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, I 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.
A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here. Translated by Ezra Glinter.
On May 18 writer, activist and longtime Forverts columnist Tsirl Steingart died in a car accident in Palm Beach, Florida. She was 97 years old.
Steingart was born March 11, 1916 in Bialystok, where she was an active participant in the Bundist children’s organization Sotsyalistishe Kinder Farband, or S.K.I.F.
In 1938 Steingart emigrated to France, where she helped found a local S.K.I.F. branch. During the Second World War she was a member of the French Resistance, helping to rescue children from Vichy and German authorities.
Following the War, in 1951, Steingart left Europe for Montreal. There she served as principal of the Avrom Reisen School before moving to New York in 1960.
Steingart began writing for the Forverts in 1964, and became a regular contributor in 1967. She edited a section titled “Eat in Good Health” under the pen name Nina Blum, and for many years authored a column about fashion.
Steingart also wrote widely about social issues, and was a pioneering journalist in the Yiddish press on subjects affecting women.
When asked to name Jewish languages, most people would say Hebrew and Yiddish. Some might also mention Ladino or Aramaic. It’s unlikely that they would know about Juhuri, Bukhori and Judeo-Median — and that is precisely why the Jewish Languages Project of the Endangered Language Alliance has come into being.
Juhuri, Bukhori and Judeo-Median are among the several dozen distinct languages Jews have spoken across the world throughout the millennia. Most of them are no longer spoken, and those that are still in use are in danger of disappearing.
“Scholarship on Jewish languages has been sporadic, and no one has focused on endangered ones,” said Ross Perlin, assistant director of the Endangered Languages Alliance and director of its Jewish Languages project. (Perlin is also a Forward contributor and was named to the 2012 Forward 50.) He, together with ELA executive director Daniel Kaufman and Persian language expert Habib Borjian, is trying to document, describe and preserve these languages, beginning with Juhuri, Bukhori and Judeo-Median. All three languages have Persian connections, with Juhuri spoken by Jews from southwest Iran and Caucasian Jews of Russia and Azerbaijan, Buhkori from southwest Iran and Central Asia, and Judeo-Median spoken by Jews from northwest-central Iran.
“Good morning. My name is Nomy. I am a girl. Good morning, Moby! He is a robot.”
So begins the first section of YiddishPOP, a new educational website featuring animated videos whose main character is a robot. It’s the result of a project begun three years ago, long awaited by Yiddish students and educators.
The initiative for YiddishPOP came from Avraham Kadar, head of the online education company BrainPOP and husband of the late Naomi Prawer Kadar, a Yiddish teacher and researcher of Yiddish children’s literature. Prawer Kadar also worked with BrainPOP to create ESL (English as a Second Language) educational materials.
Following her death in 2010, Prawer Kadar’s family decided to develop a teaching program for Yiddish within their company. “We felt that the project was a fitting honor for the memory of my mother’s passion for Yiddish. She would have led such a project herself, had she been alive,” said her daughter, Maya Kadar.
BrainPOP, which produces animated teaching materials, was founded by Avraham Kadar in 1999. Though Kadar is an immunologist and pediatrician by profession, he undertook to create teaching programs so that “young patients could understand difficult concepts through creative means.” The programs on BrainPOP are designed to be used by both individuals and groups, including entire classes. The company sells its products to educators and schools, but the YiddishPOP program is available for free online. Every few months a new course-level will be released.
A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.
Academics and enthusiasts of Yiddish studies have long been pushing for the translation of Yiddish literature. Unfortunately, few efforts have met with much success, even among Jewish readers. The New Yiddish Library Series, from Yale University Press, had plans to translate and publish dozens of Yiddish books, but was forced to halt the project due to low sales.
Writer and translator Michael Wex hopes to change all that. On May 7, Wex, the author of “Born to Kvetch” and “Just Say Nu,” launched an indiegogo campaign to raise money to translate Yosef Opatoshu’s novel, “In Polish Forests.” Wex plans to render the book into English and then post it online for free. A comprehensive introduction will acquaint the reader with Opatoshu’s life and work.
Through this project, Wex hopes to “pioneer a new model for literary translation while rescuing a seminal work of modern Yiddish literature from undeserved neglect,” he writes on his indiegogo page.
In the novel, Opatoshu describes the decay of the Hasidic dynasty in Kotsk after the Napoleonic period, up to the Polish uprising of 1863. He focuses on the lives of backwoods Jews and their daily interactions with gentile Polish peasants. Contrary to the stereotype that Jews lived in constant dread of their Polish neighbors, Opatoshu shows us a very different reality: Jews interacting easily with Poles, and Poles displaying respect for their Jewish neighbors.
“Touching as it does on Hasidism, heresy, pre-Christian Polish folk customs, wife-swapping, messianism, and Polish nationalism, this book will change the way you think about Jewish life in Poland,” Wex writes.
This week Rebecca Miller will be sharing texts that shed light on Jewish life in 18th-century France, the setting of her new novel, “Jacob’s Folly” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). 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:
Gluckel of Hameln was an intrepid businesswoman, a mother of twelve children, a passionate wife, and a memoirist. She died in 1724, at the age of 78. Her memoirs are a rare window into the life of European Jewish women of the period. What struck me most vividly by her account of her days was her ability to bridge a business career (otherwise known as financial survival) and family concerns, living a unified, if exhausting, life.
“My father had me betrothed when I was a girl of barely twelve, and less than two years later I married.” So ends Gluckel’s childhood. As often happened, Gluckel’s marital deal included her being exported to another town. In this case, she was crammed into a peasant cart along with the rest of the wedding party (her mother was much put out, having expected carriages) and bustled off to the “dull and shabby hole” of Hameln, a small village. “There I was, a carefree child whisked in the flush of youth from my parents, friends, and everyone I knew, from a city like Hamburg into a back-country town where lived only two Jews.”
“The Megile of Itzik Manger” and the National Yiddish Theatre seem like a perfect partnership: love and marriage, horse and carriage, Purim shpiel and the Folksbiene.
Manger is considered one of the most important Yiddish poets and playwrights, and “The Megile” is one of several plays in which he put his own stamp on a biblical story. It was reworked as a musical by, among others, award-winning composer Dov Seltzer, a totem of Israeli creativity.
The play has had several successful productions, including a lengthy run in Israel and a brief one on Broadway. This interpretation, however, could better serve its extremely enthusiastic and talented cast.
In a couple of Russian-style numbers, the dancers wear fur caps, a tip-of-the, well, hat, to the theater’s large émigré audience. But this is hardly true to the show’s Persian locale. And director Motl Didner’s use of a circus theme seems puzzling. Employing a ring master (Shane Baker) as narrator works but, after an opening scene set in a 1937 Polish circus, the theme isn’t carried through in a meaningful way.
The news about Yiddish literature these days is mostly about translation — whether from Yiddish (as with Moyshe Kulbak’s “Zelmenyaner,” which I recently reviewed), or, as seems to be increasingly the case, into Yiddish.
But there are plenty of writers out there producing work in Yiddish, plain and simple. A representative sample can be found in the new issue of Afn Shvel, a Yiddish magazine whose latest issue is dedicated to new Yiddish writing.
Published by the League for Yiddish and edited by Sheva Zucker, the latest double issue of Afn Shvel (or “On the Threshold”), departs from the usual magazine format to look more like a quarterly literary journal.