
Although Jaye had always planned on making her film in an Eastern-European language, she had never thought about making it in Yiddish. Initially she considered making the film in Russian or Lithuanian. “When I began, however, to look for funding for the film and was researching the topic it suddenly occurred to me that the two leads would be speaking to each other in Yiddish. It was like a light bulb turned on in my head.”
Google and Moscow’s main Jewish Museum launched a virtual exhibition on Russian Jewish theater.
The project was launched last week on a dedicated, English-language website that is part of Google’s Milestones in History series and is accessible online worldwide.
The Internet giant set up the exhibition conjointly with Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, according to a report published last week by the Russian news site Jewish.ru.
The museum, opened in November 2012, is the sixth Russian cultural institution to team up with Google, according to the Komersant newspaper.
“We believe that we are facilitating a dialogue between our children and our grandfathers and great-grandfathers,” Peter Adamczyk, Google’s head of programs for southeast Europe, told the news site News.ru.
A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.
When Dov Noy would lecture, often without notes, he would look upwards and seemingly draw his inspiration from the upper spheres. But Noy, who was expert in the folklore of numerous Jewish “tribes,” including Ashkenazim, Sephardim and Middle Eastern Jews, developed his profound knowledge from earthbound ethnography and research.
Noy contributed most significantly to the collection and analysis of Jewish folk literature, both written and oral. The Hebrew terms ba’al peh (oral) and biksav (written) are usually applied to the modes of transmission of the Torah. Noy’s extensive and successful efforts to record the oral folktales of the Jews resulted in a folk Torah, if you will, one that revealed the inner heart and soul of diasporic communities throughout the world.
Dov Noy (Neuman) was born in Kolomyia, Poland, in 1920 and died on September 29, less than a month short of his 93rd birthday. He immigrated to Palestine in 1939, studied at Hebrew University, and began teaching Jewish folk literature in 1955. For his dissertation, which he received from Indiana University, he created a motif-index of talmudic-midrashic tales which was soon incorporated into Stith Thompson’s six-volume motif-index of the world’s folk literature, greatly raising the status of Jewish folklore in the field.
On the 60th anniversary of “Waiting For Godot,” Samuel Beckett’s existential comic-tragedy will be staged in Yiddish for the first time. It’s an idea that is both obvious, and ground-breaking, casting a new light on the masterpiece.
The play will run from September 20 to October 13 at the Castillo Theatre in Manhattan (543 W. 42nd St.) and is the brainchild of David Mandelbaum, artistic director of the six-year-old New Yiddish Rep, a company dedicated to presenting Yiddish plays and Yiddish adaptations of classical and contemporary works.
“Though Yiddish theater has a tradition of performing masterworks, it’s now identified with musical revues and light entertainment,” Mandelbaum said. “Yiddish is a riveting language and has compelling theater, but it’s in danger of becoming archived and relegated to YIVO.” Mandelbaum would like to see the New Yiddish Rep become a resident, repertory theater and is hopeful that “Godot” will serve as a stepping stone to that end.
Initially, the creative team wanted to set the play in a post-Holocaust universe inhabited by concentration camp survivors. Though the Beckett estate put an end to that idea, the artists have little doubt that Holocaust imagery will be evoked when the characters speak Yiddish and refer to the ashes and millions who are dead.
“That gives the drama a context and clarifies what it’s about,” Mandelbaum said. “Beckett, who wrote ‘Godot’ in 1947-48, had to be drawing upon the previous ten years of history.” The act one rehearsal I observed was startling in its resonance. It was also haunting and very funny, its despair and cataclysmic landscape notwithstanding.
A few months ago, we reported on the growing number of crowdfunding campaigns for Yiddish projects, including an effort to raise $40,000 for a Yiddish production of “Waiting for Godot.”
That campaign didn’t meet its goal, but the play will be going forward anyway, in part thanks to the $7,370 it did succeed in raising. According to a New York Times blog post on Friday, the New Yiddish Rep will be partnering with the Castillo Theater to mount the production from September 20 to October 13 at the 543 West 42nd Street in Manhattan.
The production will be directed by Yiddish theater veteran Moshe Yassur, and is based on a text translated by Shane Baker, who is the creator of a series of comic videos for the Forverts. Baker also acts in the play, alongside Avi Hoffman, Nicholas Jenkins, Rafael Goldwaser and New Yiddish Rep artistic director David Mandelbaum, who will be play the role of Estragon.
“Who’s better at waiting than the Jews?” Baker said in a press release sent out this morning. “Interestingly, in Beckett’s early drafts of the play, the character of Estragon was named Levy. That tells you something.”
When I was a boy of 7, 8 and 9, I would tag along with my father pretty much everywhere. He was, among other things, the “house” rabbi for his parent’s landsmanshaft, the Kolomear Friends Association. During the 1970s many of the original Kolomears were passing on and their children were burying them. My father was frequently asked to officiate at these funerals.
It was there I became familiar with a routine: Father would go into the receiving room and meet with the mourners and I would wait with more distant family and friends in the chapel. Here were men with names like Jack, Sid and Leon. Beefy and prosperous-looking, they drove up in their Buicks and had the scent of cologne. They wore gold chains, some of them. The women, dressed in pantsuits, had names like Bessie, Blanche or Rose. They lived on Long Island, but invariably had grown up in the Bronx as my father had.
I would be privy to their pre-funeral banter, conducted in whispers. I had lunch with Morris a few weeks ago. He was the picture of health! One doesn’t know from one day to the next what will be. They would all shake their heads in agreement.
After a short while, the bereaved would file in and father would start: “Our rabbis said: a man shtarbt nor far zayn froy.” A man dies only to his wife. One could begin to hear sniffles. And then father would go on: “Morris, der nifter, is geven a gute neshome.” Morris was a good soul. At that point the sniffles would cascade into a healthy stream of tears.
Earlier this week, Melissa R. Klapper wrote about abortion and the complexity of halacha and five American Jewish women you’ve (probably) never heard of. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
At Rowan University in Glassboro, NJ, where I teach, all would-be history majors and minors are required to take (and pass–we’re sticklers that way) a course called Historical Methods. This class is a huge challenge for both students and teachers, as it is writing intensive and the students rarely come to it with much of an interest in historiography, theory, or best practices in terms of scholarship. To humanize the issues, I tell tales of historians behaving badly — those who have plagiarized, forged sources, cheated — who paid the price for their professional malfeasance. But as I learned while working on my most recent book, a history of American Jewish women in the suffrage, birth control and peace movements during the early 20th century, there are other kinds of cautionary tales that should also be part of my repertoire.
Before I even began this book, I was already aware of at least two 1916 Yiddish plays about birth control, both of which are housed at the Library of Congress. I knew about them because the images of their front pages have often been reproduced in accounts of American Jewry and because they have regularly been referred to by scholars in the context of general Jewish communal support for the birth control movement. As I dove into the research for my book, I discovered that apparently no one had actually ever translated these plays in full. My reading knowledge of Yiddish, though adequate for Yiddish periodicals and the like, could not cope with the hand-written manuscripts of the plays, so with the help of a grant, I commissioned Naomi Shoshana Cohen to do the translations. She and I discussed my overall project, and she set about the time-consuming task.
Hasidic singer Lipa Schmeltzer is a true exception in the Haredi world, both because of his music and because of his personality. Frimet Goldberger lives a few blocks away from Schmeltzer in the community of Airmont, N.Y., and she and her family are members of his shul. In this exclusive interview with the Forverts, Schmeltzer discussed the community he grew up in, the people who rejected him, and how the experience changed him. Listen to the whole interview in Yiddish here.
Lipa Schmeltzer: I was raised in the town of New Square, which is a small ultra-Orthodox community, and a significant part of my popularity happened because I am a strong critic. My reputation came to be that Lipa Schmeltzer is talented, but shunned by many. And this happened in part because I grew up in [New] Square. They contributed to this rejection, because they were hurt by the mere fact that I became a singer.
To them, singing is a problem — and the genre is irrelevant. An artist who will perform at concerts; a singer who will go out in the world and fans will clap with their hands and cheer loudly; they despise this.
But my talents prevailed and I continued on my way. I grew stronger within as a result of this, and I also healed a lot from my music. And all the pain, shame, and humiliation that I endured only served to strengthen me.
On July 1, Yeshiva University chancellor Norman Lamm announced his retirement under a cloud of allegations regarding sexual abuse at Yeshiva University High School during the 1970s and ‘80s.
Lamm may be the first Y.U. chancellor to come under that kind of scrutiny, but he is not the first Y.U. leader to find himself in a tough situation. In a piece today in the Forverts, Yoel Matveev recalls the colorful career of Bernard Revel, the first president of Yeshiva College and Rosh Yeshiva of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary from 1915 until his death in 1940. Y.U.’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies is now named after him.
Born in Lithuania in 1885, Revel studied in traditional yeshivas, but also received a Russian high school diploma and, after immigrating to America in 1906, received a Master of Arts degree from New York University. More unusually, Revel became involved in the Russian revolutionary movement, for which he was arrested and imprisoned. Matveev writes:
Herman Broder is a gangly loser who’s won the biggest prize of all: his life. After surviving the Nazi onslaught in Poland by hiding in a haystack, he emigrates to America — specifically, Coney Island — with the gentile Polish woman who hid him, and who is now his wife. This is the setting of “Enemies: A Love Story,” a play performed for four nights last week by the Gesher Theater Company at the Frederick P. Rose Theater in New York.
This adaptation of a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer (published serially in the Forverts in 1966) unfolds as Herman reels from one agitation to another. It seems his one noble act — protecting his savior, who endangered her own life by saving his — is all he’s got. Now he is hurled between his wife Yadwiga and his mistress Masha on bumpy inter-borough subway rides that, amid the atmospherics of striking lighting and set design, comprise some of the play’s most affecting moments. That’s when actor Israel Demidov embodies the more sympathetic side of his anti-hero. Otherwise, he is an indecisive liar. (And beds ladies with his tie on, twice.)
Herman is by turns perplexed, lusty and suicidal. Then his wife Tamara shows up. He thought she was killed in the Holocaust along with their two children. But she reappears in New York, and although they are unnerved by meeting again, it seems there is no great love to rekindle. As the realization that he has two wives and a mistress sinks in for Herman — and eventually for all three of them — he reels ever more out of control, pinging between his home life with a now-pregnant wife so devoted to Herman that she wants to convert; the Bronx apartment where his demanding mistress, another Jewish survivor, lives with her elderly mother; and conversations with his undead wife, who transmits an odd mix of reproach and caring.