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by Rokhl Kafrissen
I love to complain about my time as an undergraduate at Brandeis, and the recent barrage of 10th-year reunion mail isn’t exactly letting the sleeping dogs of bitterness lie. Yet I did have some consolations during my college career. One was a CD I picked up the summer before my senior year, Wolf Krakowski’s Gilgul/Transmigrations. Someone put it into my hand, saying it was “intense.” That it was, and more.
Transmigrations was unlike any Yiddish album I had heard to that point. Most of the Yiddish songs I knew were either theater standards or earnest Holocaust material. While these are on Transmigrations, the album’s real subject — benkshaft (longing) — transcends genres. Whether he’s longing for a lost love (Alts Geyt Avek Mitn Roykh, “Everything Vanishes with the Smoke”), lost opportunities (Ven du lakhst, “When You Laugh”), lost cities (Varshe, “Warsaw” or Blayb Gezunt Mir Kroke, “Farewell My Krakow”), or even for moshiakh (“messiah”) (Zol shoyn kumen di geule, “Let the Redemption Come”), Krakowski ties together disparate times and artists in a powerful, personal way.
Benzion Witler, who wrote “Varshe,” never got to see the city he wrote about: “Varshe mayn/ du vest vider zayn/ a yiddisher shtot vi geveyn” (“My Warsaw/ you will once again be/ a Jewish city as before”). And Mordekhai Gebirtig, a poet deeply associated with his beloved city Krakow, was murdered in the Krakow ghetto in 1942, as the occupants were being rounded up for the concentration camps.
That’s some pretty powerful benkshaft. By comparison, what the hell did I have to be I so sad about, there at Brandeis? That I lived in a barely furnished room with an uncomfortable futon and a leaky radiator that made the dirty gray rug soggy? That all my possessions sat on a single set of industrial metal gray shelves, the kind you buy for your garage? That I was surrounded by what one friend called “the house of supermodels,” who had loud shabes sex while I listened over and over to depressing Yiddish blues come Friday night when they locked the doors of the library and made everyone leave?
I was full of my own benkshaft, except mine had no specific coordinates on which to fix. Not Warsaw, not Krakow. Definitely not moshiakh. I longed to belong, to be loved, to be at a place where others shared the same stiff-necked, stubbornly obsolete passions as I did.
I finally landed where I wanted to be, but I practically wore out my copy of Transmigrations getting here. So it’s a good thing that I just got a copy of Di Alte Kashe (The Eternal Question) the new recording by Fraidy Katz (aka Paula Parsky, aka wife of Wolf Krakowski). Di Alte Kashe shares many of the same virtues as Transmigrations. Wolf and Paula are lucky to have an amazing group of musicians in their corner, and they bring back many of the same people who created the funky, bluesy, country sound of Transmigrations. In particular, the Lonesome Brothers provide the rhythm section, which truly elevates the sound of both recordings. Brother Jim Armenti plays a lap steel guitar on “Shterndl, Shterndl” (“Little Star, Little Star”) that mamish (literally) brought me to tears. Fraidy Katz also has her Ketselekh, slinky Yiddish back-up singers who also sexed up a number of tracks on Transmigrations.
My two favorite tracks on the album are “Shterndl, Shterndl” and “Moyde Ani” (“I Am Thankful”). The first is by Moyshe Kulbak, one of the most famous Yiddish writers disappeared by Stalin. It’s no wonder he wasn’t beloved by Stalin: His imagery is gorgeously sad, tinged with religious language (he implores a wandering star to be his sheliakh, his emissary, as he wanders far from home, and far from his roots).
As for “Moyde Ani,” when I first heard it, I was washing some dishes and had to stop. What was that song? And who had written it? Mark Schweid, it said in Fraidy’s booklet. I had never heard of him. Then again, I’ll be up front with you, I haven’t heard of a lot of important creative people.
The next day I went to the Jewish Film Festival at Lincoln Center, for a premiere of a newly cleaned-up print of Moyshe Oysher’s 1937 film, The Cantor’s Son. And who wrote the dialogue? Mark Schweid.
The movie was awesome, and as my Habonim-attending law-school genius friend Joni said to me in surprise as the lights came up: “That had real acting!” The story is kind of a reverse Jazz Singer. The Oysher character runs away from home to be in show biz. He becomes a star in America and is engaged to the woman who launched his career (in a bit of stunt casting, or sadism, Oysher’s real life wife, Florence Weiss, plays his American girlfriend.) One day, the famous Oysher gets a letter from his parents, asking him to come home for their golden wedding anniversary, and not just so he has a cheap excuse to sing his hit song, “Goldene Khasene.”
Since Oysher is a hot musician, he cannot help doing what all hot musicians have done, at least since 1937, as soon as they step out of the house and forget the name of their girlfriends/sweeties/wives: Oysher arrives in Belz and takes one look at the little girl he used to play with, and as night follows day, so must the wandering musician become engaged to his childhood girlfriend without even so much as a how-do-you-do airmail to the American girlfriend. Welcome to the real world, Florence.
Despite the ending, The Cantor’s Son was fantastic on many levels. I loved the singing and dancing and deco furniture (oy, there was a sideboard in one scene that I would kill for). But the real treat was the documentary shots of Second Avenue in its heyday, with glimpses of all the marquees that used to line Yiddish Broadway. It was also neat to hear the Yankee Doodle Yiddish of Florence Weiss up against the ridiculously impenetrable dialect of cast members like Michl Rosenberg, who plays Oysher’s manager.
In contrast to the mainstream world of Yiddish theater and film, which catered to, how shall I say, amkho (everyone), in 1937 there was another world of Yiddish creativity boiling over, a world less influenced by the melodrama of the Yiddish theater and more in tune with the cutting edge of European art. Kleynkunst teater (Yiddish cabaret) was a tremendously popular, dynamic venue whose performers had more freedom to explore the darker sides of life in interwar Poland. It was biggest in Warsaw, Krakow and Lodz and was heavily influenced by German cabaret, American jazz and tango, as well as by traditional Jewish nigunim and other types of Jewish music.
Cantor Rebecca Fletcher has spent the last five years researching the world of Jewish cabaret and recently performed her three-person show, Kleynkunst, during the international cabaret festival, KabaretFete. Kleynkunst doesn’t just present the songs of that world, it’s an evening of Kleynkunst as it might have been. This means all those styles — Weill and Brecht, tango, French chanson, Gebirtig, and dark comic satire — bumping up against each other to form a picture of interwar Warsaw as we usually don’t experience it: alive.
She opens with a Yiddish version of “Mack the Knife.” While the translation was written just a few years ago by Michael Wex, it perfectly encapsulates the mix of elements that combined in the world of Kleynkunst, including, especially, the reality (and romance) of the underworld. As Fletcher told me, one of her goals with Kleynkunst was to show that not everything in pre-war Poland was “Fiddler on the Roof.” When she presents the material she’s collected, she says, people are consistently surprised that secular Jewish culture existed in Poland. Yet as Dovid Katz tells us in his book, Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish, in the interwar period, Poland had 200 Yiddish periodicals and Warsaw itself had a number of Yiddish dailies, and “the address of the Warsaw Writer’s Union, Tlomtzka 13, became a new symbolic world address for Yiddish literature . . .” What’s shocking to me is how ruthlessly we’ve allowed ourselves to lose touch with a period not so distant from our own.
Part of the problem, of course, is that it’s hard to read that story when you already know what happens at the end — a problematic teleology, if you will. The destruction of European Jewish culture naturally colors our relationship with its actual contents. But Fletcher has chosen her material to reflect the fullness of that time — the joyously positive, the ironic, and the fearful.
A different teleology was in the air when I went to see the Folksbiene’s one-night-only benefit production of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys in a new Yiddish translation. Thanks to the star power of Fyvush Finkel and Theodore Bikel, Symphony Space was nearly sold out. Everyone was there, including a perfectly preserved Joe Franklin, who strolled into the theater ahead of me.
While I’m no fan of Neil Simon’s, I have to say that in Yiddish, there really is an extra zing to his writing, especially in this story of two old vaudevillians about to be put out to pasture. The play was written in the early 1970s. Vaudeville was dead and its last stars were also dying. The feuding characters, Anschel and Velvel, are based on Smith and Dale (who, unlike Velvel and Anschel in the play, remained friends until the end). In the play, the two are to be reunited to perform their signature skit on a televised salute to vaudeville. TV has superseded vaudeville as the American dramatic medium. No one is there to catch the tradition as it falls.
The Sunshine Boys contains pretty typical Simon material: lots of sitcom-style one-liners and barely-there characterization. It’s actually kind of brilliant for him to have written a play that features vaudeville within the narrative, as it allows you to see how his own work is a bridge between the lowbrow world of vaudeville and the also-lowbrow world of modern sitcom-style theater — a style pioneered by Neil Simon himself.
But its translation added much more melancholy and meaning to the show. In English, The Sunshine Boys is about the passing of an era, as symbolized by two of its cranky but (kind of) lovable stars. In Yiddish, Di Komediantn is about the passing of Yiddish as a living creative medium. The casting of Fyvush Finkel really brings that home. He’s one of the last remaining performers coming out of that vaudeville tradition.
A teleology is a way of looking at a set of historical facts in a way that makes sense of them from the end result. According to the teleology of Di Komediantn, the transmission of Yiddish ended with the last generation that grew up during the time when Yiddish was the major Jewish language. As vaudeville would be replaced by TV, so would Yiddish culture be replaced by English and modern Hebrew.
But the transmission did happen — and not just in the frantic, race-against-the-clock way we hear about today. Though modest, the transmission was taking place all along, and continues today.
By way of example, I sat down to talk to Bob Cohen a couple of weeks ago. Bob is not only one of the most important ethnomusicologists working on Jewish music in Eastern Europe today, he was also there when the people who lead the Jewish music revival today, Frank London, Jeff Warschauer, and many others, were starting to study with the masters of the previous generation and absorbing any kind of old recordings they could find. In 1972, Cohen was already hanging out Friday nights at the Balkan Arts Center in Manhattan. There he met Zev Feldman and, through Zev, the legendary clarinetist Dave Tarras.
Cohen ended up moving to Hungary, where his family hails from, and has been there for the last fifteen years. Not only is Bob doing incredible work collecting songs and techniques and enlarging our understanding of what Jewish music was, he has also taken that material and turned it into some of the best new Jewish music around. His band, Di Naye Kapelye (the new group) plays the funkiest backwoods Jewish hillbilly music you’ll ever hear. Most of the musicians are non-Jewish Hungarians, with the exception of Bob, on fiddle, and Oregon-based Cantor Jack Falk. I got an advance copy of Di Naye Kapelye’s new CD, Traktorist, and it blew me away. Unfortunately, they’re still trying to find an American record label to distribute the album.
Another example of the vitality of transmission is the collaboration between Toronto-based, Prague-born singer Lenka Lichtenberg and Polish-born poet (and Toronto resident) Simcha Simchovitch. On Lichtenberg’s new CD, Pashtes (Simplicities), she sets Simchovitch’s acclaimed Yiddish poetry to music. While Lichtenberg learned Yiddish only as an adult, the confidence she brings to her work comes only to someone completely at ease in the language. The effervescent music she’s written for Simchovitch’s poems lifts them in a way that is still sensitive to their brooding undercurrent, while expressing her own vision of a greater theme. Her setting of the title track says it all, with the bright accordion and fiddle swooping along with Lichtenberg’s voice. “Come simplicity, true beauty, we’ll fraternize anew/ thus my word shall become clear and to itself true.”
When it comes to Yiddish — as in our lives in general — when we write our own stories, rather than accepting someone else’s version of history (and the future), we cultivate hope and possibility. Community and continuity, which I lacked back then, have become the focus of my life here. As a consequence, I suffer from dramatically reduced levels of benkshaft these days. Which isn’t to say I won’t one day write a sad song about a certain soggy gray rug. But I’m content for the time being.