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.”
The dispute over the papers of the late Yiddish writer Chaim Grade has been settled in favor of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the National Library of Israel, according to a recent press release. The two organizations have also gained control over copyright to Grade’s published work.
Grade was one of the most highly regarded postwar Yiddish writers. His oeuvre includes novels such as “The Yeshiva“ and “The Agunah,” as well as the novelistic memoir “My Mother’s Sabbath Days.” He was also the author much untranslated poetry and several novels that were serialized in the Yiddish press but have never appeared in book form.
The collection was recovered from the writer’s home by the Bronx Public Administrator after the death of Grade’s wife, Inna Hecker Grade, in 2010. It includes 40 boxes of letters, photographs and manuscripts, as well as Grade’s 20,000-volume library.
In conjunction with its conference on “Jews and the Left” (see our story here), the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research has prepared an outstanding exhibition called “Shades of Red: Yiddish Left-Wing Press in America,” curated by Krysia Fisher and on view until September, 2012. Among the highlights of the exhibition is a series of arresting covers for the Communist monthly Der Hammer, many of them by William Gropper (1897-1977), one of America’s most significant social realist illustrators and painters.
Gropper’s is a classic Jewish American story. His immigrant parents settled on the Lower East Side and worked in the garment industry. He lost an aunt in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which some scholars cite as the reason for his politics. Though, as the conference demonstrated, radicalism was a vibrant part of Jewish life at the time.
Gropper studied art in public school and a portfolio of his work led Frank Parsons to admit him to the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts (now Parsons The New School For Design). Gropper worked as an illustrator for Yiddish and English publications including The New York Tribune, The Liberator, The Masses, The New Masses, Vanity Fair and, of course, Der Hammer.
By day, as photo and film archivist at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Jesse Aaron Cohen tends to thousands of images of bygone Jewish culture. By night, he’s half of the Brooklyn-based “existential pop” duo Tanlines, whose new album, “Mixed Emotions,” will sound “absolutely stupendous when you’re driving during the daytime with your windows down all spring and summer,” according to the online music bible Stereogum.
Along with glowing reviews, the album’s spawned Tanlines’ first indie-radio hit, the hazy, pulsating “Brothers.” Back in his YIVO office after a whirlwind week of performances and shmoozing at the massive South by Southwest Music Festival, in Austin, Texas, “30-something” Cohen spent a few minutes with The Arty Semite.
Michael Kaminer: What was South by Southwest like for you and your Tanlines partner, Eric Emm?
Jesse Aaron Cohen: The shows were really good; we met our fans and did our job. At South by Southwest, you don’t have much time. You set up, play and think it’s terrible. Then someone tells you that you were amazing. It’s a microcosm of a career in music in general.
Your faces are on the cover of “Mixed Emotions” in close-up. Is that weird?
Michael Chabon’s novel “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” imagined Jewish refugees turning “Aleyska” into a Yiddish-speaking sanctuary for the “frozen chosen” in the 1940s. But truth is stranger than fiction. As I explain in a short documentary, which will be screened as part of a program on “Other Zions” at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York on July 6, the Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonization was a real-life Yiddish policemen’s union. They even considered colonizing Alaska.
The Yiddishists of the Freeland League were the torch-bearers of a political ideology known as territorialism, which sought to establish a Jewish homeland somewhere — anywhere — in the world. Territorialists pursued Jewish states outside of the land of Israel, including in Canada, Australia, northeastern Libya and Angola. (In fact, I will not be at the screening of my own film because I’ll be en route to Angola to conduct further research for my narrative history of territorialism.)
Soreles khasene / Sarah’s Wedding
When Sorele wed, people laughed and scoffed.
Why the laughter? The brand new bride
Couldn’t even make kugl for Shabbes.
She began on Wednesday morning
Finished late on Friday, but on Shabbes
There was stuff in there that made that kugl inedible.
Her husband, furious, beat his wife
With each end of a stick.
“Oh, my husband, What the hell are you doing?
You beat your wife for a pudding?”
“Oh my cursed little wife, that kugl cost me money.”
She grabs her poor possessions
And takes off for her father’s for Shabbes.
There are Orthodox Jews versus secular Jews; accusations that wealthy philanthropists are trying to control Jewish organizations staffed by overworked, underpaid communal professionals; charges that certain Jewish institutions are sucking up the lion’s share of communal funds, leaving others to languish. Sound familiar? Something like New York, or any other large American Jewish community, in the 21st century? Yet these phrases could just as accurately describe the Jewish community of czarist Kiev, as I’ll explain in a lecture at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research on May 24.
Kiev was formally opened to Jewish settlement in only 1859, but its Jewish population grew by leaps and bounds in the following decades, despite continued czarist legislation restricting Jewish residence and cultural and religious activities. By the turn of the century it had a wide array of Jewish welfare and communal institutions, as well as a chorus of critics who, dissatisfied with the way the community was run, demanded a revolution. In this, Kiev was typical of many Jewish communities in the Russian Empire, where a new Jewish leadership — often inspired by ideologies such as Zionism and Bundism — was in the ascendant, but had to struggle with an entrenched establishment.
A prolific novelist, Philip Roth, at 78, has authored 31 novels and received the most distinguished literary awards, including, most recently, the Man Booker International Prize, which was awarded to him yesterday despite heavy opposition from one of the judges, Carmen Calil. Calil, a feminist author and publisher, criticized Roth’s repetitiveness and resigned from the judging panel in protest over the award. In the midst of the controversy, and his generally reclusive nature notwithstanding, Roth made a rare public appearance May 18 at YIVO, where some 300 people gathered for an evening dedicated to his most recent novel, “Nemesis.”
Described by YIVO Executive Director Jonathan Brent as a novel of “remembrance and loss,” “Nemesis” tells of a polio epidemic that strikes a Jewish neighborhood in Newark in the summer of 1944. A panel of four scholars — Bernard Avishai (Hebrew University), Igor Webb (Adelphi University), Steven Zipperstein (Stanford University, and Brent — spoke about the novel and its relation to Roth’s greater body of work, many touching on the question of Jewishness in Roth’s novels in general, and in “Nemesis” in particular.
Between 1929 and 1935, Yiddish writer Moyshe Kulbak (1896-1937) published a comic novel called “The Zelmenyaners” serially in the Minsk-based Yiddish language monthly Shtern.The novel told the story of a family courtyard in Minsk, in Soviet Belorussia, which was being progressively transformed through aggressive Soviet modernization.
As I will explain in an April 13 lecture at YIVO titled “Ethnography of a Vanishing Courtyard: Moshe Kulbak’s Zelmenyaner,” the novel offers great insight into official ethnographic discourses about Jews produced in the 1920s and ‘30s as part of Soviet policy.
“The Zelmenyaners” offers a multi-layered commentary on the persistence of Jewish difference in a period of increasing attempts at ideological homogenization. One particular character, Tsalel, is engaged throughout the novel collecting and preserving the linguistic and behavioral peculiarities of his family — a clan of Zelmenyaners named after their patriarch, Reb Zelmele.
A longer version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.
Some weeks ago, on December 12, I was involved in a commemoration at YIVO of the 120th birthday anniversary of the great Yiddish actor and director Solomon (Shloyme) Mikhoels.
I am not sure if Mikhoels is well known among the younger generation in Russia, or anywhere else. Older people, however, specifically in America and Canada, may recall the trip that he and the poet Itsik Fefer took from the Soviet Union to North America in 1943. They came as representatives of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, of which Mikhoels was the chairman. What is often forgotten is that not all Jewish organizations made the two artists welcome.
When the anti-immigration laws of the early 1920s effectively sealed the gates of the United States to would-be immigrants, the Jews of Eastern Europe who had arrived en masse between 1880 and 1920 could no longer hope to see their loved ones join them in America. Instead, those who could afford to traveled abroad, visiting the cities and towns they had left behind. Often, they brought with them amateur film cameras, which were increasingly popular in the 1920s, to capture the world of their childhoods.
These films are the subject of “16mm Postcards: Home Movies of American Jewish Visitors to 1930s Poland,” a new exhibition at the Yeshiva University Museum in collaboration with the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which will have its opening on Tuesday November 9 at New York’s Center for Jewish History.
He was a proud Russian, a renegade Orthodox Jew, an ardent advocate of Jewish autonomy, and the man who pioneered the field of Jewish historiography at the turn of the 20th century. Yet Simon Dubnow continues to inspire Jewish scholarship today, as evidenced by a day-long conference at the YIVO institute for Jewish Research on October 24, marking the 150th anniversary of Dubnow’s birth.
Scholars at the conference presented talks on the many facets of this legendary and complex thinker, examining Dubnow’s scholarship on Hasidism, his reaction to Russian anti-Semitism, his attitude towards the Haskalah movement, and his relationship with YIVO.
For Dubnow, who had broken with the “Old Judaism” of his youth by the time he had reached bar mitzvah age, traditional Judaism never entirely lost its appeal. Instead of utterly abandoning the religious observance he had been raised with, he sought an “integration of the soul” as professor Robert Seltzer put it, which would amalgamate the “Old Judaism” with secular, European and especially Russian thinking to create a “New Judaism.”
A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.
One hundred years after his birth, the late, great Yiddish novelist and poet Chaim Grade can still draw a crowd. This was evident at an October 4 commemorative evening at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which featured fascinating literary analyses of Grade’s work as well as personal memories of the enigmatic man himself.
“Grade was permanently torn between Dostoevsky and the Talmud,” said Ruth Wisse, Professor of Yiddish Literature at Harvard University. It was this psychological rupture between the alluringly sensual secular world and Grade’s upbringing in the austere moralistic Novardok mussar yeshiva that informs his work. The Vilna he depicts even resembles Dostoevsky’s Saint Petersburg, Wisse added, except that instead of writing about men plotting murder, he unsentimentally describes the attempts of rabbis to usurp each other’s power.
On August 12, over 100 people gathered at New York’s Center for Jewish History to mark the 58th anniversary of the Night of the Murdered Poets, commemorating the Stalin-ordered execution of 13 prominent Soviet Jews, including five Yiddish writers.
Among those murdered were novelist David Bergelson and poet Peretz Markish, who was awarded the Stalin Prize just six years before his death by firing squad. The other victims included poets Leib Kvitko, David Hofshtein and Itzik Feffer. All of the writers had been members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee during World War II, which supported the Soviet war effort against Nazi Germany.
From the moment news of the execution came out in 1952, the Yiddish cultural world has held memorial services for the writers and, symbolically, for the oppression, and subsequent destruction, of Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union.
Geese were a staple of Jewish life in Eastern Europe and Jewish women knew how to get the most out of their fowl of choice. The feathers were sold as quills for writing and stuffing for bedding, fat used as an alternative to butter or the Jewish version of lard, and the birds themselves were served up roasted, stuffed or sautéed, and, on special occasions, made into foie gras. So says an article in The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, a multi-volume work whose online version launches today, bringing to the public a plethora of articles, original documents, images, and recordings about Jewish life in Eastern Europe — all free of charge.
Originally released in hardcover form by Yale University Press in 2008, the encyclopedia covers 1,000 years of Jewish history in Eastern Europe, with more than 1,800 articles on every topic imaginable — from religion to literature, and from politics to popular culture. The article on geese is one of many that address unlikely subjects as a way of drawing readers into the world of East European Jewry.