Week 21: Merit Badges and Don Rickles

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 147 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 76 hours
I have reviewed 1,967 individual flashcards

I have decided to stop posting the "percent correct stats," which you will find at the top of previous posts, because I find them depressing. There is just thing ongoing, slow-motion slide downward, each week I have been fractionally worse at remembering Yiddish than the week before.

I expect that's perfectly normal. I am just a hair's breadth away from having studied 2,000 distinct flashcards, and that's a lot of information to cram into your noodle in 21 weeks, and I keep adding more while struggling to remember the old ones. So I won't take this too seriously, but, at the same time, why broadcast?

In the meanwhile, I have at last completed my list of 1,000 Yiddish words, and so should be able to award myself a gold pin marked with the numeral 1,000 that I mentioned a while back. I have not yet gotten my scout-style merit-badge sash yet, however, so I'm stalled, at least as far as granting awards go.

Despite the stall, I have started work on my next Yiddish merit badge, this one for cuss words and insults. Originally, I had intended to teach myself 100 words and then congratulate myself with a badge, but that seemed like too few words, and, when I counted up the insults and curses I have already learned, I had already reached that point. In fact, I was just shy of 200. So I added in a few more and when I have learned them I will have earned my first badge.

My second badge will be words related to drugs and alcohol, and this is not quite the bonanza that the previous category was: apparently European Jews were quite concerned with belittling each other and not so very concerned with intoxicants, which isn't surprising from the culture that produced Don Rickles instead of William S. Burroughs.

If I can locate 50 words on the topic of drugs and alcohol, I will be lucky. I briefly felt that this was not enough to justify awarding a merit badge, as it would take less than a week to learn these words, but then I read up on actual Boy Scout merit badges. There are some badges that can be earned in a single afternoon. It makes sense that some badges are easier to earn and some harder, and I will give myself a similar mix.

In other news, somehow I just completely forgot to study one night this past weekend. More precisely, when I remembered to study, it was already 11 pm, and, like the Jewish day, the Anki day starts the previous evening, and so I had inadvertently skipped a day of study. The program forces you to catch up on words you are reviewing, but you end up completely missing a day's worth of new words when you skip a day. I kicked myself for this for a little while, but this is only the second day I have failed to study Yiddish in four months, so I have a 98 percent attendance record, in a manner of speaking.

I will always be a grade grubber, even about attendance.


Cooking the East European Way: Green Borscht

There are books on Jewish cooking, of course. I have a few. Most are pretty general about where foods that are typically seen as Jewish come from. Oh, sure, they'll mention that Ashkenazi Jews adapted local recipes to fulfill their dietary requirements, but often that's as far as it goes. We don't generally learn that the bagel is Polish in origin and dates back to the 16th century, and was as popular among Slavs as it is now popular among Jews. Our beloved blintz is also Slavic, and apparently pagan, as the pre-Christian Slavs reportedly saw them as symbols of the sun. And so it goes, with cholent perhaps coming from the French, knishes deriving from either Ukranian or Russian antecedents, and kugels borrowing from the Germans.

So I've decided to just go ahead and claim East Europe's food as my own. Why not? It's where my family came from, and they claimed their share. I'll follow their lead and modify it to serve my own needs, as I am a vegetarian, but the basic recipes will be those from my ancestor's countries: Russian, Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, and Moldova, as well as broader influences -- my Moldovan connection gives me license to explore Romanian food, while Poland leads me to Lithuania, and Ukraine gives me Mongolian and Turkish food. I know this is all just an exercise in making excuses to eat food I want to eat, but if you invaded or were invaded by one of my family's ancestral homes, I'm going to go ahead and eat your food.

I started with a Ukranian dish. Ukraine is a global breadbasket as a result of huge reserves of farmland (it's one of the reasons people keep invading), and so Ukraine is a country with an extensive and varied cuisine -- they have something like 30 varieties of borscht, which is a commitment to borscht you just don't see all that often.

So borscht was to be my first meal. Borscht is still something I am learning to love, and I blame my American upbringing. Americans have a notorious sweet tooth, and so a soup that could fairly be described as "sour" isn't going to be the first thing we turn to. Borscht is generally made with beetroot, which is also not something common in American cuisine, and it's often made with pickled ingredients and served cold, and this is about as far from a candy bar as it is possible for a food to get.

I started with green borscht, which does not have beetroot, but is typically made with sorrel instead. It's not that easy to get sorrel in Omaha, so I used a common substitution: spinach. One website suggested adding a splash of citrus to duplicate sorrel's acidity -- although spinach is alkaline, apparently it doesn't have that sour punch that is so distinctive of sorrel.

The other ingredients for the soup include diced potatoes, a smattering of rice, sour cream, and dill and green onions for flavoring, as well as a hard-boiled egg that has been chopped up. There are other recipes out there, but this is a good combination -- the resulting soup is a bit like cream of potato, but the spinach, dill, and green onions give it a sharp, earthy flavor. I'm not usually in the habit of chucking an egg into my soup, but I made my own ramen last week and that also called for a hard-boiled egg, so I am starting to think everybody else puts egg in their soup and I've just never noticed.

This is a soup that Jews absconded with a long time ago, re-dubbing it schav or shtshav in Yiddish, although that's barely a new name, as it is called szczaw in Polish, so our Yiddish name is a bit like we claimed the hot dog, insisted it was a Jewish food, and it's Yiddish name was the khat dag.

Green borscht can be served hot or cold. I've only had it hot so far, and, let me tell you, it's a great partner for a grilled cheese sandwich on a rainy night. Or perhaps I should refer to the sandwich by its Yiddish name: grill kez.


Jewish Geneology: The Hasid

I don't know if I have mentioned it, but my day job is in a historical society. Specifically, I am the society's lone professional researcher, which, in practice, means that I fill a lot of roles. One of them is teaching a genealogy class.

I am not a trained genealogist, but, then, my class is quite introductory, and, in order to be a teacher, you need not know everything about a subject, you merely need to know more than your students. I have pursued my own family tree, on and off, since I was in my early twenties, and quite avidly for the past few years.

Properly, that should be plural: I have pursued my own family trees. I have two, one biological and one adoptive. The biological one points exclusively back to Ireland. The adoptive one points to a variety of places in Eastern Europe, and many of the branches end as you might expect, with extermination at the hands of the Nazis. This is the distressing fact of Jewish genealogy is your family is Ashkenazi -- it inevitably ends up being a map of genocide. This may be an area of investigation for me at some time in the future, as I can't help but feel that they deserve some documentation from a family member. It is not my first area of investigation, however.

My Irish family tree isn't terribly long. Ireland lost many of its official records in a fire in 1922, and that tends to create a wall for genealogists. My biological family has done research on their own, as they still have relative in Bohola in County Mayo they keep in touch with. So I have some names that go back to the 1800s. There is my biological 3rd great grandmother Margaret O'Brien, as an example, who was born about 1821.

But my adoptive family's tree goes back much further. It goes back to 1660, and this is thanks to the Hasid.

I don't know when I first learned about the Hasid. I feel like it must have been back in high school. I had thought my mother had told me about him, but she insists she didn't, so it may have been my uncle. Nonetheless, at some moment in the past, I learned that via adoption I was now part of the family line of a man named Ze'ev Wolf Kitzes.

I am going to continue to write this under the assumption that my readers know a little bit about Hasids. I will assume you know that it began as an ecstatic, mystical movement in Western Ukraine in the 18th century, and was headed by a man named Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, generally called the Ba'al Shem Tov, or the Master of the Good Name.

I found a photograph, converted into the illustration at the top of the page, last week. It is from an old Jewish cemetery in Medzhybizh, Ukraine. For those of you who can't read Hebrew letters, the grave on the right is labeled "Rabbi Israel Ba'al Shem Tov." The grave on the left is labeled Ze'ev Wolf Kitzes.

That's my ancestor, buried next to the leader of Hadidic Judaism. I did not know that was where his grave was.

I did know a few things about the Hasid, though. The fact that he is my ancestor was the basis for a play I once wrote called "Kishinev," and I did an awful lot of research for the play. I knew he was a Hasid even before the Ba'al Shem Tov was a Hasid; he was reportedly one of the leaders of a group of early Hasidim, and although he was apparently initially skeptical of  the Ba'al Shem Tov, he quickly became a devotee.

There are miracle stories about Wolf Kitzes in Martin Buber's books on Hasidim, and there are stranger stories still in books published by and for Hasidic Jews. There is a story that I made the centerpiece of my play, in which Wolf Kitzes was to take a journey, and the Ba'al Shem Tov told him if anyone should ask him how things go with the Jews, he should tell the truth. Wolf Kitzes becomes lost on his trip and is sheltered by a man, and, when asked about the Jews, responds that God watches over them. Wolf Kitzes returns to a distraught Ba'al Shem Tov, who informs him that the man was the patriarch Abraham, and he could have intervened on behalf of the ailing Jews had Wolf Kitzes told the truth.

I don't remember where I read this story, or how close this version (the version I put in my play) is to the original. And so I plan to do some digging.

Just last week I managed to push my family tree far enough back to find Wolf. Even though he did not start a dynasty of Rebbes, Hasids are pretty dedicated to maintaining family trees of important Rabbis, and so Wolf's is online. I could follow his family down through the ages, one Kitzes after another, finally connecting to my grandmother, and then my mother, and then me.

I don't know anything about the intermediate family but for their names, and sometimes not even that. Sometimes Jews like to pretend we were not as sexist as the rest of the world -- after all, to be a Jew, you need a Jewish mother! We're a matriarchy!

But if you want to see a chart of power, rather than ethnic membership, my family tree is an example. All the men are named. Many of the women aren't. There is my 6th great-grandfather Israel Kitzes, and then there is his wife, Wife Kitzes. There is his father, Nachman Kitzes, and there is his mother, Wife of Nachmann. His father was Ze'ev Wolf, the Hasid, and while I know his wife's name -- Rachel -- one of his daughters is on my family tree as Daughter Kitzes.

I don't know that I will be able to fill in these blanks. But this is my family history, and I am interested in it, so I shall dig into this as best I can. I'll start with the Hasid himself, Ze'ev Wolf Kitzes, because it has been a long time since I have looked into the life of my 8th great grandfather, and it is time that I did.


Dress British Drink Yiddish: Introduction to the Jewish Bar

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that I tend to cross the wires of my biological Irish identity and my adoptive Jewish identity. I don't think there is any greater example of this than my obsession with the idea of a Jewish bar.

It is very likely that my biological father owned an Irish pub, and it is certain that I was conceived there, and I have been a patron of Irish pubs for my entire adult life. A lot of my identity as an Irish-American was developed in places like this, listening to Irish bands while drinking Irish whiskey. The Irish pub is one of the three great Irish-American institutions for preserving and continuing Irish culture, along with the family and the Catholic church, and arguably more important that the latter. A majority of Irish-American are not Catholic, and, for those that are, there aren't that many Catholic churches that cater to a specifically Irish-American patronage anymore.

Irish-Americans aren't alone in their relationship with bars. I have been to any number of German bars, Czech bars, Mexican bars, Russian vodka bars, and even a Canadian bar in Minneapolis named for Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. But I have never been to a Jewish bar, and searching for one online produced a series of dead ends, even after I filtered out stories about Bar Mitzvahs. I find a lot of stories about Jewish bar associations, followed by stories about the Bar Kochba revolt. The first story I found about a legitimately Jewish-themed bar is a troubling one, telling of Ukraine's Under the Golden Rose bar and restaurant, which is not owned by Jews. Instead, in the shadow of Lviv's destroyed Golden Rose Synagogue, patrons wear Jewish costumes, drink cocktails with names like "The Funny Jew," and haggle over the price of their meal. This is not a Jewish bar, it's an antisemetic bar where patrons participate in a grotesque satire of Jewishness.

I understand why Jews are a bit skittish about the idea of a Jewish bar. For one thing, we do not like to be associated with drunkenness, and there are ample number of Yiddish phrases that demonstrate our distaste for binge drinking, including the song "Shikker is a Goy," that literally insists that drunks are non-Jews.

This is, of course, a bit of playacting on our part, as Jews like to drink as much as anybody. I was briefly in a Jewish fraternity, and can testify that the membership was anything but a gang of  teetotalers. My favorite joke about alcohol comes courtesy of Jewish comic Joe E. Lewis, whose gentle inebriation was the basis for Dean Martin's post-Jerry Lewis persona -- one must wonder how many Jewish Lewises Martin based his career on. Here is Joe E. Lewis's quote: "I always wake up at the crack of ice."

Beyond that, Jews have a long history of owning vineyards, breweriess, and saloons, once dominating the business in parts of Eastern Europe, including northwest Russia, where Jews owned a reported 80 percent of the saloons. They brought this trade to America, including active participation in bootlegging during Prohibition, and all this is documented in the book "Jews and Booze" by Marni Davis. Additionally, there were bars that were largely patronized by Jews, such as the delightfully named Pink Elephant Lounge at Grossinger's Catskill's Resort, which was actually pink, and was patronized by Jews enjoying a Borscht Belt getaway. But none of these places fulfilled the function of a contemporary ethnic bar, where the the music, the bar food, the drinks, the events, and even the decoration fuse nostalgia with innovation, preserving (and often mythologizing) the past while allowing patrons to indulge and investigate their ethnic identity.

I suppose there are a few institutions that already do this for Jews. The synagogue, certainly, although that is a largely useless institution for the majority of American Jews whose identity is mostly secular. Delicatessens do a lot of the work, and, as much as I might say my Irish-American identity was created in Irish pubs, a lot of my Jewish identity came from delicatessens. For years I was a regular at Nate 'n Al's in Beverly Hills and, less frequently, Canter's Delicatessen on Fairfax, and sill go to both when I am in Los Angeles. I would say I got most of my ideas about what it means to be an old Jewish man from my fellow patrons there, and, as I work my way toward becoming an old Jewish man, they are still my model.

Delis are on the decline, but they did a lot for Jews that pubs do for the Irish, including nostalgie. There was an entire room dedicated to Yiddish stage actress Molly Picon at the Second Avenue Deli, which has now been integrated into the rest of the restaurant -- next time I am in New York, I shall make a pilgrimage here. And what Irish whiskey is to the Irish, a good rye bread is to Jews, so it makes sense that we would converge around the deli.

But it's not the same. You don't go to a deli to hear a band, you don't take a date dancing at a deli, you don't play trivia games at a deli, and you certainly don't go to a deli for a drink. I may be the only one who feels this gap in the American Jewish experience, but I feel it keenly, and so I spend a lot of time fantasizing about what a Jewish pub would be like. And so we'll come back to this subject in future posts, in which I will discuss what I would serve as cocktails there, what music I would program, what bar food I would offer, and whatever else occurs to me. Because if I am going to sit down and speak Yiddish anywhere, it's probably going to be in a bar.


Film: Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish

I've read quite a few reviews of 2010's "Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish," and the critics seemed to struggle to know what to say about it, and I am not sure I know precisely how to address the film either. The film seems to be all rough edges.

It genuinely retells the Shakespeare's doomed love story, updating it to the contemporary Hasidic community in Brooklyn. This is a great conceit, but these moments also have the feel of a stage play with a small budget, so everything is shot in the streets or in rooms draped in sheets. I would have been thrilled to see a movie that captured the peculiar quality of the various Hasidic groups, including the insular poverty of many members and the regal, old world wealth of their leaders, but this film is too small in cast and budget to recreate a scene like those shown in this mash-up of Hasidic Purim celebrations, in which masses of caftan-clad partygoers bounce in place as they watch wild dances.

There is a Purim scene in this film, but it is a more modest affair, with the characters dressed, intriguingly, in mariachi outfits. It's an odd decision, but one of the film's real pleasures is that it doesn't shy away from odd decisions. What it cannot produce in budget or spectacle, it makes up for in eccentricity.

For Yiddishists, there is sure to be value in hearing Shakespeare's words rendered in Yiddish. For the remainder, there is the film's oddly bifurcated structure, in which a prickly and somewhat recalcitrant graduate student (Eve Annenberg, who also wrote and directed) must update the Bard's words to justify her grant money. Although she had a brief fling with Orthodox Judaism in her youth, it produced an abandoned daughter, a broken marriage, and no Yiddish. So the graduate student enlists the help of a handful of lapsed Hasidim to help her.

The hasids are played by the film's producers, Lazer Weiss and Mendy Zafir, who also double as Romeo and Benvolio in the play-within-a-film. Both were raised in Hasidic communities (as was the film's Juliet, played by Melissa Weisz), and it brings an undeniable authenticity to their performances, from their confidence in Yiddish to autobiographical elements that outsiders would have not known to include. The two young men have been living on the streets since leaving their community, engaging in petty scams, but they still have the accents and mannerisms of the Yeshiva. They also have a physical playfulness and affection for each other. It's the sort of thing you see in old photographs, in which men pose by hugging each other and are often seen with arms clasped around each other, but has become increasingly rare. But Hasidic boys grow up mostly in a world of other Hasidic boys, separated from the mild (and likely gay panic induced) unease of the rest of America. 

This sort of separation acts as a sub-plot to the film. The lapsed Hasidim don't fit in among other Hasids, but don't fit in anywhere else -- Lazar tells a story of going to Canada and being denied re-entry into America. The border guards could not believe he was an American citizen because he could not spell basic English words. I don't know if this story is true or not, but it sure feels like it could be.

For all its odd angles and occasional amateurishness, "Romeo and Juliet" is full of moments like this, where it feels like someone has pulled open a curtain on an otherwise invisible world. It's so full of such things, in fact, that the filmmakers have felt the need to add supertitles, sometimes jokingly, to explain what is going on in a scene. This feels very Jewish in its way, as though the film was like a page from the Talmud, requiring the central text to be ringed in layers of commentary and supercommentary. In fact, I think this film could have been called The Talmud of Romeo and Juliet, as there is something very school of Shammai and Hillel about it: It's not enough just to have Shakespeare, we must ask what does Shakespeare mean to the Jews? And we must ask what does he mean to modern Jews? And we must then investigate the meanings hidden within those meanings, and comment on them, and comment on the comments. 

It's a sort of a miracle the whole film wasn't just one Yeshiva boy reading the entire script in singsong and arguing with himself about what it means. Although I think I would have enjoyed that film too.


Week 20: It's week 20?

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 141 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 72 hours
I have reviewed 1,926 individual flashcards
Correct learning: 66.32%
Correct young: 69.98%
Correct mature: 82.33%

Regular visitors will notice that I have updated my website. I have a new template, as well as my own web address, brityiddish.com. While updating, I discovered that months ago I made an error on this site, counting the same week twice. As a result, today, which I thought was my 19th week, is actually my 20th, and so the end of my fifth month of studying Yiddish.

I am also very close to completing two goals: I am just about done with the list of 1,000 Yiddish words I mentioned two weeks ago, and I have almost studied 2,000 individual flashcards. As those of you who have been following the blog know, I've decided to gamifying the process of learning Yiddish, and, me being me, I am doing it in as twee a way as I can: merit badges.

I do not yet have a boy scout-style sash, but have ordered one. I do, however, have a gold pin with the numeral 1,000 on it to represent the completion of this 1,000 word list. I also want to represent how many additional cards I have studied beyond 1,000, and have decided to do this with little metal star pins, which I have also ordered. Every thousand words gets a silver star, and every 5,000 gets a gold star, which feels at once military and very grade school, and I am amenable to either aesthetic.

I suppose after five months I should make a note of how it's all going. I have sort of locked into a groove of studying, so I am not as obsessed with progress as I once was, but I know what sort of progress I am making and where I have stalled. I continue to learn new vocabulary words apace, and my comprehension grows as a result, but at the moment I judge my comprehension exclusively by headlines from the Yiddish Forward. I do not read the articles themselves, and perhaps it is time I started. From this week onward, every time I read a headline in the Forward, I will also click through and work my way through the forst paragraph, and we'll see how I feel about my comprehension then.

I've also completely abandoned grammar, and know I shouldn't. I will start working my way back toward it soon by memorizing useful sentences -- I'm doing some of that now, but will really dedicate myself to it soon. I haven't figured out precisely what this sentence memorization project will be, but once I have a satisfactory number of sentences under my belt I shall return to the grammar book.

At the moment, my lack of grammar is really constraining me. There is a moment where memorizing individual words, no matter how entertaining those words might be, becomes useless when you can't use them in a sentence, and that moment is "immediately." This hasn't bothered me much, as I have nobody to speak Yiddish with at the moment, and have mostly been doing this for my own entertainment, and have been entertained enough by building an increasingly massive collection of Yiddish words. But I will get to the point where I actually want to use those words in sentences, and so I know I will have to work on that soon.

I had reached a point where I was learning new words quite easily, and now that has reversed itself, mostly because the last few pages of my 1,000 word list seemed entirely made up of words that sounded like this: antshuldikfirn. There were about 50 words that, I swear, just seemed variations on those letters, and weren't words built out of words I already knew. So my study sessions, which are usually a half hour long, have been 45 minutes to an hour as I desperately try to come up with mnemonic devices for words that all look and sound exactly alike. It's always fun knowing the words that you will have trouble with for the rest of your life, and especially to get so many all it once.


Khnyok: Yiddish for an Online World

One of the advantages of studying a foreign language is that you will occasionally stumble across a word that you very badly need, but there is no English equivalent. In this instance, surprisingly, there is a Yiddish word that perfectly describes an insidious online trend, even though the word was invented long before the web.

The word is Khnyok, and it is loosely translated as "bigot." But that translation doesn't quite capture the meaning of the word. In Yiddish, it was mostly applied to the Ultra-Orthodox, and Forward writer Philologos gives a better translation as "sanctimonious religious prig."

Of course there were sanctimonious religious prigs before the web. I had a classmate in my Jewish high school, back in the 80s, who declared that I was going to hell because I was never given an Orthodox conversion after I was adopted. These sorts abound in the real world, deciding that Jews are doing Judaism wrong, or aren't Jews at all, as though there are so many Jews in this world that we need to exclude some if they don't fulfill the minutiae of our particular denomination's idiosyncratic rules.

But they have been given what seems to be new life and new purpose with the advent of the web, and, especially, with the development of comments sections in online publications or social media.

Everybody has their own version. If I can mention my Irish heritage again, there is a particular phenomenon on Irish websites where, whenever the subject of the Irish-American experience comes up, some irritable native of Ireland will pop in. "Aw, yez ain't but Irish at all, yanks!" they declare, and then proceed to demonstrate a near-total misunderstanding of ethnicity and the American experience. I don't know why they go to an Irish-American website to shout down the Irish-American experience, but there they are, day in and day out, typing frantically away in order to make sure an Irish-American doesn't accidentally mistake themselves for a citizen of Ireland.

Jewish websites have their own characters, khnyoks all. There is the religious prig and the political prig, and the two have almost nothing in common but for an unshakable belief that there is no place for pluralism in Judaism.

The religious prig is exceptionally maddening. In any discussion about Jewish identity, they will show up to sagely tell us that there is only one definition of a Jew, and that is someone who either has a Jewish mother or was converted in an Orthodox ceremony. When reminded that Reform Judaism accepts people as being Jewish if they have either a Jewish mother or father, and has since 1983, an opinion shared by Reconstructionist Judaism, and Lembda and Ethiopian Jews have always based Jewish identity on the religion of the father, they will merely repeat themselves, as of no other opinion matters or even exists.

They often deny that there have ever been disagreements in Judaism, as though the practice of Judaism has been identical, unabated, since the days of Abraham. Their's is a world in which there were never Pharisees and Sadducees, there were never Hasidim and Misnagdim, there were never disagreements between the Jews of Eastern and Western Europe, and there have never been minority movements in Judaism like the Samaritans and the Karites. No, there was the Torah, the Talmud, and one interpretation of each, and everything else is just some bizarre heretical chirping that can be safely ignored.

Yet this sort of khnyok  tends to seek out general Jewish websites, where the audience is likely to be made up of secular Jews, Reform Jews, atheist Jews, Conservative Jews, and the like. One can only assume the reason for this is so that the khnyok can comfortably crow his or her narrow-mindedness in front of people who do not agree with him, ignore their responses, and take some perverse pleasure in having been so very right in front of so many people who are wrong. There's a sort of austerity to this priggishness that I can't help but respect. It is a priggishness that requires but will not acknowledge an audience of non-prigs.

The political khnyoks are more common and are entirely unsurprising. They are just the Jewish versions of the shrill single-issue voters, extremist bullies, and nattering dimwits that fill every single public forum on the web, and the only thing novel about them is that their concerns are so specifically Jewish.

They will declare the opposition to be full of antisemites and likely worse that Hitler. They will insist that we must base every political decision around what is best for Israel, and what is best for Israel is always whatever candidate they currently support. They insist that any other political opinion is likely to spark an American Holocaust, and like to remind us that the German Jews also felt assimilated and safe in Germany before the rise of Hitler, never mind that this is not true. (There isn't the time to detail the entire history of the Jews of Germany; suffice it to say that from the 1819 Hep-Hep riots on, there was never a moment when German Jews didn't experience ongoing and often official antisemtism, including a 1916 census intended to prove that there was a lack of patriotism among Jews.)

There is a third group I should mention: The people who have a problem with Jews. Some of them are virulent antisemites who think a Facebook post is a great place to remind people of the evils of the Jews. Some are anti-circumcision activists who will take every opportunity to remind the world that Jews mutilate and perhaps sexually abuse their children with the circumcision ritual. Some are anti-Israel activists who can't let an opportunity pass to tell Jews that they are supporting a genocidal country. These sorts of comments, from gentiles who are critical of Jews, tend to get deleted, understandably. The others, from Jews who go online to abuse other Jews, tend not to, which I have a harder time understanding.

I feel about our khnyoks the way I feel about all the people who make a horrific, alienating mess of the Internet -- that they could easily be resolved with some minimal moderation. Nobody has the inalienable right to comment on every single Facebook page or online forum, and the people who run those pages and forums are within their rights to establish and enforce standards of non-abusive interaction. Failing that, web publishing tends to act as a sort of setup for a punchline that consists of contempt, abuse, bullying, and, worst of all, tedious and useless bickering.

Sometimes it seems like the web consists of two things: cats and khnyoks. We could do without one of these two.



Sometimes I feel like I do my ethnicities exactly backwards. I am biologically Irish but was adopted into a Jewish family, and I always want to do Irishness the way a Jew would and Jewishness the way an Irish-American would.

Irish-Americans, you see, are tremendously invested in the idea of being part of an Irish diaspora. There is a great fascination for contemporary Irish politics and culture. Irish-Americans take trips to Ireland and fly Irish flags and hang out in bars built in Ireland and representing a sort of nostalgic Irishness. If you read the Irish-American press, it often seems like the American wing of the Irish press, republishing stories from Irish daily news. Irish-Americans are obsessed with whatever county their ancestors came from (and often retain relationships with distant cousins still in Ireland), and, in general, behave as though they're just Irishmen living abroad and might return at any moment. I do this too. I'm Facebook friends with distant biological cousins in County Mayo.

In the meanwhile, there is little interest in an explicitly Irish-American identity. I should know -- I also run a website called "The Happy Hooligan" which primarily concerns itself with the Irish-American identity, and it has been met mostly with shrugs from my fellow Irish-Americans.

In the meanwhile, American Jews have things exactly reversed. While we do view ourselves as a diaspora people, we have not been scattered away from Europe, but instead from Israel, long ago. We're obsessed with the experience of being American, and what it means to be a Jew in America. But those of us who have roots in Europe don't seem to have much interest in them. There is some historic interest, yes -- Jews will take Holocaust tours of Poland, as an example, visiting the ghettos and the extermination camps. And there are some that visit cemeteries and shtetls, to see where their families came from.

But very few American Jews see themselves as somehow connected to those places in a contemporary way. My brother was once in the Marines, and was honorably discharged, and complained that all they did was discuss fighting with Russia. "But I'm Russian," he told my father. "Our grandfather came from Russia!"

"We're not Russian," he responded. "We're Jewish."

I think this is understandable. Although my grandparents came to America before the Holocaust, they came to escape antisemitism, and those that remained were, almost without exception, murdered. I can understand wishing to wash your hands of Europe, wanting to leave and never look back. Especially for Jews, whose European experience was always a bit unconventional. Jews were rarely treated as indigenous members of any European nationality, but instead as rootless interlopers. Jews often lived in areas that were largely Jewish, primarily spoke a Jewish language, and sometimes entire Jewish communities would uproot themselves (or, more often, be uprooted) and move to a different country altogether.

So when Jews came to America, they may not have felt much connection to the place they left, even if their families had been their for centuries. And so we let whatever European nationality we had evaporate. We were not Polish Jews, we were not Lithuanian Jews, we were not Ukrainian Jews, we were just Ashkenazi Jews, even if those distinctions had once meant quite a lot.

It still means a lot to me. Although I understand the impulse to just leave the past in the past, especially when it is so fraught with pain and betrayal, the Jewish experience in Europe predates the rise of the Roman Empire and continues to this day -- there are about two million Jews in Europe today.

In his book "Yiddish Civilization," author Paul Kriwaczek wrote about growing up in an England whose understanding of the Jews of Europe mirrored my own when I was younger -- a sort of generalized shtetl story, largely influence by "Fiddler on the Roof." I think a lot of Americans think about their family's histories like this, largely because their families, understandably, refused to discuss it. We all seem to think we are descended from impoverished farmers who lived in largely Jewish villages, occasionally contending with Cossacks who rode over the hills but otherwise leading a simple, sagely life.

But it wasn't like this for most. Many of Europe's Jews lead an urban experience, and many of the places that we still remember as being centers of the Jewish experience were, in fact, huge cities that the Jews shared with non-Jewish neighbors. Vilna, as an example, is Vilnius, the capitol of Lithuana, and was primarily Gentile, but had so large a Jewish population that it was known as the "Jerusalem of Lithuania." In fact, there was a Jewish sect that migrated to Lithuania in the 15th century called the Karaim, who served as an elite military unit, which is not the sort of Jewish story you usually hear from Eastern Europe.

We also don't hear that there were Jewish Cossacks, but there were. There was a Ukrainian group called the Zaporozhian Cossacks who apparently couldn't give a fig about someone's religion, and so they had Jews in their ranks. And in 1878, one of Catherine the Great's ministers founded a regiment of Jewish Cossacks called The Israilovsky Regiment -- as their name suggests, they were intended for Israel, where they were supposed to liberate Jerusalem. There are other stories of Jewish Cossacks, and I like this stories. They are worth remembering.

Anyone who studies Jewish cooking knows that we simply borrowed and adapted the food of  our gentile neighbors. The fashion favored by many Hasids was borrowed from the clothes of Polish nobility. Yiddish is a great borrower, drawing from almost every European language and superimposing it upon what often feels like a Slavic structure -- with touches of Greek, Latin, and even Turkic. Yiddish theater borrowed from the conventions of European folk theater, while klezmer borrowed from military music, Gypsy musicians, and European folk songs.

We were never just Jews, living in some sort of bubble that separated us from Gentile Europe. We were Europeans, and, more than that, we were Europeans whose experiences often were shaped by the part of Europe we came from.

So while I understand my father, I do not agree with him. We were not just Jews, we were Russian Jews -- and, having known many, many Jewish immigrants from Russia, I know just how very Russian they can be. We weren't just Russian, either. As I construct my adoptive family's genealogy, I find Belarussians, Poles, Bessarabians, and Ukrainians.

Maybe not enough time has past since the Holocaust for us to reclaim our European identities, to see ourselves as products of a second exile, an exile from Europe. Maybe we will never be able to look at the politics or culture of, say, contemporary Belarus and feel like it has anything to do with us in the way that Irish-Americans are obsessed with contemporary Ireland. Perhaps the betrayal was too great. Maybe there is no going back when all so much of Europe rejected you and spendt a decade trying to exterminate you. Especially when there is still so much antisemitism in Europe -- why would we want to claim a heritage that still despises us?

I don't have any answers. I just have an interest, and maybe it's the Irish in me. But I can't help but want to know more about the places my family came from, even if all they wanted was to leave it behind.


On Dressing British

I just want to make a little note on the subject of dressing British, since that is half the title of this blog.

Dressing British is, historically speaking, dressing Jewish.

Since at least 1850, London's garment trade was largely Jewish. Jews dominated the cap-making trade in London and Manchester. According to this web site, one out of seven male Jewish immigrant worked in garment factories in in London's East end in the early 20th century. Jews also made up a large part of the custom-made tailoring trade, and later moved into the retail garment trade.

So when you see an classic English City Gent, in his Oxford shoes, dark suit, rolled umbrella, and bowler hat, there is a very good chance you are seeing someone wearing clothes tailored and sold by Jewish artisans and merchants. When you see a British mod, in bold colored casual clothes or dapper Italian suits, you're seeing a movement that largely started with Jewish youths who had access to the clothes wholesale, thanks to family connections in the garment trade. When you see British punks, you are seeing a movement that got its start with producer Malcolm McLaren, who owned a music and fashion store in West London, and whose mother was a Jewish woman whose family was in the diamond business, and whose stepfather was in the rag trade.

This may mean more to me than to most people, as I lived in England as a boy and am a bit English myself, biologically speaking. But still, it's always nice to know that no matter how goyish my fashion choices might sometimes be, I'm always secretly dressing Jewish.


Week 19: Slash Fiction Set in the Star Trek Universe

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 134 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 66 hours
I have reviewed 1,849 individual flashcards
Correct learning: 67.55%
Correct young: 71.42%
Correct mature: 82.75%

I have reached a moment when my earliest flashcards, now three or more months old, have started appearing again. These were the first I learned and the first to become "mature" cards, pushed to the back of the deck in the Anki system, and then pushed further and further back until they disappeared for months. So I have forgotten then, until I see the answer, and then I immediately remember and kick myself for not remembering.

I suppose this is the process of learning, and one must learn to be sanguine about the fact that it involves forgetting and being reminded, and then forgetting and being reminded again, but it's a wee bit frustrating. However, sometimes I feel like all I do is complain about the frustrations of learning a language, and not the pleasures, so I will focus on pleasures for the rest of this post.

Firstly, it is getting easier to memorize sentences. This has been the hardest part of the process, because I will learn individual words quite well but get lost trying to remember how to assemble them. But a certain logic to the construction of sentences has started to click into place in my head. They aren't very sophisticated sentences, but sophisticated sentences are built out of simpler ones.

Similarly, the construction of individual words has started to make sense. When I started learning, words were just words, and I had to memorize the whole thing. But Yiddish, like English, makes use of a handful of prefixes and suffixes, and has a few ways it is made plural and past tense and future tense, and it's getting easy to recognize these. A single word can be made into other words through clever use of morphology, and it tends to sort of make sense. As an example, "look" in Yiddish is kukn, while "gaze" is ankukn, and "pay attention" is tzukukn zikh. It makes it a lot easier to learn a word when you discover it contains a word you already know.

I'm about two weeks away from having studied 2,000 individual flashcards. I have nothing more to say about that, except that it is extraordinarily satisfying to approach my second thousand.

I can just sort of name a lot of things in Yiddish. I know what most of the objects in my apartment are, I know what most things I wear are, I know the months, the days of the week, the seasons, how to count, different sorts of weather, etc. Weather words are tremendously funny, by the way, because they sound vaguely dirty. "Cloudy," as an example, is volcandik, which sounds like slash fiction set in the Star Trek universe. "Foggy" is neppledik. Humid is douchne.

I still experience these weird data dumps in my brain, where all of a sudden I'll just find myself cycling through words -- they just repeat themselves in my head, feeling like they are somehow locking into place. They are often words I have a hard time with -- for instance, I had the devil of a time with "gloves," which is hentchkes, and then, out of the blue, my brain just cycled through about 15 words, including that one, and now I just know it. I don't like to think of my brain as a computer that just has its own processes that it will do all at once without warning me, but obviously my brain doesn't care what I think of it and will just act like a computer when it feels like it. Weird though this may be, I'm happy to suddenly know words I have struggled with.


Film: Yidl Mitn Fidl (1936)

There was once an audience for Yiddish film. It was the 1930s, and then the audience went away. There was a director who specialized in Yiddish film, Joseph Green, an eccentric fellow who parlayed a walk-on role in Al Jolson's "The Jazz Singer" into a brief career in Jewish film. He made a series of Yiddish films, and then stopped, and the New York Times quoted his explanation in his obituary: "I have only one answer: six million potential moviegoers were missing and they were the most important audiences for Yiddish films."

There is a haunted quality to Green's films as a result. He filmed in Poland on the eve of World War II, in real locations, with local Jews as background talent, and it would all soon be wiped off the map. Green himself would lose three sisters in concentration camps. His films act are a sort of parallel to Roman Vishniac's photographs of Eastern European Jews in the few years before the Holocaust, but while Vishniac provided documentary images, Green preserved the cultural life.

I have only seen one of Green's films so far, but it is his most famous. The film is title "Yidl Mitn Fidl" in Yiddish, "Yiddle With His Fiddle" in English. The film was shot in Kazimierz Dolny, Poland around 1936, a town that had a Jewish population since the 14th Century and was now half Jewish, with a population of about 1,400 Jews, many of them living in dire poverty, according to star Molly Picon. By 1940, there were no more Jews in in Kazimier.

So it's hard to watch the film without knowing that the shadow of the future hangs over it, that many of the people in it were bound for extermination. And yet the film doesn't want to be seen this way. It was created as light entertainment, made without knowledge of what was to come, and cannot bear the weight of it. It was based on a script called "The Wandering Musicians," telling the story of itinerant klezmorim, the wedding and dance musicians who give klezmer music its name. Green wanted stage star Molly Picon to star in the film, and so adjusted the script to make one of the musicians a girl, and then inserted a plot wrinkle straight out of Shakespeare. Afraid for her safety, her father insists she dress like a boy, which works until she falls in love with another musician.

All if it is done in big, silly strokes, and the main cast is drawn from some of the better actors in Yiddish theater, including Leon Liebgold as the love interest; Liebgold also starred in The Dybbuk, which I will review later. They are savvy enough actors to know the difference between acting for film and stage, that film is a more intimate medium, and so scenes must be underplayed. So there is a pleasant naturalism to much of the film, even in its clowning, which there is an awful lot of. The filmmakers even try to make the music diagetic, so there are always people sawing away at fiddles while the cast sings.

Despite this, it's often a rough film, filmed in a nondescript manner. For a 1930s musical, it feels like something that would have been made 10 or more years earlier, with some awkward plotting and jagged edits. It's a film I very badly wanted to love, and I know there are things in it I can love, but it is so ungainly and often amateurish that it must be loved with effort.

But it must be loved. It must be loved because it is one of the only documents of this sort of a world that was destroyed. It must be loved because it is one of the few efforts to put Yiddish theater onto the screen. It must be loved because of history, even if the film wasn't built to support that weight.

And it must be loved because it is one of the only films to capture the younger Molly Picon, before she aged into an eccentric yenta character (including the character Yenta in the film "Fiddler on the Roof.") Picon was a delightful oddball, and played up that quality, which is both surprising and isn't. I'm not familiar enough with Picon's work to comment on it in any great detail, but I can say that she was not conventionally attractive, and while she could carry a tune, she wasn't a superb singer. If Yiddish theater had been a place that exclusively prized traditional beauty and world-class vocals, Picon might not have had a career.

But Jewish entertainment has always prized our oddballs. Think about entertainers who are Jewish in a way that is more than incidental -- Sarah Bernhardt, the Marx Brothers, George Burns, Zero Mostel, Shelly Winters, and on. These were all weirdos. I knew Shelley Winters, and can personally testify to the fact that she was odd in a way that seemed unnatural, like she was produced in a parallel dimension where cartoonish, shrieky neuroses were unremarkable. In this dimension, they were remarkable, and celebration -- Shelley won tow Academy Awards, and one of them was for "Diary of Anne Frank." Weird though she might have been, she had a place in Jewish performance.

So "Yidl Mitn Fidl" is a showcase for Picon, and her oddness isn't as pronounced as Shelley's was, but here she has a squirrely, wide-eyed quality that is unexpected -- she isn't be especially girlish when she's a girl, and neither does she play at being boyish when she dresses as a boy, but she's always just a Molly Picon character. She openly moons over Liebgold, who notices and doesn't quite know what to make of it.

There's something about this, and I can't quite put my finger on it. Either there was something about Picon that the filmmakers saw as essentially genderless, so they did not expect Picon to playact at being a boy, as Streisand did in Yentl. Alternately, the filmmakers just felt that there was so significant difference between the way an adult woman behave and the way a little boy behaves, which is troubling. Whatever the case, whether dressed as a boy or as a girl, it is Picon as Picon all the way through the film, which is good for historians of Yiddish theater and complicated for historians of gender.

I am not yet familiar enough with Yiddish to know what accent is used in the film. I suspect it's Polish, as Picon was an American but had Polish Parents, Liebgold was Polish, Green was Polish, co-screenwrtier Konrad Tom was Polish, and the film is set in Poland. Yet I am given to understand that Yiddish theater was largely done in Ukrainian Yiddish, so maybe it's that. As a result, I essentially understood none of the film. I'd catch a word here or there, but between the fact that the vowels are utterly different (where I would say "zun" for son, they would say "zin"), the sound quality was muddied, and it was spoken by Yiddish speakers for a Yiddish audience and so there was no real concern with careful annunciation.

I don't know when I'll know Yiddish well enough to be able to actually understand the dialogue in this film. I don't know that this will ever happen. But at least I can hear what it sounded like, in the same way that I can see what Molly Picon was like at the height of her fame, in the same way that I can see the people of Kazimierz before they were destroyed. I may never have complete comprehension of the language, the actress, or the town, but at least I can access the film that documented them.


Week 18: 1000 Words

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 129 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 63 hours
I have reviewed 1,789 individual flashcards
Correct learning: 68.3%
Correct young: 71.98%
Correct mature: 83.65%

The advantage of gamifying my study of Yiddish is that it has brought a terrible and perhaps counterproductive clarity to my studies. I have ordered a silver badge that says "1,000" on it, and I will award it to myself when I have completed my list of the 1,000 most common Yiddish words. So, at the moment, that is all I am working on, racing toward completion. I am up to 717, although I should point out that I already know a lot of the words on the list thanks to my initial project of memorizing the Yiddish versions of the most-common 600 words found in any language. I have maybe 150 words left to learn, and that's about a week and a half of study.

The truth is, I don't know how accurate the list is. It comes from here, and the site gives no indication how it came up with the list. The site is anonymous, but a search for the owner produces a fellow named Nariman Pishdar from Stockholm who has no special background in language. There are seemingly arbitrary choices, like the fact that some of the verbs are in a past tense, and the list is missing a lot of words specific to the Jewish experience, which you would expect to show up on such a list. And if you go from language to language, the word list is identical, so I suspect Mr. Pishdar just located a list of most common words from somewhere and perhaps used something like Google Translate to find the equivalent in every language he could think of.

This doesn't make this list particularly useful, in that is offers no insights into the Yiddish-speaking experience, and undoubtedly misses words that are used all the time. Compare it to this list, which drew from the most common words published in Yiddish-language newspapers. There, in the top 100, unsurprisingly, are the Yiddish words for Jews and Yiddish, as well as the word for Israel. Palestinian show up in the to 200, and Torah show up somewhere between 200 and 300. None of these are to be found in my list.

It would be nice if somebody did a proper survey of the use of the Yiddish language and put together a more comprehensive frequency list, but nobody has and I am not going to, so you take what you can get. I am determined to have my list of 1,000 words done as soon as possible, so I can give myself an award, and so that's where my focus is. No more Yiddish swear words. No more words plucked from the dictionary because they seemed interesting. No more songs or poems. Not yet, at least.

On another topic, I turned 48 on Sunday. I have recently decided that all Ashkenazi Jews should speak fluent Yiddish by the time they are 50, which I think was clever of me, as it gives me two more years to become fluent.

On another topic, I got the Golden Book of Jewish Humor by Harry Golden, who I suspect invented the phrase "Dress British Think Yiddish." He does indeed claim ownership -- he says he was in a Madison Avenue firm and suggested they use it as a variation of IBM's "Think Different." However, Golden also says that within a day he was hearing the phrase repeated back at him in other states, and so he wonders if jokes don't simply magically appear everywhere at the same time. So he will only claim that he thinks he came up with the phrase, but has no idea how it became so popular so quickly.

Anyway, I'm calling it for Golden. Until someone else comes forward with a credible earlier claim, Golden not only remembers inventing the phrase, but there is also a newspaper account that credits him as having originated a variation of it, and that's how we do history. Or that's how I do history anyway, and I am the author of this blog, so here, at least, it's Golden.


Week 17: Merit Badges

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 120 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 58 hours
I have reviewed 1,656 individual flashcards
Correct learning: 68.92%
Correct young: 72.97%
Correct mature: 82.71%

I end my fourth month very nearly having fallen behind. I am out of new words on my flashcards and must add some new ones immediately, or I'll just start reviewing old words endlessly.

I'd blame my dog again, but the truth is that I blocked out some time to add new words yesterday and then got lost in another project. Or, more properly, it is the same project, but a new aspect of it.

A few posts ago I discussed gamifying my Yiddish learning by rewarding myself for certain accomplishments. I was mostly going to give myself Yiddish pins, but, to this date, I have only found one pin, the one that gave this blog its name.

So I have moved on to another reward. As it happens, my personal aesthetic has always tended toward the precocious and the twee, and so, while I was never a Boy or Girl Scout, I always envied them, or their uniforms, at least. In particular, I envied their sash, which in some circles is called a "brag sash," because it is the part of the uniform reserved for showing off what you have accomplished by way of merit badges.

Before anyone had ever started talking about gamification, the Boys Scouts gamified their program by rewarding scouts with illustrated circular patches -- this was all the way back in 1911, when boys could be rewarded for gaining skills in such areas as bee farming, firemanship, and taxidermy. And as with any game, the more you accomplish, the higher your status -- at 21 merit badges, a scout is eligible to become a coveted Eagle Scout, which itself comes with a special medal and badge you get to wear around.

Additionally, there are ranks within the Boy Scouts, represented by various medals and patches, which is also done in contemporary video games and was almost certainly stolen from the military. I've never been in the Scouts, or the military, so I don't know if higher ranking Scouts get to boss around lower ranking Scouts, by I do know that each rank has its own set of skills that must be mastered before you can move on to the next rank. I would hope that Life Scouts at the very least get to scream at new scout recruits, telling them that their girlfriends are at home with a Flatfoot Jody, composing a Dear John while the recruit trains to parachute jump into hostile territories, but I think I have just seen too many war movies.

Anyway, I intend to steal a lot of this. There are a lot of people nowadays making what are called "spoof merit badges," rewarding such everyday accomplishments as blogging and purchasing things on Etsy. So instead of adding new words to my flashcards, I spend hours looking through the Internet, tracking down merit badges that I can apply to my Yiddish studies, so that I can reward myself when I accomplish things. I will order myself my own sash soon, and so you can expect me to wear it whenever I want to feel proud of myself.

Mostly I plan to reward myself for learning a a certain number of themed words -- say, 100 ways to insult someone. But as I continue, I feel sure I will come up with new ways to reward myself. I've gotten to be pretty good at rewarding myself.