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Dispatches from Yiddish New York

Bennett Muraskin
January 1, 2016

by Bennett Muraskin

yiddish-NYI CONFESS that I never made it to Klezkamp, which had its final hurrah a year ago. I was not willing to sacrifice the time and money to stay overnight at a hotel in the Catskills, and I had the impression that the program was mostly about klezmer music, which is only a shtikl (small piece) of Yiddish culture and not, for me, the most significant.

But this year, the successor to Klezkamp came to New York City (the 14th Street YMHA and the Town and Village synagogue next door), so I could not resist. I signed up for an evening cabaret on Christmas Day styled “Tsu Dayn Geburtstog, Big Birthday Bash for Yeshue!” (Yeshue is Yiddish for Jesus), which I attended with my wife and friends. I also sprang for one complete day of regular programs (out of five) on Sunday, December 27th that I attended solo.

The less said about the cabaret, the better. Although the performers, Shane Baker (a non-Jew who has immersed himself in yidishkayt), singer Miryem-Khaye Siegel, and humorist-scholar Michael Wex all have excellent reputations, I found the cabaret to be a vulgar mishmosh, worsened by a “special guest,” a Yiddish lounge singer from Brighton Beach. I already knew that Jews traditionally disdain Christmas, but here it was the audience that was disdained by shund (a trashy production). The only bright spot was Siegel who sings like a nightingale and smiles like the sun.

The daytime programs I chose were all worthwhile. Itsik Gottesman, a respected Yiddish scholar and associate editor at the Forverts, discussed Ashkenazic wedding customs. I learned that Jews borrowed the khupe (wedding canopy) and the wedding ring from the Catholics, the ketubah (marriage contract) from the Muslims, and the breaking of the glass from pagan ritual. The fear of evil spirits, according to Gottesman, was pervasive in the shtetl; many customs arose to appease or deceive them. Accordingly, the wearing of white by the bride and groom, a color associated with mourning, was meant to fool the demons into thinking that a funeral was taking place, which they would then presumably not disturb.

Much of what we know about these customs comes from a detailed field study conducted by the Yiddish dramatist S. An-ski and a team of researchers before World War One.

Gottesman illustrated his presentation with video clips he obtained from khasidic weddings. Many were of badkhonim (wedding jesters) who entertained the guests with witty songs and word play. One of the badkhan’s duties was to make the bride cry by reminding her of her lost, or soon to be lost, youth!

I MADE IT my business to attend a class conducted by Henry Sapoznik, klezmer extraordinaire and a founder and mainstay of Klezkamp, who spoke about Yiddish sound recordings of early 20th-century America. To say that Sapoznik knows his stuff is an understatement: He is a walking, talking, lively, and captivating encyclopedia.

He played recordings of Yiddish music as far back as 1905, when wax cylinders were still in use. His selections included cantorial, klezmer, and popular music. He stressed that popular music influenced traditional Jewish music from the very beginning and that many of the early Jewish musicians performed in both genres, to separate audiences. By the 1920s, there was already Yiddish songs extolling the virtues of the American South (where Yiddish was rarely heard and fewer spoke it) and Coney Island hot dogs. A line from the song “Hot Dogs” celebrated the exotic characters populating Coney Island sideshows, including “a Turk, I’m sure you know him — he’s a Jew from Orchard Street.”

Next came a Yiddish sing-a-long/dance-a-long for the entire group, led by the irrepressible singer Joanne Borts, backed up by a band. She handed out songsheets, called out the songs, and got everyone singing. Pete Seeger would have been proud. People got up and did circle dances and line dances that were easy enough for anyone to join in. My only complaint is that the Yiddish song lyrics were not translated into English.

Translation was at the heart of the class I attended on Yiddish theater. Two actors, Shane Baker and Allen Rickman, gave dramatic readings of scenes from a famous Jacob Gordin play, Got, Mentch un Tayvl (God, Man and Devil) first in Yiddish and then in English. Nahma Sandrow, the moderator as well as translator of those scenes, then asked the audience for a critique of her translation. I thought this would require a fluency in Yiddish that I lack, but there was much discussion of the best translation of many Yiddish words and expressions that I could understand. What impressed me was the formidable task of the translator in light of the multilingual nature of the literary Yiddish — mainly Yiddish of course, by also a good many German, Hebrew, and Slavic words. Anyone who has read a translated work wonders how faithful the translation is — or should be — to the original; this workshop shed new light on this fascinating subject.

The evening entertainment consisted of a dramatic reading of scenes from Arthur Miller’s Death of A Seylsman in Yiddish, with English supertitles. The featured actors were from the recently closed production Toyt Fun a Salesman by the new Yiddish Repertory Theater, including the talented Avi Hoffman, who played Willy Loman. The acting was compelling, but I don’t understand the rationale for translating an English-language play into Yiddish and then back into English for an English-speaking audience. Why not present scenes from a Yiddish play instead, as in the afternoon workshop I attended?

The counter-argument is that Death of a Salesman is a covertly Jewish play, but I don’t buy it. Miller knew how to write Jewish characters when he wanted to. There is nothing Jewish about a man named Willy Loman with a wife named Linda and sons called Biff and Happy, one of whom was a high school football star. Willy’s decline and fall has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. There are no Jewish references in the play and no Yiddishisms, although some claim that the famous line “Attention must be paid” has a Yiddish cadence. Perhaps the Lomans could be a totally deracinated Jewish family, but there appears to be no longing in any character for a religious or ethnic community, so why would it matter?

I LIKED most of what I saw in my one day, but also felt sad about what was missing. Reviewing the entire program, I saw nothing on Yiddish literature other than plays and a portion of a program devoted to Sholem Aleichem. The fact that 2015 marked the centennial of the death of I. L. Peretz, the great Yiddish writer and Jewish intellectual, appears to have escaped the organizers. Also lacking were any programs devoted to Yiddish humor, satire, poetry, puppetry, comics and graphic novels, or the widespread use of Yiddish in English. There were free copies of the English Forward and the Jewish feminist Lilith magazine available, but none of the Yiddish Forvertz; Pakn Treger, the English-language journal of the National Yiddish Book Center; or Jewish Currents.

Secular Jewish leftists of all stripes played a major role in the American Yiddish world. The only programs dealing with this remarkable phenomenon were documentary films about Itche Goldberg and Camp Kinderland that were screened during lunchtime, when attendance was likely to be low. There was also a presentation by Ann Toback, executive director of the Workmen’s Circle, on the current activities of that organization. On Friday evening, an egalitarian shabes service was held on site and information provided for those looking for nearby services for the Orthodox and the LGBT community. Gornisht (nothing) for secular Jews.

I estimate that Yiddish New York attracted about 125 people for its daytime programs and about 75 more for its evening entertainment. It was a diverse group in age and gender, with a fair number of men wearing yarmulkes. I am sure many present were secular progressive Jews, but I did not see one soul from Jewish Currents or the Workmen’s Circle and bumped into exactly two people from the Congress of Secular Jewish Organization (CSJO), a mother and daughter, and not one from the Society for Humanistic Judaism’s Manhattan-based City Congregation.

Maybe the moral is that if we want secular progressive Jewish voices to be heard, we have to make ourselves more visible, but I think the organizers of Yiddish New York might have done more to reach out. Maybe next year!

Bennett Muraskin is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, among other books.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman,and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.