The 100 Yiddish Words Everyone Should Know: Plotz

Plotz is the sort of word that makes people think Yiddish must be a dirty language. To our American ears, this blunt one-syllable word sounds like it must describe something awful, something that belongs in an outhouse or at the very least in a pit by the side of a road.

"Wait until you get a load of the banquet room," a gangster declares in the film "Donnie Brasco." "You're gonna plotz!" And so the notoriously unreliable Urban Dictionary has tried to make sense of the word, citing this exact quote, and came up with "faint," "fall over," and, most often, to void ones bowels.

It's none of these. Plotz means "burst." We use it in English: I was busting with pride. I was bursting with energy. Jefferson Airplane once sang "I could burst apart and start to cry," and nobody assumed this would involve any failure of hygiene.

Feelings fill us. They well up in us, threatening to overflow, to expand beyond our ability to contain them, and so big emotions make us burst, if we're speaking English, and plotz, if we're speaking Yiddish. There's nothing inherently comical about this, except that, to many Americans, Yiddish generally sounds sort of comical.

This is not to say there are no edges to the word plotz. If you're sick of someone, or irritated with them, or just want some peace and quiet for a moment, you can tell them "Gei plotz," which means "go burst," which isn't very nice. The implication is that they won't merely leave, but will step out and just pop, like a balloon, or that they will spontaneously herniate, but whatever happens, it gets rid of them.

There's a tough guy quality to this phrase, like in old movies when gangsters wouldn't tell somebody to leave, but, instead, to "screw."  Yiddish has a surprising number of these too-aggressive exhortations to exit. You might tell someone to defecate on the sea, or to fart in their own throat. I know of a dozen idioms telling people, in no uncertain terms, that they have worn out their welcome, which makes it seem like the entire Yiddish community consisted of the sorts of people who can't take a hint, but instead just linger, carrying on a one-sided conversation long after everyone else has lost interest. There's no use being polite. Just tell them to pack up their things, head toward the door, and explode.

Some uses of the word plotz:

Clifford Odets, Playwright-poet, Harold Cantor: "In the verbs 'bursting' and 'bust,' one can hear the echo of the Yiddish plotz, as in, 'His heart will plotz from such suffering.'"

The taste of Yiddish, Lillian Mermin Feinsilver: "Among teenagers, 'plotz' is becoming a noun, as in the comment on some great party plans: 'That'll be a real plotz!'"

Who Dropped Peter Pan?, Jane Dentinger: "'Boy, my Aunt Sylvia's gonna plotz when she hears.' In the plotzing department, Mike, Jack, and Phil had a big lead on Aunt Sylvia. They looked like a tableau vivant of the Three Stooges in shock."

What's Up Tiger Lilly, Woody Allen: "A salad so delicious you could plotz."


Jewish Summer Camp Movies: Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

Some of these essays will be about rediscoveries. As an example, there was a 1980 American comedy called "Gorp" that was set in a Jewish summer camp, and, when I get around to writing about it, not only will I be the first critic to have seriously addressed the film since its debuted, but I will likely be the first critic ever to seriously address the film. It was not well liked and is not well-remembered.

This is not the case with "Wet Hot American Summer." While the film received lukewarm reviews and box office when it first debuted, it's gone on to be a cult hit, and, by now, a mainstream success, with a recent mini-series prequel lensed for Netflix and a documentary about the making of the film, also available on Netflix.

I'll presume you have seen it, and so need not have me detail its episodic plot, nor describe the film's jagged, manic mix of comedic styles, from absurdist nonsense to straight parody to anti-humor. I also need not introduce you to the cast and filmmakers, some of whom were graduates of MTV's The State, others established comic actors, and two first-timers who went on to be legitimate movie stars.

I will say that this is less a single summer camp movie than it is a sort of mad collage, a series of summer camp moments that feel essentially iconic, but distorted through the lens of comedy, each in their own way. The actors tailor their performances to their specific scene, and the result is that sometimes performers seem to be in entirely different movies. SNL's Molly Shannon, playing an arts and crafts teacher, has a surprisingly realistic emotional meltdown as the result of a recent divorce, and is nursed back to mental health with the assistance of sympathetic -- and unnervingly mature -- campers. In the meanwhile, camp cook Christopher Meloni makes constant references to a perverse private life, has conversations with a sentient can of mixed vegetables, and provides an appropriately deranged performance. Shannon and Meloni never share a scene, and it is hard to imagine they share the same universe.

The creative leads behind the movie were David Wain, who cowrote the film and directed, and Michael Showalter, who cowrote the film and plays one of the main characters. And while the film clearly borrows from -- and mocks -- some of the conventions of 80s summer camp comedies, its roots are in actual Jewish summer camps. Both Wain and Showalter attended these camps as boys -- Wain went to Maine's Camp Modin while Showalter went to Camp Mohawk in the Berkshires. Wain, in fact, was so obsessed with his camp experience that when he aged out of being able to work as a counselor, he formed a rock band (the Rockin' Knights of Summer), performing and teaching music at summer camps.

As a result, a lot of the film is grounded in Wain and Showalter's memories, even the stranger stuff. One of the film's oddest moment has womanizer (and secret virgin) Ken Marino spontaneously drive a van into a tree while singing "Danny's Song," and this was based on Wain actually totaling a van when he was a counselor, under conditions almost identical to those in the film.

And so while "Wet Hot American Summer's" Camp Firewood doesn't spend a lot of time addressing the fact that it is a Jewish summer camp, it doesn't shy away from the fact either. Roughly half the cast is Jewish, and Jewish names abound: Gerald "Coop" Cooperberg, Abby Bernstein, Professor Henry Newman. In one scene, camp director Janeane Garofalo rattles off the names of campers, and they are all Jewish, absurdly so: "Amanda Klein, Jessica Azaria, Ira ... Stevenberg, Sol Zimmer ... stein ... uh, David ... Ben Gurion ..."

 The film is full of absurd little Jewish grace notes. When the camp's nerds must build a device to prevent SkyLab from crushing them (don't make me explain), they quickly huddle and pray together in Hebrew. A filthy child who hosts an imaginary radio show also informs listeners that he can be heard on Jewish day school radio. When Showalter confesses his love to a fellow camper, he tells her he doesn't mind that she's occasionally late to shul.

Perhaps the largest hat-tip to the fact that the film is set in a Jewish camp happens at the start and end of the film's climactic talent show. Firstly, the show is emceed, for some reason, by a low-rent Borscht Belt comic named Alan Shemper (also played by Showalter), whose routine consists entirely of jokes about how old he is, and who absolutely kills.

And then we get a musical number, produced by the camp's two most goyish staffers, drama instructors Amy Poehler and Bradley Cooper. For some reason, the two have decided to direct a musical number from "Godspell," the musical in which clown/mimes act out parables from the Gospel of Matthew. As the number end and the stage goes dark, a single cross appears on the camp's back wall.

And the audience boos it.

That's how you make a film set in a Jewish summer camp, folks.


Jewish Theater: The Most-Produced Jewish Plays

As some of you already know, I am a playwright, which can sometimes be a thankless undertaking. It's often an exhausting, frustrating avocation. Except for a tiny percentage of playwrights, it's not the sort of activity that will ever bring fame, and, even for them, it doesn't bring fortune. You're lucky to get a play produced at all, and, if you do, it will probably only ever receive one production, by a small storefront theater, to a dwindling audience of middle-aged and old white people. It will receive lukewarm reviews from a local critic and then pass into posterity, unremembered and unrewarded.

But I can't stop, damn it. I've been writing plays since I was a boy and will so so until I'm very old, because playwright isn't a career or a hobby, it is a compulsion. And, criticisms aside, it's worthwhile. Theater allows an author to write in a way afforded by no other form. It allows ideas to be staged dramatically, and pushes language into the forground, in a way that film and television can't. It exists in a liminal space that, even with realistic plays, allow for abstraction and metaphor, and it provides an audience that appreciates these things. Further, theater is one of the few remaining places where I see dramatic art that surprises me, and I like to be surprised.

I have been working on a Yiddish-themed play, and have been thinking about what to do with the play once it is written.

My first step was putting together a list of theaters that specialize in Jewish-themed plays, which I will publish in the next week or so, when I complete it. But I noticed that very few of them develop new plays, and that, even when they do, regional Jewish theaters don't have a good track record of producing plays that go on to have a long life of additional productions at other theaters.

I decided to take a little time to look at Jewish-themed plays that do have a healthy life. American Theatre puts out an annual list of the most produced plays in America, although it should be noted that this is limited to theaters that are members of the Theatre Communications Group, which represents a specific selection of semi-professional to professional nonprofit theaters. This leaves out amateur companies, of which there are a superabundance (most theater companies her in Omaha, as an example, are amateur companies), as well as many community theaters, which are semi-abundant.There are also a fair number of for-profit theaters left off this list, so, who knows, there might be something called "Yankel's Kishkas" that is making the rounds of these theaters, enjoying hundred of productions per year, and neither I nor American Theatre has ever heard of it.

So take this list for what it is, limitations and all. I was curious to see who is writing the popular American Jewish theater and where the plays are getting their start, because if you're like me and want to write a play that has a life longer than that of a mayfly, you need to pitch to certain theaters. You need to pitch to theaters where plays start their lives, and not end them.

A few notes at the end of the list. 

BAD JEWS by Joshua Harmon

Plot: After a beloved grandfather dies in New York, leaving a treasured piece of religious jewelry that he succeeded in hiding even from the Nazis during the Holocaust, cousins fight over not only the family heirloom, but their "religious faith, cultural assimilation, and even the validity of each other's romances.”

The playwright: Joshua Harmon (born 1983) is a New York City-based playwright, whose works include "Bad Jews" and "Significant Other," both produced off-Broadway by Roundabout Theatre Company.

Harmon has also had his plays produced and developed by the Manhattan Theatre Club, Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, NY, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Ars Nova, the O'Neill and Actor's Express. He has been awarded fellowships from MacDowell, Atlantic Center for the Arts and the Eudora Welty Foundation.

Production history: The play premiered Off-Broadway in October 2012 at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Black Box Theatre and then transferred to the Rondabout's Laura Pels Theatre. The play opened at the Laura Pels Theatre on October 3, 2013 and closed on December 29, 2013. Directed by Daniel Aukin, the cast for both productions featured Tracee Chimo as Diana, Michael Zegen as Liam, Molly Ranson as Melody, and Philip Ettinger as Jonah.

The UK premiere, directed by Michael Longhurst, was at Bath's Ustinov Studio in August 2014 before transferring in 2015 to the West End at the St. James Theatre and in 2015 at the Arts Theatre, in London. Among regional productions, it played in 2014 and was revived in 2015 at the Studio Theatre in Washington, DC and ran at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. It is being revived in 2016 at the Haymarket Theatre.

BUYER AND CELLAR by Jonathan Tollins

Plot: an outrageous new comedy about the oddest of odd jobs:  “an underemployed Los Angeles actor going to work in Barbra Streisand’s Malibu basement.”

The Playwright: Jonathan Tollins’ plays include "The Twilight of the Golds" (Broadway, Booth Theatre), "If Memory Serves" (Promenade), "The Last Sunday in June" (Rattlestick, Century Center) and "Secrets of the Trade" (Primary Stages). A collection of his plays has been published by Grove/Atlantic. His film work includes "The Twilight of the Golds" and "Martian Child." For television, he was a writer for “Queer as Folk,” The Academy Awards, The Tony Awards and “Partners.” He was the author of "Pushkin 200: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall," acted as script consultant on "Walking with Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular," and co-wrote "The Divine Millennium Tour" and "The Showgirl Must Go On" for Bette Midler. He has written articles for Opera News, Opera Monthly, TheaterWeek, Time magazine and The Huffington Post, and is a panelist on the Metropolitan Opera Radio Quiz. He lives in Fairfield, Connecticut with his husband, the writer and director Robert Cary, and their children, Selina and Henry. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild and the Writers Guild of America.

Production History: "Buyer & Cellar" premiered at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in 2013.

Winner of the 2014–2015 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Solo Show

DISGRACED by Ayad Akhtar

Plot: The play is centered on sociopolitical themes such as Islamophobia and the self-identity of Muslim-American citizens. It focuses on a dinner party between four people with very different backgrounds. n all, the dinner table assembly includes an ex-Muslim, an African-American, a Jew and a WASP dining over the topic of religious faith. As discussion turns to politics and religion, the mood quickly becomes heated. Described as a "combustible powder keg of identity politics," the play depicts racial and ethnic prejudices that "secretly persist in even the most progressive cultural circles." It is also said to depict the challenge for upwardly mobile Muslim Americans in the post-9/11 America.

The Playwright: Akhtar was born in Staten Island, New York City and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Akhtar's interest in writing was initially sparked in high school, when a teacher introduced him to European Modernism. Akhtar later attended Brown University where he majored in theater and began acting in student plays. After graduation he moved to Italy and studied acting with Jerzy Grotowski for a year, eventually becoming his assistant. Upon returning to the United States, Akhtar taught acting classes with Andre Gregory and earn his Master of Fine Arts degree in film directing from Columbia University School of the Arts.

Production history: "Disgraced" was originally scheduled at the American Theater Company in Chicago, Illinois, to run February 3 — March 4, 2012, with an official debut of February 6. Eventually the run was moved forward one week to January 27 — February 26, 2012, with an official January 30 debut. On February 21, its run was extended in Chicago until Mar 11, 2012.

It made its New York debut of its Off-Broadway run at LCT3/Lincoln Center Theater with an October 22, 2012, premiere and was scheduled to run until November 18 before being extended until December 2. Hurricane Sandy caused the cancellation of the October 28 and 29 evening performances but not the October 28 matinee.[29] On November 1, it was extended again until December 23.

On February 6, 2013, the London premiere of the play was announced as an Off West End opening at the Bush Theatre, beginning in May 2013 under the direction of Nadia Fall. Its previews were scheduled to begin on May 17 before opening on May 22 and running until June 15. On March 15, Disgraced was extended until June 22. The play opened as scheduled on May 22. That July, the producer Matthew Rego announced that the show was being considered for a Broadway run during the 2013–14 season. On June 10, 2014, was announced to have a Broadway run starting on October 23, following previews beginning September 27 at the Lyceum Theatre.

Disgraced began its limited run on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre with preview performances on September 27. Opening night was October 23, 2014 with an original announced run lasting until February 15, 2015. In January, the closure of the engagement was announced for March 1. Direction is by Kimberly Senior, sets by John Lee Beatty, costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser and lighting by Ken Posner. The cast includes Danny Ashok, Hari Dhillon, Gretchen Mol, Karen Pittman, and Josh Radnor.

2012 Joseph Jefferson Award: New Work – Play or Musical
2013 Pulitzer Prize – Drama
2013 Obie Award – Playwrighting


Plot: 1939 Hollywood is abuzz. Legendary producer David O. Selznick has shut down production of his new epic, "Gone with the Wind," a film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's novel. The screenplay, you see, just doesn't work. So what's an all-powerful movie mogul to do? While fending off the film's stars, gossip columnists and his own father-in-law, Selznick sends a car for famed screenwriter Ben Hecht and pulls formidable director Victor Fleming from the set of "The Wizard of Oz." Summoning both to his office, he locks the doors, closes the shades, and on a diet of bananas and peanuts, the three men labor over five days to fashion a screenplay that will become the blueprint for one of the most successful and beloved films of all time.

The Playwright: Ron Hutchinson (born near Lisburn, County Antrim, Northern Ireland) is an Emmy Award winning screenwriter and an Olivier Award nominated playwright, known for writing John Frankenheimer's "Against the Wall," Robert M. Young's "Slave of Dreams," John Frankenheimer's "The Island of Dr. Moreau," "Moonlight and Magnolias" (play), and the 2004 miniseries "Traffic."

"Moonlight & Magnolias" at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Illinois was nominated for the 2004 Joseph Jefferson Award for New Work. "The Irish Play" was performed in a Royal Shakespeare Company production at the Royal Shakespeare Company Warehouse Theatre in London, England with Ron Cook, Brenda Fricker, and P.G. Stephens in the cast. Barry Kyle was director.

Brought up and educated in Coventry, Hutchinson has written stage and radio plays as well as his screenwriting. He now lives in Los Angeles, California with his second wife and adopted daughter.

Production History: Moonlight and Magnolias premiered at the Goodman Theater in Chicago in 2004.
Manhattan Theatre Club production in 2005.

TRIBES by Nina Raine

The plot: The play focuses on a comically dysfunctional Jewish British family, made up of the parents Beth and Christopher and three grown children living at home, Daniel, Ruth and Billy, the last of whom is deaf, raised to read lips and speak but without knowledge of sign language. When Billy meets Sylvia, a hearing woman born to deaf parents who is now slowly going deaf herself, his interaction with her (including her teaching him sign language) reveals some of the languages, beliefs, and hierarchies of the family and the "extended family" of the deaf community.

The Playwright: Nina Raine is an English theatre director and playwright, and the only daughter of the poet Craig Raine and Ann Pasternak Slater; she is also a grand niece of the Russian novelist Boris Pasternak.

She graduated from Christ Church, Oxford in 1998 with a First in English Literature.

Production History: The play was first staged October 14-November 13, 2010 at the Royal Court Theatre in London. It was directed by Roger Michell and starred Jacob Casseldon, Nina Markham, Michelle Terry, Stanley Townsend, Harry Treadaway, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

The play premiered Off-Broadway at the Barrow Street Theatre on March 4, 2012 and closed on January 20, 2013, having been extended twice. Directed by David Cromer, the cast starred Will Brill, Russell Harvard, Susan Pourfar, Gayle Rankin, Jeff Perry, and Mare Winningham. The Scenic Design was by Scott Pask, costumes by Tristan Raines, lights by Keith Parham, sound by Daniel Kluger and projections by Jeff Sugg.

The production had a West Coast transfer after closing in New York and was remounted at the Centre Theater Group, The Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, for a limited run from February 2013 through April 2013, and with most of the original cast (NY replacements Lee Roy Rogers and Jeff Still took over as Beth and Christopher).

It then ran at the La Jolla Playhouse, San Diego, California, in June and July 2013, also directed by David Cromer. The play ran at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota, from October through November 2013, directed by Wendy C. Goldberg. It was then produced by Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, Oregon in February 2015.

The Canadian debut was produced by Theatrefront in association with Canadian Stage and Theatre Aquarius with shows at Toronto's Berkeley Street Theatre. The cast included Stephen Drabicki, Patricia Fagan, Nancy Palk, Joseph Ziegler, Holly Lewis and Dylan Trowbridge, directed by Daryl Cloran.


2012 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play
2012 New York Drama Critics Circle Award, Best Foreign Play
2012 Obie Award, Performance, Susan Pourfar
2012 Off-Broadway Alliance Award – Best Play

THE WHIPPING MAN by Matthew Lopez

Plot: It is Passover, 1865. The Civil War has just ended and the annual celebration of freedom from bondage is being observed in Jewish homes across the country. One of these homes, belonging to the DeLeons of Virginia, sits in ruins. Confederate officer Caleb DeLeon has returned from the war to find his family missing and only two former slaves remaining. Caleb is badly wounded and the two men, Simon and John, are forced to care for him.

As the three men wait for the family's return, they wrestle with their shared past as master and slave, digging up long-buried family secrets along the way as well as new ones. Slavery and war, they discover, warp even good men's souls.

The Playwright: Matthew Lopez is the author of "The Whipping Man," one of the most widely produced new American plays of the last several years. The play premiered at Luna Stage in Montclair, NJ and debuted in New York at Manhattan Theatre Club. That production was directed by Doug Hughes and starred Andre Braugher. The sold-out production extended four times, ultimately running 101 performances off-Broadway and garnering Obie and Lucille Lortel Awards. Matthew was awarded the John Gassner New Play Award from the New York Outer Critics Circle for the play. Since then, it has been received over 40 productions worldwide. His play Somewhere has been produced at the Old Globe, TheatreWorks in Palo Alto and most recently at Hartford Stage Company, where his play Reverberation will receive its world premiere in 2015. His newest play, The Legend of Georgia McBride, premiered earlier this year at the Denver Theatre Center for the Performing Arts. His play The Sentinels premiered in London at Headlong Theatre Company in 2011. Matthew currently holds new play commissions from Roundabout Theatre Company, Manhattan Theatre Club, Hartford Stage, and South Coast Rep. Matthew was a staff writer on HBO’s “The Newsroom” and is currently adapting Javier Marias’ trilogy “Your Face Tomorrow” for the screen.

Production History:
April 2006 - World Premiere at Luna Stage Company in Montclair, NJ
February 2009 - Production at Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul, MN
May 2010 - West Coast Premiere at Old Globe in San Diego, CA
June 2010 - New England Premiere at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, MA
February 2011 - New York Premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club in New York, NY

Winner of the 2011 John Gassner New Play Award from the NY Outer Critics Circle.

 A few notes: Firstly, American theater currently seems to be pretty interested in plays with Jewish themes or Jewish characters. In the past few years, the percentage of most-produced plays that include Jewish subject matter has increased consistently, with two plays this year representing 27 total productions, and three plays the previous year representing 22 productions.

Surprisingly, half of these plays were not written by Jews. Of the six plays listed above, only three -- "Bad Jews," "Buyer and Cellar," and "Tribes" -- were written by authors with significant Jewish heritage. (Lopez, who wrote "The whipping Man," has a Jewish aunt, but was raised Episcopalian and had little familiarity with Judaism before writing the play.) Ayad Akhtar is, of course, Muslim, and his play "Disgraced" is mostly a play about the Muslim experience, although it features a Jewish character.

None of these plays debuted at theaters primarily known for producing Jewish material, and most debuted at theaters with a history of developing new work which then transfers to a larger theater. Two of the plays debuted in New York and two in Chicago, while Tribes debuted in London.

Hearteningly, "The Whipping Man" blazed its own trail, starting in New Jersey and moving to St. Paul, and on for two additional regional productions before making it to New York. So it is not necessary to have your play open at in America's largest cities for them to go on to be widely produced -- although goodness knows it helps.

I should take a moment to discuss the content of these plays. Two of them deal with celebrities: Barbra Streisand in "Buyer and Cellar" and the old Hollywood studio heads of "Moonlight and Magnolias." "Disgraced," "Tribes," and "The Whipping Man" all deal with what could be called "social issues": Islamophobia, disability, and racism. "Bad Jews" is the outlier, in that its primarily about an internecine squabble in a dysfunctional family, although it should be noted that this is tried and true theatrical territory.

None of this is meant to be a prescription for writing a successful Jewish play. I don't know that such a prescription exists, because had somebody suggested a few years ago that one of the most successful American plays the looks at the Jewish experience would be written by a British Muslim or a Puerto Rican Episcopalian writing for a New Jersey heater, I think we all would have been surprised.

I'll be curious to see what surprised me next.


Dress British Drink Yiddish: The Bee's Knees Cocktail

I don't know that there is anything obviously Jewish about the Bee's Knees cocktail. Its ingredients are gin, lemon, and honey, and I suppose if you made it with citron instead of lemon it might feel a little Hebraic, but, as is, no. Its name comes from Flapper slang, which I find delightful, and there certainly were Jewish flappers, but there is no reason to assume they invented this particular phrase, and the phrase may have been created in honor of Charleston queen Bee Jackson, who was not Jewish. The cocktail's place of origin isn't notably Jewish, either: The upscale Hotel Ritz Paris, founded by Swiss hotelier César Ritz and famous for its chef, Auguste Escoffier, neither of whom were Jewish.

But the Ritz also has a famous bar, and a famous bartender, and here's where things get Jewish. His name was Frank Meier, and he ran the Ritz Bar from 1921 to 1947. Meier invented several cocktails, including the Bee's Knees, and I am going to cover them all. I will note that the origin of this cocktail is disputed, but, then, the origins of all cocktails are disputed, and so we need merely note the dispute and move on.

Moving on: Meier's own biography is a little vague. He was likely Austrian, and he was either wholly or part Jewish, depending on the source. Tilar J. Mazzeo's book about the Ritz during the Second World War, "The Hotel on Place Vendome," has Meier as both Jewish and passing secret messages onto resistance soldiers, and I always find it weird to discuss Judaism in percentage, like it were a national heritage rather than a cultural one. Whatever percent Jewish his ancestry was, he was Jewish enough for our sake.

Meier wrote a classic book on the cocktail called "The Artistry of Mixing Drinks," where the Bee's Knees appears. The recipe is a classic example of traditional mixology, depending on a few ingredients that highlight the taste of the base liquor. It is as follows:

Bees’ Knees
In shaker: the juice of one-quarter Lemon, a teaspoon of Honey, one-half glass [one-ounce] of Gin; shake well and serve.

Honey can be a bit hard to mix, so modern bartenders typically make it with honey syrup, which is just honey dissolved in boiling water, and the completed cocktail is often offered with a lemon twist to garnish.

How is it? I suppose it depends on how you like lemon, as that is the dominant flavor, sweetened slightly by the honey. I happen to like lemon, and it blends well with gin; depending on the gin you use, the liquor's flavor will be more or less prominent. One supposed if you are not a fan of gin, vodka can be substituted, as with vodka gimlets and vodka martinis, but I will be perfectly honest here: People who do that are monsters, absolute monsters.

Finally, if you really want to Judaize the drink, you might consider giving it a Yiddish name. Bee's Knees in Yiddish is Bee's Kneer.

Come to think of it, that's not really that different.


Jewish Genealogy: In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov

Let me take a moment to map out my family tree leading back to Ze'ev Wolf Kitzes, my 8th great grandfather, the Hasid I am investigating at the start of this project. It goes like this, listing only direct descendants of Kitzes and not their spouses:

Max Sparber -> Claire Kestenbaum -> Ida Kitzis -> Isaac N Kitzis -> Noah Kitzis -> Chaim Nachman Kitzis -> Wolf Ozer Kitzis -> Israel Kitzis -> Nachman Kitzis -> Ze'ev Wolf Kitzes

I pieced this together from an online genealogy of Wolf Kitzes, and, who knows, it might be completely wrong. I suspect it's pretty accurate, though, as even when students of the Ba'al Shem Tov didn't create dynasties of wonder rabbis, as with Kitzes, their families still tended to be pretty diligent about maintaining the family tree. It's something called "yikhus" in Yiddish, a sort of pride in the accomplishments of ancestors. I will continue to investigate the family tree as I am able, but it is a starting point.

I should note that, at the moment, I have no idea how I know that I am descended from Kitzes. I had thought my mother told me, but she insists that she never did, she found out from me. I feel as though I have known since I was in my teens, when I was in the Jewish high school, and I expect it is likely that someone else in her family told me, but we're lost as to who that might be. Nonetheless, we do fit onto the Kitzes family tree perfectly as it is, and this isn't the sort of thing I would just make up as a child. I was a strange child, but not that strange. This is another area I will continue to investigate.

And one more quick note: As I am adopted, there probably will be some who do not feel it is appropriate for me to claim Kitzes as an ancestor. After all, I have biological ancestors, all from Ireland, and I claim them too.

Thankfully, I do not need to care what these people think. I am not trying to claim leadership in a Hasidic dynasty, as Kitzes established no such dynasty. I am not trying to marry into a Hasidic family, or claiming property, or anything where my biological relationship to Kitzes might be important. I consider myself to be a grandson, and I doubt he would have taken issue with that, for reasons I shall detail. But, as for now, I simply need remind people that the Talmud, in discussing several children that King David is said to have adopted, declared that "Whoever brings up an orphan in his home is regarded, according to Scripture, as though the child had been born to him."

Onward. As I mentioned in my previous post, there are a number of stories told about Wolf Kitzes, and my goal was to start with those stories and determine where they came from. This week, I begin with what must be considered the ur-text of Hasidic Judaism, a book called "Shivhei ha-Best," or, in English, "In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov." I purchased a copy in translation, an academic work produced by Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome R. Mintz in 1993.

The original book was written in a sort of primitive Hebrew in 1814, originally with no credited author, but in later editions credited to Rabbi Dov Baer ben Samuel. Rabbi Dov Baer was the son-in-law of Rabbi Alexander the Shohet, who had been the scribe for the Baal Shem Tov, the father of Hasidic Judaism, often called the Besht for short. And so Baer drew from his memories and from stories told to him about the Baal Shem Tov, assembling the first collection of tales told about the rabbi.

The book was produced a generation after the death of the Baal Shem Tov, and wasn't intended as a historical document but instead as a collection of miracle stories, but it's the earliest text we have dedicated specifically to the Besht. And Wolf Kitzes appears in this book in a half-dozen stories (called Kotzes in this edition), which I will summarize in a moment. I will not focus overmuch on the life of the Baal Shem Tov in writing about my great-grandfather, but I will say that this book manages to be both wildly entertaining and tremendously alien. Stories often seem gormless or lack significant detail, sometimes seeming like fairytales, sometimes seeming like dreams, and sometimes just seeming like arguments with a little magic trick thrown in.

Nonetheless, they are always recognizably Jewish. My favorite tells of the Baal Shem Tov fighting a werewolf, if you can believe it. There aren't that many Jewish werewolf stories, and the only part of this one that feels unmistakably Jewish is the Baal Shem Tov's reason for becoming a hunter of lycathropes: The monster is distracting children from their studies.

Here, as follows, are summaries of the Wolf Kitzes stories in the collection, with a few notes at the end:


The story comes from Rabbi Falk of Chechelnik, who heard it from Rabbi Abraham, who came from Mezhybozhe, where the Baal Shem Tov lived and worked. Rabbi Abraham said that he witnessed the Besht start trembling during prayer. Wolf Kitzes went to examine him, and the Baal Shem Tov was "burning like a torch" and his eyes were bugging out. Rabbis Abraham and Kitzes took the Baal Shem Tov by the hands to the ark, where the Torah scroll is kept, and he stood there trembling, postponing the reading of the Torah.


This story also comes from Rabbi Falk. On Yom Kippur, the Besht heard that "the oral tradition would no longer" belong to the Jews. He was so overcome with sorrow that he could only bless two of his visitors that night, and he said harsh words to them at the synagogue. He then fell crying onto the ark, asking how the Jews could survive without the Torah.

He was angry at rabbis, blaming them for this misery. During prayers, he became increasingly agitated, and when he read the words "Open the gates of heaven," he doubled over, nearly falling. Congregants wanted to support the Besht, and so went to Kitzes, who looked at the Baal Shem Tov and saw that "his eyes bulged and he sounded like a slaughtered bull."

The Besht was like this for two hours, and then suddenly stood up and finished his prayers. Afterwards, he told the congregants that during prayer he found he could move from this world to the next. As he moved through God's palace, he found prayers from the past 50 years that had not ascended. He asked the prayers why they remained, and they said they were waiting for the Besht to lead them. And so the Besht led the prayers into heaven.

But there, he found the gate locked. In a panic, he consulted with Ahijah the Shilonite, the Biblical prophet, saying the Jewish people were in trouble. Ahijah attempted to turn the lock, but could not, and so they went to the palace of the Messiah. The Messiah gave the Besht two holy letters, and suddenly the Besht could turn the lock. With that, the prayers ascended, and the decree that the Jews would lose the Torah was lifted.


This story originates from Rabbi Tsevi the Scribe. He tells of a marriage between two orphans, a girl that the Besht had raised and a boy that Wolf Kitzes had raised. The Besht had pledged two hundred gold coins as the girl's dowry.

Before the wedding, Kitzes told the Besht that the wedding would not continue until he had the gold coins. The Besht was surprised, feeling Kitzes did not trust him, and Kitzes explained that he could not continue to raise and educate the boy without the money. In the meanwhile, another rabbi approached the Besht with a debt that needed to be paid immediately.

The Besht told the rabbi to immediately go and pay the debt and then to return for the wedding. The rabbi went to the house of the man who owned the debt, who at once renounced the debt and immediately declared that he owed the Besht two hundred gold coins. The rabbi tarried on the way home to tell an innkeeper of the miracle, and the Besht was very irritated with him for holding up the wedding.


At the Besht's funeral, a rabbi was puzzled to see nothing extraordinary. But on his way home from the cemetery he saw "great and wonderful things." He told Wolf Kitzes, who said that this was undoubtedly "the way it had to be."


When the Besht moved to Mezhybozhe, there was already a community of Hasidim there, including Wolf Kitzes, and they did not regard the Besht as an important man. He was a Baal Shem, an itinerant miracle worker, and this was not seen as being the work a pious person should do.

But the rabbis had a student who was sick and who wanted  to see the Besht, and eventually they relented. They told the student to tell them everything that happened. A boy hid in the room.

The Besht saw the student and told him he would die, but could not enter paradise because there was one thing he had not yet "corrected." The student admitted this was true, and the Besht said he would take care of it and it would not keep him from paradise. The Besht told him not to tell anybody, and when the rabbis came to visit the student, he would not tell them what happened. However, the boy who hid in the room related the story, and the student told them it was true.

The rabbis demanded the sick student visit them after death and tell them what happened. He appeared after death and told them he was let into paradise, but could not find a place there. He finally found the Besht at a table teaching Torah. He asked the Besht why he could not find a place in paradise, and the Besht told the student that it was because he had not honored the Besht's request not to reveal what had happened.

The rabbis went to the Besht, who said that he knew that student had come to them as a ghost, and at once the rabbis became followers of the Baal Shem Tov. It turns out that the student never found a place in paradise, but was given a place by the gates.


I will abbreviate this one significantly: It tells of a new rabbi in the community, Rabbi Mikhel the Judge, who spends most of the story arguing with Wolf Kitzis about fine points of Jewish law (and, later, astrology), until the Besht wipes his mind of all knowledge. At first Rabbi Mikhel thinks he is foggy from having drunk too much mead, but realizes he has lost his knowledge due to the Besht, and goes to confront him.

The Besht scolds him: "Is it to argue and to tease that we learn the Torah?" Immediately, Rabbi Mikhel realizes that the Besht's scolding is right, and becomes a righteous man.


In the community of Bar, a Jew argued with the head of court and lodged a complaint with the Governor. This Jew went to the Besht to ask him to pray for a good outcome, and the Besht said he would.

But there was a Preacher in town who knew the Jew to be an evil man and his charges to be false, and so the preacher cancelled the charges. The Preacher may have been the brother-in-law of Wolf Kitzes, and once they were both at a meal with the Besht. The Baal Shem Tov expressed confusion that his prayer had not been answered.

The preacher laughed, and his in-law, perhaps Wolf Kitzes, said that he had seen a minyan of 10 Jewish men, which would have been used to cancel the complaint. The preacher ignored this, but the Besht pressed him, and the Preacher answered that he knew the truth of the charge, and he had cancelled it.

The Besht responded to this, saying "Blessings be on your head. You have done well."


The Besht was at a feast and began to choke on bread. Everyone became worried, but Wolf Kitzes looked at him and told them to leave him be. After a long while, the Besht recovered, and explained that as he ate, he thought about when Moses was first given meat, and Moses appeared, causing him to choke.


So there isn't much here that is biographical. Wolf Kitzes appears as most of the people do in these stories, as supporting characters in the Besht's story, weirdly, often checking on the Besht when the man is choking or having some sort of seizure, which he seemed to do a lot.

We can glean that Wolf Kitzis was in Medzhibozh, in Ukraine, which is true. We know him to be an educated man, which is true, as his biography states he was the rabbi of Tulchyn before he moved to Medzhibozh.

Story 152 also has Wolf Kitzes as one of the leaders of a community of Hasidim before the Baal Shem Tov appears, which I have read elsewhere, and is interesting. In most popular histories, Hasidism begins with the Baal Shem Tov, but in these early accounts he instead becomes the leader of an already extant movement. I am looking forward to learning more about this.

Finally, and most meaningful to me, there is story 123, in which both the Besht and Wolf Kitzis have adopted children and are marrying them to each other. This is the first I have heard of this, and, obviously, as an adopted child, it stands out to me, especially in the way both the Besht and Wolf Kitzis fulfill the roles of parents in the story. Wolf Kitzis demands a dowry for the education and support of the boy, which the Besht is expected to fulfill, and the Besht is quite irritated when someone delays the wedding.

This strikes me as decidedly parental behavior, and isn't surprising, as while adopted children (typically referred to as "orphans") are a bit unusual in Jewish law, they are, for the most part, treated as biological children. Additionally, I have read that the Besht himself was orphaned as a child and raised by his community, and so the Besht may have had special sympathy for orphans.

Who was the boy in the story? It's not clear, although Gershon David Hundert in "Essential Papers on Hasidism" theorizes that it might have been a stepson of the Besht named Shmuel, who I have not been able to find anything more about. There is another possibility as well: The Besht had a daughter named Udel Ashkenazi who was married to Yechiel Ashkenazi, and who is credited as being the son of Baruch Ashkenazi and Shifra Ashkenazi. It is remotely possible he was the orphan in question, although I have no evidence of this whatsoever, except that Yechiel's hometown was Tulchy, where Wolf Kitzis was rabbi.

Whatever the case, this is the first that I have heard that there is a hidden legacy of adoption that links both my great-grandfather and the Baal Shem Tov, and, as you can imagine, I liked to discover this. I liked it very much.


Week 29: The Slowdown

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 201 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 114 hours
I have reviewed 2,702 individual flashcards

It has been a slow week of studying Yiddish for me. Like a marathoner, I seem to have hit a wall. in that creating new flashcards and studying them has started to become agonizingly hard, and so I must force myself to continue, and, even then, I don't do as much as I might.

I know what's going on -- I have bitten off more than I can chew. I really have only two areas of study right now, and both are a little too hard for me.

First, as I have mentioned, I am memorizing Yiddish proverbs, and, as of today, I have added 100 to my collection of Flashcards. This is a hard process both at the start and at the finish. First, I must create the flashcard, which means I must accurately transcribe the proverb into written Yiddish, which is rarely easy. I can't simply type a phrase like "Neither a smack nor a fart" into Google Translate, because the resulting translation is going to be terrible Yiddish. Google Translate gets genders wrong, has a hard time with verb forms, doesn't understand idioms, and is always utterly literal when translating sentence construction. So I start with Google Translate, getting a terrible translation, and then I bring that into a smartphone program called Keyman, which allows me to correct it, and sometimes I must work overtime to figure out what individual words mean, because I have been given an approximate rather than literal translations, and, well, it's just a lot of work.

Then I must memorize the god damned thing, and that can be quite laborious. I have tried to simplify this for myself by selecting short proverbs that are mostly made of words I already know and only adding five new sentences per day, but it is still much harder than simply memorizing new words.

I continue to add new words as well, and this has gotten me into trouble. I've been taking the words from a Tumblr page called Yiddish Word of the Week, and they do something very interesting: They offer not just a single word, but a selection of words that derive from it, and idioms and proverbs that make use of the words. I have been happily plugging all of them in, and, in a few senses, this is quite useful. Some of these are words that I have had trouble with, like the Yiddish word for throw, which is varfn. For whatever reason, I found it impossible to memorize, and then Yiddish Word of the Week gave me 20 words that build from varfn, and now I have no trouble remembering varfn.

However, I do have trouble remembering the other 20 words.

As a result, the amount of time I spend creating flashcards has increased, and the amount of time I spend staring uncomprehendingly at Flashcards has increased, and it's too much time. I need to make a change, or there is a risk of me burning out, which would be a pity after more than seven months of study.

Two things I need to keep in mind:

1. This is not a race. As much as I like just cramming as many Yiddish words as possible in my head in as short a time as I can manage, this may not be the best approach to studying.

2. The way I have approached this was based on programs that are designed to get somebody semi-fluent fairly quickly, so they can interact with native speakers and build their language in that way. This is not what I am doing, and so the program may not be a very good match for my goals.

Now, learning proverbs was always one of my goals, so I will continue to do so, but I think I need to slow down a bit and not try to learn them as quickly as I pursued other parts of the program. Additionally, I need to do some things that give more immediate rewards, because right now all I feel like I am doing is trying to memorize things and failing. To this end, I have started to just add new words to my vocabulary from my dictionary, mostly cognates with English, because these I can learn quite easily and, as a result, do not feel like I have a mountain of impossible to learn flashcards ahead of me.

I will continue thinking about this over the course of the week. In the meanwhile, it's probably okay to take it a little slow for a few days.


Dress British Drink Yiddish: Manischewitz

A wine spritzer made with Manischewitz kosher wine

It is time for us to tackle the complicated legacy that is Manischewitz brand kosher wine, because, honestly, I don't think it is possible to stock a Jewish bar without having the stuff on hand. For many American Jews, who drank the inexpensive, Concord grape-based drink furtively at bar and bat mitzvah, this is a drink we associate with synagogues, thrift, and wine headaches. Me recommending it for Jewish bars is not that far removed from the fact that hipster bars made a point to carry Pabst Blue Ribbon, and it has the same appeal of being déclassé, kitchy, and cheap.

But I'm not here to suggest Manischewitz as the wine-of-choice for the ironic Jew. I have another suggestion for that, which I shall write about later, and that's Mogen David and its even-less-reputable relative Mad Dog 20/20.

No, I am not here to suggest Manischewitz as an ironic Jewish wine, but an iconic one. It's got a few things going for it. Firstly, it's old, coming from a company that started in 1888 producing matzo. Secondly, it's about as authentically Jewish as anything produced in America, having been started by a rabbi named Dov Behr Manischewitz , whose name actually was Abrahamson until he escaped Russia using a dead man's passport. Thirdly, the wine's roots are in Brooklyn, as it was originally produced by the Industry City-based Monarch Wine Company. Finally, while its sweetness may put of many wine connoisseurs, it's the result of an approach to wine-making that we now consider an asset: using local sourced grapes. The grape used for Concord wines, in this case Vitis labrusca, is native to North America and grows in upstate New York. The grape is sour and musty, and so sweeteners are added -- typically corn syrup, but the company makes a Passover version that uses the now-trendy cane sugar.

It should be noted that sweet wines are frowned on specifically because they are associated with the drinking habits of the urban poor, which is, to put it mildly, problematic. Sweet wines, for example, are popular among many African Americans -- as an example there is Moscato, a sweet white that has enough of a cache to be the subject of NPR's Code Switching podcast. And, not incidentally, one of the first Moscatos to find an audience in black communities was Bartenura, a kosher wine, which I will likely also write about. There are theories floating around that the flavor of Concord wine may already have been familiar to blacks with southern roots, as Baptist churches may have used kosher wine as sacramental wine during the 30s, but wherever the reason, sweet wines have long had a place in the black community.

Bartenura was just following a path already trod by Manischewitz, which started pitching itself to the black community all the way back in the 1950s, and was popular enough that a Doo Wop group, The Crows, released a song celebrating the drink called "Mambo Shevitz." Manischewitz used black artists like the Ink Spots and later Sammy Davis Junior to promote their wine, and all the way up to the 1980s, according to Forbes, the average Manischewitz drinker was urban, working class, and black.

So this is a wine enjoyed by both the Jewish community and the black community, and, with Sammy Davis Jr., both simultaneously, and if such a wine doesn't have a place in a Jewish bar, no drink does.

For those that find the drink's sweetness to be cloying, I have some suggestions. I have used Manischewitz as an ingredient in coolers and spritzers, and it works marvelously in both -- the other ingredients mediate the sweetness without losing the wine's distinctive Concord flavor. I have also mixed Manischewitz with Coca Cola, a combination imported from Spain and called Kalimotxo, and that works nicely as well. Coke's signature flavor comes, in part, from orthophosphoric acid, which goes a long way toward adding tartness to anything sweet. Kalimotxo is sometimes made with additional ingredients, such as anise liqueur or a lime twist, and those are worth experimenting with.

I suspect there are a lot more ways to make use of Manischewitz, and so I'd entourage drinkers to be unafraid in exploring the wine. Think of yourself as a modern Sammy Davis Jr, and, like him, look at the little bottle of sweet wine and say "Yes I can."


Jewish Summer Camp Movies: Marjorie Morningstar (1958)

I'm including the 1958 film "Marjorie Morningstar" in this collection of essays just to be a damn completest, because while the title character does attend a Jewish summer camp in the movie, it's all of about two minutes before she paddles across the river to a Borscht Belt summer resort, meets Gene Kelly, and falls madly in love.

But this is likely the first representation of a Jewish summer camp in film history. I don't know how much more of the camp was represented in the original novel by Herman Wouk -- from what I gather, not much. He provided a much more detailed look at camp life in a novel called "City Boy: The Adventures of Herbie Bookbinder," published in 1948 and detailing a Jewish boy from the Bronx who goes to camp with characters named Yishy Gabelson and Ted Kahn. This was also made into a film, 1951's "Her First Romance," but I won't be covering it because it was so stripped of Jewish content as to be useless. Herbie Bookbinder was not only changed into a non-Jewish girl for the film, she was played by Margaret O'Brien.

"Morningtar's" camp scenes were lensed at an actual upstate New York camp, Camp Cayuga, which is not a Jewish camp. It nonetheless looks like it might be Jewish in the film, as it features a scowling camp director who could be the father of Morty "Mickey" Melnick, the camp director from "Meatballs." But Wouk drew from his own experiences at largely Jewish camps and resorts for this book, including Camp Copake, where he met Elinor Glenn, the Brooklyn-born daughter of a Jewish suffragette and a Jewish union tradesmen who reportedly was the model for  Morningstar.

The film's Morningstar wants to be an actress, and this is why she lands at summer camp, in a position as drama teacher. She is played by Natalie Wood, looking coltish and fragile as usual, and here she is the daughter of upwardly mobile Jews from the Upper West Side. Specifically, her parents are played by Claire Trevor and Everett Sloane, the former doing a credible impression of an oppressive Jewish mother, the latter, well, being Everett Sloane, which is about as Jewish as anyone has ever been on film this side of Fyvush Finkel.

The film doesn't short-change the family's Jewishness either. There is both a bar mitzvah scene, where Marjorie's brother not only accurately chants a haftarah portion but managed to swing it a little, and a Passover scene. (More about that in a moment.) Even if there isn't much Jewish camp in the film, it's nice that there is so much Jewishness, even if about half the cast is not Jewish -- and the Jews they do have are superlative, including Ed Wynn, Martin Balsam, and George Tobias.

Unfortunately, the film loses interest in Marjorie's career as an actress as quickly as he loses interest in her summer camp, which barely even gets named -- it's Camp Tamarack, which we mostly know because the campers and staff all have adorable crew shirts with the name emblazoned on it.

Instead, the film sends Morningstar to the nearby resort, where she meets a deftly drawn but rather depressing type, played by Gene Kelly. He's a struggling songwriter and playwright who manages to be quite a big deal during the summer theatrics at the resort and quite a nobody for the rest of the year. Marjorie falls for him instantly, and the rest of the film is about the emotional labor he demands from her. Marjorie essentially ends up babysitting him as a full-time job, blinded by her affection for him to faults that are obvious to everyone else. He is unstable, unhappy, and unlikely ever to accomplish anything, and he has nothing to offer Marjorie except a romantic fantasy where she is helping a tortured soul.

Kelly plays it pretty straight, and, as a result, is a genuine bummer. His character is also Jewish, but the only way you know it is that he rankles at any mention of his father, a well-respected New York judge, and looks quite bored during Passover, both of which feel like the most authentically Jewish moments in the film.

Marjorie helps Kelly get a musical produced, and, in one of the film's few really sharp comic scenes, we know it's a flop because his friends enthusiastically tell him how great the scenery is. In the end, he just sort of fails his way back to the summer resort, which is where he belongs, and Marjorie ends up with a playwright with real talent who has held a torch for her for years.

I don't know if Marjorie gets back to acting after the final scene -- there is no reason to think she does, and Wouk's original novel ended with her married and settled in as a notably ordinary housewife. It's a shame, too. If the character was based on Wouk's old friend Elinor Glenn, she wound up acting in a troupe that appeared in union halls, which led to her cofounding and leading a women's labor union in Los Angeles. Hers was a notable and decidedly not ordinary story, without the years wasted acting as unpaid emotional support for a talentless hack, and I would sort of like to see that story told.

In the meanwhile, I'd also like to see versions of the Camp Tamarack crew shirts made available for purchase. We don't get much Jewish camping from this film, the least we can get is a stupid t-shirt.


Week 28: Facebook Yiddish

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 196 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 111 hours
I have reviewed 2,662 individual flashcards

After seven months of Yiddish, you find yourself making Yiddish jokes on Facebook.

The context is as follows: I read a story on Facebook about a building in my childhood neighborhood of St. Louis Park, Minnesota, which has a large Orthodox Jewish population. There is a Jewish bookstore there, Elijah's Cup, and a Kosher delicatessen, Prime Deli, and a Christian rock band has placed a billboard above these businesses that read "JESUS," surrounded by stars and spangles and other images of Americana, because that's how we do in America.

I don't know that the Christian rock band knew there were Jews that worked and ate underneath that sign, but, superficially, it seems a bit tone deaf. I also know that St. Louis Park is surrounded by an eruv, the elevated wire that some Orthodox communities use to surround their neighborhood, that allows them to do things that are traditionally forbidden on the Sabbath, such as carry car keys.

So I posted the following on Facebook about the billboard: It's within the eruv, so we can carry is away on shabbos.

And then, underneath it, thinking about what I had just said, I wrote: That's the most Jewish thing I have ever said.

And then it occurred to me that this was a wasted opportunity, so I wrote: I should have said shlep.

And then, what the heck, I rewrote the whole thing in Yiddish, as best I could: Es is in di eruv, mir veln shlepn fun shabbos.

I'm fairly sure that, to a native speaker, that sentence reads like a caveman were attempting Yiddish, but, then, American Jews have a history of finding Yinglish to be funnier than correct Yiddish, and so I can console myself that my bad Yiddish is comedy gold. I mean, I got at least two Facebook likes for all that work, so, in the end, it was all worth it.

In the real world, I find myself just randomly translating stuff into Yiddish all the time, especially when talking to my dog. "Go potty," I will tell him during our morning walks, which mostly consists of him stopping randomly and staring into space like he's trying to remember something very important. When he doesn't listen and doesn't potty, I will say to him "Pish vi a loshek" -- piss like a racehorse.

He doesn't listen to that either, but instead tends to spend a few minutes staring in absolute horror at a deflated Mylar balloon.

I also find myself remembering Yiddish phrases I have memorized, but not at moments when I can use them. You want to have them on hand to use triumphantly at the moment you need them -- for instance, in watching the 1988 Arnold Schwarzenegger/Danny Devito comedy "Twins," when the actors, playing unlikely twins, find themselves in conflict, you want to be able to sagely say "A brother turned enemy is an enemy for life," and have everyone nod at this wisdom. It is, however, considerably less useful when you're buying pastries at a donuts shop and the baker has just asked if you'd rather have the cream cheese or apricot filling.

But that's how Yiddish has been for me. First, I don't know it. Then, I know it, but not when I need it. Eventually, I know it when I need it. I've gotten pretty good at complaining that I am tired and it is time to go to bed in Yiddish, and I do so at bedtime. I'm also good at complaining about being hungry at mealtime and complaining about the weather when I am outside, as this week it has been heis, feicht, and shtikidik, none of which is pleasurable and all of which I can remember when I need it, which is during my long bus trip home.

Bus trip? I should have said shlep.


Jewish Summer Camp Movies: Meatballs (1979)

I know that the subject of Jewish camp movies is a little afield from the main theme of this blog. There certainly were summer camps where Yiddish was used, but not so much in the genre of summer camp movies. In fact, there isn't even much Jewish content to most of them, and I must instead go through them with an eye for small but telling details and subtle references, in the way that author Vito Russo teased out gay subtext in classic Hollywood films in his book "Celluloid Closet."

So let's call this a side-mission, if I may use the language of video games. I'm doing it because it is summer, so it's a good time to watch summer camp movies. I'm doing it because I am a product of Jewish summer camps, in my way. I attended a JCC day camp when I was a boy, then a succession of YMCA overnight camps, and then, when I got old enough, returned to Jewish camps as an assistant counselor and eventually songleader. So I am both predisposed to liking summer camp movies and sensitized to Jewish content in them, even when it is well-hidden.

Let's take "Meatballs" as our first example, which is sort of the ur-text of summer camp movies. (Or, I should say, summer camp comedies; there is another genre of summer camp movies that developed at the same time, the summer camp horror film.) "Meatballs" is a minor example of the slobs-versus-snobs style of comedy filmmaking that was then popular, in which rough-but-likable outsiders took on privileged elitists and won. "Meatballs" came directly on the heels of "Animal House" and shared a lot of DNA, including Harold Ramis as a writer and Ivan Reitman, who had produced "Animal House" and directed "Meatballs."

"Meatballs" likewise acted as a showcase for a Saturday Night Live actor -- John Belushi in "Animal House" and Bill Murray in his first starring role here. But there's a reckless meanness to "Animal House" that is absent here, a legacy of the so-called sick humor of National Lampoon Magazine, who produced the earlier film. The heroes of "Animal House" might be slobs, but they are no less privileged than the snobs, and they are especially awful toward women, who are casually used and discarded.

"Meatballs" is a sweeter film, although Bill Murray does have a bullying quality to his flirting that would continue in "Ghostbusters," which was also an Ivan Reitman film. Mostly, "Meatballs" focuses on Murray, as a summer camp's head counselor,  mentoring a shy young camper, played by Chris Makepeace, and, in total, it adds up to a nicely detailed one-act play about the friendship between an adult who is holding on to childhood a little too much and a child who is uncertainly at the cusp of exiting it. It's also the least Jewish thing in the film.

The rest of the movie looks at an assortment of assistant counselors, here called CITs, or councilors-in-training. They are quite young, most just a few years older than Makepeace, but they've reached young adulthood in the way people did in movies in the 70s, with a focus on partying, pranking, and exploring the other gender. In fact, the movie's staff of counselors and campers are relegated so much into the background that they barely appear, visible occasionally behind the main characters or wandering into the frame once in a while, often oddly.

The storylines for these CITs was truncated to make more room for the Murray/Makepeace story, and so they sometimes just seem sketched in, with two of them, a nerdy fellow and a fat fellow, mostly playing "nerd" and "fat." Even still, by the standard of the films of the era, this is a pretty charming group. The women especially are written and lensed less as objects of desire than partners in fun, and they have a lot of sexual agency. There is one scene where two male CITs act as peeping Toms, and in a film like "Porky's" this is used as an excuse for showing a lot of female pulchritude. Here, the boys witness nothing, are pretty quickly caught, and are driven away. Instead it is the women who pick who they want to be with, and often set the terms. The most striking example of this is a female counselor that Murray aggressively hits on, played by actress and playwright Kate Lynch. She rebuffs his more aggressive behavior while still encouraging him, and clearly communicates that she's interested in Murray, but only when he's not being so cartoonishly Bill Murray. By the end of the movie, he's a lot more subdued with her, and a lot more honest about what he wants from her, and she appreciates it.

"Meatballs" is unmistakbly set at a Jewish camp, although it's pretty well camouflaged. The film was created almost exclusively by Canadian Jews, including director Reitman, who was the Czech-born son of Holocaust survivors, as well as writers Len Blum (whose Zionist mother traveled back and forth between Canada and Israel), Daniel Goldberg, and Harold Ramis, who was a Chicago native but had moved to Canada to work on SCTV. The cast is filled with Jewish actors and the characters have Jewish names. And the film was lensed at an actual Jewish camp, Camp White Pine, in Ontario, and was reportedly shot while the camp was in use, so the campers and counselors seen in the background were often actual campers and counselors. The script was originated by Reitman, who was a graduate of Jewish summer camps, and he specifically contacted Blum and Goldberg because of their experiences at summer camps.

The film was intended for a general audience, and so Reitman downplayed both its Jewishness and its Canadian-ness, although co-author Ramis would later be upfront about what he saw as the essentially Jewish content of his collaborations with Reitman, telling interviewers that he was looking to create a Jewish comic character that was the opposite of the hapless schlemiel and was more heroic. You can see these sorts of characters throughout his career as a film writer, clearly coded Jewish, but not defined by neurosis or oppression: Peter Riegert 's character in "Animal House," Rodney Dangerfield in "Caddyshack" and "Back to School," and Ramis's own delightfully weird performance in "Ghostbusters."

"Meatballs" captures a lot of the day-to-day details of summer camping. The camp director, played by the marvelously oblivious Harvey Atkin, even wears a t-shirt that reads "When the hand goes up, the mouth goes shut," an expression that is about as common to camps as poison ivy. There are campfire singalongs and weird post-meal rituals in massive wooden mess halls. There are gangs of parents arriving to visit homesick children on Parent Day and sobbing girls hugging each other on the last day of camp. The film was written by people who attended camp and remembered it, and so much of it feels authentic, even when nothing much is happening, like when the CITs lazily float along on canoes singing some improvised song on ukulele.

But the camp experience has also been edited. Jewish camps featuring a lot of Jewish content, including frequent use of Hebrew phrases (campers are often silenced with the Hebrew words "sheket bevkasha," which is met with a pair of handclaps). All-camp events inevitably include Hebrew singalongs, and camps are often invaded by visiting Israelis, who seem impossibly mature and alien. Depending on the camp, there may be a few or more very Orthodox campers, who wear yarmulkes and sometimes have visible fringes under their shirts. Reitman and his writing staff certainly remembered this, and chose to leave it out. This will mean nothing to the casual observer, but to somebody whose experiences mirrored those of the filmmakers, the film's Jewishness feels elided, as though there were scenes that should have been in the film but were just skipped over.

It's as though there might be a longer take of "Meatballs" somewhere, in which a scene at lunch doesn't begin when the food is eaten, but before, when the camp says grace in Hebrew, and scenes in which campers weren't in the background, but instead carried a pretend passport on an imaginary trip to Israel, where the Israeli councilors feed them falafel and send them away with gifts of Bazooka Joe gum with all the jokes written in Hebrew.


Dress British Drink Yiddish: I. W. Harper Bourbon

There is a part of me that veers toward a sort of absurd conceptual purism. I managed the box office for a bar/nightclub in New Orleans for a while, and the conceit of the place was that it was a speakeasy. I was of the opinion that we should have private memberships and people should drink their liquor from teacups and that we should occasionally be raided by the police, and we did none of that, and went home every night disappointed.

In the same way, I sort of want this little project to be nothing but a succession of increasingly rare and increasingly terrible East European liqueurs, until I am finally huddled over from an ulcer caused by drinking illegal fermented mare's milk. "Now this," I would say through gritted teeth, "this, at last, is a Jewish bar!"

And so my impulse is to say that bourbon doesn't belong in a Jewish bar. It's a goyishe drink, so goyishe that you sort of think it must be made in crude stills fashioned from radiators by men in straw hats and tattered overalls smoking a corn cob pipe. It's associated with Kentucky and was supposedly invented by Elijah Craig, a Baptist minister, and all of this sounds like the setup to an Appalachian folk song and not anything Jewish.

But I am here to tell you, the Jews had a hand in the making of bourbon. Some of it was through work as liquor wholesalers, which has a long and mostly undocumented Jewish history in the United States. There was, for example, Loeb, Bloom, & Co. in Paducah, Kentucky, who were active in the region in the 1870s and helped open the market for bourbon distillers. But Jews weren't simply in the bourbon trade as merchants. A German Jew named Isaac Bernheim graduated from working as a bookkeeper at  Loeb, Bloom, & Co to owning his own distillery. Now, Bernheim is not the sort of name you associate with Kentucky bourbon, even in the 1870s, so Isaac was savvy enough to brand his product with a name that could belong to a mountain roughneck: I.W. Harper.

The bourbon is still around, or, rather, it is back, having been discontinued in the 1990s, which was a bad time for whiskeys. There are a couple of Harper-inspired brands out there, including one called Bernheim Original Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey, and I reckon a Jewish bar should have the complete selection. Here in Omaha, I had some trouble tracking down anything but the I.W. Harper Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (there is also a 15-year-old version), but that was enough for my purposes.

I had two drinks with the stuff. I started with a bourbon and coke, which is always the drink I use to try a new bourbon, because the Coke is always going to taste the same and so differences in whiskeys really become highlighted. I suppose I could just drink the stuff straight, but what am I, a 1920s bootlegger? Anyway, I.W. Harper is unmistakably bourbon, with a very strong flavor of the charred oak barrels it is aged in. In fact, it's a pungent enough bourbon that it overpowered the Coke flavor a bit, and I started feeling guilty about making such a declasse drink with such a bold liquor.

So I also got a Manhattan, which is a decidedly upscale drink, supposedly having been invented for Jennie Jerome, the mother of Winston Churchill. And I.W. Harper makes an excellent Manhattan, blending well with the drink's other ingredients, sweet vermouth and bitters. I usually have my Manhattans with rye whiskey, I suppose because everything in the whole god damn world has to taste like a deli sandwich to me, but I.W. Harper makes a really enjoyable Manhattan, with a strong but enormously palatable flavor.

I wanted to make a cocktail designed by a Jewish bartender, but so far my research hasn't been all that forthcoming, and it doesn't help that the origins of most classic cocktails are often shrouded in myth. There is one fellow, Frank Meier, who I will write about in a future entry, who was the bartender at the Paris Ritz, invented a drink called the Bee's Knees, and was apparently a spy, but he doesn't seem to have made any bourbon cocktails. I found a site that suggests infusing bourbon with apricot and then rimming the glass with poppy seeds to make an alcoholic hamantaschen, which seems ingenious to me, but I have not tried it and it might be terrible.

There's also a drink called the Jewish Bulldozer, which is a mix of bourbon, club soda, and cream of coconut, and I don't know what to say about this drink. It doesn't seem to actually be Jewish in any way and I can't find any provenance for the drink, and I am afraid, like the Irish Car Bomb, that it may be a drink of extreme poor taste, as, deliberately or not, it seems to reference the death of Rachel Corrie, and I am not of the opinion that that complicated and tragic international politics makes for a very good cocktail name.

I am instead of the opinion that, if a Jewish bar is to stock a Jewish bourbon, its cocktails should reflect on the distinct Jewish experience in the American south. A classic bourbon cocktail is the mint julep, which combines bourbon, powdered sugar, water and mint, and is the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. I think it would be very easy to create a Jewish bar version of this with I.W. Harper. Offhand, I would switch out the water for seltzer, and I might consider using both sugar and cinnamon in the drink to give it a hint of kugel.

I would call it the Art Sherman Julep, after the Jewish horse trainer who won the Kentucky Derby in 2014. That's how you name a cocktail.


The 100 Yiddish Words Everyone Should Know: Shtetl

If you've seen "Fiddler on the Roof," and who hasn't, you've seen a shtetl, which in English just means "little town." "Fiddler" features the impoverished shtetl they call Anatevka, consisting of a Jewish section with some squalid houses, a merchant's section, and a little wooden  synagogue, and a Christian section, consisting of some squalid houses, a somewhat nicer Eastern Orthodox church, and a building with a few local officials.

American Jews all tend to think they must come from shtetls. We don't learn much about our European past, and so we tend to use "Fiddler" to fill in the gaps. We especially suffer due to an older (and now almost completely gone) first generation of immigrants who were notoriously recalcitrant to discuss the subject. You'd press them on their lives before America and they would wave a hand dismissively and say, eh, it's the old world, who needs to talk about it?

As a result, a lot of us just sort of think we came from Jewish towns in Russia that occasionally suffered attacks from Cossacks, and a lot of us don't really know what a Cossack is, except they were some sort of early breakdancers. We know marriages were arranged by yentas in the shtetls. We know these shtetls were Yiddish speaking, and very Orthodox, and that men danced with bottles on their heads. And we know that at some point things got bad and we had to come to America, and that was life in Europe.

All these things were true, to some extent, except the matchmakers being called yentas -- they were called shadchans. Yenta was just the name of the character played by Molly Picon in the film, and it's not a very nice thing to call someone.

But all the things we think we know about shtetls were also not true, to an extent. For instance, most of us didn't come from Russia, and we get confused because the places we did come from were under Russian control from the late 1700s on, and so that's what our ancestors put as their nationality when they came here. Russia controlled an enormous part of Eastern and Central Europe, called the Pale of Settlement, and they called it this because here is where they encouraged Jews to settle, while discouraging them from settling in Russia, although there were some Jewish communities in the west of the country. The Pale of Settlement included parts of  Lithuania, Belarus, Poland, Moldova, Latvia, and Ukraine. Even Anatevka, the shtetl from "Fiddler," is not in Russia -- it's Ukrainian.

There is more that we get wrong about shtetls. Rather than being all-Jewish hamlets, they often had a majority gentile population, and many of them were factory towns rather that the rustic agrarian village of Tevye the Dairyman. And rather than being pockets of isolated Jewish piousness, they were often market towns, and could be surprisingly worldly. In fact, shtetl residents often made fun of Jews from small rural villages in the way that my New York cousins made fun of their hayseed relatives from Minneapolis, never mind that Minneapolis isn't a small town and never mind that the hayseed relative was me.

And so it goes, fact upon shtetl fact that we get wrong. If you're an American Jew, there's a pretty good chance your ancestors did not live in a shtetl, but in a big city. If you did have shtetl ancestors, they may not have been especially religious, as there was a Jewish enlightenment called the Haskalah. Or they may have been religious, but from a weird sect that nobody in the family discusses anymore, like the Frankists, who followed the Polish false messiah Jacob Frank in the 18th century. And instead of being attacked by Cossacks, your ancestors might have been Cossacks, like the  Israilovsky Regiment, which consisted of nothing but Jews and was founded with the intention of invading Israel.

History is complicated, too complicated to piece together from grandparents who refused to discuss the subject. Instead, we have sort of buffed down the edges of history into a simplified tale of shtetl Judaism, and, as a result, the shtetl still looms large in Jewish imaginations. They're the stories we got: Shtetls were popular subjects in Yiddish literature, sometimes as folkloric centers of Jewish identity, sometimes as corrupt bastions of small-mindedness. Shtetls were awfully useful, from a literary perspective. 

As a result, it sometimes seems like the shtetl was less a real place and more a metonym for the Jewish experience in Eastern Europe. It's as though Americans went abroad and insisted to everyone that every single one of their ancestors came from Buford, Wyoming, and all our literature was set in Buford, and our art consisted of dreamlike images of cowboys playing banjos on the tops of barns or flying through the air over a lonesome prairie. As a result, Steven T. Katz's book "The Shtetl: New Evaluations" calls these European towns "probably the greatest invention of modern Jewish imagination." We needed to come from somewhere, after all, and none of our grandparents were willing to discuss Frankist orgies in Częstochowa. So we all became Fiddlers on Eastern European shtetl roofs.

American Jews may not actually be shtetl Jews, but, in our hearts, we're shtetl Jews. The Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, is designed to recall a shtetl. The Jewish press likes to refer to isolated communities of Hasidim living in upstate New York as American shtetls. When opera singer Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell traveled performing Yiddish songs last year, news articles said he was reviving the music of the shtetl. Never mind that Russell's repertoire was largely drawn from the music of Leningrad State Opera's former basso, Sidor Belarskym, who lived and frequently performed in the tiny shtetl of Los Angeles. The Canadian Yiddish web series Yidlife crisis has a partner series called Global Shtetl, where they visit Yiddish-flavored communities throughout the world. So far, they have been to such small Jewish towns as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and London.

So you see, that's how it is for us. Even when things aren't shtetl, we think they are shtetl. 

Some uses of the word shtetl:

Shtetl in My Mind, Martin A. David: "Even the Jewish communities springing up on the Internet carry on the spirit of the shtetl. In these electronic shtetls all and none are strangers. The spirit of community is woven together by people who may have never seen each other's faces." 

KALISZ: A journey of return, Rosalind Brenner: "This was his shtetl, the only place he was accustomed to. Each of the narrow roads led to the park, which opened to the village square, a bustling market place, except on Saturdays, of course, when nearly all the Jews went to shule" 

36 Letters, Joan Sohn: "JewishGen organizes tours for 'shtetl schleppers,' people who are looking for their roots in the towns where their families lived for generations. They often feel fortunate to find even an intact cemetery, because the Jews are gone."


Week 27: The pile up

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 188 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 106 hours
I have reviewed 2,586 individual flashcards

Have I ever explained the reason I started this blog? It's because when I started studying Yiddish on my own, I searched the web for other blogs about the experience of learning Yiddish, because I wanted to know what to expect. I figured there are people out there in the world, somewhere, probably far from Omaha, and they are studying Yiddish and must be blogging about it.

I think I thought that because I have not yet realized it is no longer 2001 and so not everybody in the world blogs about everything anymore. But it is not 2001, and so I did not find such a blog, and I would not know where else to look. So here I am, sharing my experiences.

I decided to post every single week, whether I had anything new to say or not, just so that if anyone else wants to try to tackle Yiddish in the way I am, they will at least have my expediences to refer to. It might be week after week of me ineptly doing mathematics to figure out how many words I will need to memorize to be able to tell a dirty joke in Yiddish, it might be full of weird digressions and little experiments that nobody is likely to repeat (my Boy Scout-style sash, as an example), but it will be as complete a map as I can offer.

Well, readers, if you make it to week 27, you're going to crash. It might happen sooner, it might happen later, but eventually all the words you have trouble with are going to catch up with you, and all the phrases that you've tried to learn but failed will reappear at once, and words you memorized six months ago and forgot will show up, and you will have a week of total chaos, as I did.

I have repeatedly had hour-long study sessions, and, at the end of that hour, there were still 30 or 40 words or phrases that I failed to remember that got pushed back to the following day. The backlog just getting larger and larger, and it was making it impossible for me to learn new words, because I was having to cycle through this endless stream of words I can't remember, and, by the time I got to the new words, I had forgotten them too.

So on Friday, I did the unthinkable: I stopped adding new words and phrases to my flashcards. I don't like to do this, because I just want to keep shoving Yiddish into my head, as much and as quickly as possible. But there just comes a point where you have to take a break and catch up.

So I spent the weekend pushing though the flashcards that were giving me trouble. You can see from above that yesterday I reviewed 538 cards and it took 81 minutes, and that's about how it went the whole weekend.

So that's all I have to say today. But heed my warning, fellow travelers. One day you too will be happily studying Yiddish and you will hit this wall. It is real, and it is terrifying.