Friday, September 22, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Growing Up, Part 1

Yiddishkayt
Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn

“Der seykhl iz a krikher.”
Ignaz Bernstein
Jüdische Sprichwörter und Redensarten (1908)


This is Part 1 of a two-part essay on Growing Up; next week is Part 2.

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Up until the age of five, when I started kindergarten, I spoke Yiddish and understood it, at least as well as any person of that age could. My father spoke to me in Yiddish and I responded accordingly, which made perfect sense, since this was my father’s mameloshn; my mother preferred English, having been born in Montreal, so she spoke to us in English and I in return.

My parents spoke to each other in Yiddish and (perhaps to their dismay) I understood mostly everything, or at least I knew when they were talking about me or my brothers, about something they didn’t want us to know when they thought I was asleep. I remember going every day to pick up the newspapers at the corner kiosk, and later at the store in the indoor plaza near our house: one of them was the Forverts (“The Jewish Daily Forward”), a daily Yiddish newspaper published in New York City since 1897; its founding editor was Abraham Cahan [1860–1951]. See also [here]. It was a veltele, a world within a world. I had a happy childhood.

At times, my father would want to discuss with me an article that he read and thought I would find interesting; often he was right, since I was a curious and inquisitive child. There was also the popular weekly Yiddish radio show that my father listened to religiously every Sunday at 11 a.m.: The Forward Hour, which was broadcast on WEVD from New York City. I did find the opening theme music memorable, and I would at times listen to the show with my father. I don’t remember him missing a program. (Hank Sapoznik gives a lecture (haltn a lektsye) on the importance of the show to the Yiddish-speaking community; it ends with a short piece of the show’s theme music.)

But as the years went by, my Yiddish skills declined as my English skills (and French to a much lesser extent) improved. After my father passed away, in 1980 (I just turned 23), I could understand Yiddish perfectly well, but I could hardly speak it. Given my desire then to assimilate into the Canadian culture, and become a “true Canadian,” Yiddish became less important and then unimportant, an artifact of the past, even an embarrassment. In response, I avoided all things Yiddish. Thus, with such thinking, my Yiddish understanding declined, as did my sensitivity to all things Yiddish.

It was as if I had (unconsciously) incorporated the thought, the narrative, if you will—no doubt influenced by my academic experience and the books that I read, that British culture, in the grand Shakespearean sense, was the height of western civilization, and perhaps of all civilization. That this was superior culture, while Yiddihkayt was decidedly inferior. Such was the message when reading British literature, that Marlowe’s Barabas, Shakespeare’s Shylock, Dickens’ Fagin or  George du Maurier’s Svengali (giving rise to the term “svengali”) were somehow a true representation of Jews.

Yet, being curious and inquisitive, I had questions when I read these works, such as this. How likely was it that Shakespeare or Marlowe ever met a Jew?  Jews were expelled from England in 1290 by Edward 1, and not readmitted until 1656 by Oliver Cromwell, which was not so much a formal readmission, but an implicit acknowledgement that the presence of Jews in London would be tolerated. It wasn’t until 1858 that Jewish males in England could take a seat in parliament and not until 1890 when Jews would achieve complete emancipation. By this time, “46,000 Jews lived in England,” writes the Jewish Virtual Library, a tiny fraction of the population.

Yet, the Jews—whether present or not—somehow represented a threat to Christianity; and so Jews and Judaism were continually put on trial and found not only wanting but guilty. That these works (and many others) were considered “artistic” and “high art” could not cover up the fact that I found them blatantly anti-Semitic. [I recommend that you read the article, “Shylock and Anti-Semitism,” by Morris U. Schappes, in Jewish Currents: June 1962.]

Undoubtedly, Shakespeare knew his audience and pandered to them and their Christian views, where Christian mercy was deemed more important than Jewish justice. Yet, as much as this is put forth in this play, Shakespeare’s characters generally show little mercy in most of his other plays. [I recommend that you read “Shylock Among the Hooligans,” by George Jochnowitz, posted on this blog: August 1, 2011.]

No doubt this play, deemed a comedy, was a hit, Shakespeare, the successful playwright-businessman, made a ton of money and the patrons went home satiated, satisfied and smug. It was one big laugh-fest. All’s well that ends well! That they, these “Christians” might have loved money, were miserly or mean-spirited, and schemed and manipulated others to obtain it (i.e., “filthy lucre”) seemed to have escaped their notice. Yet, such might be among the most universal traits that humanity shares. Mercy, on the other hand, is a rare quality and all the more rarer when much is at stake.

For years, I was both embarrassed and bothered that such a shallow portrayal was so well received in Britain, Canada and America, and particularly in the halls of academia, who in their appreciation and esteem of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Dickens found reason and justification to view “the Jew” as not trustworthy, not “Christian,” and thus not worthy of sympathy. What they found noble, I found troubling and disturbing, no matter how hard I tried to feel otherwise. Oy vey ist mir!

You see, it was not to be, particularly if I were to remain true to me. We are not on the same side; we do not think in the same way. Terms like “Judeo-Christian” obscure fundamental differences between Jews and Christians, between Judaism and Christianity; it is just another fancy word for Christian supersessionism. Acceptance of the Christian-based narrative (often called Judeo-Christian to appear inclusive when this is never the intent), so ingrained in western culture and civilization that we forget it’s there, meant a denial of myself and my Jewish heritage. This was a bad deal, no doubt, and deep in my Yidisher neshomeh, I knew it.

Even so, it took me a long time to do something positive about it; I had wandered off and I needed to return home. This will be discussed in next week’s post.

—Peretz J. Greenbaum, September 22, 2017

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Shana Tova 5778

Jewish New Year: 1 Tishrei 5778


Rosh Hashanah: Apples and honey and pomegranates (often as the second night as “a new fruit”) are traditionally eaten during this holiday; the kabbalah says that there are 613 seeds in a pomegranate, equal to the number of mitzvot in the Torah. Also traditional is a circular challah (often with raisins), symbolizing both continuity and sweetness for the new year. The challah is dipped in honey and eaten.
Photo Credit: My Jewish Learning


Today at sundown marks the beginning of the period in the Jewish calendar of Yamim Noraim (Hebrew: ימים נוראים‎), or the “Days of Awe.” This is traditionally called the High Holy Days or High Holidays, a ten-day period of introspection, self-examination, and repentance, with the chief aim of making positive changes in our lives. For this reason, this period is also called Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, or “Ten Days of Repentance.” The period starts with Rosh Hashanah (today), the Jewish New Year (5778), and culminates with Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. To those observing the holiday, let me wish you a healthy, happy and sweet year. The traditional greeting is Shana tova u’metukah, (Hebrew: שנה טובה ומתוקה) or “A good and sweet year.” In Yiddish, we say A gut gebentsht yohr, orA good and blessed year. ” No matter how you say it, the thought remains the same. Moreover, we Jews don’t only say “have a sweet year,” we also want to experience it through our senses. So, enjoy your apples and honey, your challah dipped in honey, the seeds of the pomegranate and the holiday meal that follows it.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Di Shaynst Vi di Zun (2001)

Yiddish Performance of the Week

Di Shaynst Vi di Zun (“You Shine Like the Sun”), a song from Leb un lakh (“Live and Laugh”), an operetta composed by Ilia Trilling with lyrics by Isidore Lillian; the original production was mounted at Herman Yablokoff’s Second Avenue Theatre in New York City in 1941; the playbill is below. Its cast included Menasha Skulnik and Bella Mysell. This version was recorded in Vienna, Austria, with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra conducted by Ellie Jaffee; with Cantor Robert Bloch as tenor and Nell Snaidas as sorprano.
Via: Milken Archive & Youtube



Photo Credit: Dorot Jewish Division, The New York Public Library. “Leb un lakh” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1941.

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Production Details (as cited in The New York Public Library Digital Collections):

Kalmanovitsh, H., 1885 or 6-1966 (Author)
Yablokoff, Herman, 1903-1981 (Director)
Trilling, Ilia, 1895-1947 (Composer)
Lillian, Isidore (Lyricist)
Saltzman, Michael (Set designer)
Zaar, Moe (Choreographer)
Phillips, Norma (Choreographer)
Gross, Abe (Stage manager)

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Isaac in America:A Journey with Isaac Bashevis Singer (1987)

Yiddish Writers

“One can find in the Yiddish tongue and in the Yiddish spirit expressions of pious joy, lust for life, longing for the Messiah, patience and deep appreciation of human individuality. There is a quiet humor in Yiddish and a gratitude for every day of life, every crumb of success, each encounter of love. The Yiddish mentality is not haughty. It does not take victory for granted. It does not demand and command but it muddles through, sneaks by, smuggles itself amidst the powers of destruction, knowing somewhere that God’s plan for Creation is still at the very beginning.”
Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel Lecture, December 8, 1978



Isaac in America (1987): In this scene from the Academy Award nominated documentary, Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer [born 1902 in Poland–died 1991 in America] re-visits Coney Island and Brighton Beach and re-lives memories of his early years in New York. This is part of PBS-TV’s American Masters Film series; this was directed by Amram Nowak and broadcast in July 1987. This is a decade after Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (1978), the first Yiddish writer to receive this honour. This said that not only was there such a thing as Yiddish literature, but also that it is artistic and approaches high art, but in a far different way than, say, British, American or French literature. By way of comparison, Yiddish literature uses more humble language, and combines it with a great use of humour. Life is often absurd, or seems this way. It is also full of surprises. You can cry one minute; and laugh the next. As for Singer, this video clip shows how charming a man he was.
Via: Youtube

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Daniel Kahn: Hallelujah in Yiddish (2016)

Misheberekh/Nign


Haleluye (2016)
ViaYoutube

Daniel Kahn [born in 1978; Detroit, Michigan], a klezmer musician now living in Berlin, Germany, sings a Yiddish version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (1984), which in Yiddish is “Haleluye.”  This is not a direct translation of Cohen’s lyricism, but an imaginative modern interpretation of the biblical story (of Melekh Dovid and Basheva as told in 2 Samuel 11) and of the moral questions raised as a result.

Kahn has taken Cohen’s personal search for love and meaning and given it something particular to the Yiddisher neshomah—that the search for truth and love, even while bathed in doubt and moral failure, can still offer praises to Adonai. This is a very Jewish song and its Yiddish version does it justice; I view it as equal to Cohen’s original version, which says a lot, most notably revealing the heart of the language and its people.

This interpretation was recorded at the studios of the Forward in September 2016 and posted online a couple of months later in November, just around the time that the death of Leonard Cohen was made known to the world, resulting in much sadness and, of course, reminiscences of the music and of the man who created it. A poet is an individual who can see things where others do not. The world, or humanity, becomes the recipient of his gift.

A final note: how this song became a reality can also be read in the Forward.

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Haleluye Yiddish translation by Daniel Kahn, with help from Michael Alpert, Mendy Cahan and Josh Waletzky Geven a nign vi a sod, Vos Dovid hot geshpilt far Got. Nor dir volt’s nisht geven aza yeshue. Me zingt azoy: a fa, a sol, A misheberekh heybt a kol, Der duler meylekh vebt a haleluye... Dayn emune iz gevorn shvakh, Basheva bodt zikh afn dakh, Ir kheyn un di levone dayn refue Zi nemt dayn guf, zi nemt dayn kop, Zi shnaydt fun dayne hor a tsop Un tsit fun moyl arop a haleluye... O tayere, ikh ken dayn stil, Ikh bin geshlofn af dayn dil, Kh’hob keynmol nisht gelebt mit aza tsnue Ikh ze dayn shlos, ikh ze dayn fon, A harts iz nisht keyn meylekhs tron, S’iz a kalte un a kalye haleluye... Oy vi amol, to zog mir oys Vos tut zikh dortn in dayn shoys? To vos zhe darfst zikh shemen vi a bsule? Nor gedenk vi kh’hob in dir gerut, Vi di shkhine glut in undzer blut, Un yeder otem tut a haleluye... Zol zayn mayn got iz gor nishto Un libe zol zayn kol-mumro, A puster troym tsebrokhn un mekhule, Nisht keyn geveyn in mitn nakht, Nisht keyn bal-tshuve oyfgevakht, Nor an elnte kol-koyre haleluye... An apikoyres rufstu mikh, Mit shem-havaye lester ikh, Iz meyle, ikh dervart nisht keyn geule. Nor s’brent zikh heys in yedn os Fun alef beys gor bizn sof Di heylike un kalye haleluye... Un dos iz alts, s’iz nisht keyn sakh. Ikh makh dervayle vos ikh makh. Ikh kum do vi a mentsh, nisht keyn shiluye. Khotsh alts farloyrn say vi say Vel ikh farloybn “Adoynay” Un shrayen vi l’khayem “haleluye.”

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Living as a Yid

Living/Lebn
“Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn”

“Nit mit sheltn un nit mit lakhn ken men di velt ibermakhn.”
Ignaz Bernstein
Jüdische Sprichwörter und Redensarten (1921)

“She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her,
and happy is every one that holdest her fast. 
Proverbs 3:18, JPS Bible (1917)

“Wherever Jews live, there is life.”
—S.Y. Agnon

When Jews get together, notably at a celebration or simcha, one of the common sayings or expressions of joy is l’chaim or l’chayam, “to life.” After all, in the long history of the Jews, life was precarious, its continuation not certain, and thus its importance never taken for granted. Be happy when you can.

There is a touch of pathos or sadness mingled with the joy, much in the same way klezmer music, although played at simchas, is written in the minor key. Such, I think, shows beautifully the complex life of the Jew. Life can change very quickly, through outside forces in which you have no control. So, I am reflecting here on existential questions—not uncommon for Jews to think about or raise— that what you can indeed control is how to live your life. That is, in what manner you choose to live your life.

Of course, it is easier as a Jew to assimilate into the larger non-Jewish world, the velt of the goyim, as it were. Or so it seems. In many places of the world, this might seem unavoidable; in many places of the world, it might seem necessary for advancement in society, as was the case in Christian Europe only a couple of hundred years ago. One might not have to go as far as Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) or Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847), both of whom were born in Germany and both of whom became converts to Christianity.

Felix Mendelssohn is the grandson of Moses Mendelssohn [1729–1786], viewed as the father of the Jewish Reform movement in Germany, who, while living as an observant Jew, advocated for change (or reform) in the way that Jews lived, such as adopting the habits of the culture in which they resided. In his case, it was the adoption of German culture and language. He never thought, however, that Christianity was in any way the answer, and when approached by missionaries, rebuffed them.

Yet his writings and the tenor of the times in Germany inadvertently opened the door to Christianity, including for his own family. Other reformers, notably those that followed in America, took the ideas further than Moses Mendelssohn would have likely found reasonable or desirable. For example, kashrut, Jewish education, the prohibition against intermarriage or mixed marriages (Deut. 7:3-4), and mesorah, the transmission of Judaic tradition—long the fundamentals of Jewish life—were viewed as outdated and barriers to acceptance of and assimilation into the wider culture.

It is one thing to struggle with the requirements of Judaism, it’s another to discard them altogether. Without the moorings of traditional Judaism, without seeing it as important, there is little reason to remain a Jew. This is not an argument without merit. Perhaps it was then no surprise that Moses’ son, Abraham,  who had long broke away from Judaism, had his own son, Felix, and his siblings baptized in 1816; Felix was seven. There is no reliable record on what Felix later thought of it, but it is undeniable that Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E-flat major, opus 12, has a Jewish feel to it.

Heine had himself baptized as an adult in 1825, doing so only for economic reasons, but was immediately disappointed in this decision, writing: “I am hated alike by Jew and Christian," he wrote, Jan. 9, 1826; “I regret very deeply that I had myself baptized. I do not see that I have been the better for it since. On the contrary, I have known nothing but misfortunes and mischances.”

A Jew hiding in a church didn’t work out, as anticipated, for Heine, a very unhappy situation. Yet, the unhappiest situation of the many that I have read so far is of the children of Theodor Hezl [1860–1904], born as Benjamin Ze’ev Herzl in Budapest, Hungary, into an assimilated German-Jewish family. Herzl died young, age 44, of heart failure, not seeing the fulfillment of his Zionist dream. He had three children, all of whom died tragically young, all of whom were raised without knowledge of Judaism or Judaic culture.

Margarethe Trude [1893–1943], died at a Nazi concentration camp, Theresienstadt at the age of 49. Her brother, Hans Herzl [1891–1930], who had himself baptized and converted to Christianity after the death of his father, had an unhappy life; it ended when he shot himself on the day, September 15, 1930, of the funeral of his sister, Paulina Herzl [1890–1930], who had died from a drug overdose at the age of 40.

Hans was 39; he left a suicide note:
If a ritual can really calm our spirits and give us the illusion of being in the company of our beloved dead once more I can’t think of anything better than a visit to the Temple: there I can pray for my parents, ask their forgiveness and repent my apostasy before God. I am destitute and sick, unhappy and bitter. I have no home. Nobody pays any attention to the words of a convert. I cannot suddenly turn my back on a community which offered me its friendship.
Without prejudice, even if all my physical and moral impulses urge me to: I have burned all my bridges… What good is the penance which the Church has ordained for my “spiritual healing”! I torture my body in vain: my conscience is torturing me far worse. My life is ruined… Nobody would regret it if I were to put a bullet through my head. Could I undo my errors that way? I realize how right my father had been when he once said: “Only the withered branches fall off a tree – the healthy ones flourish.”
A Jew remains a Jew, no matter how eagerly he may submit himself to the disciplines of his new religion, how humbly he may place the redeeming cross upon his shoulders for the sake of his former coreligionists, to save them from eternal damnation: a Jew remains a Jew….I can't go on living. I have lost all trust in God, All my life I've tried to strive for the truth, and must admit today at the end of the road that there is nothing but disappointment. Tonight I have said Kaddish for my parents – and for myself, the last descendent of the family. There is nobody who will say Kaddish for me, who went out to find peace – and who may find peace soon….. My instinct has latterly gone all wrong, and I have made one of those irreparable mistakes, which stamp a whole life with failure. Then it is best to scrap it.
Truly, a tragedy of a tortured mind. I sense that had Hans’ father lived longer, and had he taught him the importance and necessity of lebedik vi a Yid (“living as a Jew”), things might have turned out different. While there is no way to validate as true this speculative argument of mine, Albert Einstein lent credence to it in a letter (September 8, 1932 ): “Your article about Hans Herzl moved me greatly at the time. His wasted life constitutes a warning to all Jews against defection from their people.”

Defection is a strong word, but entirely appropriate in this case. If you are going to die as a Jew—Lebn zolstu biz hundert un tsvantsik yor (based on the length of years given to Moshe, often called Moshe Rabbenu, or Moses in the Bible)—it is better that you live as a Jew. Aoyb ir zent a Yid tsu shtarbn, es iz beser vi lebn a Yid. I wish you a good and long life. 
—Peretz J. Greenbaum, September 15, 2017

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Yiddish Poets & Writers: J.I. Segal

Yiddish Poetry

This is the start of another short series, Yiddish Poets & Writers, which will bring to the attention of modern readers the important Jewish poets and writers of the early 20th century. I will start with the important Montreal Yiddish poets and writers and then plan to write about the New York Yiddish poets and writers—Montreal and New York City being important centres of Yiddishkayt. I might also include Yiddish poets and writers in Israel, who played a prominent role in the nation’s culture and literature. I begin here with J.I. Segal.



J.I. Segal and Elke Rosen, his wife, “with their daughter, circa 1930s,” the Jewish Public Library of Montreal says in the photo caption. Given that Sylvia was born in 1926 and Annette in 1929, this is either a photo of their daughter Annette (without her older sibling) or this is a photo of Sylvia taken in the late 1920s. The latter is more likely.



He is today considered the most eminent Yiddish poet in Canada, but outside of Yiddish-speaking circles, he is not as well known as he ought to be. J.I. Segal [Jacob Isaac Segal;1896–1954] was born Yaakov Yitzchak Skolar in Solobkovtsy, of Czarist Russia (and now Ukraine) in 1896, moving to Korets, Ukraine, at the age of three with his mother when his father died; the town was majority Jewish at the time. In Yiddish writing circles, he became known as Yud Yud Segal.

Segal came to Montreal in 1911 at the age of 15, aided by two older siblings, Nechmiah and Esther, who later published poetry, as well. Upon arriving in Montreal, he found work as a tailor in the garment industry, as many other Jewish immigrants did, and then later as a teacher at the Montreal Folks Shule, one of the first Yiddish-language day schools in Canada. He began publishing Yiddish poetry, first in Keneder Adler (“Canadian Eagle”) in 1915; and his first published volume of verse was Fun Mayn Velt (“From My World”), which appeared in 1918.

The Museum of Jewish Montreal says on its site:
Segal published ten volumes of poetry in his lifetime, including the first book of Yiddish poetry ever published in Montreal, Fun mayn velt (From My World; 1918), Mayn shtub un mayn velt (My Home and My World; 1923), and Dos hoyz fun di poshete (The House of the Simple People; 1940). Segal’s poetry was marked by his lyricism and detailed description, and by the contrast between his depictions of life in the shtetl and that of Jewish Montreal. He always considered himself a Yiddish writer living in Canada, rather than a Canadian writer of Yiddish verse, and in his writings he showed nostalgia for the towns of his childhood.
He lived at 4540 Clark Avenue (near Mont-Royal), not far from where I grew up as a child on Park Avenue. The Encyclopaedia Judaica says that Segal actually published 12 volumes of poems, including, it says, “Sefer Idish (‘The Book of Yiddish,’ 1950), the last collection published in his lifetime, and Letste Lider (‘Last Poems,’ 1955), published posthumously.” Segal was among the first poets in Canada to write about city life in such detail, the encyclopaedia writes:
He wrote poems of carefully observed cityscape and season and inward-looking poems, examining his moral worth and his purpose as a poet. He also wrote many times about Yiddish, the instrument and common bond of the culture he attempted to preserve.
Segal was fortunate to have left Ukraine when he did, because when the Germans invaded Solobkovtsy on July 9, 1941, they began to systematically murder most of the Jews from this town and from the surrounding areas. Korets suffered similarly between May 1942 and September 1942, when German soldiers methodically murdered a majority of the town’s 6,000 Jews. The shtel life that Segal often wrote about no longer existed, except in his poetry.

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For more, I would suggest that you view the interview with his two daughters conducted by the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project (in Toronto; May 8, 2016). In addition, the English translation of a biography of J.I. Segal will be released on October 3rd 2017. It is titled Jacob Isaac Segal: A Montreal Yiddish Poet and His Milieu (2017), by Pierre Anctil; trans. Vivian Felsen.