Friday, December 15, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Dreaming of Food

“Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn”

“Bread, soup—these were my whole life. I was a body. Perhaps less than that even: a starved stomach. The stomach alone was aware of the passage of time.” 
Elie Wiesel [1928–2016], Night* (1960)

When you are severely deprived of something for a prolonged period, you dream about it. That is what starvation does. Prisoners of the Nazi war regime, most of them Jewish, were deprived of everything: their freedom, their families, their clothes, their hair, their personal possessions, their dignity and food for living.

These poor unfortunates were worse off than slaves (which itself is no picnic), since slaves were fed to be useful workers. The Nazi regime on the other hand kept prisoners hungry, put them to work and when they became too weak to work—as was the case for many—they discarded them as non-humans.

In a state of deprivations and human misery, their dreams at night were of food.

Many times the dreams were elaborate and fantastical; many times they shared with each other their dreams before bedding down for the evening in the barracks. The Nazis could take almost everything away, but not their dreams or their thoughts or their fantasies or their hopes. I found an article (“Auschwitz survivor: ‘Every night I dreamed of food’;” January 26, 2015), by Naomi Conrad, in DW Akademie, a German publication, which sufficiently captures this idea:
As he walks past a group of Italian students laughing and jostling at the ticket counter, Natan Grossmann, his shoulders hunched against the icy-cold wind, recalls the endless nights in Birkenau, a satellite camp of Auschwitz. "Every night, I used to dream that my mother was making food for me, huge plates of delicious food." His smile is twisted: His mother, father and brother were all murdered by the Nazis. At 15, Grossmann was all by himself, first in the concentration camp, and then on the long, forced death march as the Red Army advanced and the Nazis forcefully relocated their prisoners to camps inside Germany. He shrugs: Some nights, he would wake up and realize that he hadn't dreamed of food. "That would make me incredibly sad."
As great as the disappointment was, it was the dreams that kept many sane; this is what kept many alive in a situation that was far from sane or normal. It was also in the sharing of dreams that the prisoners developed a community of like-minded individuals, despite coming from different backgrounds. For many the differences melted away.

Such is what I learned in a documentary that I recently watched on the educational channel TV Ontario entitled Imaginary Feasts (2014), directed by Anne Georget. In this documentary, you will discover through the telling of personal stories how the will to resist evil, in the most horrific conditions imaginable, is (and perhaps can only be) drawn from a storehouse of good.

Gut Shabbes
A freilechen khanike
Peretz J. Greenbaum
December 15, 2017
27 Kislev 5778

*Mark Turkov’s Tzentral Varband fun Polishe Yidn in Argentina (Central Union of Polish Jews in Argentina) originally published this work in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in Yiddish, in 1956, as the 245-page Un di velt hot geshvign (“And the World Remained Silent”). A French translation was whittled down to 178 pages and published by Les Éditions de Minuit as La Nuit in 1958. An English edition by  Hill & Wang in New York City was further reduced to 116 pages when it was published as Night in 1960. Wiesel’s original manuscript was 862 pages; Wiesel had a difficult time finding a publisher in French and in English.

This week’s parsha is Mikeitz (מִקֵּץ‎; Hebrew for “at the end”), which can be found in Genesis 41:1–44:17. It tells of Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams and his quick rise to power in ancient Egypt. He interpreted the dreams correctly as being about seven years of plenty followed by seven years of hunger. Tonight is also the fourth night of Khanike (or Hanukkah).

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

First Night of Hanukkah (5778)

Festival of Lights

The First Night: Last night, ushering in the eight-day festival of Hanukkah on the 25th of Kislev, we lit two Hanukkiahs, a store-bought one and the one made by our youngest many years ago. After saying the traditional blessings, we sang Maoz Tzur (מעוז צור‎; Hebrew for “Stronghold of Rock,” a reference to God);  a beautiful rendition can be found here. [It is called Rock of Ages in English.] Afterward, we are instructed to reflect on the light, which is supposed to serve no practical purpose but allow us to think about non-material matters. There is, however, an interesting reflective effect (a physical one) evident in this photo, which shows a double light and the trees of the park across the way.
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Maccabeats: Latke Recipe (for Hanukkah)

Latke Recipe by The Maccabeats,  a vocal group founded at Yeshiva University in New York City in 2007.

Tonight in the Jewish calendar is the 25th of Kislev, beginning the eight-day festival of Hanukkah, (חנוכה; Hebrew “to dedicate”), celebrating the re-dedication of the Holy Temple (during the Second Temple period) in Jerusalem after the successful Maccabean revolt [167–164 BCE] against the Selucid Empire led by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. It would take another 22 years, however, until 142 BCE for the Jews of Judea to diminish the influences of Hellenism. The holiday is also called “The Festival of Lights,” since Jews light candles on a Hanukkiah for eight days, thus bringing more light into the world. Latkes (potato pancakes) along with sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) are the traditional foods eaten during this holiday, but I am sure that modernity has added others to the list; the only requirement is that they must be made with oil, symbolically representing the oil used for the re-dedication of the Temple. The story of Judah Maccabee and his brothers is told in the First and Second Books of Maccabees, which although not part of the Tanakh or Jewish Bible (but part of the Catholic Bible) is viewed nevertheless as an important historical document. For an informative discussion on the Maccabees, see here.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Myron Cohen: Situational Stand-Up Comedy (1951)

American Humor

Myron Cohen [1902–1986] in a stand-up routine from “The Kate Smith Evening Hour” (November 21, 1951; NBC-TV).
Via: Youtube

There was a time when comedians were using intelligence and wit to be funny, describing everyday situations in their routines and seeing the comedy in such slice-of-life situations. Such describes Myron Cohen, who once said: “Audiences are the same everywhere, whether you’re in Vegas, South Africa, or Rockland. They all want to hear about something that happens to human beings.”

Cohen throws in a few Yiddish words, which his audience invariably understands. Of course it is also about timing and mannerisms, which were the necessary skills that the best-known mavens of comedy developed through years of being on stage in big-city nightclubs and in vacation spots of the Catskills (“the Borscht Belt.”) In the end, one had to be funny in a way that audiences found funny and without vulgarity or profanity, whose use today is excessive.

I will end with another Cohen joke: Two women in the Bronx are hanging their clothes out to dry (“trikenen”). One woman asks the other (“anderer”), “Have you seen what’s going on in Poland?” The other replies, “I live in the back—I don't see anything.”

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Vladimir Horowitz: Träumerei (1986)

Robert Schumann’s Träumerei, from Kinderszenen No. 7 (German for “Scenes from Childhood”), opus 15/7;  Schumann [1810–1856] completed this set of 13 childhood pieces in 1838. This is played magnificently by Vladimir Horowitz [1903–1989] during his triumphant return to Moscow on Sunday, April 20, 1986. I posted this piece a number of years ago, in October 2010, and it came to my mind again, feeling in a Romantic mood. Speaking of that Horowitz concert in Moscow, I enjoyed every bit of it, when I tuned in, entranced like in a dream, that Sunday to “CBS Sunday Morning” with Charles Kuralt, now so many decades ago, but unforgettable. It was a masterpiece. I am sure that you would agree. What stands out is Horowitz’s playing of Schumann's Traumerei (German for “Dreaming”), the best I have ever heard; yes, tears were streaming down my cheeks. It was perfection and I could only wonder what these Muscovites were feeling when they heard it—the sound of freedom, I imagine.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Returning Home

Di Yidisher Heym
“Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn”

כִּֽי־קָר֥וֹב אֵלֶ֛יךָ הַדָּבָ֖ר מְאֹ֑ד בְּפִ֥יךָ וּבִלְבָֽבְךָ֖ לַֽעֲשׂתֽוֹ
Devarim 30:14
“Rather,[this] thing is very close to you;
it is in your mouth and in your heart,
so that you can fulfill it.”

All beginnings are hard, and become harder as one gets older. Yet, it is never too late to do good, to become what you must, to fulfill your destiny. Truly, being a Jew is not easy; it never has been, and it can be hard even when times are or appear favourable. Even if life is better today in a few places of the world, the demands of being and living as a Jew continue to be great.

They are certainly greater than not being a Jew, than living like everyone else by “hiding one’s light under a bushel.” Truly, it is always easy to assimilate, to become swallowed up in the majority culture (read: Christian in some places, secular in others) dominant around us. It is really that easy, especially when one is ignorant of Judaism and carries ideas of it that have been formed by others. As for the majority Christian culture in the West, it’s not that such a culture is necessarily “bad” or “evil,” although many times throughout history it has acted with malice toward the Jews, since it suffers from supersessionism. In balance, however, Christianity has in fact produced much beauty in the way of art, literature and music, all of which I enjoy and appreciate.

The same cannot be said for the fruits of atheism, which poses the greatest evil to humanity, since it cares not much for truth and beauty and relies chiefly on a limited understanding of history matched to relativistic morals with nothing to keep man’s hubris in check. There is also within its thinking, especially when applied politically, a desire for vengeance and murder, and, moreover, for doctrinal purity. Marxism, Fascism, Nazism and Maoism are all horrible manifestation of this, as is the political system of North Korea. An attack on God and the Torah (replaced by a complete faith in one man) always produces horrible conditions for its citizens. As much as all these political ideologies are irreligious, they are also all inhumane. It is not the appearance of evil, it is pure evil. Ask anyone who has lived under such a regime.

For obvious reasons, Jews ought to stand clear of such noxious inhumane ideas, and most do, but even seemingly benign beliefs (e.g., Eastern Religions) should be avoided and not be embraced, even if they appear personally beneficial. The reasons are evident enough for anyone to apprehend. The chief argument is that such outside wanderings and meanderings and the taking in of foreign ideas are not the right path for a Jew; such is not di rekht veg. This only leads to more confusion and sadness, not only individually but also collectively. Jews have a clear responsibility to bring a moral message of goodness and understanding to the world. To do so, he must live as a Jew, which suggests thinking like a Jew.

Far vos? Because this is a great part of the message, which can only be done within the confines of long-standing and enduring Jewish tradition and understanding found in Judaism (mesorah). The Torah that the Jews received at Har Sinai remains the bulwark against misunderstanding and ignorance, and it belongs to all Jews. It is written: “The Torah that Moshe commanded us is the heritage of the congregation of Yaakov” (Deut.33:4).

It is really that simple an explanation. Jews have to walk a different path than most of the world, directed by the dictates of the Torah and by our enduring and illustrious Jewish history; most Jews know and apprehend this idea living deep in their Yidisher neshomah and some happily and eagerly return to the right path, even decades later. B’emes, it is never too late.

I am, after all, one of those Jews called ba’al teshuvah (בעל תשובה; Hebrew for “master of repentance”) or as it is called in Israel, chozer b’shuva (חוזר בתשובה; Hebrew for “returnee to the faith”), who about a decade ago consciously made the choice to return. It was the right decision and an important one in a life with many such decisions. Now, years later, I understand more, and am not as ignorant as I was in my early adult years, where I had the need to wander.

Perhaps it is like the story of the Jewish Prodigal, a morality tale in the form of a parable (a moshl) of a Jew, who wanders far away to the foreign land of Hellenistic Greece and after suffering miserably for years, returns to di Yidisher velt and to the Jewish home of his birth. This might not always be easy, yet in doing so, he does teshuvah. He returns home, and his Yidisher neshomah is rewarded.

Gut Shabbes
Peretz J. Greenbaum
December 8, 2017
20 Kislev 5778

This week’s parshah is Vayeshev (וַיֵּשֶׁב‎; Hebrew for “and he lived”), found in Genesis 37:1–40:23 It contains the story of Yosef (Joseph), who receives a many-coloured coat from his father, Yaakov (Jacob); and of Yosef's dreams, foretelling of his rise in leadership, which engender jealously from his brothers. Yaakov favours Yosef, which is clear in this story.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Handel’s Messiah: Hallelujah Chorus (1956)

Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah.
Via; Youtube

This piece is here performed by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein; and the Leonard Westminster Choir, directed by John Finley Williamson. This was recorded at the 30th Street Studio, New York City, 1956. This piece of music is not only beautiful but also enduring. “Hallelujah” is an English transliteration of the Hebrew word, Halleluya (הַלְּלוּיָהּ; “to praise God”). This joyful expression of thanks and praise, הַלְּלוּיָהּ,is found many times in the Book of Psalms (תְּהִלִּים; Hebrew for “Tehillim”); and it connotes a sense of joyous praise in song. Such is what this “Chorus” does, making it one of the greatest pieces of music ever composed by George Frideric Handel [1685–1759], who composed this English-language oratorio in 1741.