Friday, September 22, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Growing Up, Part 1

Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Peretz J. Greenbaum, September 22, 2017

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Shana Tova 5778

Jewish New Year: 1 Tishrei 5778

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

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

Monday, September 18, 2017

Di Shaynst Vi di Zun (2001)

Yiddish Performance of the Week

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 17, 2017

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

Yiddish Writers

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

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

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Daniel Kahn: Hallelujah in Yiddish (2016)


Haleluye (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Living as a Yid

“Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Yiddish Poets & Writers: J.I. Segal

Yiddish Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 11, 2017

Seymour Rechtzeit: Vos Geven iz Geven un Nito (1995)

Yiddish Performance of the Week

Seymour Rechtzeit: Vos Geven iz Geven un Nito (“What Was, Was, and Is No More;”1995): In “Great Songs of the American Yiddish Stage: Part 4: Schmaltz and Strudel,” the Milken Archive of Jewish Music writes about this song, written by David Meyerowitz [1867–1943]: “Meyerowitz wrote Vos geven iz geven un nito (What Was, Was, and Is No More) for a vaudeville star, Sam Klinetsky, who rejected it as too sentimental. Meyerowitz published it anyway, in 1926, with an English subtitle, ‘Memories of Days Gone By.’ It was made famous initially by Nellie Casman, one of the leading stars of the Yiddish stage, and was subsequently sung by such luminaries as Sophie Tucker, Lillian Shaw, Aaron Lebedeff, and Seymour Rechtzeit (1912–2002), who performed the song for the Milken Archive’s cameras in 1995.”

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Double Trouble by Menasha Skulnik (1964)

Double Trouble by Menasha Skulnick [1890–1970; born in Warsaw, Poland] with Abe Ellstein’s Orchestra. Skulnick, who came to the United States in 1913, was part of two worlds: Yiddish musical comedies at the Second Avenue Theatre and later uptown at Broadway. This song is part of the former, a comedic Yiddish ditty about a man who gets into more trouble than he bargained for, with some English words thrown into the mix, so-called Yinglish. The first line is as follows: Ikh zits mir in mayn buick, un for mir shtil un ruik, You can also view a clip of long-time contributor, Prof. George Jochnowitz, a linguist, sing an excerpt of this funny song, part of an interview with the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project. The interview was conducted on December 15, 2013
Via Youtube & Yiddish Book Center

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Leonard Cohen: Un Az Der Rebbe Zingt (1976)

Leonard Cohen [1934–2016; born in Montreal] performs part of a traditional Yiddish song, “Un Az Der Rebbe Zingt,” (“And when the rabbi sings”) in an unplanned concert at what is now the Arena-Besetzung in Vienna, Austria, in the summer of 1976. When you read the story behind this impromptu performance, you will appreciate the significance of this song and why Cohen likely sang it, so far from home. It is important to note that Cohen rarely sang this song in a public venue. Also important to note is that there are as many versions of this Yiddish folk-song as there are interpretations of it, as one can or would expect with a folk-song of unknown or indeterminate origin. (I could not find out who originally wrote the lyrics, so if someone knows, please let me know.) You can listen to some of the versions here, here, here and here.
Via: Youtube

Un As Der Rebbe Zingt
[Lyrics courtesy Jane Enkin Music]
Az der rebbe tantst (When the rabbi dances)
Az der rebbe tantst
Tantsn ale khasidim (All the Hasidim dance)
Tantsn ale khasidim
Ay didi day didi day, ay didi day didi day
Tantsn ale khasidim
Ay didi day didi day, ay didi day didi day
Tantsn ale khasidim

Az der rebbe zingt (When the rabbi sings)
Zingen ale khasidim (All the Hasidim sing)
Tshiri biri bim tshiri biri bom
Zingen ale khasidim

Az der rebbe trinkt (When the rabbi drinks)
Trinken ale khasidim (All the Hasidim drink)
Yaba baba bay 
Lekhayim! Yaba baba bay
Lekhayim! To life!
Trinken ale khasidim

Az der rebbe lakht (When the rabbi laughs)
Lakhn ale khasidim (All the Hasidim laugh)
Ha ha....
Lakhn ale khasidim

Az der rebbe veynt  (When the rabbi cries)
Veynen ale khasidim (All the Hasidim cry)
Oy oy oy oy oy vey’z mir, oy oy... Oh, woe is me
Veynen ale khasidim

Az der rebbe shloft (When the rabbi sleeps)
Shlofn ale khasidim (All the Hasidim sleep)

Az der rebbe tantst! (When the rabbi dances)
Tantsn ale khasidim (All the Hasidim dance)
Ay didi day didi day, ay didi day didi day
Tantsn ale khasidim

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Dramatic Utterances

Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn

“Di gantse velt shteyt af der shpits tsung.”
Ignaz Bernstein
Jüdische Sprichwörter und Redensarten (1908)

After seven years (and 2,300 posts), it was in August, and I was seriously considering that it was time to put this “blog to bed,” my baby, my labour of love. I was thinking that it is the right time, considering the circumstances and the tenor of the times. There was dwindling public interest, although my focus on yiddishkayt resulted in a slight increase in readers, a good and positive sign for which I am appreciative. 

Some say that the liberal ways of old are dying, it replaced by a harsh cynicism and apathetic escapism. Well, have not the ideas of doing good and being a mentsh, of mentshlekhkeyt, been dying for decades along with Yiddish? Some call it enlightened self-interest. I see much evidence of the second part of this phrase, but not much of the first. It is not even self-interest, but just plain selfishness, narcissism and indifference. This is viewed as acceptable and many agree that there is no need to change it. I disagree, and I also know that I am not alone in my disagreement, even if it seems this way.

It also seems that words have become devices of artifice; and the writer the maker of artificial worlds to obfuscate the truth. If “the writer” is good at this craft of deception, he is richly rewarded, notably if his words entertain by revealing nothing important or essential. This is not the same at all as “the artist” who uses art and imagination to reveal the truth, di emes. Yes, truth counts; even for those who deny its existence and importance and revel in di ummoralish lebn; they pretend otherwise by making a mockery of it. I think they know better.

After all, it is true and an astute insight as any other proffered today, that we all see (and feel) the world a certain way and read articles that support this interest. My views are found within the posts, where I have written so many words to say what I view as necessary and true. They also reveal my heart and my desire to be an “honest witness” of what I see and, better yet, what could also be, which takes seriously the ideas of living a good and moral life, di moralishkayt. Such talk is part of being a Jew. No apologies.

Some would say with criticism that my writing—including this post—is filled with (too many) dramatic utterances; I plead both my innocence and my guilt and defend myself with the written words of Rokhl Auerbakh [1903–1976], found in Oyf di felder fun Treblinke (1947) [In the Fields of Treblinka]: “The uncomfortable thing is that every one of us is similarly given to dramatic utterances (melitsa), which may either be appropriate or altogether superfluous, but can also be true, the plain factual truth” (107).

And that says it all. Should such voices be silenced, forgotten? So, after having read this in an end-note in The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey Through Language and Culture (2000), by Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish Literature at Harvard University, I can now resist the recurring feelings of weariness and meekness and muster the courage to continue, even if there are only a few readers. Or this is the way it seems; it always seems this way for the tired voices.

Now, I will leave you with this thought that my father taught me 50 years ago, which today still is true for me, even if few believe it, and even if it falls on deaf ears. A Yiddish statement of faith of the working-class folks, taken from the Der Arbeter Ring (The Workmen’s Circle), about the ultimate purpose of all this work: shenere un besere velt far ale.

—Peretz J. Greenbaum; September 8, 2017

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky


“A city with many wise men will have many collectors of books.” 
—S.Y. Agnon

Outwitting History (2004) by Aaron Lansky
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

When Aaron Lansky started this ambitious project in 1980—to rescue Yiddish books from certain death—it was thought that there were no more than 70,000 Yidisher bikher in existence. How wrong this estimate was; by the time this book was written, almost 25 years later, Lansky says that his organization had already collected 1.5-million Yiddish books. And the number keeps growing at the Yiddish Book Center, which is “set on a ten-acre apple orchard at the edge of the Hampshire College campus in Amherst, Massachusetts.”

If you care even a bisl about Yiddish, this is a book that you will enjoy. His encounter with Mr. Temmelman, in a high-rise elderly building in Atlantic City in July 1980, explains much of what was and what is at stake:
It was a long afternoon. Every book he handed me had its story. This wasn't at all what I expected, and too spellbound and polite to interrupt, I fell hours behind schedule. But I did begin to understand what was taking place. Sitting together in that crowded apartment—he an eighty-seven-year-old man in a wool suit, I a bearded twenty-four-year-old in jeans and a T-shirt—we were enacting a ritual of cultural transmission. He was handing me not merely his books, but his world, his yerushe, the inheritance his own children had rejected. I was a stranger, but he had no other choice. Book by book, he was placing all his hopes in me. (45)
As for Yiddish language and culture, despite incurring the loss (chiefly a result of murder, really) of millions of Yiddish speakers by Nazi Germany during the war, it is doing remarkably well, not so much what it could have been, but what it can be. That is, what it can be under the circumstances of history. History can’t be undone, but we can learn from it. We can rebuild what was destroyed; it won’t be the same but it can approach similarity.

There are now hundreds of organizations and websites dedicated to all things Yiddish, including language, culture and music. It might be a resurgence, it might be a renaissance, it might be a cultural awakening on the value and importance of Yiddish. It is with this in mind that Lansky and the Yiddish Book Center aim to be a central repository for all things Yiddish, including what was thought lost.

He’s on the right track, and he has already done what many originally thought impossible. It is about saving literature, about saving Jewish literature, in particular, and about Yiddishkeyt. To Aaron Lansky, I say Yasher Koyekh. You have outwitted history.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Amerikaner Shadkhn (1940)

Yiddish Performance of the Week

Amerikaner Shadkhn (“American Matchmaker”), a 1940 Yiddish film starring Leo Fuchs and directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Even if you don’t know any Yiddish, and you watch it with English subtitles, the film is funny—the facial gestures alone make this endeavor worthwhile. The National Center for Jewish Film writes about this 87-minute comedy: “Leo Fuchs, known on Second Avenue as ‘the Yiddish Fred Astaire,’ plays an elegant and eligible bachelor who can never seem to close the marriage deal. Edgar G. Ulmer’s last Yiddish movie was also his most modern, an art deco romantic comedy about male ambivalence and Jewish assimilation. With its urbane, neurotic hero, American Matchmaker looks ahead to the films of Woody Allen.”

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Hester Street (1975)

Hester Street (1975): This wonderful film, which stars Carol Kane (Gitl), Steven Keats (Jake) and Mel Howard (Bernstein), directed by Joan Micklin Silver, is a beautiful period piece set in the Lower East Side of New York City in 1896. This film is based on Abraham Cahan’s 1896 novella Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, a telling of what Jews from Europe faced coming to America at the turn of the century. In short, the tension between the Old World and the New World. America, after all, was the land of invention and re-invention and new beginnings. It is as much about assimilation into di goyisher velt as about preservation of di yidisher velt, about how far Jews would go to adopt the ways of the non-Jewish world, chiefly as a way to fit in to the broader culture and not be viewed as griners (“greenhorns,” or old-fashioned and out of step with modern life). America offered so much to the Jews, so much that was denied them in Europe. As much as America was good for the Jews, and as much as this is true, not everything old should be forgotten. Such is the importance of tradition, which is why the film was made, its director says (She also made Crossing Delancey (1988), another NYC-based Jewish-themed film): “Interviewed by American Film magazine in 1989, Silver spoke about her choice of subject for Hester Street. ‘I thought, I’m going to make one that will count for my family. My parents were Russian Jewish, and my father was no longer living, but I cared a lot about the ties I had to that world. So that was how Hester Street started.’ ”
Via: Youtube

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Fyvush Finkel & Theodore Bikel: L’Chaim

Fyvush Finkel [born Philip Finkel in Brooklyn, NY; 1922–2016] & Theodore Meir Bikel [in Vienna, Austria; 1924–2015] perform a scene from Fiddler on the Roof, based on Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman (Yiddish: טבֿיה דער מילכיקער‎; “Tevye der milkhiker”), first published in Yiddish in 1894. “Fiddler” became a classic of American Yiddish theatre; and in this video clip, the two nonagenarians end by singing “L'Chaim”—to life. This is from NYTF’s 2013 Hanukkah concert. May their memories be a blessing.  The NYTF in New York City was founded in 1915, and is considered America's preeminent Yiddish theatre, the NYTF site says: “Founded under the aegis of the Workmen’s Circle, the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre became an independent nonprofit in 1998, with a commitment to make the world of Yiddish theatre accessible, enjoyable and relevant to new generations and audiences beyond its core Yiddish-speaking constituency. In recognition of its role in the Jewish immigrant experience, the theatre was renamed National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene.”

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: To the Shores of Palestine

Post-Holocaust Jews in Israel
Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn

This is a continuation of post-Holocaust Jewish immigration; last week’s post was on the United States of America and New York’s Ellis Island, the week before that  was on Canada and Halifax’s Pier 21; this week’ post is on British-controlled Palestine.

“Vos ken vern fun di shof az der volf iz der rikhter?”
Shirley Kumove
Words Like Arrows: 
A Treasury of Yiddish Folk Sayings (1986)

About 100,000 European Jews left for Palestine after the Second World War, part of the Aliyah Bet program of illegal immigration, with 70,000 successfully making it to its shores before the founding of the Jewish State, Israel, in 1948. They were called the Sh’erit ha-Pletah (Hebrew: שארית הפליטה‎), “the surviving remnant.” Both Canada and the United States were slow during the initial post-war period in welcoming the European Jews, who were waiting (languishing actually) in displaced persons camps (DP camps)—administered by the Americans, British and French. Thus, Palestine became for many Jews their only hope of a better life, despite the fact that Britain didn’t want the Jews in Palestine, preferring it remain majority Arab.

Lawrence of Arabia helped romanticize the Arabs, who, although themselves not white Christians, were preferable to the Jews, who collectively bore all of the sins of mankind. (Even so, the British lied to the Arabs, too, making promises it had no desire to fulfill.) There was (and continues to be) little self-awareness coming out of Britain; consider this narishkeyt. When U.S. President Truman requested that Britain allow 100,000 European Jews freely and legally enter Palestine, Britain refused. Not surprising. Its record in allowing Jews to enter Britain is not great; it is not even good, either before the war or after it.

Yes, we are well aware of the much-publicized Kindertransport  (“children's transport;” 1938-40), where 10,000 European children—the majority Jewish—left their parents and were permitted to enter Britain, but this was primarily a Jewish effort from beginning to end. How traumatic this must have been for the children, many of whom never saw their parents again—lonely survivors. A PR facade will not alter the facts of their life in Britain. Those Jews that it did admit during the war were often placed in internment camps, including 1,000 children from the Kindertransport program. These were called “the prior-kinder” and ”friendly enemy aliens.”

There is nothing more to add to the ledger of doing good, but there is much more to be said on the negative side. Britain failed not only to rescue and welcome Jews post-war, it also hindered all efforts to rescue Jews and bring them to Palestine, which was under its mandate. In short, Britain made it official policy to not allow Jews entry at all places which it controlled—both at home and abroad. The Jewish reugees that the British caught in its naval blockades after the war were also put in internment camps in Cyprus [53,510 survivors; August 1946–February 1949]. Such is a small taste of British policy towards the Jews, one that in Yiddish says, Das bleter a zoyer tam in meyn moyl.

Again, not at all favourable; and in my view detestable and cruel, if not outright immoral. Not very “Christian” of them. Or, perhaps, it was their Christianity that informed such harsh views. For example, the British did accept 86,000 DPs, including at least 8,500 former members of the 14th Waffen SS Galizien, part of Nazi Germany’s Ukrainian division, to work as farm labourers. It is true that the enemy in this story are the British, but this is a well-earned condemnation. Britain has never really been good for the Jews; with so many shortcomings, it has hardly been a welcoming land, let alone Di Goldene Medina.

This knowledge is important, given how it is much easier to view history through the lens of modern events and not through the reality of the times in which they happened. It is also equally important to see and understand how British policy towards the Jews in general, gave no choice to the European Jews, who found it necessary and morally defensible to defy British rule of law. (What would you do?) Despite the obstacles, including a naval blockade, 120 ships made the voyage; less than half were successful, but they managed to land 70,000 Jews from Europe, evading the “British wolf.”

There is, of course, the famous cases of the Exodus 1947, [see also here] which was sent back to Germany’s DP camps (which the British controlled assiduously) with its 4,515 passengers, Jewish Shoah survivors. Disgraceful. This compels me to turn a well-known Yiddish expression around, I say, a shande far di Yidn. [“A scandal in front of the Jews,” which should convey a sense of Gentile embarrassment.]

If the British were embarrassed, they didn’t show it and they didn’t stop their blockades. Even so, despite this knowledge, the European Jews risked the voyage, since they had nothing to lose and so much to gain. (“We shall open the barred gates of Palestine.”) After all, they survived the Holocaust, and anything would be better than remaining in Europe. From my point of view, British policy then seems both heartless and cruel and without a doubt anti-Semitic.

Nu, what else is new? It’s wasn’t unexpected news for the Jews, so with moral courage and determination, the European Jews were able to defeat such a discriminatory policy and achieve a decisive victory: Israel became a nation on May 14, 1948 (5 Iyar 5708), a refuge for the Jewish People, a place where Jews themselves can determine their history, without the need to give credence to the narishkeyt of the goyim (“the nations,” i.e., the non-Jewish world). To their credit, Israel accepted more than 652,000 Jewish refugees by 1950.

Afterward, it continued to provide a safe haven for millions of Jews worldwide, and which continues to this very day—the only Jewish-majority nation in the world. Given the non-Jewish world’s harsh and often hateful views of the Jewish People, this is no doubt a good thing. Any rational person would agree. Israel has become a place where Jews can defend themselves, where Jews can prosper, and where Jews can be and live freely as Jews, in keeping with the expressed aims of Yiddishkayt, not necessarily in the ways of Europe or North America, but remade through the modern Hebraic model of a vibrant and living state.

Peretz J. Greenbaum; September 1, 2017

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

A.M. Klein’s Tragic Jewish Vision

National Tragedy
“Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn”

“It is that beautiful way of life represented by the Chassidic milieu—a beauty intrinsically involved with the beautiful associations of childhood—which, seeing that is gone, and its values discarded, gives his heart its pain. When it is realized, as his poems amply realize, that that way of life is vanished, not only by the ravages of time, but by the horrific destruction of the evil which usurped the world or a decade, that pain reaches the degree of agony.”

A.M. Klein, a 1945 book review
for J.I. Segal’s  Lider Un Loybn (1944) a  volume of Yiddish poetry,
as cited in Like One That Dreamed (1982), by Usher Caplan, p. 139

The Jewish poet from Montreal, A.M. Klein, was profoundly affected by the news coming out of post-war Europe; you can feel it in this passage in the Canadian Jewish Chronicle (published on May 11, 1945), three days after the war in Europe officially ended, and as cited by Usher Caplan in Like One That Dreamed (1982):
For while the bombs were silent, and while the bombast sounded, we could not help but think upon our missing. Conservative estimates place the number of our martyred at five million; only the months to come will reveal the actual figures. Yes, we have survived; but as we take count of our numbers and take stock of our condition, we discover that we have survived, bleeding and maimed. We are less by one quarter of our population. (119)
It was worse than Klein initially found out; the actual figures, as he would soon find out, were that ”the number of our martyred at six million.” This is fact writ large. A.M. Klein never recovered from these facts. His trip to the new state of Israel immediately after its declaration in 1948, wondrous event, was marred by viewing so much misery post-war, which could not be easy to bear. Klein worked assiduously with the Canadian Jewish Congress to raise funds, to provide relief and to help rebuild the lives of the Jews of Europe who had suffered so much loss. There was always more that needed done.

Such a number. The incomprehensible is made more comprehensible when you hear the individual testimonies, when you hear their stories. This tragedy is at the core of my being, which vibrates each time I hear, through word of mouth, or on the news, or I read online or in a newspaper about another incident of anti-Semitism, about another incident of hatred of the Jews. When one Jew suffers, we all do.

For me, such incidents and the news of it gives me the chills and reminds me of the events leading to the Second World War, the Shoahthe Khurbn Eyrope (חורבן אײראָפּע; “Destruction of Europe”), the Jewish tragedy. Hyper-sensitivity some would say. Yet, is denial the answer? Is silence the answer? True, it took place a decade before my birth, and yet it resides deep in me, the agony of knowing what was true, what was always true, a truth that can only lead to agony, but denial and silence can’t take the place of facts and truth. Such gives comfort only to the perpetrators of the evil.

Yes, it’s also true that my father tried not to bring it (“the krieg”) with him to Canada, to protect my brothers and me from its effects. But as a Jew I couldn’t be ignorant. I read about it, mostly after my father passed away, so as to know him better. A lot. Some say too much. I continue to read about it, the national tragedy, the most tragic event for the Jews in modern times, perhaps in all of our long 3,500-year history.

Some would say with sincerity: Why bother with the past when the Jews have (already) accomplished so much good after the war, including the establishment of the State of Israel (1948), the re-establishment of yeshivos, and the continuing study of Yiddish language, culture and religion? Yes, these are undoubtedly all good and worthy of praise. While others destroy, Jews build. Build and rebuild; over and over again. Such is our history.

So, it is good that the Jews are builders, that they have rebuilt in some remarkable fashion much of was loss, notably in Israel and in North America (i.e., in the U.S. and Canada); yet this should not distract us from the knowledge of what occurred and why. It is this kind of historical knowledge that will help keep us from apathy (“Why bother?”) and from ignorance of the present (i.e., “We didn’t know”).

If you believe that knowing and understanding the past is important, as I do, then you worry about the ignorance of so many. Such ignorance and apathy leaves open the possibility that it—the past—can repeat itself. Looking at events today does not help to make this “worry” go away. It is not necessarily about the fears of “wiping the Jews off the map;” the existence of the State of Israel will ensure that this will never happen, that it remains only in the place of hateful rhetoric. As do the promises in the Bible, which give comfort and certainty to so many, as it has done for hundreds of generations of our people.

Even so, the hatred of our people often reaches such a fever pitch, as it often does in Europe, which has less and less Jews each year. It seems that Europe has forgotten its past misdeeds, its terrible past, its past meshugas. Anti-Semitism is undeniable rooted in European society and culture, part of its Christian heritage, no doubt. I don’t think it ever went away; it was just not openly discussed immediately after the war. (In a future post, I might share some personal incidents of anti-Semitsim while I was in Europe on business in the early 1990s. I met one too many paskudnyaks; to them I say, kholerye dir in di beyner, a make dir in boykh, a ruekh in dayn tatns tatn arayn!).

May it come to pass. It is true that the Holocaust ended more than 70 years ago; and that many people, including Yidn and especially the goyim, are tired of hearing about it—as if the reasons and conditions that brought about this European catastrophe no longer exist. I wish it were so, but the hateful and destructive sentiments and views continue to exist and in surprising large numbers. If the Jew is a moralist, he has earned that right. This reason alone convinces and compels me to keep on writing about it.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Di Goldene Kale (2015)

Yiddish Performance of the Week

Di Goldene Kale (“The Golden Bride”), a production of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, in NYC, this was the first production of this operetta in more than 70 years, staged at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (December 2, 2015–January 3, 2016). An article (“Preparing ‘The Golden Bride’ for Its Big Day;” November 27, 2015), by Joshua Barone, in The New York Times says about the operetta, which premiered in 1923 at “the 2,000-seat house at Kessler’s Second Avenue Theater (now Village East Cinema).” As for what the operetta is about, it’s about making a better life, an idea which resonates with Yiddish audiences: “The work is a fantastical take on the American dream in which an orphan on a shtetl receives an enormous inheritance and sets off to the United States to find her mother and offer her hand to the man who can help.” The composer is Joseph Rumshinsky, a star of Yiddish theatre; the libretto was written by Frieda Freiman, the wife of the man (Louis) who received credit. This is the way it was. Now, Frieda gets the credit due her. This production is co-directed by Bryna Wasserman, the daughter of Dora Wasserman.
Via: Youtube

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Molly Picon: ‘For You I Sing’ in Mamele (1938)

Mamele (1938), starring Molly Picon (as Khavtshi Samet) & Edmund Zayenda (as Schlesinger) and directed by Joseph Green & Konrad Tom. The 97-minute film was shot in inter-war Poland, and is set in Lodz. The Jewish Women’s Archive writes: “Picon, over forty, played Khavtski, an energetic twelve-year-old gamin who cares for her widowed father and six siblings. This was the last Jewish film made in Poland before the Nazi onslaught.” The National Center for Jewish Film, which restored this little gem, writes: “Mamele belongs to Molly Picon, ‘Queen of the Yiddish Musical,’ who shines as Mamele (little mother), the dutiful daughter keeping her family intact after the death of their mother. She's so busy cooking, cleaning, and matchmaking for her brothers and sisters that she has little time for herself, until she discovers the violinist across the courtyard!” Molly Picon [1898–1992] was born as Małka Opiekun in New York City, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Poland. She began her acting career at age 6 in the Yiddish theater, which would make her a star.
Via: Youtube and The National Center for Jewish Film

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Leo Fuchs: Ich Vil Zeyn a Boarder (1937)

Ich Vil Zeyn a Boarder (“I Want to be a Boarder”), a 1937 short film by Joseph Seiden and starring Leo Fuchs and Yetta Zwerling: The National Center for Jewish Film, which completed the restoration of this 15-minute film in 1986 to the quality that you now see, writes: “A small classic of Yiddish absurdism (made from outtakes from the Joseph Seiden feature I Want to Be a Mother) showcases Leo Fuchs’ comic virtuosity. Fuchs and Yetta Zwerling play a husband and wife who seek to reignite their marriage by pretending to be landlady and tenant in a flurry of comic role-reversals.” It’s all good fun. Leo Fuchs [1911–1994] was born into a Yiddish theatrical family in Warsaw, Poland. He made his American debut at the Second Avenue Theater—located in New York City’s Yiddish Theatre District—in Lucky Boy with Moishe Oysher in 1929.

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: New York’s Ellis Island

Post-Holocaust Jews in America
“Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn”

This is a continuation of post-Holocaust Jewish immigration; last week’s post was on Canada, and this week’s is on the United States of America.

“Svey kluge kenen nit shtimen”
Nahum Stutchkoff, 
Der Oytser fun der Yidisher Shprakh (1950)

America’s Ellis Island received 12 million persons between 1892 and 1954, the great majority landing there before the Immigration Act of 1924 severely restricted immigration, which favoured immigrants from northern and western Europe. Before 1924, millions of Jews from Europe disembarked on Ellis Island, America viewed and called Di Goldene Medina, the land offering a better life. The immigration act, however, ended the era of open borders and open immigration and brought in a system of quotas.

This was the way it was for two decades. Thankfully, exceptions were made, the most notable example being Congress allowing the entry of a significant number of displaced persons, or DPs, during the period after the Second World (1945 to 1952); the number given entry to the U.S. was 441,000. Of that number, approximately 96,000 were European Jews, representing almost 20% of the total number of persons allowed entry into the United States during the post-war period. Although it took intense lobbying, this was far better and greater than any other nation.

Again, it must be emphasized that the U.S. favoured certain ethnic and religious groups, primarily it seems white Christian Europeans. The U.S. made major changes to its immigration policy only in 1965 and in the years since then; immigration, however, remains a contested issue in America. It seems more so today than in the last 50 to 60 years—emboldened by a president who is responsive to the small minority of Americans who are both regressive and reactionary and who hold noxious and extremist views. Hate speech in this case masquerades as freedom of speech.

It’s not the first time that America has a nar for a president, but it might be the first time that a trombenik is sitting in the Oval Office. (Clearly, Trump is not good for America; he is “not good for the Jews”: Er kukt mit di oygn, hert mit di oyern, un farshteyt vi di vant.) The present’s restless times are uncomfortable and unnerving, and there is no shortage of tsores, but they are (still) much better than what East European Jews faced more than 70 years ago in the lands of their birth—hostility and hatred. In comparison, they left Europe with hopeful anticipation of what would be found in Die Goldene Medina. Truly, it was in plain sight before they even landed.

Before the ship’s passengers were getting ready to disembark on Ellis Island, in full view was The Statue of Liberty (1886), situated on nearby Liberty Island (the name changed, in 1956, from Bedloe’s Island). The full name of the statue is telling of its raison d’être: Liberty Enlightening the World; and in French, La Liberté éclairant le monde. Many forget this, and rather conveniently it must be added.

Equally important, the statue contains the famous sonnet, “The New Colossus,” written by Emma Lazarus [1849–1887], an American-born Jew from New York City, in 1883, and inscribed on a bronze plaque, which was attached to the pedestal of the statue in 1903, a little more than 15 years after the poet’s death and 17 years after the statue’s unveiling on October 28, 1886. Few would disagree that America has generally been good to the Jews, yet intelligent and thoughtful Jews discuss and debate on whether America remains the centre of the Jewish world, di Yidisher velt.

In the latter part of her short life, notably after learning about the 1881 pogroms in eastern Europe, Lazarus dedicated herself to Jewish causes. Like many, she had read and had much sympathy for Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876). If the Jews were to continue to survive as a people, they needed self-determination and a national homeland. The Second World War loudly proclaimed this necessity, even as many nations were deaf to it. More on this in next week’s post.

—Perry J. Greenbaum; August 25, 2017

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

We Are the World (1985)

Mir Zenen Di Velt

Via: Youtube

The story behind the recording of “We Are the World,” the theme song of United Support of Artists (USA) for Africa, made up of 45 well-known musicians who came in and took part in this recording session at A&M Studios in Los Angeles on the evening of January 28, 1985; Quincy Jones is the producer. 

This recording session was the inspiration of Harry Belafonte, who was inspired by Bob Geldof’s Band Aid the year before. This is narrated by Jane Fonda, an actress and political activist. The final result begins at 42:00. For more details and background information, go [here], [here], and [here].

Yes, these might be a group of “do-gooders” at work, wanting to make the world a better place, by putting their creative and artistic talents to helping others. Can you imagine why? Vus eppes? Because they do not have the power of politicians, but they do have the heart of humanity. If not us, who then? After all, mir zenen di velt.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Mending The Torn Curtain (2015)

Yiddish Performance of the Week

A new weekly feature: Starting today, and on every Monday, I will post a performance of Yiddish theatre, film, documentary film or radio drama. The first presentation is from my hometown of Montreal, and it is about an important person in Yiddish theatre.

Mending The Torn Curtain (2015): This is a 70-minute documentary about the first International Yiddish Theatre Testival, which took place in a nine-day period (June 17–25) in Montreal in 2009. It was directed by Raphael Levy and produced by Ben Gonshor.
Courtesy: Digital Yiddish Theatre Project; Vimeo

Montreal is indeed fortunate to have a thriving Yiddish theatre; and much of the credit for this goes to Dora Wasserman [1919–2003], a name synonymous with Yiddish theatre in Montreal. Wasserman, who was born in the former Soviet Union, in what is now Chernikov, Ukraine, came to Montreal in 1950. In 1958, she founded what has become a preeminent Yiddish theatre, the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, one of the few remaining in the world. Rarer still, it has a permanent home at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts.

As for the documentary film, it is about preserving and promoting Yiddish theatre, the site says:

On the eve of WW II there were approximately 12 million Yiddish speakers around the world and hundreds of theatres. After the war only 7 million remained. Today there are less than 2 million speakers...and less than a dozen Yiddish theatres. Mending The Torn Curtain tells the moving story of the creation the first ever Montreal International Yiddish Theatre Festival – an in gathering of all the surviving Yiddish theatres from around the world for a week long celebration of theatre, cinema, music, outdoor events, learning exchanges, all with the aim of igniting a spark to light the flame for the future of Yiddish theatre and Yiddish culture and of promoting this legacy for future generations to come.
This was done to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, a great achievement; it was done to celebrate Yiddish theatre. Ben Gonshor, who co-wrote the documentary film (along with Raphael Levy), put it this way in an article (“Mending The Torn Curtain: A documentary film about the First International Yiddish Theatre Festival;” December 23, 2016) for Digital Yiddish Theatre Project:
Mending the Torn Curtain – a title created by Edit Kuper, a stalwart of the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre and one of the key members of the team that put the Festival together – not only pays tribute to Dora’s remarkable dream, but captures a vital moment in the history of modern Yiddish life, and Yiddish theatre in particular. Today the film is in homes and leading academic libraries across the globe, where the story of the creation of the first ever International Festival of Yiddish Theatre will continue to be told for years to come.
Yasher Koyakh to all.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Projections of Life: Jewish Life Before World War II

Di Yidisher Velt

“Keyner iz nit azoy toyb vi der vos vil mit hern.”

Pre-War Jewish Life: This rare and intimate footage (almost 30 minutes) of di Yidisher velt, most of it shot by amateurs, is provided courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive. It shows a vibrant Jewish life—a Yiddishkayt—before a war (“the krieg”) that resulted in the destruction of Europe, in the destruction of a thriving Jewish community in Eastern Europe that has yet to be restored. With such great losses, with such great numbers (6 million individuals, of whom one and a half million were children), it would be a miracle if the European Jewish community could ever return to its former glory. Yes, it has survived, and we are thankful for this, but we mourn what and, most important, who was lost—so many people, including those in this video. We continue to do the good that we can, the good that we ought to, the good that we have a moral obligation to carry out.
Via: Youtube

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Nobody Was Interested. Nobody Asked (2015)

Post-War Jewish Montreal

“Gey redt tsum vant!”
Yiddish expression

Nobody Was Interested. Nobody AskedThe Holocaust, the Montreal Jewish Community and the Survivors (2015), by Max Beer of Montreal.
Via: Youtube

INobody Was Interested. Nobody Asked The Holocaust, the Montreal Jewish Community and the Survivors (2015), a one-hour documentary of the Montreal Jewish community, Max Beer shows how those who survived the Holocaust were marginalized by those who arrived before. Montreal’s Jewish community is unique in North America, one reason being that the Jews had to find a place in a city and a province that was long dominated by tensions between the English and the French.

Montreal after the war become home to Canada’s largest community of Holocaust survivors; and after New York, the second largest in North America. Equally important, Montreal by the mid-1950s became home to the third largest community of Holocaust survivors in the world, after Israel and New York. This is an important to know, because it is important to know that many Holocaust survivors made Montreal their home. With this in mind, Beer explains his reasons for making the documentary film:
In 2006 I completed my thesis What Else Could We Have Done?: The Montreal Jewish Community, the Canadian Jewish Congress, The Jewish Press and the Holocaust. which focused on the reaction or lack thereof to the Jewish tragedy by the Jewish community and the leadership during the war years. I then gave presentations on this subject to various groups.
One of these talks was to the Association of Child Survivors and Hidden Children of Montreal. After the presentation and the Q&A session, a survivor told me that the indifference to the fate of European Jewry continued in the postwar period. There appeared to be little interest to what had happened to these people in Europe. Survivors were sometimes told to get on with their lives and to forget the past. People could not comprehend the enormity of the tragedy.
One of the reasons I decided to make this film was to counter the long held conviction in the community that the refugees were unconditionally welcomed to Canadian shores. There was also a belief that somehow all the survivors were silent about what they had gone through in Europe and refused to talk to the locals. When I began to interview survivors and members of the community who had witnessed their arrival, I realized that the story was much more complex. The film shows the history of Holocaust awareness and how it took years for the community to come to terms with the Shoah and gradually accept the survivor population into Montreal Jewish society.
I should add that my interest in this subject also stems from the fact that I am the son of survivors who came to Montreal in 1949. I too remember the divide in the community between the local Jewish population that had come to Montreal before the war and the European immigrants.
I find that the most visceral response I get to the film is from the survivor community and their families. Many remember well the prejudice that existed in the postwar period. Many remember the terms Mocky and Greener, derogatory words used to describe them by members of the local Jewish community. Among Jews who were born in Canada and had no links to their European coreligionists the Jewish catastrophe seemed to be a sideshow, overshadowed by the war itself. While the film tries not to place blame, it hopefully clarifies a very difficult and tragic period in time.
And break the silence, long overdue; although I am younger than Max Beer, I share some of his experiences and views. His father and my father were friends, as much as I remember such things. In a great sense the Holocaust and the Second World War that produced it created a dividing line. Much of this was due to the Jewish ethos at the time to “keep a low profile.” Sha Shtil! was implicitly said, lest more trouble arise. Anti-Semitism was still prevalent in the province of Quebec, including in its largest city, Montreal, where most Jews lived.

The Jews were between “the two solitudes,” the British on one side and the French on the other. In response, Jews in Montreal built a third solitude, which in the post-war period did not immediately allow any discussion of the Holocaust, possibly because of the history of anti-Semitism that permeated Quebec culture. The newcomers from Eastern Europe were initially unaware of the history and just wanted to build a better life, so they focused on this. Yet, there was a history.

In many ways, this film is a sobering look at how people were inadvertently marginalized, possibly as a result of the communal fear of repercussions, of the fear of making the majority culture angry, notably if they were in any way“forced” to look seriously at uncomfortable truths of their past (e.g., French-Canadians embracing Fascism and Nazism in the 1930s [see also here, here and here]; truths that have long been buried). This was also the waning days of British snobbery and elitism, which naturally would exclude the Jews.

How much further from acceptance were these post-war European Jews. These men and women were not the aliens (with strange foreign  accents) they became in the eyes of many, but heroes who overcame great obstacles, yes, greater than those who preceded them before the war. My father was one of those European Jews who arrived in Montreal during this post-war period (1947–1952) who never spoke about his life in Europe, and who rarely complained about life in Canada. I guess that he got the general message that it’s “time to move on” and that the ”past belongs in the past.”

In many ways, this is good advice, but it can’t apply for everyone. I don’t remember my father being bothered or concerned about fitting in or belonging to the broader Jewish community of “the locals.” He seemed fully content immersing himself in Yiddishkayt, and di Yidisher velt. Language is partly to explain, but not fully. I, on the other hand, wanted then to integrate and assimilate into Canadian culture. My father had other desires, and perhaps I disappointed him in this area of life.

Nu, this is the way it was. Even so, this does not mean that it has to stay this way. I have decided to make some  personal changes; and I don’t want to say too much about it just yet, other than to say with a bit of figurative language, to which only Yiddish can do justice: Es iz a veytik in meyn harts.