by Rokhl Kafrissen
I’ve got ghosts in my life. Being of the Jewish grandparent variety, they like to get involved. Not long ago, a psychic told my mom that my grandmother, Rose, for whom I am named, had something to say. You’d think Rose would have a million things to say, seeing as she’s been dead almost thirty-five years, but no, Rose only had one item on her agenda: me. Her message (leaving out the embarrassing details) was something like: Grow up and act like a mentsh.
Immediately after hearing this, I got a little paranoid: When, exactly, was she watching me? Was she watching me now? I eventually figured that she had probably seen enough in her life and whatever I might be doing (as long as he’s Jewish) probably wouldn’t give her a heart attack. Especially with her being dead.
Naturally, once you come to terms with the idea of a ghostly grandmother judging you from yener velt (the next world), you can’t help but wonder when the ghostly grandfather might show. The thought certainly occurred to me five seconds after I had my first “my grandmother shouldn’t be watching this” panic attack.
I had a pretty good idea what worried Rose when she was alive. (A lot.) I could make an educated guess as to which areas of my life she might be monitoring. (Most.) But Harry was more than dead: He died when my mom was five, and his presence in my life amounted to a few photos and a fairly scary genetic legacy. Even for a ghost, the guy was hard to pin down.
Yet the more I thought about the absence of Harry, the more present he was. Throughout my life, whenever I would express an interest in journalism or win a writing contest (not that there were that many), my mom would inevitably remark that her father Harry had wanted to be a writer. I never knew what to make of that, as she produced no evidence of his ambition. But it got downright eerie when, right after I started law school, I learned that Harry had gone to law school, too. And after graduating, Harry couldn’t find a job either. He had a real excuse: In his day, it was close to impossible for a Jew to get a job as a lawyer in Boston. So he headed to Allentown, PA and opened a textile factory with his brothers, consequently embodying many beloved Jewish clichés before dropping dead of a heart attack on a train bound for New York.
So here I am, a lawyer with a million choices Harry never had, and no idea of which of my choices would make his ghost happy. Goddamn, you better believe it kills me that I don’t know what Harry would have done with his law degree. Did he long to join the FBI and be a Jewish Eliot Ness? (Khas v’kholile.) Would he have been a criminal defense attorney representing unfriendly witnesses who refused to testify before HUAC? (Hey, I can dream.)
For me and Harry, the connection is strong but the details remain achingly sparse. This is why I seek out my own spiritual grandparents to fill in the details: people who created and shaped the modern Jewish culture in which I take so much pride, people whom I see as role models, people whose approval I seek, even as my own path may confound and annoy them.
Of course, I don’t seek to be exactly as they are, or were. The world has changed too much for that. It goes without saying that the battles of 1955 are not the battles of 2005 and I can only be who I am, a child of the privileged, sterile suburbs of Long Island, not rough-and-tumble heymish Brooklyn. Feminism and reforming our drug laws are the most important political causes for me, not union organizing and integration.
But I can, and do, choose to study, and be inspired by, heroes of Jewish culture — people like Morris Schappes. Though I never met him, I was lucky to be able to attend his memorial service held last September. I heard about the amazing courage and vision he showed over a long, fascinating life. And while I count MUS among my spiritual grandfathers, I am genuinely heartbroken that it took him ninety years to light his first Khanike candle. It’s a goddamn candle, not a shtreyml and stockings! Nothing that simple and joyful should wait ninety years. It hurts me to see how hard his generation had to struggle against the grip of traditional Judaism, and how far they had to go to find their peace with it.
My Judaism depends on some level of engagement with ritual and practice. For observant Jews, this level of observance will always be laughably insufficient and for shtark secularists it will always be obscenely excessive. And I respect both ends of that spectrum. I hover around both worlds, hence my Rootlessness.
Then there’s the Cosmopolitan part. As a Jew my home is here, in the U.S., in the Jewish Autonomous Zone known as Washington Heights. I reject wholeheartedly the misguided and tragic efforts of the American Jewish establishment to turn me into some kind of ersatz Israeli, preparing me for an emigration that they know, purely by looking at the statistics, will never happen. Rootless Cosmopolitan to Jewish Establishment: Get a fucking clue! My culture, my family, my very DNA is stamped ‘Made in Eastern Europe.’
Try shouting that in a room full of Jewish funders with money to burn. They’ll look at you like you just planted a tree in memory of Yassir Arafat. I say this having recently attended a reception with a room full of Jewish funders. Though I most certainly did not plant a tree for Arafat, I did bring up something almost as taboo: the importance and relevance of Eastern European culture to today’s “youth.” You see, the reception was in honor of a new philanthropic umbrella organization called 21/64. As a division of the Bronfman Philanthropies, their mandate is to support innovative approaches to Jewish youth outreach and giving. I’m lucky I didn’t get thrown out. Rather, I sipped free cocktails at the bar with Joshua Neuman, editor-in-chief of Heeb, both of which, man and magazine, I called to task in this very column. No, I didn’t give him a copy of Jewish Currents. He was busy being interviewed as a representative of the vanguard of Jewish continuity.
21/64 has something to be proud of. Seriously. After evaluating a huge range of Jewish outreach enterprises throughout North America, they featured fifty in a guide aimed at Jewish philanthropists looking to “diversify” their philanthropic portfolio. This is a great way to highlight organizations that might not otherwise have access to big bucks. But of the fifty featured projects, only one had any connection with Eastern European Jewish culture, and that was about teaching the Holocaust! Jewish camping, Jewish biking, and of course, Heeb magazine were all featured as empowering young Jews and providing “positive and celebratory ways of experiencing Judaism.” The strain of all this empowering, reenvisioning, and reinventing was palpable, as well as the funders’ desperation to fund something, anything, that kids can relate to.
I asked the president of the Bronfman Philanthropies, Jeffrey Solomon, this question: If you can fund a Jewish record label (JDub Records), why not make the leap to fund actual Jewish music that reflects and incorporates a thousand years of Jewish life? I will not suffer the pretense that there is no actual Jewish culture with which to engage young Jews. I know such a thing exists, because I spend my few moments not chained to a cubicle taking in as much as I can. And for every party, play or performance I attend, three more are forsaken.
Since my last column I’ve had the opportunity to see six theater pieces in Yiddish, in translation or a mixture of both. I only had time to see three. One was the powerful Neveyle (“Carcass“), presented by the new Diaspora Theater Company. The other two were inspired, though very differently, by Yiddish life in Poland. Brave Old World’s Songs from the Lodz Ghetto showed us a side of the ghetto I’d never seen before —the humanity of people, good and bad, trapped together under the worst of circumstances. I also saw the beautiful White Pajamas, a collaboration between puppeteer Jenny Romaine and painter Maeyer Kirscheblatt. Using Maeyer’s exquisite childhood memories of his hometown Apt, as recreated on canvas, they portrayed the human detail of a time that’s too often presented as one-dimensional.
Finally, I danced my ass off with the klezmer/gypsy funk force that is Golem. The band took over the Knitting Factory on June 9th to revive an old Catskills end-of-season tradition: the marriage of a cross-dressing bride and groom followed by blow-out party. They re-created every detail, down to the party favors (condoms, if you must know.) It was about 1000 degrees and the house was packed. The highlights included the first ketubah I know of to mention oral sex, and real Jewish party music. This was my Jewish continuity. It was silly and sad all at the same time.
None of my grandparents will be at my wedding. But they’ve made me who I am, all of them. Across time and space (and sometimes just across town), they push me to continue what they started. And I like to think that they’ll feel right at home when Golem plays my khasene, not just because I’m doing it for them, but because I’m a lot like them. Thanks, Harry.
by Rokhl Kafrissen