Monday, October 16, 2017

Anna Hoffman: Chicken, a Yiddish Song (1922)

Yiddish Performance of the Week

Chicken, a Yiddish Song:
Via: Youtube and Yiddish Penny Songs

Such is indicative of what often passed for amusement and entertainment in 1920s America among Yiddish speakers of New York City’s Lower East Side, where Jews then resided in large numbers. I am not sure if the general population enjoyed this song. Anna Hoffman was a major star of New York musical comedy. On Yiddish Penny Songs, where I first heard this song, Jane Peppler writes:
This song and Ikh bin a boarder bay mayn vayb are probably Rubin Doctor’s most famous songs. It was recorded by several people back in the day including Nellie Casman, and unlike most of the penny songs, it continues to be recorded to this very day, probably because people who don't know any Yiddish are happy to recognize the word “chicken” in the lyrics.
And who doesn’t like a good chicken song? Kmet vi geshmak vi a frish hindl aoyf shabbes.

Chicken, (aka Tshiken)
by Rubin Doctor

Ikh veys fun a guter zakh
Vos iz gut far ale glaykh
A chicken, oy, oy a chicken.
Geyt ir af a simkhe, a bris
Est nor nit keyn fleysh, keyn fish
est chicken, est nor a chicken.
Keyn mol vet ir zikh baklogn
Dreyen vet aykh nit der mogn
Un baym hartsn vet aykh keyn mol drikn.
Libe mentshn, folg mayn fraynt
Vilt ir zayn gezunt un fayn
Est chicken, est nor a chicken.

Chicken, chick chick chick chicken
S'iz a maykhl vus vet aykh derkvikn
A pulke, a fis a shtikl beylik
S'iz geshmak dos yeder kheylik
Chicken, chick chick chick chicken.

Meydlekh zaynen ikh bakant
Un me ruft zey do in land, chicken
Yeder hall un yeder stoop kukt oys vi a chicken coop
Mit chicken
An alte moyd fun fertsik yorn, dar un mies un opgeforn
Paint un powder un ale zibn glikn

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Chaim Grade: The Simple Jew in Yiddish Literature (1958)

Chaim Grade [born in 1910 in Vilnius, Lithuania—died 1982 in New York City, USA] gives a powerful lecture on the important place, and thus significance, of modern Yiddish literature in Jewish History. For one, it lifts and ennobles the simple Jew; many stories in Yiddish literature are about the simple pious Jew, written with feeling by writers who are secular but who were given a religious education. Such is the paradox of Yiddish literature. This is from a lecture held at the Jewish Public Library of Montreal, on December 7, 1958.
Via: Youtube & Yiddish Book Center

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: My Jewish Punim

Old School
Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn

“Dos lebn iz nit mer vi a kholem—ober vek mikh nit oyf.”
Nahum Stutchkoff
Der Oytser fun der Yidisher Shprakh (1950)

When I was a student at McGill University, I applied for a part-time job at the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association (“the M.A.A.A.”) for a front-desk position. This was around 1981, when the principal was David Lloyd Johnston, who later became Governor-General; and the chancellor Conrad Fetherstonhaugh Harrington. McGill was every much an elitist British institution of higher learning.

It was established in 1821 from a bequest of land and money (£10,000) from James McGill (1744–1813), a fur trader originally from Scotland. The university was originally called the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning before it bore the name of its benefactor. I happen to know a lot about McGill, because I was a tour guide—giving tours peppered with facts to prospective students and their parents—for many years.

The M.A.A.A. was equally British, equally elitist, and considered a pre-eminent place to play squash, have a few drinks and conduct business and, perhaps, make a few ethnic jokes. It dated to June 1881. It was, after all, a private men’s club for the anglo elites. I paid this no mind, since I was referred to this position by the university’s job-placement service for students. It was also then that I admired the British, which I wrote about in a previous post for this column. I thought that I would make a good impression.

I was met by a tall thin man with a thin mustache; he was impeccably dressed and well-mannered. The interview took place with both of us standing up in the lobby; it was short and perfunctory. I knew right after that I had no chance of getting the job, even though I was dressed appropriately: white shirt, classic blue McGill tie (with diagonal stripes), grey slacks and blue blazer with black oxfords on my feet. My hair was combed, my nails trimmed, my teeth brushed. All this could not compensate for one thing. I guess that he didn’t like my Jewish punim.

My mother had told me that McGill University had a quota system in place for Jews, and that Jews had to get better marks than non-Jews to get admitted; this lasted from 1920 till after the war, and for medicine until the 1960s. Many universities in America had similar restrictions, chiefly as a way to keep universities white Protestant; merit and marks were not as important as appearance.

To be fair, my personal experience took place decades later, and at a private institution, not a public university, and nothing of this sort happened to me at McGill. It was a relatively minor form of anti-Semitism, closer to bigotry I think, and I hardly gave it much thought afterward (I had, after all, suffered much worse as a child, including name calling and physical attacks.) That’s the way it was back then, and sad to say it was expected and no one made a fuss about it. I did not tell anyone this story, until recently.

I guess that this is the primary meaning of Old School.

—Peretz J. Greenbaum, October 13, 2017

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Klezmatics: Simkhes Toyre Time (1994)

Simkhes Toyre Time is the forth song on Jews With Horns, the third album by American klezmer group, The Klezmatics, released in 1994. This song was written by Mark Varshavski [1848–1907], originally titled “Kinder, mir hobn simkhas toyre” (Children, It’s Simkhas Toyre). Tonight at sundown, following Sukkot, begins Shemini Atzeret (“the assembly of the eighth day”), followed the next day by Simchat Torah (or in Yiddish, Simkhes Toyre); “rejoicing in the Torah”), which completes the series of holidays during the Jewish month of Tishrei. Outside Israel, these holidays last two days: 22 and 23 Tishrei, while in Israel, they are combined and last only one day (22 Tishrei). Simchat Torah also celebrates the reading of the last Torah portion or parshah (Deuteronomy 34) and the proceeding first one in Genesis—thus showing that the Torah is a never-ending circle. There is much dancing in shuls, with congregants holding Torah scrolls, dancing around the bimah, which is called hakafot.
Via: Youtube

Simkhes Toyre Time
by Mark Varshavski

Oy Kinder mir hobn simchas toyre Simchas toyre oyf der gantzer velt Toyre is di beste shkoyre Azoy hot der rebbe mit undz geknelt Oy, oy, oy oy oy Freilach kinder ot azoy! Rendlech faln fun ale zek, Freilach on an ek. Khtosh ikh bin an orem yidl Un es dart mir gut der moyekh Simkhes-toyre, zing ikh a lidl Un makh a gute koyse oykh Dvoyre, gib mir di naye kapote Ikh vel zi onton take atsind. Ikh vil dir zogn: altsding iz blote Abi m'iz borekh-hashem, gezint. Dvoyre, gib-zhe nokh a glezl Fun dem yontevdikn vayn. Vos hostu aropgelozt dos nezl? A ruekh in mayne sonims tatn arayn! Oy vey, Dvoyre vos hostu moyre? - Kh'bin a bisl freylekh kh'kon nit shteyn? - Dvoyre-lebn, um simkhes-toyre Ver iz nit freylekh zog aleyn! Tsi es dreyen zikh mit mir di gasn? Tsi es dreyt zikh mit mir di shtib? Dvoyre, ot hostu beemes genosn - Lebn, zolstu, dos lebn is lib! Simkhes-toyre - fun got a matone - Zol undz tomid heylik zayn! Afile di shtern mit der levone Zenen gegangen trinken vayn .

Yiddish Poets & Writers: Melech Ravitch

Montreal Yiddish Poets

Melech Ravitch addressing members at the 35th Annual Meeting of the Jewish Public Library of Montreal, on November 27, 1949. This would be the library building at the corner of Esplanade Avenue and Mont-Royal Avenue.
Photo Credit: Jewish Public Library Archives

The Yiddish writer Melech Ravitch [1893–1976] is the pseudonym used by Zekharye-Khone Bergner, born in Radymno, eastern Galicia (which today is in Poland), the son of Efrayim and Hinde Bergner (nee Rosenblatt), the latter of whom holds an important place in the annals of Yiddish literature for her portrait of shtetl life, which was published by her two sons after her death; Hinde Bergner is believed to have died “in the German extermination camp of Belzec in 1942,” the Jewish Women’s Archive writes.

Zekharye started to write in Yiddish in 1910, emboldened by the Czernowitz Language Conference (1908), the first international conference in support of the Yiddish language. During the first decade of the 20th century, he worked as a bank clerk, served as a soldier in the First World War and lived in Lemberg and Vienna. He changed his name to Melech Ravitch when he moved to Warsaw in 1921, when he began to be influenced by modernism, and where he belonged to a literary group called Di Khalyastre (“The Gang”); its other prominent members were Uri Tsevi Grinberg and Peretz Markish. Its purpose, it seems, was to rail against realism and to advocate for modernist Yiddish poetry.

As for this period, the Museum of Jewish Montreal writes:
In 1921, Ravitch moved to Warsaw and published Nakete lider (Naked Poems), in which he attempted to integrate the modernist themes of secularism and spiritual alienation with the Yiddish language and strongly East European context. A leading figure in Warsaw intellectual life (he translated Kafka into Yiddish in 1924, the year of the latter’s death), Ravitch served as executive secretary of the Association of Jewish Writers and Journalists in Warsaw, the epicentre of the Yiddish literary world, from 1924 to 1934. As the situation for Jews in Europe deteriorated, Ravitch decided to leave Poland, living briefly in Australia, Mexico, New York, and Argentina, before settling in Montreal in 1941.
Yet, another Jew who wandered around trying to find a place outside Europe to call home. After witnessing the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism, he saw no future in Europe and he left Poland for Australia in 1933 (warning others that they should leave, too). At that time, Ravitch saw Australia as a possible place where Jews could permanently settle, possibly in a part of Australia (the Northern Territory) that “nobody wanted.” He was armed with a letter from Albert Einstein and Jewish hopes of utopia; it was called the Kimberly Plan, which neither the Jews in Poland nor the Australian government supported.

While there, he helped establish the first Yiddish school—an I.L. Peretz school in 1937 in Australia, in the city of Melbourne. He served as its first headmaster and stayed in Australia until 1938, then moving on again, for a time in  Argentina, in Mexico and in New York City before coming to Montreal.

Ruinengroz (Ruin Grass), by Melech Ravitch. (Brno: Jüdischer Buch-und Kunstverlag M. Hickel, 1916 or 1917).
Photo Credit: YIVO

It was in Montreal, where he lived for more than three decades, apart from the two years (1954–56) that he lived in Israel, that he spent the most time after the war. When he first landed in Montreal, he more than likely lived in the old Jewish neighborhood of Mile End, near Park Avenue and Mont-Royal, in close proximity to the mountain and the Jewish Public Library, where Ravitch briefly took on the role as director shortly after his arrival in the city.

The Encyclopaedia Judaica writes: “During his active association there with the Yidishe-folksbyblotek (Jewish Public Library), he revived the Yidishe-folksuniversitet (Jewish People's Popular University) to offer adult education programming in Jewish and non-Jewish topics from 1941 to 1954.” He was very active in Montreal, the same article says; “In 1946 he and his brother H. Bergner published the memoirs of their family as recorded by their mother Hinde Bergner (1870–1942) on the eve of World War ii.”

I did find out that between 1965 until his death in 1976, he lived at 5413 Trans Island Avenue, near Lacombe Avenue, which is the same Snowdon area that many Jews resided in around this period. It was close, within walking distance, to the Jewish library after it relocated westward. He wrote prolifically, often of the life he left behind in Europe; he was, after all, almost 50 when he came to Montreal.

His most known works include  a comprehensive anthology Di lider fun mayne lider (“The Poems of My Poems;” 1954) and his two-volume series Mayn leksikon (“My Lexicon;” 1945–1947), which offer intimate portraits of Yiddish writers in Poland. His memoirs, Dos mayse-bukh fun mayn lebn (“The Storybook of My Life;” 3 vols., 1962–1975), describe his life in Galicia, Vienna, and Warsaw.

He viewed himself as “the first modernist of Yiddish literature,” recounts Irving Massey, son of Yiddish writer and organizer Ida Maze, who was a neighbour of Ravitch. He was married to Fania, a singer from Lodz; they had a son, Yosl Bergner, who became a famous painter who settled in Israel; and a daughter, Ruth Bergner, a dancer who settled in Australia. His brother, the Yiddish writer Herz Bergner, settled in Melbourne in 1938.

No doubt, Ravitch is one of the leading Yiddish literary figures with published works after the Holocaust. The poet and his poetry were acknowledged during his long career; he was awarded numerous literary prizes including the prestigious L. Lamed, Yud Yud Segal, and Itzik Manger Prizes.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Cantor Moshe Koussevitzky: Milchige, Fleiszige Iden

Yiddish Performance of the Week

Milchige, Fleiszige Iden 

I could not find out much information about this record other than it was made between 1930 and 1939 in inter-war Poland and that Koussevitsky is identified as the chief cantor (oberkantor) of the Warschauer Synagogue. This was the first record label in Poland, changing its name to Syrena-Electro in 1929. It was famous for its popular dance music, and for making records in both Polish and Yiddish. The record company, Wikipedia says, “was established in 1904 by Juliusz Fejgenbaum. It took the name of Syrena Rekord in 1908. The company produced gramophone records till the invasion of Poland in 1939. The company’s discography includes around 14,000 titles.” When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, it destroyed the record factories and the large collection of titles. What remains is found in private collections. As to who wrote the lyrics and the background behind the song, it is thus far a mystery. If someone could help solve it, all the better. Until then, enjoy this song.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Abraham Sutzkever on Poetry and Partisan Life (1959)

Abraham Sutzkever [1913–2010] recalls some of his experiences in the Vilna Ghetto, in the Narach Forest and as a Jewish partisan during the Second World War, both of which influenced his poems. This lecture, recorded on May 24, 1959, was given during a public program at the Jewish Public Library of Montreal. This wonderful library had many such lectures for the public. I plan to write more about this famous Yiddish poet in a future post. Here is an interesting fact: Abraham Sutzkever, one of the great poets of the 20th century and  Moshe Koussevitzky, one of the greatest hazzanim (cantors) of the 20th century, were both born in Smorgon, Belarus, or what used to be called White Russia. This was a town of no more than 40,000. And as Wikipedia writes: “In 1939 there were 375,000 Jews in Belarus, or 13.6% of the total population.” After the war, that number dropped by two-thirds, since the Nazis and their local collaborators murdered 66% of the nation’s Jews, or some 246,000 Jews. In this lecture, Sutzkever speaks about the particularities of the Vilna Ghetto, infamous for the massacre at Ponary; he says many things that are true, including what it is to be a poet, and notably a poet who is a witness to tragedy and loss.
Via: Youtube and Yiddish Book Center