Daniel Kahn’s Yiddish Militancy
A concert-goer inspired by Daniel Kahn’s fiercely political Yiddish music asks: how does this tradition inform how we act, here and now?
“SHOLEM ALEICHEM,” Daniel Kahn greeted the audience last Tuesday night at the Marlene Meyerson JCC on the Upper West Side. In response to the hearty, unexpected “aleichem sholem” he received in response, Kahn smiled and said, “Looks like I’m in the right place.”
The crowd was more young than old, white, with a small sprinkling of folks in frum garb, a sizable delegation of students from the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research’s summer intensive Yiddish program, and a boisterous crew of Kahn’s fellow klezmorim. “We’ve got an upbeat, energizing”—here Kahn paused with an inviting smirk—“completely dismal program for you tonight.” The audience chuckled, and Kahn and his band the Painted Bird launched into the sardonic, uptempo title track from their new album, The Butcher’s Share.
Kahn makes a bold claim with his music, which combines a repurposing of older Yiddish texts, his own poetic translations, and original songs: that our Ashkenazi Jewish past not only matters now, but that it was in some ways wiser, braver, and better organized than our present. He pursues this claim most artfully when he alternates between the original Yiddish verse of partisans like Hirsh Glik, anarchists like Dovid Edelstadt, or contemporary lefty Yiddishists like Joshua Waletzky, and the English that comprises his own loose, lyrical translations. Singing the original Yiddish lines pointedly reminds the audience that these romantic ideas about struggle come from somewhere; that there once was a time when the Jewish masses lived and died for their sake; and that in some way these principles and their history are ours.
By honoring his source texts, Kahn grants himself the license to at times improve on the original in his translations. Perhaps the best example of this is his feminist update of “Arbeter Froyen” (“Working Women”). At the show, Kahn noted to the audience that Edelstadt’s 1891 appeal to arbeter froyen to join proletarian struggle was “paternalistic,” and launched into the original Yiddish lines: “vos shteyt ir fun vaytn? vos helft ir nit boyen dem templ fun frayhayt, fun mentshlekhn glik?” (“What are you doing, standing on the sidelines? Why aren’t you helping build the temple of freedom and human happiness?”) before switching to equally earnest English lyrics that implore the audience to follow the leadership of working women:
“How many daughters, sisters, and mothers have given their lives for the things they believe? Mighty as lions they fight for each other for freedom and justice and equality. We’ll carry the banner as sisters and brothers waking the world to the light of the day, working together as friends and companions and lovers, arbeter froyen show us the way.”
Some may find lines such as these didactic: to me that’s simply the strain of hauling an abandoned inheritance back to its scattered and ambivalent heirs, of insisting through art and sheer force of personality that it is valuable and it is theirs. (Fellow travellers like me, who work in Yiddish or Klezmer, are more than ready to meet Kahn halfway.)
To help carry that onerous load, at the concert Kahn took advantage of a visual innovation familiar to followers of the Yiddish theater: projected supertitles. At times, the large-screen projection (run by Kahn’s partner, Eva Lapsker, a student this summer in YIVO’s Yiddish program), showed the Yiddish lines that Kahn was singing in English transliteration, or in English translation. The projection also displayed the punk-apocalyptic protest art of native New York illustrator Eric Drooker, whose Tompkins’ Square Park Riots aesthetic adds another layer of doikayt—hereness—to the Berlin-based Kahn’s New York City show.
The interplay between two Jewish languages, Yiddish and English, strikes me as reminiscent of the traditional Ashkenazi relationship between Yiddish and loshn-koydesh, Hebrew and Aramaic, kept separate as a “holy tongue.” Kahn’s affect may be irreverent, but he is careful to neither discard nor alter the corpus as it was created; instead, his own English translation forms a new kind of commentary. This is translation as unapologetic interpretation—the remaking of the past in our own vernacular, whether chanted in the yeshivah, sung in a concert, or screamed in the streets.
Kahn’s strength has always been in bringing new life to old Jewish songs and making them relevant for the present day. At times, painfully so: Kahn introduced the fifth song of the night, “Rosen Auf Den Weg Gestreut” (“Embrace the Fascists”), which is based on a 1931 German poem by the writer Kurt Tucholsky, by saying, “Every day I look at the news, [this song] gets less funny...I’ll sing it because it’s no longer specific to  Germany.” Indeed, in our moment of rising Nazism (and rising punching-Nazis-in-the-face-ism), the song has lost none of its edge as a mocking rebuke to neoliberal platitudes for civility and conciliation with the far-right.
The most distinctive political characteristic of the show last Tuesday was its embrace of militancy, communicated with punkishly (and klezmatically) hyperbolic feeling, ranging from the Holocaust-partisan-balladic sincerity of Glik’s “Shtil di Nakht Iz Oysgesterent,” to Waletzky’s rousing Occupy anthem “99%/Nayn-Un-Nayntsik.” This militancy is firmly rooted in a Yiddish musical tradition of proletarian, Jewish, anti-fascist, anti-capitalist struggle that has generally been discarded by contemporary Ashkenazi Jewry, which is far more assimilated, centrist, and bourgeois than several generations ago (though not homogeneously so, and the JCC audience included a number of downwardly-mobile artists and cultural workers). All of which begs the question: if this tradition really is “our” inheritance, but many us of are in dramatically different positions than the poor, Yiddish-speaking Jews who bequeathed it to us, what then do we do with this music and this politics? How does this tradition inform how we act, here and now?
Kahn’s concert by and large left it to his audience to figure out with one another our own answers to these questions (and succeeded in provoking rich discussion among friends). I’m left with the question, though: in what ways is our radical past an inspiration for action and in what ways does it serve as (merely?) a solace, something to warm up our souls from the deep freezer burn of late capitalism? I strongly suspect that while this question can be persuasively posed in the concert hall, or in these pages, its answer can only be found in the streets.
You can see Daniel Kahn perform as Perchick in the Folksbiene’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof” (in Yiddish!) through August 26 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
Jonah S. Boyarin is a writer, anti-racist educator, Yiddish translator, and born-and-raised New Yorker. The Jewish Week named him one of 2020’s “36 Under 36.”