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Yiddish Film: Menashe (2017)


There are a lot of posts I do where I feel like am a duplicating the efforts of other. As an example, there is a fairly comprehensive book on Yiddish film, "Bridge of Light" by Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman. There is probably some value in me writing about, say, "Mamele," in that criticism always benefits from a plurality of voices, but aside from my own eccentric take on the subject I don't think I can contribute any new information not provided by Dr. Hoberman.

But Hoberman wrote his book in 1995, so there has been 22 years of new Yiddish film since then, and they have not been written about comprehensively. And every so often I get to tackle a new film relatively early, such as "Menashe," an independent film I viewed at the Minneapolis St. Paul Film Festival; it has not yet gone into wide release.

In some ways, I feel like I got into this one too early. The film is set in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn, and is largely made up of Hasidic and ex-Hasidic actors. It was scripted by director Joshua Z. Weinstein, along with Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed, none of whom, to the best of my knowledge, have extensive experience with the Haredi experience (in fact, Syeed is Muslim.)

But director Weinstein has a background in documentary filmmaking, and it sounds as though the cast (especially including star Menashe Lustig, whose biography this movie borrows from) contributed to the eventual film. Presumably this brought a needed authenticity to the story, with the cast and star acting as a refernce and providing checks and balances to how they are represented. But, again, the film is not yet in wide release, and probably will not generally be seen by Hasids, who tend to avoid secular films. I have some connections in the ex-Hasid world, and will be curious to see what they think.

From the outside, the film seems unusually nuanced. Firstly, the plot: The movie tells of a widowed Hasidic man and his troubled relationship with him community and his son. Menashe, played by Lustig, is an eccentric by Hasidic standards, particularly in his refusal to remarry. He seems to be wavering between extremism and liberalism, but mostly seems to be struggling both with poverty and immaturity.

Menashe is a shlemiel -- he's called that by his brother-in-law. Usually this word suggests someone who is comically unlucky or inept, but "Menashe" is not a comedy, and so the main character's experiences are more often frustrating or humiliating than humorous. Especially thorny: His son has been taken away from him until he remarries.

At first, this seems like an unusually cruel communal convention. Menashe deeply loves his son, and it visibly tortures him to be separated. (It should be noted that Lustig's performance in this film is superlative; the whole cast is superb.) But the film also hints that this rule is specifically being enforced because Menashe is too immature to properly care for his child; he can't even properly tend for a pet chicken he has purchased.

It can be tough to watch. There is a line in the movie "Amelie" that describes a character as not liking to see a parent humiliated in front of their child, and sometimes this seems to be the entirety of "Menashe." Additionally, the title character reveals the source of his ambivalence about marriage, and it becomes obvious that he's deep in the throes of what is called "survivor guilt." His guilt about his wife's death, and his relationship beforehand, may be the source of his irresponsibility and occasional hostility toward his community, which has neither the skills nor the language to address his experience.

The film allows both flashes of compassion and cruelty -- the same community leader that slips Menashe extra money and praises his terrible cooking is, in another scene, shown refusing a girl the opportunity to go to college. We just hear her in the background, and hear that her heart is broken.

The film represents the extent to which Hasidic life is circumscribed by ritual -- we see Menashe praying at night before he goes to sleep and washing his hands as soon as his wakes. It's a balancing act, as, if the film approached the subject as a documentary might, it would be possible to get lost in the rituals -- the thrice-daily prayers; the complicated rules around what can and cannot be done on shabbos; the dense, insular language of piety. The Hasidic world in not merely closed because some speak Yiddish, or because some live in religious enclaves, or because it has a handful of particular rules.

No, it is a denser world than that, and the film carefully threads the needle as to showing the particulars of that world while opening it up enough for viewers to connect with Menashe, his grief, and his struggles to reconnect with his son. As an outsider, I feel the filmmakers did a fine job with this, but, as I said, I do not yet know what insiders (or, at least, former insiders) think.

Year 2, Week 16: 160,000 flashcards


The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 446 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 282 hours
I have reviewed 4,919 individual flashcards

I made some progress breaking out of my slump this week. I have received a copy of "Colloquial Yiddish" by LilyKahn and have started plugging lessons from that book. I have also started creating word lists of the sorts of things I talk about for new vocab words, rather than simply finding words at random in the dictionary, which was amusing for a while and maybe will be again in the future.

My word lists began with words about cowboys, because of course it did. I also added in a lot of words related to music, and I have a long time this weekend and think I shall spending it just making lists of words I use and then plugging them into my flashcards.

I think I need to revisit my schedule. I was waking up at 6 a.m. to take out my dog and then study Yiddish, and it has just left me exhausted. I had to stay out later last night and so slept in until 7 a.m., and it was wonderful.

So when to study Yiddish? I have been trying an experiment this week where I study on the bus, in waiting rooms, whenever I have downtime. Instead of studying in one fell swoop, I study in five or 10 minute chunks throughout the day.

This has turned out to work fine, so I think I will continue to experiment with it. It makes plowing through 100-plus words a lot less daunting, and kills time nicely where otherwise I would often be bored.

In the meanwhile, I also bought a new iPod. The last one kept running into memory problems, and so I use the old one pretty much exclusively for my Yiddish flashcards now and the new one for music, video games, everything that would no longer fit on the old iPod.

So I'd better keep this going. My goal is to literally fill up my old iPhone with flashcards. Currently the flashcards use 854 MBs of memory; my iPod has 32 GB total storage. I'm almost at 5,000 flashcards. So my iPod should hold at least 160,000 flashcards.

I reckon by the time I get there I will speak pretty good Yiddish.

Year 2, Week 15: The burnout


The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 439 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 277 hours
I have reviewed 4,876 individual flashcards

I added no new flashcards this past week. Usually it's the last thing I do at the end of the day, just before I go to bed, but I would reach the end of the day, exhausted, and just not have the energy to plug in 15 new cards.

I know that some of it is that daylight saving time has thrown me for a real loop this year, worse than I remember. I wake exhausted and go through my day that way, fighting sleep at work, and slipping into naps on the bus on the way to and from my job. I will study my flashcards for a while and then feeling my eyes cross and have to sleep for 10 minutes, 15 minutes before I can focus again.

It also doesn't help that I gave up sugary food and caffeine recently. I had to. I am somewhat overweight, have a slight genetic propensity for diabetes, and a biological grandfather who died from the disease. The sugar also kept me on a constant, unpleasant rollercoaster of rising and falling blood sugar, which kept me snacking constantly.

With the sudden drop in caloric intake, my body has probably already run through whatever reserves of glucose it had, and so now I'm ending my day in a deficit. You want this if you want to lose weight, but, boy, by 11 p.m. I am ready to just crawl into bed and be done with the day.

But there is something else going on. It's burnout.

I was in the Lynn-Lake neighborhood of Minneapolis a few days ago and I passed a store there, Schatzlein Saddle Shop, which sells saddled and tack and also a selection of cowboy clothes.

I had wandered into the store years ago, curious about it, and was struck by a red cowboy shirt emblazoned with musical notes. After resisting for a few days, I bought the shirt, and quickly turned into the sort of person who would wear that shirt. I taught myself cowboy songs on ukulele, and taught myself to yodel, and taught myself how to spin a pistol. I even had my own little cowboy show in Omaha for a while.

I missed it. I still listen to country music quite often, and watch cowboy movies now and then, but it was a lot of fun turning myself into a singing cowboy.

There are few things in my life that I sometimes throw myself into, just for the fun of it. I am awful fond of the poppier aspects of mid-20th century horror films — I wrote about horror-themed novelty music for quite a long time, and really enjoyed that.

I found myself thinking about these things. And I found myself missing the fun. Should I dress in cowboy clothes once per week and go to western bars? Should I secretly start a blog about cowboy horror films? What could I do to get the fun back?

And then I realized I was not having fun with the Yiddish project.

Now, this was a momentary thought, and it's not especially true. I had a blast in New York doing various Jewish activities. But, for whatever reason, at that moment, I was ready to drop the Yiddish project. I wasn't sure where I was headed with it. I felt like maybe it had run its course.

I may have just packed too much into too short a time and need to pare back a little. I may also just be tired, and have been sick, and may be struggling with a lack of sugar and caffeine. The next day, I felt better.

But the fact that I have stopped adding new words indicated to me that I'm not getting anything out of that anymore. And of course I am not.

It's an awful lot of work, memorizing words and phrases. It's also tremendously frustrating, as you just keep forgetting what you have learned and must reteach yourself the same information over and over.

And so I am struggling to learn a massive amount of information that, at the moment, I have no practical use for. And because my grammar is so terrible, I can barely use it to put together a sentence to have a conversation with myself.

Nonetheless, I have continued studying my flashcards unabated, which means my burnout isn't so bad that I want to just take a break from it altogether. And thank goodness -- those are the sorts of breaks that people often don't come back from.

It may not help that I work full-time at a Jewish newspaper, which means that I am interact constantly with Jewish content. I may simply have over-Jewed myself a little.

But I think I have reached a moment where I need to come up with a practical application for the Yiddish I have been studying. In the meanwhile, I need to figure out a way to make the flashcards fun again.

Knowing me, it will be something very silly. Maybe something about cowboys.

Jews and microaggressions


I've come to the unhappy conclusion that your average American is no longer capable of recognizing even the most blatant antisemitism, which I suppose I might be happy about if it meant antisemitism had ceased to exist and so memories of it were starting to fade.

This is not the case, of course. I shouldn't be surprised, as we're also in an America where a significant number of white people seem sure that racism no longer exists. It just seems to be a matter of course nowadays that if you don't experience a particular oppression, you're sure it doesn't exist, or that it is being exaggerated, and that everybody is too sensitive.

Oppression tends to pass itself off as common sense, masquerading itself as a teller of obvious if unpopular truths. And so it is entirely possible — quite easy in fact — for people to not believe racism exists and yet to be unrepentantly racist.

A lot of public misbehavior takes the form of something called microaggressions. If you think people complaining about blatant oppression are bellyachers, you're probably not going to be keen on this theory, because they describe momentary encounters.  Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce, who coined the phrase in 1970s, described them as "brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership."

They serve as almost subliminal messages, and the messages are never very good: You are not part of our group; we believe nonsense about you; we do not give you the same courtesy; we think your group is comical and ridiculous.

They're typically presented lightly, as a joke or an aside, and their smallness is insidious. It means any reaction to them is going to seem like an overreaction. Never mind that the people reacting are not reacting to a single microaggression, but to dozens, hundreds, thousands, all piled on top of each other, coming at them constantly, all serving as reminders that you are the subject of contempt.

Jews get it too, and if huge, undeniable acts of antisemitism are barely acknowledged, microaggressions against Jews go entirely unacknowledged. Here's a starter list; it is by no means complete, and I may add to it in the future, but these are the sorts of things Jews hear all the time.

1. Telling a Jew that they don't look Jewish

Jews do this too, to the point that "That's funny, you don't look Jewish" is a longstanding, lazy punchline. Jews shouldn't say this, because there is no one Jewish look. Even in Europe at the turn of the 20th century, when Jews were a relatively homogenized population, contemporary writing reveals that there were significant numbers of Jews with blonde hair, blue eyes, Jewish redheads, Jews with very pale or flushed red skin.

In the United States, the community is even more diverse, drawing from Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish communities, among others, as well as bringing in a great deal of variety through conversion and intermarriage. An estimated 20 percent of the American Jewish community comprises people of color.

Since the community is so diverse, when people say that somebody doesn't look Jewish, they tend to mean that somebody doesn't look like a caricature of European Jews, and I will note that this caricature has long history of being weaponized against Jews. It's hurtful when Jews say it, because it feels needlessly exclusionary. When said by non-Jews, it starts to feel like their idea of Jewishness is more informed by media stereotypes of Jews than by actual Jewish people.

2. Using the phrase "rich Jew"

I used to work with a woman who used this construction quite often: "Oh, it's just her and her rich Jewish friends." Then she would look at me conspiratorially and say, "You know what I mean."

I think she meant "You know I don't mean that in an antisemitic way," but in fact I did know what she meant, as I have heard this construction my entire life. It means that the Jewish experience of money is somehow notable and must be commented on, must be turned into a compound word: rich Jew. I never heard her remark on rich Catholics, despite her having attended a well-heeled Catholic college, or rich Irish, despite the fact that the college was founded by Irish millionaires.

I will note that many of the women she was talking about were not actually rich, but, at best, squalidly middle-class. But if Jews dress up a little, participate in society in any way, spend money in any visible way, suddenly they are engaging in the behavior of the rich, they are showing off their wealth.

Discussions of Jewish wealth frequently tip over from microaggression to blatant antisemitism, and making a casual connection between Jews and wealth is extremely troubling. And it seems especially mean-spirited when speaking to a Jew who doesn't actually have very much money, like me.

3. Forcing Jews to be spokespeople for Israel or demanding an opinion on the subject

American Jews are not Israelis and should not be conflated with Israelis. American Jews have complicated and often divided opinions on the subject, and none of this is really your business unless they broach the topic.

When I was part of a local leftist community, and had co-organized a Jewish political group, I was constantly asked to speak on the topic of Israel, a place I have never been, claim no expertise about, and don't especially enjoy discussing.

American Jews are not proxies for Israelis. They should not be asked to speak on their behalf or to answer for the Israeli government. They certainly don't need to account for the behavior of a foreign government on command.

4. Doing Jewish accents, Jewish mother jokes, neurotic Jew jokes, etc

Yes, tese are staples of American comedy and are mostly borrowed from Jewish comedians, but, as a non-Jew, there are probably two things that you are doing wrong when you approach this material:

First, you're probably not doing it very well. I can't tell you how many bad Long Island accents I have heard from people doing Jewish mother characters, and it's grating. People's "old Jewish man" Yiddish voice is general even worse.

Secondly, you're probably missing a lot of nuance. Without the sort of careful observation that makes a joke specific rather than general, there is a real likelihood that you are going to sound like you are just making fun of Jews, that you think there is something inherently comical in the way Jews talk, or the way they experience the world.

That being said, Eddie Murphy's Saul the Jewish Guy from "Coming to America" was very good.

5. Positive stereotyping

I know people think positive stereotypes about Jews must be harmless; after all, you're saying nice things about the Jewish people, aren't you?

And they probably aren't as harmful as negative stereotypes. At the same time, they present an unrealistic view of Jews that is often far enough removed from the truth as to be frankly bizarre. I used to head that Jews made good husbands, which I think would have come as a surprise to the six or seven ex-wives two of my uncles managed to rack up between them.

And it can be genuinely harmful. A positive stereotype of Jews is that we're not drunks, which is simply not especially true. The statistics that support the idea that Jews drink less merely point out that they are hospitalized less and go into treatment less, but that Jews drink about the same amount as everyone else.

There are two possible ways to interpret this: That Jews simply hold their liquor better, or that they don't and there is cultural pressure not to get treatment for alcoholism. Having belonged to a Jewish fraternity and grown up around Jews who drank quite a bit, the latter jibes with my experience.

So by saying that Jews aren't alcoholics, even if it is meant as a positive stereotype, it may help discourage Jews from getting treatment.

Dress British Drink Yiddish: Zwack


Hungary has a national drink, and it is Zwack Unicum, an herbal liquor, and I wish that was what I was writing about, but it is apparently not available in the US. No, instead I will be writing about the version that is available domestically, produced for the American market, which is sweeter and has a citrus quality. I presume the Budapest-based company tried some American hobo wines and decided that this must be what Americans like, and, honestly, they are not far wrong. We do like sweet drinks with a hint of citrus.

The American Zwack is amber colored, easy to drink, and herbal without being medicinal. It's not typically associated with Jews, but it should be. It was, after all, invented by a Jew.

Specifically, Zwack was created by Dr. József Zwack, the Royal Physician to the Habsburg Court, for Emperor Joseph II in 1790. Weirdly, this is a fact that I only really find online on White supremacist websites, who always seem to keep tabs on businesses with Jewish origins for presumably nefarious purposes. There is an interview with one of Zwack's heirs on the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation's website that confirms his Jewish ancestry, although the heir's immediate family converted to Catholicism in the early 20th century.

There is a terrific Washington Post story about this heir, Peter, and his decision to bring Zwack liquor back to Hungary after the Second World War on the Washington Post from 1990, and while it doesn't much discuss József Zwack, it does paint a marvelous picture of the Zwack family prior to the war:

The Zwack family, "predominantly Jewish merchant aristocrats" — though Peter Zwack was born a Catholic — was part of a group of Jewish intellectuals, artists and supporters of both who planted and tended the Austro-Hungarian blumenzeit (the blooming time) at the turn of the century and again between World War I and World War II.

Zwack likes to tell about his father, John, who before World War II wore only silk shirts and sent them to Switzerland to be cleaned. The senior Zwack subscribed to three opera seats so he'd have elbow room during the performances.

Those were the days when the family owned two castles, one near Budapest, the other in the south of Hungary; a town house, now the Turkish Embassy, on Castle Hill, the aristocratic section of the Hungarian capital; 12,000 acres of land; and the factory that produced Unicum liqueur, the never-empty bottle from which all this wealth flowed.
As the story details, Zwack disappeared in Hungary during the war, its factories destroyed, its family fled to America, and after the war the drink was nationalized by the Communists, although with a substitute recipe, as the Zwack family brought the original recipe to America with them (literally secreted in Peter Zwack's pocket).

The drink was originally conceived as a cure for indigestion, and it is still often drunk as a digestif, after a meal to aid indigestion. Although, as I mentioned, the American version is sweeter than the original, it is still possible to taste the drink's carminative herbs, which have a bracing bitterness to them; if you have ever drunk the Italian amaro liqueur, the flavor will be familiar.

So put on your freshly Swiss-cleaned silk shirt, buy three tickets for the opera, and enjoy a Hungarian meal of sour cherry soup, beloved by Hungary's Jews, before capping it off with some Zwack to aid indigestion. We can't all be Budapest Jewish merchant aristocrats, but we can all live like one.

Jewish culture: The shvitz


I have what my girlfriend calls a "Jewish bucket list," which consists entirely of Jewish cultural activities that I want to do, but haven't been able to due to problems with timing or location: Either it is done anymore, or it isn't done where I am.

Now, I've been to a sauna before, and that's really all a shvitz is -- it's Yiddish for sweat, short for shvitzbod, which means sweatbath. I'm from Minnesota, and, thanks to its Scandinavian heritage, there are saunas everywhere, including one that just roams around the city like a food truck full of semi-naked humans. I've even lived in apartments that had saunas in them.

But there are difference between the moderately heated, wood-lined Northern Europeans and the sweat-drenched, highly social Russian baths beloved by old Jews. I had never been to a Russian or Turkish bath, and, by God, I planned to do so.

There is a place that has both, appropriately called the Russian and Turkish Baths, also known as the 10th Street Baths, in Greenwich Village, which dates back to 1892, as the sign boasts. The place is the stuff of legend, some old, such as the popular rumor that Jewish gangsters used to meet here and so the attendants were dead mutes (seemingly confirmed by this New York Times story).

There are newer legends as well, such as the fact that the baths are owned by two men, Boris and David, and the two have nothing to do with each other. You can buy cards to attend the bath, but David's cards will not be honored on Boris' weeks and vice versa. David caters to a younger hispter crowd, and Boris caters to an older immigrant crowd, and the experience must be very different from one week to another, based on Yelp reviews. Those who go on Boris weeks uniformly describe the place as unkempt and the staff rude, but I suppose if you are looking for authenticity, that's going to be an example of it.

There is a documentary about the whole shvitz experience made in 1993 by Jonathan Berman that captures the flavor of the places at the time, mostly focusing on a Coney Island bathhouse but also with a section set in the 10th street structure. The bathhouses were then in decline, hugely reduced in number by indoor plumbing and further suffering from the AIDS epidemic, which had killed or scared away the gay clientèle. (The film makes it abundantly clear that while there were explicitly gay bathhouses, gay men also cruised Jewish bathhouses, and nobody seemed to mind.)

But the few that are left in the film are beaten-up old places filled with corpulent, naked, hugely chummy old Jewish men, who start the experience with a shot of vodka, end it by sleeping on wooden chaise longues and nibbling on Russian food (made in house), kibbutz an awful lot, and otherwise just sweat, or lie back and get rubbed by an even older naked man with oak branches, a massage called platza, the Yiddish word for upper back.

Some of it is still available. You can't start your bath with a shot of vodka at the 10th Street Baths, unless you bring your own, and on co-ed days, when I went, people are younger and in bathing suits, rather than naked. But there are the saunas -- four of them in increasing temperature, including a dry Norther Euopean sauna, a steam-filled aromatherapy bath, a very hot Turkish bath, and an inferno-like Russian bath.

The difference between the baths seems to be the materials used to make them, the amount of steam, and the amount of heat. Some shvitzes also have rooms made of salt. The Russian bath, also called a banya, is essentially a rock cave where the stones are superheated overnight and radiate scorching levels of hear throughout the day. The heat can exceed 199 degree F, and in old pictures you see people wearing wool sauna hats to protect their heads. Nobody wore these when I went in, or, if they did, I didn't see it -- my girlfriend insists attendants in there looked like executioners with hoods on their heads, so perhaps they had hats like that.

They spoke only Russian and so mostly communicated by shoving their clients into position,  and paused frequently to dump massive buckets of ice water over themselves. There baths also have an ice cold pool that most waded into, yelped for a few seconds, and then ran out of. This is what I did. And it is what I wanted -- a proper cultural experience should be a little bit of a shock to the system.

The attendants provided platza massages, which are very soapy and use bound leafy branches to scrub the body. I had considered doing so, but instead I watched and generally got the idea. The bath was simply too hot for me to consider lying there for 15 minutes to get massaged with branches. Perhaps in the future, although both the sauna hat and the platza branches (called veniks) are available for purchase online, and I have a shower that gets extremely hot, so I may simply DIY this particular experience.

The 10th Street Baths also have a dining area with Russian food. I ordered red borscht, which is hot and oniony and delicious, and pelmeni, or Russian dumplings, like little peirgoies. The food was uniformly delicious, even if the cook seemed to have wandered over from Boris week and interjected with everyone with a gruff irritability that is either charming or appalling, depending on what you want or expect from food service. 

All told, I probably spent about two and a half hours there. There baths used to be relatively cheap, but now charge day spa prices, but even still it seemed a pretty good deal for the amount of time I spent (and the food is cheap). I'll probably try another shvitz when I got to New York -- there's one in Coney Island, just blocks from where my mother grew up and probably studiously avoided. Add that to the bucket list.

That's the secret to this bucket list, by the way. For everything that gets crossed off, something new gets added, sometimes several new things. Culture isn't something you do once and then mark it done. It's something you keep doing, and do more of, and try doing in new ways, and more, and longer.

There is a real possibility I will be living in a Russian baths with three years. I wouldn't put it past myself.


Jewish Food: Kishka


Sometimes, when I am bored, I will find old delicatessen menus online and flip through them.

I'm not really the target audience for delicatessens, although I remain a longtime patron. The Jewish deli is a uniquely Jewish American creation, originally a German invention that Ashkenazi Jews seized on and made Ashkenazi.

And they sort of went crazy with meat. As I understand it it, red meat wasn't a common part of the Eastern European Jews's diet, where it was often rare, expensive, and difficult to obtain thanks to kosher slaughtering rules. There was meat, certainly, but the dietary staple of many Eastern European Jews were fish and foul.

But in America there was a superabundance of inexpensive meat. And, since Jews must separate their milk products from their meat products, two traditions evolved: The milkhidiker restaurant, which served dairy, or the deli, which served meat. (For those unfamiliar with Jewish dietary laws, fish and foul are, for these purposes, neutral, and could be served at both establishments.)

And boy did delis serve meat. They still do: massive towers of sandwiches piled high with brisket, pastrami, chopped liver, tongue. 

Now here is where I should point out that I am a vegetarian, and have been since I was 16. When I go to delis, I mostly eat sides and snack on pickles. But my Jewish food is the food of the milkhidiker restaurant: blintzes, borscht, latkes and the like.

But still ... when I flip through the old deli menus, I can't help but wonder. Before I turned 16, I had most of the staples, the triple-decker turkey sandwiches, the pastrami on rye. I know the taste of those foods, even if I don't eat them anymore.

But these older menus have foods on them that I couldn't get in Minnesota. Some you can't really find anywhere anymore, like miltz, a cow's spleen stuffed with garlic and onions, or lungen stew, a cow's lung with garlic and onions; apparently almost any offal can be cooked with garlic and onions and it becomes food.

But there are a few items that still linger on New York deli menus. Despite my vegetarianism, I will make exceptions when it seems like exceptions must be made, and, in this case, my curiosity about these old Jewish foods got the better of me.

So when I was in New York recently, I stopped by the Second Avenue Deli, a New York classic dating back to 1954, and ordered two items I have long wondered about. The first was kishka, the second gribenes, and I will write about the first now and the second later.

I have discussed the word kishkes previously. The word means intestines, and that's, in part, what it is: fat and flour or matzah meal stuffed into an intestinal casing. As I mentioned in my earlier piece, it sometimes goes by the name stuffed derma, which is supposed to be better but sounds frankly disguising to me.

Kishke used to be a staple of Jewish events, but has since sort of fallen off the map; I would guess that this is because the recipe has changed significantly. It used to be made like cholent, the traditional sabbath meal: slow-cooked, sometimes in the cholent, acquiring the flavor. Now it is usually boiled and served rather quickly, often in an inedible artificial casing, which sort of defeats the point.

The kishka I had was a pasty, sweet potato-colored mound with no visible casing and a brown gravy on the side. It had an extremely strong umami flavor, but indistinct -- kishka is frequently made with onion and sometimes carrot or celery. None of those flavors could be distinguished. The Joy of Jewish cooking from 1974 has a recipe in which the kishka is covered with apple cider, but this was not done here. 

I suspect this is a food that could easily be revived by foodies. There are vegetarian versions as well, stuffed with potato or simply using oil to replace the fat in the original recipe. Once expects that, slow-cooked and balancing the ingredients, either the original or the vegetarian version cold be tremendous. The deli version wasn't, and I would not eat it again.

However, there is another meal, almost identical, but the ingredients are stuffed into a chicken neck instead of intestines. This meal is called helzel, and is often made with garlic and black pepper, and I might have to break my vegetarianism to try this if I ever get the chance.

Year 2, Week 14: The Flibbertigibbet



The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 431 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 272 hours
I have reviewed 4,876 individual flashcards

I was congratulating myself on managing to study Yiddish last week in New York, and then it all fell apart. Thanks to a combination of exhaustion and an extremely busy schedule, this past week was something of a bust, with me managing maybe 15 minutes of study per day and adding almost no new words.

Some of it was exhaustion, due in part to the onset of a small cold, my third this year, god damn it. (Woe be to you if you hear a child cough in an airport.) Some of it was a busy schedule. Some of it, stupidly, was a little video game I have gotten obsessed with where you solve puzzles to bring new life to a dead garden on an ancient mansion, like a video game version of "The Secret Garden."

But I know some of it is due to the fact that I am a flibbertigibbet, and must constantly find new ways to amuse myself or my attention wanes. Frankly, the fact that I have been able to maintain this project as long as I have astonishes me, because it usually only takes me a few weeks to become distracted by something new.

This means that I need to shake the program up a little. I'm not quite sure how to do this. I've ordered a new grammar book, "Colloquial Yiddish" by Lily Kahn, and if it helps me construct better sentences, I might enjoy that. But I feel like I need to drill down more, to find something that sort-of obsesses me. Something that will make me want to do the busy work of studying, the stuff that's hard and not especially fun.

I'm not sure what that might be just yet. But the thing that has kept this project going has been my ability to refocus when my attention wanes, to make the project fun again. I'll chew on this this week and see what I come up with.

God of Vengeance at New Yiddish Rep


I went to see New Yiddish Rep's production of "God of Vengeance" this past weekend. The play was an early one for Yiddish author Sholem Ash, but ambitious, telling the story of a brothel keeper who decides to purchase a Torah scroll as an almost totemic protection for his presumably virginial daughter, never mind that they live above the brothel and the daughter has been sneaking down nightly.

In fact, the play was one of the main reasons for my trip to New York, along with going to the Russian and Turkish Baths, because I am preparing to produce a play set in a bath house that makes use of an awful lot of Yiddish, and revolves around a performer with a background in Yiddish theater.

In the meanwhile, even though I have read about Yiddish theater for my entire adult life, I have never seen a live play in Yiddish, and am only now at the point where the Yiddish would be meaningful to me, rather than an almost totally alien language. And while I have been in steambaths before, even with old Jews, I have never been to an old-school New York shvitzbod, and both felt like things I needed to know about for my own show.

I have been a theater critic ever since I worked at my college radio station, which was back in, let's see, 1989, so I have reviewed theater for ... holy crap, 28 years. As a result it is almost completely impossible for me not to want to review "God of Vengeance," even though the run has ended.

The urge must entirely be habit, as I don't really have much to say about the show. I liked the performances very much. I found the direction sometimes gimmicky but generally effective. I appreciate that there is a theater company dedicated to Yiddish plays, and their mission statement makes explicit that they consider Yiddish theater to be a living form rather than a historic one. I hope that this will include commissioning and producing new works of Yiddish theater in the future, as that is how you make certain it remains living, rather than historic.

There are two aspects of the show I found tremendously interesting, and I am split on which one to discuss. The first is that two of the lead performers are not Jewish, but instead non-Jews who have had longstanding interests in both Yiddish and Yiddish theater.

I don't find this enormously surprising, as some seem to. There have been plenty of non-Jews who took an interest in Yiddish, and I would guess roughly 40 percent of the Facebook followers for this blog are gentiles. I spoke to the executive director of YIVO when I was in New York, and he told me that about 40 percent of the attendees and YIVO's programs are non-Jews.

It's not so strange. I have an interest in Mexican culture and history, and am not Mexican. People are curious, and they need not have a personal connection to develop a curiosity that leads to a passion. But I have become Facebook friends with both the performers in question, Shane Baker and Caraid O'Brien, and will interview both at some time in the future, so I can table any discussion of non-Jews in the world of Yiddish.

The other thing I found interesting about "God of Vengeance" was that many members of the cast were ex-Hasids. I had seen one before: Melissa Weisz, who was Juliette in "Romeo and Juliette in Yiddish." She was the subject of considerably speculation before the film opened, as she has a topless scene in it. She has since come out as queer, and I only mention these autobiographical elements because they seemed to inform her performance in the play. She played one of the prostitutes, dressed in a costume that resembled the 1930s S&M garb of the Sam Mendes production of "Cabaret." She is a lesbian in the play, or, at least, a predator who is comfortable using lesbianism to pull the brothel keeper's daughter into white slavery. She was suitably sharklike in this, seducing the girl with a grin that consisted mostly of bared teeth.

The play also featured Eli Rosen, Shmully Blesofsky, and Eli Rosen, all ex-Hasids. Hasidic Jews are one of the few remaining communities that produce Native Yiddish speakers (along with occasional transplants from Eastern Europe) and is a fast-growing segment of the Jewish population (Haredi Jews tend to have more children at a faster rate and starting from a younger age than other members of the Jewish community.) Along with this is a growing ex-Hasic movement, including a developing support network for those who wish to leave the movement. 

This is an extraordinary opportunity for Yiddish arts. "Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish" took advantage of it, filling the cast with ex-Hasids and drawing the story largely from their own experiences. New Yiddish Rep has obviously likewise discovered that this community is a valuable place to pull from for Yiddish-speaking actors. 

But there is also the very real possibility of this being an opportunity to waste an opportunity. These ex-Hasids are largely joining a more mainstream Jewish community that has almost entirely abandoned Yiddish. A large number of American Jewish groups are assimilationist, and the ex-Hasids might be eager for assimilation. There is almost no institutional support for Yiddish within the mainstream Jewish community, and, as a result, there is a risk that this community might leave it behind, as happened with previous generations of Yiddish speakers in America.  

There is probably no need to hurry, as Haredi Jews are going to continue to produce children apace, and a percent of those children will continue to exit Hasidism apace, and so we can expect a regular stream of new Yiddish speakers in the larger Jewish community as long as this trend continues. Perhaps they will come to the same conclusions themselves and create a support network for their own use of Yiddish and produce their own art in the language; they seem perfectly capable of addressing their own needs.

Still, I feel a keen, if distant, connection with these newly ex-Hasids. After all, I come from a Hasidic family as well, and sometime in my past, probably not too distantly, had ancestors who were ex-Hasids. We share a story, even if separated by decades. Perhaps we can also share a language, and share art.

Mayn bubbe's tam


I'm not sure that being mortified by  previous generation's tastes is a specifically American Jewish phenomenon. There is, after all, a Yiddish phrase for the phenomenon, mayn bubbe's tam, meaning "my grandmother's taste," which hints that in the old world people were similarly aghast at the tackiness of their ancestors.

In fact, it is possible to argue that the Reform movement was, in part, rooted in aesthetic repulsion at a previous generation's taste -- the early movement sought to remove elements they viewed as "Oriental," included modes of dress, religious melody, synagogue design, and even the form of the service. Tangentially, this is almost a perfect mirror image to the Hasidic movement, whose traditional dress of bekishe coat, halbe-hoyzn knee-breeches, and shtibblat slippers looks deliberately to the East, to Babylon, by way of Turkey.

Come to think of it, the discussion of Hasidic dress is not so tangential, because it demonstrates that Judaism has a long history of both rejecting the past and borrowing from it, and these two histories seem closely bound up with a desire for assimilation and a rejection of it.

I was raised Reform, and am now happily secular, but there is something about assimilation that I find nettlesome. I suppose it is the fact that it always insists on masking or eliminating those things that make someone visibly Jewish -- that we cannot be accepted into mainstream society unless we make Judaism invisible. I also think that this is a strange bargain. We're supposed to get something specific from it -- access to privilege -- and yet Jewish access to privilege is fraught and frequently short-lived, and antisemitism has a long history of punishing Jews for their privilege.

I did an interview on a podcast a few weeks ago. The podcast is called Race Invaders, and I like it very much. The two hosts are Asian American, and struggle with a lot of the same sort of questions I struggle with; there are some surprising parallels between the Jewish and the Asian American experience.

Among them is the risk of buying into whiteness, of becoming a model minority, a phrase originally invented to describe Japanese Americans and later expanded to include Jews, as well as other Asian groups. On a recent episode, the hosts discussed the fact that there are Asian American who resist this model minority status, resist buying into the privilege (and problems) that comes with honorary whiteness.

According to the podcast hosts, as they reject this sort of assimilation, these Asian Americans find themselves looking for an alternative model. And since race in America is so often defined by whiteness and blackness, they end up adopting a lot of black culture. One of the hosts, Alok Desai, pointed out that this raises issues of cultural appropriation, but many Asian Americans are disconnected enough from their own cultural heritage not to be able to use it as a model.

I think American Jews often likewise don't have a model. They especially don't have a secular model. Or they do, but they are embarrassed by it.

There was a recent article in Forward that collected what the author considered to be the worst Jewish album covers of all time. I am not sure what the criteria was in picking these, except that the author found them funny. Some of them are harmless (such as The Jewish Cowboy, an actual and fascinating interview with Harold Stern who ran a Texas ranch, and is only funny if you don't know how common Jews were in the west).

Many are deliberately funny, including Mrs. Portnoy's Retort by the great Mae Questel, a comic answer album to Philip Roth, and several albums featuring the superb comic actor Lou Jacobi. The fact that we still find these album covers funny is a testament to good design, not to terribleness.

The author also seemed to especially have it in for jazz flutist Herbie Mann, whose album design was admittedly a little outre (particular his unclothed and sweaty torso on "Push Push.") But Mann created deeply funky tracks (such as his chart-topping "Hijack"), so not only are his album covers entirely consistent with his style of music, but, honestly, anyone who created a soft jazz version of "Hatikva" (called ""Man's Hope") gets a pass from me for almost anything.

Honestly, I think the sense that these albums are hilarious comes from a combination unfamiliarity and embarrassment over a previous generation's tastes. But when we abandon the previous generation, we assimilate into one of two worlds: An ahistoric one, where there are only contemporary tastes and the past is only worthwhile when it dovetails with modern tastes; or a world of hidden privilege, where the dominant taste is allowed to remain contemporary while minority tastes are left behind.

I think the embarrassment of a lot of the albums listed is the latter: It's not simply that the albums seem out of date, it's that they are so Jewish. The Mae Questel one literally has her surrounded by Jewish food, and there is an album by Theodore Bikel that is entirely unremarkable, except that he is playing Jewish music and his face is lit with red lights.

I suppose I'm a little surprised that these albums provide an aesthetic shock, as they are not mayn bubbe's tam, but my parent's tam -- the albums are mostly from the 50s - 70s, and were in the record collections of many of my friends' parents. More than that, many the comedy albums existed as a sort of monetizing of Jewish embarrassment about the previous generation -- Mae Questel enjoyed a late career revival playing overbearing Jewish mothers, while Lou Jacobi specialized in playing irritable, avuncular older Jewish men.

I'd like to argue against this sort of knee-jerk mortification at a previous generations tastes, especially when those tastes were explicitly Jewish. Now, I'm not arguing for an equally knee-jerk acceptance of it, as I think a sort of uncritical nostalgia can actually be harmful.

I am saying that somewhere in there we can find tools for self-identification that assimilation has buffed away, and shouldn't have.

I'd like to suggest that when we respond to the past with embarrassment, it is sometimes not that the past is embarrassing, but because it represents something that the dominant culture would like us to think is embarrassing. It is embarrassing because it represents nonmainstream tastes or experiences, and one of the ways that privilege protects itself is by declaring challenges to be tacky.

I'd like to dare us to be tacky. I'd like it if we revisited mayn bubbe's tam for the things we thoughtlessly abandoned, and try celebrating them rather than dismissing them.

Because how many photos were taken in the 1970s of shirtless, sweaty musicians? I'm going to go ahead and just guess at a number, and that number is 100 percent. Every single musician on every single album cover in the 1970s was shirtless and sweaty.

So why is Herbie Mann's sweaty shirtlessness especially notable? He's not unhandsome, at least not mores o than everybody in the band SOS, and they are all shirtless on their album cover. The band Orleans basically looks like a group of cavemen, and here they all are, shirtless. Iggy Pop always looked like someone put makeup on a cadaver, and here he is, shirtless.  David Bowie isn't just shirtless on the cover of Diamond Dogs, he's half dog.

I suspect the issue is that Herbie Mann is so obviously Jewish, and has a body we associate more with middle-aged Jewish men taking a shvitz than sex symbols, despite the fact that Mann made music that made people make love. But who says middle-aged balding Jewish men are embarrassing, rather than sexy? I ask this as a middle-aged, balding Jewish man.

If grandma found Herbie Mann sexy, maybe grandma was on to something.

Year 2, Week 13: Kishka and tongue sandwiches


The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 425 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 269 hours
I have reviewed 4,853 individual flashcards

I was in New York for four days, and managed to study Yiddish on three of them, so I'm fairly pleased with myself. The image above is me on Hester Street, which was sort of a metaphor for me when I started this project: Because I was in Omaha, and there was no real Yiddish community around me, I would create a virtual Yiddish community, which I thought of as my own personal Hester Street.

"Hester Street" is, of course, a 1975 film, largely in Yiddish, written and directed by former Omahan Joan Micklin Silver and based on a novella by Yiddish author Abraham Cahan. It's also a street on Manhattan's Lower East Side, and was a center for Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants.

I will be writing about a lot of my New York stuff as separate posts, but I want to just make a note here: There is a great risk in this sort of project of simply giving in to nostalgia, of fantasizing about a past experience of Judaism that somehow seems more authentic than the current version.

I do not wish to do this, and neither do I wish to present New York as somehow being a locus of an older, more authentic Judaism. New York Judaism is one sort of American Jewish experience, and has maintained some elements that are hard to find elsewhere, in part because its Jewish community is comparatively massive.

I am a product of the New York Jewish experience, as both my parents are native New Yorkers and I was a frequent visitor in my youth. But I am also a product of the Midwestern Jewish experience, where we sometimes called delis "dells," and I won't brook having that experience treated as being somehow less authentic.

That being said, there are some vintage Jewish experiences that are just not available to Minnesota Jews. It is not possible to have an Eastern European schvitz -- there are plenty of saunas in the Twin Cities, but they are not that volcanically hot and wet style favored by my ancestors. Local delis do not offer kishka or tongue sandwiches. There is no Yiddish theater.

I hope to be able to recreate some of this here in Minneapolis, and to tell people how they too can recreate it. You may not be able to hire Russian men to beat you with branches where you live, but that doesn't mean you should be denied the pleasures of platza.

I will detail this more in a fuller essay about something called mayn bubbe's tam, or my grandmother's tastes, but for now I will say that as someone who has studied Yiddish in isolation for almost 15 months, it was nice to see a play in Yiddish, and to meet with Yiddishists, and to hear Yiddish in the wild, on the streets.

Judaism is not really something you do in isolation, but instead as part of a community. Language is the same thing. And so it is worthwhile once in a while to go someplace where a community exists that is doing the sort of things that I do in isolation, to see what it looks like, to experience what it feels like, and, perhaps most meaningfully in Judaism, to taste what it tastes like.

Jewish Genealogy: The Genographic Project


I used to teach a class on DNA and genealogy, and maybe I will again at some point. It came from my own interest in the subject. I first had my own DNA tested four years ago, which wound up connecting me with my biological family.

I initially tested myself through a company called 23andme because they also offered testing for genetic illnesses. As an adopted child, I did not know if I had increased likelihood for heart disease, or stroke, or Alzheimer's, or the like. It was rather terrifying to request the results, but I was then in my 40s and figured if long-term planning would be needed, it would be better to know sooner than later.

The test also offered an ethnicity estimate, which I have reproduced below:


As you can see, 23andme has me as almost exclusively European, and largely English and Irish (they do not distinguish). All this was consistent with what I knew from my biological family, which is Irish-American. There are a few surprises in there: Some French and German, some West African, and even a hint of Native American.

23andme is good about letting you know that these results are highly speculative. In fact, you can change the confidence level of the results, and when I switch it from speculative to conservative, all the surprises go away, and I am left with British and Irish and a collecting of generalized European DNA.

I went on to take a few more tests. The next, from Ancestry.com, gave me the following result:


Again with great confidence in my Irish heritage, which is distinguished from the remainder of Great Britain and comes in at 66 percent, and then, with much less confidence, some Scandinavian, Iberian, and even Jewish ethnicity. In another section, they even guess as to the area in Ireland my people come from: Northern Connacht. My people mostly come from County Clare, which is in Northern Connacht, so well done, Ancestry.com.

Of course, they also had access to my family tree, which I created on their site, which explicitly lists my ancestors as coming from Clare, so maybe this isn't that surprising an analysis.

If you have done a previous DNA tests, you can upload your results to Family Tree DNA, so I did that, and they produced their own ethnicity results, which I will not comment on, as they look like this:




I am something of a completist, so recently I submitted a DNA sample (spit; it's always spit) to the  Geneographic Project. This is through National Geographic, and I was interested in seeing their ethnicity estimate.

They do it a little differently; the others rely largely on self-reported ethnicity, and so their results are not quite junk science, but, let's say, still in their infancy. People often don't really know their own ethnicity, or only know a part of it, or have been lied to about it. Americans by and large all seem to think there is a Cherokee princess in their background, as though the Cherokee tribe did nothing but produce princesses who all then married white men. So where these ethnicity estimates say "low confident," I am going to say "probably wrong."

But the Genographic Project bases its results on relatively stable populations, and compares your results against the typical results from that region. They don't offer any low-confidence answers. Instead, my results looked like this:


They then compare this against reference populations, to see what countries tend to have a similar result. Mine was most like the results found on the British Islands, although I lack Southwestern European, Northeastern European, and the small amount of Jewish Diaspora DNA found in your typical British person.

My Asia Minor and West Mediterranean DNA is atypical for the British. And I have twice as much Eastern European DNA as your average resident of the British Isles and Ireland.

The Eastern European influence is new -- none of the other tests produced it. And, as someone who spends so much time working on a project based in my adoptive Eastern European heritage, I am delighted that National Geographic has decided I have actual Eastern European DNA. Sixteen percent may not seem like that much, but its a larger amount that a previous test gave me for English DNA (5 percent), and I am not going to stop drinking Old Speckled Hen anytime soon.

There more, too. The Genographic Project, in particular, was created to look into the distant past of genetics, as far back as 100,000 years, through something called Haplogroups, which look back to a single shared ancestors in the distant recesses of the past.

On my biological father's side, I belong to a haplogroup called P305, which belonged to Y-chromosome Adam, an African and very ancient human male. Much later there is U106, which moved into Europe somewhere between 4,250-14,000 years ago, and then finally there is L48, my most recent haplogroup, and a mysterious one, whose age is unknown and is mostly found in Belgium, the Netherlands, and England, among a few other places.

I can follow the evolution of my maternal DNA like this, starting with a haplogroup called L3, which originated in East Africa 67,000 years ago, and then split off into R about 55,000 years ago, which moved into East Asia, and finally turned into  K1a sometimes in the last 18,000 years, approximately. It represents only 2 percent of the population of Northern Ireland, but that's my population, right there.

But there is something else there. I am not genetically Jewish. There is not a hint of Ashkenazi Judaism in any of my tests. But I share a common ancestor with Ashkenazi Jews.

You see, before K1a, there is the K haplogroup, which developed in West Asia around 27,000 years ago, and K is the maternal haplogroup most frequently claimed by Ashkenazi Jews.

Let's stop here for a moment.

Let's stop, because ethnicity is not determined by genetics, and neither is religion. There is a real problem, in fact, with people claiming genetic identities with which they have no other connection. I have especially heard complaints about this from Native American and Rom Gypsy authors, who write about ostensibly white people who suddenly discover some distant ancestry and begin to show up at Indian or Gypsy events, claiming membership and even leadership.

Instead, I'd like to suggest that this demonstrates how awesomely complicated our genetic heritages are, and how they can dovetail with ethnicity in interesting, if not definitive, ways.

I am already a Jew, regardless of my haplotype. I am because I was adopted by a Jewish family and raised within a Jewish tradition. I am culturally Ashkenazi, because that is the tradition I was raised in, and pursue an interest in the experience of Eastern European Jews because that is where my grandparents came from, regardless of whether I have a genetic connection with the region or not.

I am also an Irish-American, and am so because I have direct Irish ancestors, and I have spent my life exploring and participating in the Irish-American experience.

I would offer this suggestion to anyone who gets these sorts of tests: Each ethnic group determines its own membership, but it is generally accessed through some combination of familial relationship and participation. If you discover you have a distant genetic relationship with a group that otherwise you have had no experience with, find out what membership means for them before you claim it for yourself.

And realize that these DNA tests are a relatively new science. They are pretty good at communicating the fact that there is tremendous uncertainty in their results -- try to respect that. Because you don't want to run out and learn Lithuanian and buy a Lithuanian folk costume and start showing up at Lithuanian-American events, if they'll have you, only to have an algorithm update and suddenly declare you Polish.

Identity politics is hard enough without throwing in mistaken identity politics.