Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Teiman: Music of the Yeminite Jews (1992)

Teiman: Music of the Yeminite Jews

This documentary is part of The Spielberg Jewish Film Archive’s “A People and Its Music” and of the Israel Music Heritage Project. The Spielberg Archive contains archival material from 1911 to the present, more than 18,000 titles, making the largest archive of its kind in the world. It is part of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which writes
The Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive was founded in the late 1960s by Professor Moshe Davis and other historians of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The first Director was the late Dr. Geoffrey Wigoder and the Archive originally bore the name of its first donor, Iranian-Jewish businessman Abraham F. Rad, who Provided his support for a number of years. In 1987 a generous donation was received from the American filmmaker Steven Spielberg, after which the Archive was renamed after after him.
This documentary gives some insight into the Yeminite Jewish culture, including the centrality and importance of traditional music and how it fits in to greater Israeli society. One of the most famous Israeli singers, Ofra Haza [1957–2000], was born into a Yeminite Jewish family; her voice propelled her to international recognition, bringing much joy to the world.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Nellie Casman: Yosl Yosl (1923)

Yiddish Performance of the Week

Yosl Yosl, also known as “Oh, Yossel, Yossel,”  was written by Nellie Casman [born in 1896 in Proskurov, Russia–died in 1984 in New York City] and Samuel Steinberg, her husband. The song was made famous in English as “Joseph, Joseph” by the Andrew Sisters in 1938. The English lyrics were written by Sammy Kahn.
Via: Youtube

Yosl Yosl
by Samuel Steinberg
& Nellie Casman

mayn khayes geyt mir oys,
ikh fil ikh halt nit oys,
mayn harts tut mir vey gor on a shir
es iz mir heys un kalt,
un ikh ver groy un alt
un veyst ir mentshn vos es kveylt mir
di libe brent a shrek
ikh fil ikh shtarb avek
nokh mayn yoslen, mayn darling, mayn dear
a bokher a sheyner
mir zol zayn far zayne beyner,
yosl, ikh krapir nokh dir!

oy, oy, oy, yosl, yosl, yosl, yosl,
oy, oy mayn khayes geyt mir oys on dir.
oy, oy, oy, yosl, yosl, yosl, yosl,
dayn malke zitst nokh alts un vart oyf dir.
oy, oy, oy, yosl, yosl, yosl, yosl,
ikh kholem yeder nakht nor fun dir,
un git der yeytser hore
mikh a mol a tore,
yosl, ikh krapir nokh dir!

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Bundists of Israel (2012)

Bunda’im (2012): An excellent documentary film on the Bund in Israel, on how they brought their ideas from Poland to Israel, living on a small island of Yiddishkayt as best as they could in the larger sea of Zionism. The Bundists were effectively social democrats, with the organization founded in 1897, the same year as Zionism, with which they differed politically. My father was a member of the Bund in Poland—officially named the General Jewish Labour Bund in Poland (Yiddish: אַלגעמײַנער ײדישער אַרבעטער בּונד אין פוילין‎; Algemeyner yidisher arbeter bund in poyln)—and spoke often about it with great fondness to me. The Bund was dissolved, along with other non-communist parties in Poland, in 1948, when single-party rule became effective. When my father came to Canada, in 1951, he joined Der Arbeter Ring (Yiddish: דער אַרבעטער־רינג; The Workmen’s Circle), an organization that held similar values. Such Jewish values of the Bund were passed down to me, most notably a concern for human welfare and for a just society; such are good, humane and righteous, as are the people who discuss them—they greatly remind me of my father.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: ‘Dad, Why Are You Here’?

“Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn”
“A sach mentshen zeyen, nor vainik fun zai farshtai’en”
Yiddish saying

“and Pharaoh said to his courtiers, ‘Could we find another man like this, 
who clearly has the spirit of God within him?’”

My dad died the day after my 23rd birthday, almost four decades ago. A few days after the funeral, which was on a cold Sunday in early November, I had a dream. I was looking out the second-story window of our family duplex and saw my father walking on the street in front of the house. I was both confused and excited. I ran down the stairs as fast as I could.

My dad was walking slowly and deliberately, so I easily caught up with him a few doors from where we lived. I said, “Dad, why are you here?”  But, I said this in Yiddish: Tate, far vos zenen ir do? He turned around slowly; his face was blank, white and pale, without life. His eyes were stitched tight with black thread. Three ragged rows of black thread; nothing neat about it.

In my dream, I was shocked and horrified by what I saw as unnatural. He was alive, yet his eyes and his face were without life. My father walked away without speaking, without turning around and without any explanation. I never saw him again in a dream. This brief episode left me shaken and with many unanswered questions. I believe that such dreams have important, even essential, meanings.

I do not completely understand this dream: I am in no way like the biblical Joseph of the Torah (Yosef ben Yaakov ben Yitzchak ben Avraham), an interpreter of dreams. His spiritural gift of interpreting dreams got him initially in trouble with his brothers, but his correct interpretation (see Genesis 41) so impressed the Pharaoh that Joseph was immediately raised into a position of authority in ancient Egypt. Such is a rare case and stands out for a reason.

My dream was more personal with less far-reaching economic and political implications. So, when I visited a psychologist afterward and asked him about it, he dismissed it as “only a dream.” He was no believer in Freud and dream interpretation. So I can only hazard an educated guess, based on some combination of rationalization, emotion and life experience.

In my dream, I was happy to see my father, but realized later that he was no longer physically present; his lack of sight and his lack of speech showing me this. Or, perhaps, I was projecting my feelings of uncertainty as to the future onto my father. Many would say that I am making too much of this dream, but here it is almost 40 years later, and I can still recall it as it were yesterday. Clearly, this must mean something to me.

This coincides with my belief that some dreams have a purpose. Perhaps this dream meant that my father could no longer guide me, at least not in the same sense as his physical presence could. The loss was great.

Gut Shabbes
Peretz J. Greenbaum,
November 17, 2017

This week’s Torah portion or parshah is Toldot (תּוֹלְדֹת; Hebrew for “generations”) found in Genesis 25:19–28:9); it begins with the birth of twin boys, Esau born first and Jacob second (Esav and Yaakov in Hebrew). In a reversal of tradition, the younger receives the blessing from his father, Isaac, which, although achieved by deception with the help of his mother, Rebecca, is nevertheless viewed as God’s will, chiefly because Jacob is more suited for the role. This parshah is ultimately about many things that are important and instructive, including on how the struggle between brothers for their father’s favour and blessings plays out today.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1: ‘Jeremiah’

Lamentation: The third movement of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1, Jeremiah, with Nan Merriman [1920–2012], mezzo-soprano and Bernstein [1918–1990] conducting the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. This was recorded in 1945, a few years after Bernstein completed it. “The work was finished on 31 December 1942, and is dedicated to my father,” a 24-year-old Bernstein writes. No doubt, horrific events in Europe and in particular the massacre of Jews—the People of the Book—inspired the completion of this work. Those familiar with the tenor of the prophetic books of the Jewish Bible will understand this music’s descent into sadness, speaking of the unconscionable loss and an appeal to the Heavens to remember the promises made. Can one understand (and accept) the incomprehensible and yet remain faithful? It does not seem humanly possible, but many do. One reviewer writes: “The symphony concludes with a Lamentation delivered in words as well as music. The musical sources here are identified by Mr. Gottlieb as ‘the Ashkenazic cantillation of Lamentations 1:1, the liturgical penitential mode used on S'lichoth (Service of Forgiveness) and from a High Holy Day mode, and finally, free cantorial improvisation. Thematic allusions to the first movement indicate that the Prophecy has been fulfilled . . . ’ The Hebrew text sung by the mezzo-soprano is from the Book of Lamentations, Chapter 1, verses 1-4; Chapter 4, verses 14-15; and Chapter 5, verses 20-21; the text given here in English is from the King James Version.” The Jews identity the Book as Eicha (אֵיכָה; Hebrew for “How”); the Hebrew text can be found here.
Via: Youtube


Book of Lamentations

How doth the city sit solitary,
That was full of people!
How is she become as a widow?
She that was great among the nations.
And princess among the provinces.
How is she become tributary!

She weepeth sore in the night,
And her tears are on her cheeks;
She hath none to comfort her
Among all her lovers;
All her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
They are become her enemies.

Judah is gone into exile because of affliction.
And because of great servitude;
she dwelleth among the nations,
she findeth no rest.
all her pursuers overtook her
Within the narrow passes.

Jerusalem hath grievously sinned...
How doth the city sit solitary
...a widow.

CHAPTER 4.14-15
They wander as blind men in the streets,
they are polluted with blood,
so that men cannot
touch their garments.

Depart, ye unclean! they cried unto them,
Depart, depart! touch us not...

CHAPTER 5.20-21
Wherefore dost thou forget us forever,
and forsake us so long time?...
Turn thou us unto thee, o lord...

Wikipedia writes: “The work was premiered on January 28, 1944, at the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh with the composer conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. The soloist was Jennie Tourel. It was premiered in New York City on March 29, 1944, at Carnegie Hall, again with Tourel as soloist.”

Monday, November 13, 2017

Di Shvue

Yiddish Performance of the Week

Di Shvue (“The Oath”) was a poem written by S. An-sky in 1902, which became the anthem of The Bund. I will write more about “the Bund” later. An-sky is the pseudonym of Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport [1863–1920], a Russian-Jewish intellectual who wrote in Yiddish such works as  The Dybbuk (1920), a play and Hurbn Galitsye (1920)about the destruction of Galicia during the First World War. The Bund anthem is here sung by Zahava Seewald.

Di Shvue
by S. An-sky Brider un shvester fun arbet un neyt Ale vus zaynen tsezeyt un tseshpreyt, Tsuzamen, tsuzamen, di fon iz greyt, Zi flatert fun tsorn, fun blut iz zi reyt! A shvue, a shvue, af lebn un teyt. Himl un erd veln undz oyshern Eydes veln zayn di likhtike shtern A shvue fun blut un a shvue fun trern, Mir shvern, mir shvern, mir shvern! Mir shvern a trayhayt on grenetsn tsum bund. Nor er ken di shklafn bafrayen atsind. Di fon di reyte iz heykh un breyt. Zi flatert fun tsorn, fun blut iz zi reyt! A shvue, a shvue, af lebn un teyt.
****************************** The Oath Brothers and sisters in toil and struggle All who are dispersed far and wide Come together, the flag is ready It waves in anger, it is red with blood! Swear an oath of life and death! Heaven and earth will hear us, The light stars will bear witness. An oath of blood, an oath of tears, We swear, we swear, we swear! We swear an endless loyalty to the Bund. Only it can free the slaves now. The red flag is high and wide. It waves in anger, it is red with blood! Swear an oath of life and death!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Jewish Partisan Returns

Jewish Resistance

“Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.”
—Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

A Partisan Returns: The Legacy of Two Sisters

Narrated by Tovah Feldshuh [born in 1952 in New York City], this film was released by the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation (JPEF), which is based in San Francisco, California. It writes the following short blurb about this documentary: “Former Bielski partisan Lisa Reibel journeys back to her home in Belarus for the first time after nearly 65 years. Experience how her story of escape, struggle and success affects her family [of] three generations.” This non-profit organization has made a dozen excellent documentaries about Jewish courage and survival in the face of evil.

There was Jewish resistance; there were Jewish heroes; and their story needs to be heard to counter a misinformation campaign and to correct wrong perceptions. Here is what JPEF writes: “Most people have never heard of the 20,000-30,000 Jews who fought back against the Nazis as Jewish partisans. These Jews were responsible for blowing up thousands of armored convoys and thwarting the Nazi war machine in countless ways, including rescuing people from the ghettos, procuring food and medicine, tending to wounded soldiers, sabotaging German communications and supply lines, punishing collaborators, sheltering civilians and saving thousands of Jewish lives.”

The Bielski Partisans organized the largest Jewish resistance during the war, and thus saved 1,236 lives. These men, viewed as Jewish heroes, have their story told in the popular film, Defiance (2008). The reason why they did what they did is simple enough to understand, says the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: “After the Germans killed their parents and two brothers in the Nowogrodek ghetto in December 1941, three surviving brothers of the Bielski family—Tuvia (1906–1987), Asael (1908–1945), and Zus (1910–1995)—established a partisan group. Initially, the Bielski brothers attempted only to save their own lives and those of their family members. They fled to the nearby Zabielovo and Perelaz forests, where they formed the nucleus of a partisan detachment consisting at first of about 30 family members and friends.”A fourth and much younger brother, Aharon [1927–], also joined the group.

While the Talmudic injunction cited above is related to someone standing trial before a judicial body for capital crimes, there is a religious/spiritual element found within its thinking: that life is sacred and the taking of someone’s life should never be done easily and thoughtlessly and without justified moral reasons. Killing your enemies, those that declare that they want to kill you, falls under such a justified moral reason, as does the defeat of evil and the use of collective self-defense. There are times, sadly, that evil has to be used to ward off a greater evil. But this should never make us “evil.”

Moreover, even then, this should never be done with happiness, but with much sadness—that this was the only real and possible choice. Martin Buber[1878–1965], a Jewish existentialist philosopher,  elucidates this thought in an essay, “Hebrew Humanism” (1941), found in The Martin Buber Reader (ed by Asher D. Biemann, p. 162) about this necessary balance imposed on the Jewish People:
It is true that we are not able to live in perfect justice, and in order to preserve the community of man, we are often compelled to accept wrongs in decisions concerning the community. But what matters is that in every hour of decision we are aware of our responsibility and summon our conscience to weigh exactly how much is necessary to preserve the community, and accept just so much and no more; that we not interpret the demands of a will-to-power as a demand made by life itself; that we do not make a practice of setting aside a certain sphere in which God’s command does not hold, but regard those actions as against his command, forced on us by the exigencies of the hour as painful sacrifices; that we do not salve, or let others salve our conscience when we make decisions concerning public life.
Good words, indeed. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: My Muslim Lawyer

Muslims & Jews
“Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn”
“Der emes kumt aroys vi boyml afn vaser.”
Ignaz Bernstein,
Jüdische Sprichwörter und Redensarten (1908)

“Therefore he who loves peace, runs after peace, offers peace, and answers peace, the Holy One, blessed be He, will make him inherit the life of this world and the life of the world to come, as it is written [Ps. xxxvii. 11]: “But the meek shall inherit the land, and shall delight themselves because of the abundance of peace.” 
End of Tractate Derekh Eretz Rabba and Zuta
Babylonian Talmud, Book V

After my cancer diagnosis, I was unable to work, so I applied for a disability pension, having paid into the government program for decades—since age 18 in fact with my first summer job. Perhaps even before that, davka, with my many part-time jobs. When I made my initial application for disability, in the midst of chemo treatment, I was quickly denied. The intake social worker said this would happen; in fact, he said this happens in more than 90% of cases. He also advised getting a lawyer to handle all appeals, which I did.

I couldn’t afford the services of a private lawyer, so I got a community lawyer, who works for a small fee, essentially pro bono. The lawyer assigned to me was a British-educated Muslim woman who wore a hijab. I think that she was originally from Pakistan. She was professional, knowledgeable, and as I later found out, kind. My case required two appeals, the last to an administrative tribunal.

I remember this day very well, as one remembers days when truth is revealed, or at least when one gets some insight into it.It was a cold blustery March day where my wife and I had to go downtown by subway to a typical grey nondescript government building. When I entered the building I had a strong foreboding feeling. I would soon find out why. After sitting in the waiting room for about an hour, we were called in.

The adjudicator was unremarkable except for the fact that she wore a large cross around her neck and a correspondingly large scowl on her face. This government official was immediately hostile to my lawyer and completely ignored me, saying that I would have a chance to speak later. I never was allowed to speak. For the 10 minutes that we sat in this airless windowless room, she spoke to my lawyer in an overtly hostile and belittling way. I was stunned.

In the hallway afterwards, I remember saying to my lawyer: “How could she speak to you in this way? She was unbelievably rude.” My lawyer was calm and composed, reassuring me that my case would work out. A few days later, in a follow-up telephone conversation, she said that she had made a formal complaint against this adjudicator; no doubt, she had a justified reason to do so and I was heartened that she did. Such persons, who make important life-altering decisions, too easily abuse their power and do so thoughtlessly.

After filing more appeal forms, a few months later, in July, I received a formal letter from the provincial government informing me that I had won my case, or, rather, they were not refusing my request for a government disability pension. Although I was exhausted, I had felt vindicated. Moreover, I felt that justice was served and my dignity restored in accordance with derekh eretz. As one rabbi writesIn general, to have derech eretz usually means to live ethically, responsibly and with dignity, and to be considerate of others.”

Such is always important. I immediately called my lawyer. She had already known, having been advised a day earlier. As per agreement, I was supposed to give her a set percentage of what the government gave me in terms of back payment. She refused and said she was happy to help. No doubt, her faith and beliefs influence her thinking. Now, this particular lawyer works for a private law firm where she handles cases of family law; she works as a community lawyer essentially for nothing. Without her expertise, I most certainly would have lost.

Now, one case does not reveal everything, but my personal experience tells me something. For one, I was fortunate to have this lawyer, and that Muslims and Jews have much in common. Some people care about peace and actively pursue it; it is true that some efforts are small while some are large, but the effort is nevertheless made in accordance with a person’s abilities and knowledge. Peace is always a worthy and laudable goal. For more on what Muslims and Jews have in common, see here, here and here.

Gut Shabbes
Peretz J. Greenbaum,
November 10, 2017

Monday, November 6, 2017

Cantor David Bagley: Moscow Conservatory (1989)

Yiddish Performance of the Week

Cantor David Bagley [born in 1932 in Vilna, Lithuania]and chief cantor of Beth Shalom Synagogue in Toronto, sings a medley of Yiddish songs at the Moscow Conservatory (1989), including old-time favourites, Oyfen Pripitchik, Tumbalalaika and Those Were the Days, the last based on an old Russian folk-song. This was part of the Gila & Haim Wiener Cantorial Festival  held in Moscow in June 1989. By the reaction in the audience, this was much more than a cantorial concert. It was a brief entry into di velt fun Yiddishkayt.
Via: Youtube

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Al Kol Eleh

Al Kol Eleh (“For All These Things”) is a song written by Israeli composer and singer Naomi Shemer [1930–2004], who wrote a song called “Of Sting and Honey,” which became identified by its chorus, Al Kol Eleh. The song is published in Book Three (Sefer Gimel) of Shemer’s large collection of songs and poems. In many ways, this is a prayer to the heavens—to the Creator and Master of the Universe, to Ribbono Shel Olam—composed in popular song form, to act towards the Jewish People in accordance to His beneficence, munificence and mercy, and, of course, for the sake of shalom. The Jewish Women’s Archive writes the following of this quintessential Israeli-Jewish singer: “In 1979, when her sister Ruti was widowed, Shemer wrote ‘Of Sting and Honey’ for her as a song of encouragement. Yossi Banai sang it on a television program and included it in his one-man show, ‘Simon, Little Moïse and I.’” Yossi Banai's version can be heard here. This version above is created and produced by the Jewish Community of Argentina; I like that it uses and combines the voices of many individuals who all come together to form the Jewish community. My youngest son, who is in Grade 4, has learned this song as part of this year’s Remembrance Day ceremony at his school, which my wife and I plan to attend this week.
Via: Youtube

Al Kol Eleh
by Naomi Shemer

Al hadvash ve’al ha'okets
Al hamar vehamatok
Al biteynu hatinoket shmor eyli hatov.

Al ha’esh hamevo’eret
Al hamayim hazakim
Al Ha’ish hashav habayta
min hamerkhakim

Al kol eleh, al kol eleh,
Shmor nah li eyli hatov
Al hadvash ve'al ha'okets
Al hamar vehamatok.

Al na ta'akor natu’a
Al tishkakh et hatikvah
Hashiveyni va’ashuva
El ha’arets hatovah.

Shmor Eli al ze habayit
Al hagan, al hakhoma
Miyagon, mipakhad peta

Shmor al hame’at sheyesh li
Al ha’or ve’al hataf
Al hapri shelo hivshil od

Merashresh ilan baru'akh
Merakhok nosher kokhav
Mish'alot libi bakhoshekh
nirshamot achshav.

Ana shmor li al kol eyle
Ve'al ahuvey nafshi
Al hasheket al habékhi
ve’al ze hashir.

Al kol eleh, al kol eleh,
Shmor nah li eyli hatov
Al hadvash ve’al ha’okets
Al hamar vehamatok.

For All These Things

Every bee that brings the honey
Needs a sting to be complete
And we all must learn to taste the bitter with the sweet.

Keep, oh Lord, the fire burning
Through the night and through the day
For the man who is returning
from so far away.

Don’t uproot what has been planted
So our bounty may increase
Let our dearest wish be granted:
Bring us peace, oh bring us peace.

For the sake of all these things, Lord,
Let your mercy be complete
Bless the sting and bless the honey
Bless the bitter and the sweet.

Save the houses that we live in
The small fences and the wall
From the sudden war-like thunder
May you save them all.

Guard what little I’ve been given
Guard the hill my child might climb
Let the fruit that’s yet to ripen
Not be plucked before its time.

As the wind makes rustling night sounds
And a star falls in its arc
All my dreams and my desires
Form crystal shapes out of the dark.

Guard for me, oh Lord, these treasures
All my friends keep safe and strong,
Guard the stillness, guard the weeping,
And above all, guard this song.

For the sake of all these things, Lord,
Let your mercy be complete
Bless the sting and bless the honey
Bless the bitter and the sweet.

Bless the sting and bless the honey
Bless the bitter and the sweet.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: My Father’s Tefillin

Jewish Rituals
“Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn”

“And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, 
and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes.”

It lay conspicuously on the top shelf of my parents’ bedroom closet; I was eight or nine and I wrapped the old worn leather black straps around my thin arms. The straps were too long for my thin arms, so instead I started to play with them. They were interesting and unusual. It was my father’s tefillin; I had seen him doing such a wrapping ritual only one time, yet I copied him.

I don’t know what happened to my father’s tefillin. After he died, my mother started to give away my father’s clothes and all that belonged to my father—another ritual, a different ritual. I never saw his tefillin again. I eventually received my own set of tefillin, after I had children and after I initiated my trek back to the long-standing traditions of Judaism and its rites of passage into adulthood.

It would be many years, however, before I understand the significance of this Jewish ritual, and even longer before I took it seriously. This describes one of the many strengths of Judaism; it is never too late to begin something good. As to the importance of physical rituals in connection with seeking truth and making it a reality, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1800–1888) writes:
A truth, in order to produce results, must be impressed upon the mind and heart repeatedly and emphatically. Merely to acknowledge the essential principles of righteousness and love, is not sufficient to actually build up such a life.
The ritual itself is important, one of many that help Yidn to direct their minds and hearts to better move along the path of love and righteousness, or as it is often called, Torah im Derech Eretz (Hebrew: תורה עם דרך ארץ). So, when I put on tefillin, I join the Jews of both the past and the present in fulfilling one of the obligations of Judaism.

All beginnings are hard, as is the case of all new rituals. it takes time and effort. If you want to put on tefillin and it is your first time or you have not done this in years, there are many good videos to give you guidance, including the ones found here, here and here.

Gut Shabbes
Peretz J. Greenbaum,
November 3, 2017

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Bociany by Chava Rosenfarb

Yiddish Novels

Bociany (2000) by Chava Rosenfarb [born in 1923 in Lodz, Poland; died in 2011 in Lethbridge, Alberta Canada]. The title means “storks” in Polish, named after the large, long-legged, long-necked water bird with noticeable bills. I am not sure if this was the writer’s intent, an allusion of sorts, but there is also a village in Poland with the same name, about 60 km north of Lodz, Rosenfarb’s home town. Rosenfarb lived in Montreal between 1950 and 1998, where the bulk of her literary efforts were realized. Afterward, she migrated westward, first to Toronto and then to Lethbridge. Originally published in Yiddish as Botshani in 1982. The novel, the writer’s website says, is “named after an imaginary Polish village, Bociany, based loosely on the lives of Rosenfarb’s parents, follows the intertwined fates of a young boy and girl from the shtetl of Bociany who meet again as young adults in the city of Lodz, where they marry.” The novel, set in pre-war Poland, looks at the relations between the Jews living in a village and the surrounding Christians. Rosenfarb herself translated this novel from Yiddish into English. The English translation, part of a two-volume set that includes Of Lodz and Love (2000), earned Rosenfarb the John Glassco Prize for Literary Translation for 2000.
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Monday, October 30, 2017

Un Mir Zaynen Ale Brider

Yiddish Performance of the Week

Un Mir Zaynen Ale Brider (“And We are All Brothers”) is a traditional Yiddish folk song and a long-time favourite of the old-time leftist-leaning Yiddish workers and labour movement. The lyrics are based on a poem (“Akhdes” or Unity) by Morris Winchevsky [born as Leopold Benzion Novokhovitch in Yanove, Lithuania in 1856–died in New York City in 1932], who himself is an interesting and important figure in di Yidisher velt. Speaking of which, you can also listen to another inspiring version performed by The Yiddish Community Chorus of Boston Workmen’s Circle. This wonderful and energetic song, about the desire and need for Jewish unity, has helped and encouraged me to think about this: Yidn kenen hobn file meynungen, ober dos zol keynmol teyln aundz. mir zenen, nokh ale, eyn mentshn.
Via: Youtube

Un Mir Zaynen Ale Brider
by Morris Winchevsky

Un mir zaynen ale brider, oy, oy, ale brider Un mir zingen freylekhe lider, oy, oy, oy Un mir haltn zikh in eynem, oy, oy, zikh in eynem Azelkhes iz nito bay keynem, oy, oy, oy Oy, oy, oy... Un mir zaynen ale eynik, oy, oy, ale eynik Tsi mir zayen fil tsi veynik, oy, oy, oy Un mir libn zikh dokh ale, oy, oy, zikh dokh ale Vi a khosn mit a kale, oy, oy, oy Oy, oy, oy... Un mir zaynen ale shvester, oy, oy, ale shvester Azoy vi Rochl, Ruth, un Esther, oy, oy, oy Un mir zaynen ale freylekh, oy, oy, ale freylekh Vi Yoynoson un Dovid HaMelekh, oy, oy, oy


Sunday, October 29, 2017

Unter Dayne Vayse Shtern

Unter Dayne Vayse Shtern (“Under Your White Stars”); A beautiful and haunting Yiddish song based on the Yiddish poetry of Avraham Sutzkever while in the Vilna Ghetto, describing the recurring alienation and loneliness, making more powerful the special pleading for a divine intervention, for a sign of reassurance (Under Your white stars/Stretch to me Your white hand./My words are tears,/That want to rest in Your hand). As for the history of this poem, Neil W. Levin writes for the Milken Archive of Jewish Music: “Avraham Sutskever is believed to have written this poem in the Vilna Ghetto, where it was originally set to a haunting melody by Abraham Brudno and sung there by Zlate Katcherginsky in a theatrical production of the play Di yogn in fas (The Hunt in the Barrel—a parody of Diogenes in a barrel).” In this rendition, the musical arrangement is by Gideon Brettler, who also plays guitar; the voice is by Yeela Avital; and the flute is played by Daphna Peled.
Via: Youtube


Unter Dayne Vayse Shtern
by Avraham Sutzkever

unter dayne vayse shtern
shtrek tsu mir dayn vayse hant.
mayne verter zenen trern
viln ruen in dayn hant.

ze, es tunklt zeyer finkl
in mayn kelerdikn blik.
un ikh hob gornit keyn vinkl
zey tsu shenken dir tsurik.

un ikh vil dokh, got getrayer,
dir fartroyen mayn farmeg.
vayl es mont in mir a fayer
un in fayer—mayne teg.

nor in kelern un lekher
veynt di merderishe ru.
loyf ikh hekher, iber dekher
un ikh zukh: vu bistu, vu?

nemen yogn mikh meshune
trep un hoyfn mit gevoy.
heng ikh—a geplatste strune
un ikh zing tsu dir azoy:

unter dayne vayse shtern
shtrek tsu mir dayn vayse hant.
mayne verter zenen trern
viln ruen in dayn hant.

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Always the Question

“Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn”

“Hobn kinder iz shver ober hodeven zey iz nokh shverer”
Yiddish proverb

Is it Good for the Jews? Yidn ask this question, even when times are (seem to be) good, which might seem strange and somewhat neurotic. Neuroses have causes, and in this case historical causes. An article, by Stanley Fish (“Is It Good for the Jews?”; March 4, 2007) in the NYT gives some insight as to why this question is often raised:

A community in which this question is central and even natural will be a community with a sense of its own precariousness. (No one ever asks, is it good for the white, male, Anglo-Saxon graduates of Princeton; it’s always good for them.) Its members will think of themselves as perpetually under assault (even if the assault never comes), and as the likely victims of acts of discrimination and exclusion. (“No Irish need apply.”) As a result it will turn inward and present to the outside world a united and fiercely defensive face. It will be informed and haunted by a conviction that no matter how well things may seem to be going, it is only a matter of time before there is a knock on the door and someone comes in and takes it all away.
This is about history, and the knowledge of how history can and does repeat itself. When this has happened so many times in the history of the Jews, no matter how secure things might appear, one can never know with certainty that it can’t happen once again, that it can’t be taken all away. When we are asking whether this leader or policy is good for the Jews, what we are also asking and evaluating is whether it is bad for the Jews. This is the ultimate fear that plays out in our minds.

When anti-Israel views are on the rise, especially at university campuses filled with mass confusion, and when there is a known correlation between anti-Israel views and anti-Jewish views, there is good reason to ask what is happening. Of course, there are legitimate criticisms of Israel, as there is of any nation in the world, in terms of its policies. But, more often than not, the criticism is unmerited and unwarranted and seems based on things other than government policy. No, davka, Israel is among the better nations in the world.

Mayle, something else is responsible; something both palpable and intangible. Its message of hate comes from both the extreme left and the extreme right; it is not really political, although it seems so. Sure, the hatred is irrational, but isn’t it always? There are always the same questions—Why is this happening? Is there something that we Jews can learn from the past? There are a few good answers, the same ones that have kept us in times of trouble.

You can be assured that mass assimilation, mass conversion, mass appeasement or the destruction of Eretz Yisreal (ארץ ישראל; “Land of Israel”‎), Chas veshalom (חס ושלום, ח"ו; “Heaven forbid,”), are all equally the worst possible ways to protect us or decrease the hatred against us. It might seem counter intuitive, but Jews need to be more Jewish, not less and think more about the needs of our community before wandering around to others. Yes, charity begins at home. Yes, davka, we can learn from the history of the Jews of the power of unity and of sticking together.

When you include the intangible factor of belief in God and the promises of the Torah, it becomes trickier to prove, although faith has undeniable ameliorating effects and should not be discounted. Belief, in my view, does not mean that one should avoid making plans for all eventualities, including defeating our enemies and defending ourselves from any acts of aggression. Even then, the underlying hope is always shalom or peace; such is an ever-present and eternal hope, a messianic one, if you will.

As a parent, I have an added responsibility of preparing the next generation, which includes teaching my children the moral values that are necessary for them to apprehend the world and navigate it in a proper way. For me this means with a particular bent of mind, understanding with increasing clarity and knowledge what our responsibilities are and with whom are our our chief affiliations. Yes, it’s always a good time to pick a side, but this has nothing to do with politics or political parties. Es iz bloyz eyn sort fun Yid; der eyner vos vil tsu lebn a Yid.

Peretz J. Greenbaum, October 27, 2017

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Yiddish Poets & Writers: Chava Rosenfarb

Montreal Yiddish Writers

Chava Rosenfarb delivering the convocation address after receiving a honorary degree from the University of Lethbridge in 2006. This was Rosenfarb’s first university degree, a doctor of laws honoris causa, making her the first Yiddish writer to be honoured in this way by a Canadian university.
Via: Youtube

Chava Rosenfarb, born in 1923 in Lodz, Poland, the eldest of two daughters to Abraham Rosenfarb, a restaurant waiter; and his wife Simma. Her parents were devoted to the secular Jewish Socialist Bund in Poland, a left-leaning organization that had a large following among working-class Jews in Poland. She was sent to a Bundist school.

Such studies, grounded in Yiddishkayt and menschkayt, had a marked influence “on Rosenfarb’s intellectual development, even though her secondary school education was in Polish,” says a biographical website devoted to her. No doubt, the ideas contained within its curriculum, can have a lasting influence on an young mind, notably if the ideas are based on goodness for humanity.

Then Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939; and the Jews in Lodz were forcibly confined within the walls of the ghetto. Before the ghetto was liquidated—its inhabitants killed—in August 1944, Rosenfarb, her sister (Henia who survived the war and also moved to Canada), and her mother and a few others hid in her second-floor apartment. But they were discovered by the Nazis two days later. They were sent to Auschwitz and then to a forced-labour camp at Sasel, where they built houses for German citizens.

From there, they were sent to Bergen Belsen, a concentration camp; when the British army liberated the death camp (on April 15, 1945), Rosenfarb was suffering from typhus, lying near death. She somehow survived. After she recovered, she learned that her father had died on the last transport out of Dachau, when the train was bombed by the Americans near the war’s end.

Rosenarb is among a handful of writers who was able to write about her experiences in the Holocaust using a literary form, but she avoided writing directly about inexplicable horrors. She started writing at age 17 while in the Lodz Ghetto, but in was in Montreal that she did the bulk of her writing and where she produced her most notable works. At the same time, it must be said that she brought the city of Lodz with her to her adopted home, in that it was her life in Europe that was the inspiration for her work. In her case, it was a desire to both chronicle what she both witnessed and experienced and what she viewed as was lost, which was much.

After being homeless and stateless for almost five years in Europe post-war, she arrived in Montreal with her husband Henekh (later anglicized to Henry) Morgentaler in February 1950, pregnant with Goldie, her daughter, during a raging blizzard; they were met at the train station by a delegation of Yiddish writers that included Melech Ravitch.

They brought $20 US with them and hopes for a better life. They had married a year earlier while both were in Europe waiting to emigrate to Canada. She was living illegally as a Displaced Person (DP) in Belgium. (It was the same Henry Morgentaler, another Holocaust survivor, who was instrumental in changing Canada’s abortion laws.) The marriage produced two children: a daughter Goldie (born in 1950), who became a university professor in Canada; and a son, Abraham (born in 1956), who became a medical doctor in the United States. The couple divorced in 1977.

Goldie Morgentaler, a professor of literature at the University of Lethbridge and a strong advocate of her work, writes about her mother as a Yiddish writer:
Rosenfarb was profoundly affected by her experiences during the Holocaust, and her prodigious output of poetry, novels, short stories, plays and essays all deal with this topic in one way or another. She began as a poet, following the publication of Di balade fun nekhtikn vald with a book-length poem about her father, Dos lid fun yidishn kelner Abram (The song of the Jewish waiter Abram). She then published two more poetry collections, Geto un andere lieder (Ghetto and other poems), and Aroys fun gan-eydn (Out of Paradise). Rosenfarb’s play Der foigl fun geto (The bird of the ghetto), about the martyrdom of the Vilna partisan leader Yitzhak Wittenberg (1907–1943), was translated into Hebrew and performed by Israel’s Habimah Theater in 1966.
Chava Rosenfarb receiving the Itzik Manger Prize
Photo Credit: ChavaRosenfarb

Her first published poem was in 1947: Di balade fun nekhtikn vald (“The Ballad of Yesterday’s Forest”); her last collection of poems while alive was Aroys fun gan-eydn (1965). There is also a collection of her English-translated poems that were published after her death: Exile at Last: Selected Poems (2013)Besides her notable output in poetry, Rosenfarb wrote novels: Der boim fun lebn (1972; דער בוים פֿון לעבן; The Tree Life:2004–2006), a three-volume series revealing her experiences in the Lodz Ghetto; Botshani (1982; באָטשאַני), a prequel to The Tree of Life, which was issued in English as two volumes, Bociany  (2000) and Of Lodz and Love (2000); and Briv tsu Abrashen (1992; בריוו צו אבראשען; Letters to Abrasha). The latter has not been translated into English, though excerpts were published in The Montreal Gazette (May 7, 1995).

Montreal gave her the safety of being able to write what she had experienced, what was pent up in her bones, in the fibre of her being, and where she could both cry out in despair and hope for a better life. In her 2007 essay, “Canadian Yiddish Writers,” Rosenfarb shows Canada as a place where these European Yiddish writers could live in relative freedom:
[O]ur Canadian Yiddish poets came to see in Canada a kind of merged landscape of their lost home and a better place to live. They saw in Canada the land that gave them the opportunity to cry out their despair over the Holocaust; and in this pristine land of the future, they shyly planted the hope for a new, better life. They saw in Canada a corner of the world where they could renew their communal life, but as they once knew it at home and in its more modern freer, more tolerant present reality. Here they could dream of a welcoming future, where they could live wherever they pleased and however their pleased.
Rosenfarb received a number of awards for her writing, including the Itzik Manger Prize in 1979, Israel’s highest award for Yiddish literature. It was for the masterpiece,  Der boim fun lebn (The Tree of Life). Chava Rosenfarb died on January 30, 2011; she was 87. Her archive can be found at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library of the University of Toronto.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Barry Sisters: Der Nayer Sher (1940)

Yiddish Performance of the Week

Der Nayer Sher (“The New Sher”) written by Abraham Ellstein and sung here by the Barry Sisters. The Barry Sisters (Claire and Merna) were born as Clara Bagelman (in 1920) and Minnie Bagelman (in 1923) in the Bronx borough of New York City. The duo were in the 1950s and ’60s big stars in the Catskills and Miami Beach; they got their start on Dick Manning’s (born Samuel Medoff) “Yiddish Melodies in Swing” radio program on New York’s WHN, which was broadcast between 1938 and 1955. As for this song, Neil W. Levin for The Milken Archive of Jewish Music writes: “Der nayer sher (The New Sher [i.e., new dance tune]) was written in 1940 expressly for recording, and according to one recollection, it was composed in an automobile between rehearsals or concerts (or perhaps broadcasts) for a session with Seymour Rechtzeit for the RCA Victor label. It was an immediate commercial success and was sung by many radio and stage singers, including Molly Picon, the Bagelman (Barry) Sisters, and the famous clarinetist Dave Tarras. Ellstein subsequently published it (1948) in two orchestral versions—with and without voice—and labeled them as a “special rumba,” with some rhythmic modification. It was also performed in an English version by Edmundo Ross, as The Wedding Samba. This version is likely taken from A Gala Concert with Moishe Oysher & The Barry Sisters: Vol 2 (Side 3; track 6), released in 1973 by Greater Recordings Co. of Brooklyn, NY.
Via: Youtube

Sunday, October 22, 2017

What’s the Matter with the Klezmer?: The Peter Sokolow Story

The Peter Sokolow Story: A nice entertaining short documentary film on klezmer music, as told by Peter Sokolow (aka “Klezmer Fats”), who started playing klezmer in “the Catskills” in 1958 as a college student. The Catskill Mountains, approximately 100 miles or 160 kilometres north of New York City, was viewed then—reaching the height of popularity post-war, a reputation that lasted until the late 1970s—as an idyllic and ideal vacation spot for Jews to spend summers away from the sweltering city, where hotels like Brown’s, Grossinger’s and the Concord became popular with their all-inclusive packages for kosher food, entertainment and activities. There were many well-known Jewish performers and comedic acts, and there was also klezmer, or Jewish music, which was then considered primarily as dance music for weddings, bar mitzvahs, dances and other such Jewish community celebrations. The last few decades, however, has seen klezmer become a genre of its own, possibly driven by nostalgia and marketing. The Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project writes: “Sokolow tells his compelling life story, from growing up the son of a musician in New York, to performing for the Yiddish-speaking communities in the Catskills, to ultimately discovering and mastering klezmer under the mentorship of some of the genre's most renowned musicians. As he sits at his piano, Sokolow ponders whether cultural authenticity will persevere or become a vestige of the past.” Who can tell? Yet the past seems better in so many ways; and klezmer does have a soulful searching sound grounded in the past traditions. Afilu azoy, shpil mir a kleyn klezmer.
Via: Youtube & Yiddish Book Center

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Eat, Survive & Celebrate

Heimishe Essen/Jewish Soul Food 
“Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn”
“A sated soul tramples honeycomb,
but to a hungry soul all bitter is sweet.”
Proverbs (Mishlei) 27:7

One of the greatest pleasures of life is eating. Truly. It is a mekhaya and few would disagree, certainly none of the Jews that I know. Food plays a central role in the lives of Jewish families, regardless of their level of religious observance. Friday night Shabbos dinners as well as yontif (holiday) meals are often large family gatherings, with plenty of food on the table.

No one appreciated a good meal like my father, who enjoyed a good bowl of soup, even in July. My father rarely talked about his years growing up in the inter-war years in Poland, or in the war years or in the immediate post-war years in Europe, but he did tell me one story when I was a yingeleh, which I translate roughly from Yiddish: “I was walking around for days looking for food, for something to eat; I finally found something in a garbage bin, which I ate because I was hungry. You don’t know what hunger is, Perkeleh,” using the diminutive form of my name as a term of endearment.

No, not really, but I have been hungry, but for no longer than 25 hours. Growing up as I did, I now like to have our fridge packed with food. It’s a feeling that many children of East European Jews share. I have no plans on finding first-hand  out what my father and his landskayt from Poland faced during the war (“the krieg” or “the milkhume”), but I would like to know by words of knowledge what he experienced.

I have a desire to understand. My father is long gone from my presence, as are his friends, so this seems unlikely. So, I read about the experiences of others more famous, contemporaries of my father (who was born in 1911), to gain some understanding. There are other ways, filled with meaning. Fasting for Yom Kippur is not the same, but the 25-hour fast comes the closest. What joy there is in breaking the fast and having that first bite of challah or matzah ball soup. It tastes better than usual, better when you are not denied food. Even writing about this is whetting my appetite.

In our family, as is common with many Jewish families (and immigrant families, in general, I suspect), “wasting food is a sin.” Such was the message; and as much as I like my boys to not “waste food,” I do not make them guilty about it. There is no good reason to do so, and, moreover, I would like them to remain open to trying different kinds of foods—not always easy with younger children. But, there are surprises, like my two boys’ love of sushi, which my wife learned to make at home.

Now, I have eaten foods prepared from different regions of the world, but when I want to eat something that brings comfort, I turn to my long-time favourites: the heimish foods of the Askenazic or Eastern Europe Jews; beet borsch (sometimes with flanken), matzah ball soup, chicken soup with lokshen, beef brisket, varinikes, holishkes. The list is seemingly endless. Over the years, I have come to enjoy Sephardi and Israeli recipes like baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, tomato soup with Israeli couscous, lubiya, and Sephardi spiced chicken rice with lemon and mint relish.

These recipes are found in many good Jewish cookbooks, but the one that I and my wife use as a valuable reference guide time and time again is Jewish Cooking: the Traditions, Techniques, Ingredients, and Recipes (2002), by Marlena Spieler; she writes a message of comfort in the “Introduction”:
For Jews, eating is a celebration of survival. A meal enjoyed with family, friends and community means “we are alive”, and we are grateful. A basic tenet of the Jewish table is that good food is a gift from God. Jews take every opportunity for offering thanks and appreciation, with blessings for the food and also for the good health that allows them to enjoy it. However different, culturally, Jews might be, we are united by beliefs and laws, as well as an interwoven history—in the way we pray, speak, eat, drink and celebrate life; the laws of Kashrut that guide what we eat and how we prepare it, and the prayers that sanctify it all. Our food is more than just a cuisine represented by recipes; it is part of the glue that holds us together. (p.7)
Now, this is geshmack writing, especially the part about health, prayer, gratitude and survival—each of these words is worth thousands more, telling a tale of who we are and what we can and wish to beWe continue to discover and learn, even as we return to the old familiar foods of our past. The taste is both the same and different.
—Peretz J. Greenbaum, October 20, 2017

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Declaration of Human Rights in Yiddish

Human Rights/Mentshlikhe Rekhtn

Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Yiddish
Via: Youtube

The “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” adopted by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), in Paris, France, on December 10, 1948. Article 1, which in English reads:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
And in Yiddish reads:
Yeder mentsh vert geboyrn fray un glaykh in koved un rekht. Yeder vert bashonkn mit farshtand un gevisn; yeder zol zikh firn mit a tsveytn in a gemit fun brudershaft.
It is neither a universal document nor a perfect document, but an attempt through compromise to do something good, to make a statement, to provide a secular vision bathed in humanistic language. How well it has educated or changed the world towards good, after almost 70 years, is debatable. How much it is valued and cited today by a majority of the world’s nations is also debatable, as are the merits of the United Nations itself as a world body devoted to goodness, to fairness, to justice.

The words sound nice, the height of humanistic language. Yet, the words become insincere to the point of absurdity when nations with clear records of denying human rights sit on human-rights councils and other UN organizations. Such is the way it is.

I know; this is politics. a concession to the way that the world is and will be for a long time. As is the knowledge that in a good many nations of the world—all members in “good standing” of the U.N.— its governments don’t give its citizens the kinds of human freedoms commonly found in western civilization, which they view as immoral, corrupt and unrestrained. Yes, they have their own history, their own understanding of government and what it means to rule.

I doubt that human rights will ever become universal, since there is little appetite for it in many parts of the world, including in nations who wield much power and influence in the world. You can’t force human rights; you can only encourage its adoption, which seems less important today than seven decades ago. Such is the way it is.

Looking around, I find most of the world as inhabitable places, as places in which I would not want to live. There are only a handful of places in the world in which I would want to reside. I am fortunate that I live in Canada, where human rights are part of the laws of the land.

The Yidn have long fought for it, for human rights and justice, for the freedom to live as Jews, for the right to exist as a people, long before the U.N. was formed, long before the U.S. existed, long before western civilization, and rarely receiving the recognition they deserve. When the Yidn fight for human rights, workers rights, etc., many others benefit. Such is the way it is.

There is no Yiddish nation, of course, but there is a Yiddishlayt, places where Yiddish and the people who spoke Yiddish was allowed to thrive, which goes hand in hand with human rights and religious freedom. Such places are no longer in Europe, but in New York, Montreal and Israel. For the record, the complete “Declaration” in Yiddish can also be heard and read here.

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.