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Radical Yiddish: Kulbak’s Minsk, Kahn’s Berlin

July 13, 2013
by Joel Schechter Soviet Yiddish writer Moyshe Kulbak, arrested and executed in 1937, could be one of the poètes maudits (accursed or outsider poets) about whom Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird sing in their new release, Bad Old Songs: Kahn Kulbakah yes wasn’t it miserable, wasn’t it grand? when the world had an iron divide & people could take a political stand just by singing a song for the opposite side now nobody cares who you are anymore & nobody cares what you say it’s liberty’s curse, but was it really much worse in the good old bad old days? “Bad Old Songs” by Daniel Kahn, 2013 Kahn, who now lives in Berlin, performs songs in Yiddish, German and English, as he did when I saw him at the Jewish Music Festival in Berkeley this past spring. With wit and rue, he sings Dylanesque klezmer ballads about the past in Eastern Europe, and hymns to human loss in war, love, and post-Cold War culture. Lyrics come from YIVO’s Ruth Rubin archive, Heinrich Heine, Leonard Cohen, and Kahn himself. Berlin, with its history as a city that once excluded Jews and now houses a highly diverse population, is the subject of some of Kahn’s most inspired lines: by the wall is a souvenir table with hammers & sickles displayed on new watches that work, & they’re sold by a Turk in these good old bad old days Brecht was quoted in an earlier Painted Bird compact disc, advising: “Do not build on the good old days, but on the bad new ones.” Yet Kahn finds in the new Berlin signs and ironies of the old days — souvenir hammer-and-sickle watches, an upended statue of Marx, kisses and romance “all in the file” of the secret police — which suggest that the past may always be with us, at least as a source for new song lyrics. Kahn’s concern that today “nobody cares what you say,” “liberty’s curse” in free Berlin, would not have been shared by Moyshe Kulbak when he wrote his masterful comic novel, The Zelmenyaners, published in installments between 1929 and 1935. Yiddish writers such as Kulbak, who were subsidized by the Soviet state, were also placed on trial by the state once Stalin’s regime began to arrest alleged betrayers. Kulbak was accused of spying for Poland, although no evidence of his “crime” survives. He might have disturbed authorities through his satiric and not completely Social Realist depiction of Soviet life in The Zelmenyaners, but the book was not at all harsh in its critique of post-revolutionary developments; in fact, in 1936, a Minsk-based critic of the novel actually thought the satire was too mild, with its depiction of Jewishness “transforming [Jewish life] into a folk tradition, an exalted national form.” I can imagine the novelist being questioned about this book during his secret trial: “Comrade Kulbak, why is your satire of practicing Jews so mild? You find their old ways of drinking tea with jam amusing. You have a character named Uncle Yuda say: ‘Lenin is a great man, of course he is; but what does he know about religion?’ Does your Uncle Yuda know more than Comrade Lenin?” There’s no record of such an interrogation, of course; there’s no record of the trial at all. Kulbak was “rehabilitated” after Stalin’s death, and his novel was reissued by the Soviets in 1971. The book has also now been “rehabilitated” in the United States, that is to say, Yale University Press has published a translation by Hillel Halkin of this landmark of comic Yiddish literature, in full-length (only volume one of two was previously available here in English, in a 1977 translation by Nathan Halper, as part of the Howe and Greenberg anthology, Ashes Out of Hope). Kulbak’s saga of a large Jewish family in Minsk finds humor and pathos in the Zelmenyaner courtyard’s responses to the revolution, as it arrives accompanied by electric lighting, radio reception, a newborn infant named Marat, and Communist slogans. Reb Zelmele’s four sons — known as Uncle Itshe, Uncle Yuda, Uncle Foyle, and Uncle Zishe ­— and their wives watch the next generation lose contact with traditional Jewish practices. When Aunt Gita single-handedly holds a seder, for example, the younger generation, the “little Zelmenyaners” also known as the “whippersnaps,” wonder if she has “taken leave of her senses.” They have no idea why she sits at a beautifully set table, wearing Uncle Zishe’s “old linen prayer gown” and rocking “back and forth while chanting vigorously from a book.” Standing in the courtyard, the children stare through a window at her strange ritual, and for them: “To judge from Aunt Gita’s behavior, she could only be dying.” In fact, her way of life is dying by losing its followers, despite efforts of the family elders to inculcate some Jewish consciousness in the youngsters. Uncle Yuda’s scholarly and suicidal son Tsalke reports that he “found an old copy of Tsena-Rena [Bible stories written in Yiddish for female readers] without its title page. It’s a 17th-century edition.” The young woman he loves responds: “Herring! What does your discovery mean for socialist construction?” Poor Tsalke doesn’t stand a chance with his beloved socialist Tonke, who rejects his shy overtures and becomes a single mother. She never names her child’s father, but Tonke claims: “The child’s father is a good Bolshevik. He’s shot more than his share of Jewish speculators.” When Tonke admits the child’s father is a goy, her Aunt Nekhe responds: “Since nobody knows him, you can just as well say he’s a Jew. And not just a Jew but a good Jew.” Nekhe’s efforts to insure a future for the family’s Judaism do not succeed, as industrial progress ultimately leads to the razing of the Zelmenyaner courtyard housing (replaced by the Kommunarka Candy Factory) and dispersal of the residents to new state-built apartments. Before the end of the saga, Kulbak provides a parody of an ethnographic study, attributed to Tsalke, which includes “a scientific investigation into the material and intellectual culture, traits, and customs” of Reb Zelmele’s family’s courtyard, founded in 1864. Tsalke’s report, just as eccentric as the family itself, claims “the yard’s most important implement is the grater, which is indispensable for the Zelmenyaners’ renowned potato pudding.” In the ethnographer’s list of family remedies for illness we find “a hot compress” featured as the main medication, with “[sweet] jam . . . reserved for special cases . . . . It is thought to be good for fainting, childbirth, chest pains, and panic attacks.” Kulbak’s novel is itself a cure for ailments such as lack of oxygen and lost memory, which laughter can restore to the bloodstream and the soul. The novelist’s artistry rivals that of Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Babel, in vivid scenes that recall both Tevye mourning a daughter’s marriage and Babel riding with the Red cavalry. Kulbak also may have ingeniously deceived Soviet censors and gotten his work’s cumulative elegy for Old World Judaism past them by publishing it in installments over six years. According to Sasha Senderovich’s comment in the new English edition’s introduction, the censors initially allowed installments to be published because “they read the novel as a proper Social Realist story of the disintegration of a traditional Jewish family, and its integration into Soviet society.” By the end, however, it becomes clear the Zelmenyaner mishpokhe, including Communist Party members, teems with too much nonconformity and comic oddity for the book to fit the mold of Social Realism. Then again, while his book may have escaped prosecution, the author did not. Although not specifically referring to Kulbak, Daniel Kahn, in his mock-nostalgic song about the “Good Old Bad Old Days,” calls for a toast “to the time when the state knew your name.” That was Kulbak’s time, when he and other Yiddish writers printed in Soviet-subsidized journals were closely read and held accountable for their work by employees of the state. No longer subject to Soviet criticism of its insufficiently Stalinist viewpoint (if it had that viewpoint at all, which is debatable), The Zelmenyaners now can be enjoyed for its heterodox leftist portrait of Yiddish life in Minsk, and as part of a larger innovative literary movement that the Soviet revolution briefly supported through publishing houses and theaters (including the Moscow State Yiddish Theater, where Kulbak’s play Boytre the Bandit was staged and praised in 1936). Looking back at Soviet Jewish life though the filter of Kulbak’s satiric novel, we see that traditional Jewish practices were heavily contested in the USSR in the 1930s, and artists like Kulbak did not see a radiant future ahead for traditional Jewish life. “Gone is the merry Jew who needed only a bowl of sorrel soup to make him sing the world’s wonders,” Kulbak wrote lyrically and prophetically in Chapter 9 of Volume 2. “. . . Gone is the last tailor, and the little house, and . . . the Socialist Revolutionary with the blond goatee, that jesting philosopher who did numbers from The Luria Brothers [a Yiddish play by Jacob Gordin] . . . for the whole town on Saturday nights.” Yet today the Soviet Union itself is gone, by official decree, as much a victim of a badly conducted revolution as Kulbak’s Jewish family courtyard — while the Zelmenyaners still can be heard, speaking English in America, in all their comic variety, for and against socialist construction. Joel Schechter conducts the “Radical Yiddish” column in Jewish Currents and is the author of Radical Yiddish, a book of essays and cartoons, among other books.

Daniel Kahn on His Influences and Background

Excerpts from an interview by Hershl Hartman 220px-Daniel_Kahn,_Luxembourg“The music I make is a pretty logical synthesis of many of my interests. If something resonates with me, I try to stay with it, to follow it wherever it leads me. It was like that with Yiddish. My interest in radical politics preceded it. I was politicized by growing up around the Detroit area. Politics and music were always related. That led me to punk, folk, soul, Dylan, Waits, Cohen, Bertolt Brecht, Woody Guthrie, etc. Klezmer found me in New Orleans. Yiddish as a song language found me in Canada, where I met Michael Alpert, Adrienne Cooper, and many others. The rich and radical world of Yiddish folk music fit right in with the music, politics, and cultures I already had in my life. My approach was simply to use all these influences at once, and to try to reflect my thinking about the world around me. “My father, David, was a tireless questioner and had wonderful eyes and ears for details. He was critical in the best sense of the word. I learned that from him. He also taught me the durable value of songwriting over all other forms of writing. A good song can outlast the finest poetry or prose. Even bad songs have an edge on many decently written texts. “I also went to the Roeper School for twelve years. It was founded by internationalist humanistic educators who had to flee the Nazis. They came to Detroit and put their ideas into action. Everyday, I find myself using things I learned at Roeper. “I got my primary Jewish education at a very large Reform temple. There were some valuable things I learned there, and I connected with some of the clergy, but it wasn’t for me. As I got older, I moved away from the religious and nationalistic sides of being Jewish and began to connect more on a cultural and historical level. I worked a lot at a professional Jewish theater that dealt with Jewishness in a very open and loose way. And I was always drawn to the Birmingham Temple (the Society for Humanistic Judaism). I had the pleasure of hearing Rabbi Wine talk about his journeys in Odessa, his political ideas, his commitment to activism. He had a great mind. “At YIVO, I took the full summer program and some extra courses. It was great, very intense. I got to learn from Avrom Lichtenbaum. He taught me “s’iz nito keyn yidishe kultur, es zenen nor do yidishe kulturn” — “There is no such thing as Jewish culture, there are only Jewish cultures.” An important distinction. I guess I’m kind of anti-monolithic when it comes to culture. “I first encountered Brecht in high school and college, studying theater. His ideas about politics and performance are something I think about whenever I set foot on a stage. And he was a fantastic storyteller. I always try to have at least one of his songs in my concerts. Last year, I had the chance to bring The Painted Bird to his hometown of Augsburg for the Brecht Festival. Then I stayed for a week after the concert to compose and perform music for a production of his story, “The Augsburger Chalk Circle.” “I’ve been in Berlin since 2004. It’s the most popular city for young artists in the world today. It’s cheaper than most cities, it’s green, and it’s great for biking. Sure, the place is haunted. But most places are, if you look close enough. Here, it’s more apparent, and they’re dealing with it in a very interesting way. I like taking part in the conversation about the past and how it intersects with the present. And there are good restaurants. “I’ve often said that Yiddish, as opposed to being a “dead” language, is a lonely language. That loneliness comes with a number of historical and cultural barriers surrounding it. But translation is a powerful tool to break these borders. Or at least be able to smuggle a few songs past the guards.” Hershl Hartman directs the column “Our Secular Jewish Heritage” in Jewish Currents and is education director of Los Angeles’ Sholem Community and School.
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