Tag Archives: Yiddish

Not Your Bubbe’s Punk Rock: An Interview with the Shondes

by Amanda Walgrove

The Shondes is a Brooklyn-based indie band that has garnered attention for their gritty Riot Grrrl rock sound, Jewish influences and political messages. Comprised of Louisa Solomon, Temim Fruchter, Elijah Olberman, and Fureigh, the band has released two albums since their formation in 2006: self-released debut The Red Sea (2008) and My Dear One (2010) with Fanatic Records. The band recently made a celebrated appearance at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, and has a new record in the works. I asked them a few questions about the religious roots of their music, their partnership with progressive Jewish organizations, and a general affinity for bubbe accents.

Using a Yiddish word meaning “disgrace” or “shame” for a band name ties you to Jewish roots and yet separates you from religious orthodoxy. Can you speak about the name of your band, its conception, how much of it is sarcastic?

Temim: When we were making lists upon lists of band names to choose from, we just kept coming back to this one!  We really wanted a Yiddish name because there were such powerful and diverse connections to Yiddish language and culture in the band, and we also all related to the experience of being called a ‘shonde’ because of identity or because of speaking out about justice. We’re reclaiming it here in a way that so many people can relate to.  There’s also such warmth and humor in the Yiddish language for me, and having a Yiddish band name actually really keeps me in touch with some of the laughter and the tenderness in the music we make.

On a personal note, while the band name is certainly unorthodox (no pun intended!) my roots are in the Orthodox community and I still have some strong connections there.  It’s very cool to me that, through this band – and actually, specifically with regard to the band’s name – I’ve been able to have some awesome conversations with other Orthodox or formerly Orthodox Jews who have struggled with being outsiders in their communities in different ways.

Have your Jewish roots affected your discovery of music? Have they influenced the ways in which you express yourselves artistically?

T: Speaking for myself, they certainly have!  I grew up pounding my fists on the Shabbos table and harmonizing to Jewish prayers; dancing to my dad’s Jewish wedding band and loving the beautiful mournful sound of ancient liturgy.  So all of that really helped to shape my deep love of music – something that, for me, is definitely quite spiritual.

And of course, while we’re not a band who makes Jewish music, our backgrounds are a part of who we are and what we bring to our art.  We talk a lot about the musical and cultural Jewish traditions (be they religious or secular) in our families and those conversations inform what we do in the band, for sure.  And of course, we always follow a good old play-‘til-2-in-the-morning rock ‘n roll show with a bagels and cream cheese brunch for the out-of-towners, which always feels like some proud Jewish culture shining through.

Can you briefly describe the inspiration behind the lyrics of “I Watched the Temple Fall”?

L: We wrote “I Watched the Temple Fall” because we were thinking a lot about what Jews put our faith in, and where that faith really lives. We’d been talking about Abraham Joshua Heschel’s notion of Judaism as a religion of time, not space, and thinking about how that related to Zionism. Confining ideas into spaces (temples, states, what have you) can falsely polarize us and take us away from the big, important stuff. We wanted to write a song that clearly said, “Look, it might be devastating to face, but the state of Israel commits actions daily that violate the basic tenets of Judaism.” As a Jew, I feel I have to support Palestinian self-determination, and encourage other Jews to support their struggle for recognition as a people, deserving of human rights, statehood, citizenship, self-governance, lives free from terror. I have spent time in Palestine working in solidarity with the non-violent resistance movement there. Anyone who does that work sees the unjustifiable horror the IDF and settlers inflict, and Judaism encourages us to oppose injustice everywhere.

Temim, you’ve spoken about applying the term “shonde” to the Israeli occupation. Can you elaborate upon this? How have you combined activism with music?

T: When I first really started to explore my feelings about the Israeli occupation, I realized that among other things – things like being angry, being motivated to take action – I actually felt really ashamed.  I couldn’t believe that such violence and oppression was being committed by Israel, supposedly in my name as a Jew.  It felt – and feels – disgraceful.  So that word felt appropriate to me to use.

That’s also the reason that it’s really important to me to let our shows also be able to be political spaces where people can connect and have conversations about stuff like this.  We’ve played shows where we’ve partnered with progressive Jewish organizations like Jews Against the Occupation and where people could learn more about the issues, or just even played “I Watched the Temple Fall” and had some really good and complicated conversations with fans afterward.  Either way, I think art – and music in particular – can be both a really powerful and a really accessible way to start conversations about hard political issues.

The concept of Jewish-American identity among younger generations is rapidly changing. How do you feel that you contribute to and are a part of this shifting landscape?

T: I only hope we’re a part of making this landscape more expansive!  I know so many Jewish people who are making their voices heard in ways that push the envelope a little bit in all the best ways, and I think that that’s incredibly important in painting an always-broader picture of what it can mean to be Jewish.  It’s really exciting that we travel the country on tour and encounter so many different kinds of radical Jewish communities and identities.

What’s on the horizon for The Shondes?

T: First and foremost, our forthcoming new record!  We cannot wait to release this one.  It’s gonna be the one that makes you dance.  Or at least roll down the car windows!  It has been so, so much fun to make and we hope it’s just as fun to listen to.  We’ll also be doing some touring, and definitely have a few other fun surprises up our sleeves for this year.

I’ve seen in your YouTube videos that you all have an affinity for employing mock Jewish mother/grandmother voices. Is this something that occurs often?

T: If this weren’t a print interview, I would answer this question in my best Bea Arthur voice!  It DOES occur often!  It’s like this Jewish bubbe lives in our collective subconscious as a band.  It’s OK, though – we really like her and she makes a killer matzoh ball soup.

Sects, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll

By Symi Rom-Rymer

A group of young Hasidic men hang out at the foot of the subway stairs at a station in Brooklyn, New York.   Soon, another one joins them and the conversation quickly turns heated.  “Do you bite your thumb at us sir?/I do bite my thumb, sir./Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?/No sir, I do not bite my thumb at you sir, but I bite my thumb sir.”  These lines may seem familiar, as they open one of the most famous plays ever written: William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  But would they seem as familiar in Yiddish?

That is a question tackled in “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish,” a film by Eve Annenberg now playing as part of the 2011 New York Jewish Film Festival.  The movie does not simply transport the star-crossed lovers to the streets of Williamsburg.  Rather, it is a film within a film: The plot alternates between the contemporary lives of its protagonists, Lazer, Mendy, and Ava, and the lives of the fictional characters they play, Romeo, Benvolio, and the Nurse.   In an additional twist, the non-Shakespearean parts of the story are modeled on the real lives of the film’s central and first-time actors.

Much like in the movie, Annenberg, a part-time ER nurse and film director, conceived of the idea of making a film of Romeo and Juliet and recruited Hasidic young men and women who had recently left their communities to play the leads.  As the filming got underway, Annenberg realized that the Yiddish script she was using was outdated and turned to her young cast to help her reshape the material.  Over the course of this work, she learned their stories and wove them into the film, creating two parallel plots.

Of course this is not the first time that Romeo and Juliet has been performed in Yiddish.  In the heyday of Yiddish theater, Romeo and Juliet, like many of Shakespeare’s best known plays were translated and performed for audiences from Vilna to New York.  But this adaptation is particularly poignant given that, unlike earlier generations, all of the actors save Annenberg had no familiarity with the story—or even with Shakespeare himself—before speaking his words themselves.

Although their life experiences might have been better suited to some of Shakespeare’s less earnest characters—Lazer and Mendy both smuggled pot and committed credit card fraud after they left their Satmar community as teenagers—they are nonetheless convincing in their roles as the love-sick Romeo and Benvolio, his sympathetic cousin.   But despite these young actors’ abilities, it is their contemporary lives that steal center stage.

The exoticism of their situation and their youthful charisma makes for compelling viewing.   They are at turns brash and arrogant, conning airport police at the U.S. border with fake stories of lost luggage and then paying their defense lawyer with bad checks, and vulnerable children imploring their estranged parents to speak to them, if only over the phone.  Indeed, instead of performing a Shakespeare play, they are living one, complete with wrenching choices about family, power, and morality.

Unfortunately, the film falls short in its failure to delve into the deeper questions it raises: who are these boys?  What drove them away from their previous lives?  What do they see for themselves in their future?  The characters themselves leave the audience intrigued, but the lack of development or analysis is unsatisfying.  Similarly, the Romeo and Juliet narrative is also highly edited, offering little opportunity to become emotionally invested in the characters and  their ultimate fate.

The concept of bringing a work as famous as Shakespeare’s to a group of people previously untouched by his power is also not new, but nonetheless creates a fascinating opportunity to explore how his themes of passionate love and internecine hatred resonate for these young men.  Despite its flaws, Annenberg has created a movie that not only offers its audience a glimpse of an unexplored world, but also a fresh opportunity to celebrate Yiddish and its improbable second incarnation as the language of theater.  She is reportedly in talks for other film projects for her young protégés.  Perhaps in a year or so, we’ll all be hearing “To be or not to be” in Yiddish on the big screen.

Renewing Galicia

by Gabriel Weinstein

My grandfather always chuckled when we spoke about the Galicia region of northwestern Ukraine and southeastern Poland. He’d cackle, “Galicia! We used to make fun of people from there in Rovno [his Ukrainian hometown].”  His depiction was a bit skewed. He failed to mention Galicia was a cultural incubator that produced Hasidic dynasties, the writer Shai Agnon and modern Yiddish music.

My grandfather is not the only person to neglect Galicia’s rich Jewish heritage. According to Yaroslav Hrystak, director of graduate studies at the Ukrainian Catholic University, Ukraine’s Jewish history is “ …like a whole subject that [has] disappeared ”.  Galicia’s once-majestic synagogues and sprawling Jewish cemeteries are now decaying shacks and unkempt meadows.

Although Galicia was home to a diverse Jewish culture, the region’s traditional religious leaning was one of its most distinguishing characteristics. Galician Jews were seen as more religiously observant than their other Eastern European peers. Hayim ben Shelomoh Tyrer, author of the major Hasidic work Sh’ar ha-tefilah and Galician native, helped spread Hasidism throughout Ukraine and Romania. The cities of Belz, Ruzhin and Sandz were all strongholds of major Hasidic factions during the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

The Galician cities of Brody, Lviv and Ternopil were also hubs of the nineteenth century Jewish enlightenment movement known as the Haskalah. The Haskalah was similar to the eighteenth century European Enlightenment in its embrace of literature, philosophy, mathematics, nature and astronomy. The movement, comprised mostly of writers, doctors and civil servants known as maskilim, promoted integration of the Jewish population into mainstream secular society while simultaneously maintaining firm Jewish identities.

As Galicia established itself as a center of religious life, it also nurtured a nascent Jewish artistic community. Beginning in the 1850s the Broder Singers of Brody, regarded as the originators of Yiddish music, began crooning tunes to traveling Jewish merchants. They would soon be playing to international audiences. The Broders dressed in Hasidic garb during performances and were known for their songs mimicking Hasidic practices.

Galicia’s vibrant Jewish atmosphere quickly vanished during the Holocaust. Around one million Jews lived in Ukraine and 700,000 in Galicia at the beginning of the Holocaust. At the Holocaust’s conclusion, the figures plummeted as the Nazis doused the region in Jewish blood.

Galicia’s Jewish past and bloody Holocaust horrors quickly evaporated from the minds of the current citizens in the region after the Holocaust. When the region fell under Soviet rule following the Holocaust, Soviet leaders shut down many Ukrainian synagogues and Jewish institutions. But over the last few years a cadre of American, Israeli and Ukrainian scholars has led a resurgence of interest in Galicia.

Brown University professor Omer Bartov, author of Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine, is at the forefront of the charge of renewed interest in Galicia. Bartov explained in a 2007 interview with The Forward that the main reason Galicia has lost its once-distinct Jewish flavor is because of Galician Ukrainian’s virulent anti-Semitism and staunch nationalism. Ukrainian and Jewish authorities’ contrasting versions of Holocaust history have also contributed to the disappearance of Galicia’s Jewish past. Ukrainian texts rarely mentioned Jews as victims of Nazi oppression, and when they did, often underestimated the number of Jews murdered.  Ukrainian collaboration with Nazi authorities is hardly mentioned.

Bartov is not the only scholar with an interest in Galicia’s Jewish past. Over the past two years, Hebrew University’s Jewish History in Galicia and Bukovina project has sent teams of professors to Galicia to visit the region’s dilapidated synagogues and cemeteries with colleagues from Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU). In October, Hebrew University announced it is establishing with UCU the first Judaic studies graduate program in Ukraine.

For years, Galicia’s sprawling Jewish structures rotted into oblivion and Hitler’s goal of eradicating Jewish culture and life appeared to have been accomplished in the region. But the Jewish world’s belief in Am Yisrael Chai and pride in Jewish culture has prevented a celebrated and integral former Jewish community from becoming a forgotten reality.

The Death of Yiddish?

By Merav Levkowitz

For 25 years, the American klezmer band The Klezmatics has been unable to sustain itself solely from their Yiddish klezmer music. The reason is not for lack of talent: In 2006, they won a Grammy award for Best Contemporary World Music Album for their album Wonder Wheel: Lyrics by Woody Guthrie. In an age when music gains fame through social media and viral marketing, a Grammy award may not mean instant fame and success for anyone.  Yet the Klezmatics, the subject of a  documentary called On Holy Ground, have faced difficulties with deeper roots: the decline of Yiddish.

For centuries, Yiddish was more than just an “Oy gevalt” and a “What chutzpah!” thrown into other languages for comic effect. Rather, Yiddish was the beacon of a rich East European Jewish culture of language, literature, poetry, and music, like klezmer. For most of its history, Yiddish was the primary language spoken by Ashkenazi Jews. A variety of factors led to the decline of Yiddish language and culture, most significant of which was the Holocaust; the majority of its Jewish victims were Yiddish speakers. For many of the remaining speakers in Europe, Israel, and the United States, Yiddish stood as a nostalgic emblem of the past and sometimes even an impediment to assimilation and modernization. Only the Hasidic communities of the diaspora have sustained Yiddish as their spoken language. Nevertheless, as the number of Yiddish speakers has dwindled with the passing of the older generations, Yiddish’s rich secular culture has died with them.

A 2006 Modern Language Association survey found that there are just under 1,000 college students studying Yiddish at the 28 institutions offering language courses in the United States. At the beginning of 2010, for example, the University of Maryland, home to one of the nation’s oldest and strongest Yiddish programs, announced that, due to tighter budgets and low enrollment, it would cut funding to the program after this academic year. At the same time, other nails have been driven into “the coffin of Yiddish.” At the end of the summer, The New York Times reported that the only secular Yiddish bookstore in New York was closing. Archives remain full of Yiddish texts, but as Maryland professor Miriam Isaacs laments, today, few people can read or translate them. The body of Yiddish writers, once boasting numbers in the hundreds, now hovers around fifty.

Yiddish appears to be cornered in a Catch-22. Historical circumstances depleted the group of speakers, writers, and thinkers, as did American assimilation. More recently, low demand has resulted in the cutting of Yiddish programs, but such cuts also remove these programs from the “menu” of options available to students. Still, not all is lost for Yiddish language and culture. Organizations, like the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York and the Yiddish Book Center in Western Massachusetts, maintain meticulous archives and proof of Yiddish life and support scholars in the field, in spite of dwindling resources. Though not MTV stars, bands like The Klezmatics continue to create modernized Yiddish klezmer tunes, sacrificing higher-paying jobs for this passion. There remain small pockets of Yiddish revivalism throughout the country, like a Washington DC group of about ten people who meet weekly to speak Yiddish and a Yiddish conversation and music group in Brooklyn. Earlier this month the Jewish Studies Department at San Francisco State University made Jewish headlines by announcing a new “Yiddish History, Literature and Society,” which, though taught in English, will explore Yiddish culture. Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer summed it up best: “Yiddish has been dying for a thousand years, and I’m sure it will go on dying for another thousand.”

Kiev Celebrates Sholom Aleichem, then Destroys his House

By Jeremy Gillick


Following celebrations in Kiev in honor of the 150th anniversary of Sholom Aleichem’s birth, developers destroyed his house.

The great Yiddish writer would not have been surprised. Many of his stories dealt with misfortune, luck and the arbitrariness of life. He himself fell victim to risk and a volatile economy. As Dara Horn writes in an essay at jbooks.com, “Right on the Money,” Aleichem “lost his entire fortune on the Kiev stock exchange, and spent the rest of his life evading his creditors.”

On another note, for the first time in a long time, Sholom Aleichem has a new book out in English, Wandering Stars, also in honor of his 150th birthday (the Forward has an excerpt). Thankfully, it doesn’t directly relate to Madoff or any other contemporary scandal, crisis, election or war; it concerns Yiddish theater. Dara Horn has a nice piece about the novel in the Forward. Continue reading

Laughter Through Tears

By Jeremy Gillick

Sholom Aleichem, the revered 19th century writer whose earnest, incredulous and good-natured humor came to define a century of Jewish jokes, is back. Not resurrected–Aleichem was never much of a believer, though he undoubtedly would have welcomed the Messiah into the world like an old friend into his home–but reincarnated in the body and voice of Theodore Bikel. At 84, the man who made Fiddler on the Roof into an American story–Bikel has played Tevye the Dairyman upwards of 2000 times–has brought back to life the man whose writings shaped his long and illustrious career.

“Laughter Through Tears,” which recently premiered at the DCJCC’s Theater J and which, following it’s strong reception, was extended to run through January 18th, is a one-man tribute to Sholom Aleichem. Written, acted and sung by Bikel himself, the play offers a moving and funny depiction of Aleichem that is at once sincere and nostalgic. Not just nostalgic for Aleichem, or even for Bikel’s own distant youth, but for Yiddish, a language on behalf of which Aleichem fought an uphill battle for most of his life.

Forced from his home in Eastern Europe by pogroms, Aleichem found himself, alongside countless other immigrants, in a land where assimilation all but required abandoning his native language. But, as Bikel reminds us, Yiddish was the soul of the Jewish people; Aleichem could not have written in any other language for precisely that reason. Despite his best efforts, its use faded. The old country may have been full of dreams and longing, as Bikel explains, but so too is the new one, and the old country is their object.

Bikel’s performance won’t bring back Aleichem or the land and people of his tales, but it gives a glimpse, and that might be enough to forestall the demise of a lost language. In fact, its revival may already be under way.

An Interview with Peter Manseau, Author of Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter

By Jeremy Gillick

“Rise and go to the town of the killings,” Bialik wrote of Kishinev, the Moldovan city, formerly Russian, where a 1903 Easter Sunday blood libel famously escalated into a brutal three-day pogrom. A momentous event, the pogrom both expedited the Jewish exodus from Eastern Europe and helped usher Zionism into the 20th century. “Your feet will sink in feathers,” wrote Bialik forebodingly. “Half the buds will be feathers, and their smell the smell of blood.”

This image of blood and feathers in the heart of the Yiddish-speaking world is the backdrop of Peter Manseau’s new novel, Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter. As the Kishinev pogrom begins and feathers flutter from Jewish windows, Itsik Malpesh, destined to become the last great Yiddish writer, is born. Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter tells his story, from his days reading Dostoyevsky in the back of the cheder and sweeping up goose poop in his father’s down factory, to his search for the butcher’s daughter, Sasha, to his eventual emigration to New York, where he struggles to make a name for himself as a Yiddish poet. Throughout, Manseau interweaves Malpesh’s story with loosely autobiographical “translator’s notes” in which the narrator recounts how he stumbled upon Malpesh’s memoir.

Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter reads like a thriller. Gracefully written, Manseau offers an exhilarating exploration of violence and religion, a glimpse of a dying culture being remade, and a look at what Yiddish means. If the book is flawed in the sense that the pieces all fit together a little bit too well, it is nonetheless a remarkable accomplishment for a first time novelist, and the son of a priest and former nun to boot. As the Pulitzer Prize winning writer Junot Diaz put it, Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter is “an extraordinary novel, and Itsik Malpesh is one of literature’s most stunning creations.”

Manseau, co-author of Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet and more recently Vows, studies religion and teaches writing at Georgetown University. He sat down with ITM to talk about his unique position as a non-Jewish, Jewish writer. Continue reading