Jewish Horror Films: JeruZalem (2015)

Here it is, just a few days before Rosh Hashana, and I wound up watching "JeruZalem," which is set on Rosh Hashana, and even makes a point of looking up at the night sky above Jerusalem at once point, locating the three stars that demonstrate the holiday has begun. I'm always thrilled to find a movie that I can watch on a holiday, and "JeruZalem" is just about weird enough that I might want to revisit it.

The film's pleasures aren't really in its plotting, which critics mostly shrugged off as fairly typical for a found footage horror film, and they're right. The film is a sort of mish-mash of "Cloverfield's" young people running in city and "Blair Witch's" young people running in the dark, and it's also sort of a zombie film, in that things rise from their grave and if they bite you, you become one of them.

If you like this sort of thing, well, it's not badly done here, but is hardly superlative. The CGI looks very CGI, the young people are likeable but sketched in, and the scare scenes are sometimes badly blocked and more confusing then terrifying.

However, the city these kids have found themselves trapped in is Jerusalem, and it's really Jerusalem, as Israeli directors Doron and Yoav Paz reportedly filmed a lot of it surreptitiously is the Israeli city. The cast is entirely Israeli, although, delightfully, three of them are pretending to be American, and the film is in English. So an accidental subtext of the film is that it mildly satirizes what Israelis think American Jews are like: Apparently, attractive and dopey in equal measure, addicted to social media, and possessing a real likelihood of sudden religiously inspired psychotic breakdowns. And, knowing Americans as I do, I have to say, they nailed it.

The film ends up touring the Old City in Jerusalem, which is fun, with the streets filled with Hasids of both the black hat and peyos-bedecked variety and the Breslover sort, the latter wearing their iconic white knit beanies and dancing ecstatically to music. But behind unassuming doors there are bars with brass bands playing what sound like high-speed Balkan marches while young people get drunk and make out in the bathrooms, and it's the first time I have really wanted to visit Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, this is a horror movie, so the fun stops pretty quickly as the eschaton starts. The dead spill out of their graves, grow wings, and set to gnawing on people as everybody flees to the walled city's various gates, which are guarded by the military with orders to shoot anyone who tries to break out. The film makes about as good use of Jerusalem as "Cloverfield" did of New York, building its set pieces around the actual geography of the city but then abandoning it for a long stretch underground, which is supposed to be terrifying but ends up being a little disappointing for those of us who use horror movies as a cheap way to vacation.

The film does manage a few neat tricks of its own. There are, for example, giants that we sometimes see wandering around Jerusalem, and a madman points at them and declares "nephilim!" These were, of course, the giant sons of God and human women mentioned in the book of Genesis, and where else are you going to see that? The whole thing is recorded through, essentially, Google Glass spectacles, which has face-recognition software that works by placing little virtual rectangles around someone's mouth and eyes, which is irritating at first but has a delicious payoff when, in total darkness, it starts making those little rectangles, as though it were able to see faces we cannot and is trying to identify them.

The film is mostly set in a section of Muslim Quarter where, from the roof of a hostel, you can see a church, a temple, and a mosque, all in close proximity, which prefigures a scene in which three of the film's characters, a Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim, all sit down in terror and start to pray their respective prayers in their respective languages, which feels like an image particular to this story and this setting.

It's not entirely clear why the Americans have gone to Israel in this film. Although they explain that they are Jewish, neither seem that into it, and they haven't taken the trip through any sort of established program, which many American Jews do, but instead just lit off on their own. A lot of these programs are intended to either encourage American support of Israel or to get Jews to hook up with each other, and our heroes (Yael Grobglas and Danielle Jadelyn, specifically) fail to do either. They tour mostly Muslim and Christian sites (and one has an unexpectedly hostile reaction to the Western Wall), and then one hooks up with a Christian while the other makes out with a Muslim.

Maybe that's the real hidden satire of the film. That if you let American Jews go off on their own in Jerusalem, they will entirely fail to accomplish what we want them to accomplish. Indeed, at one point, the Christian fellow buys a white dress for one of the women, because Jews wear white on Rosh Hashana, and she completely fails to wear it.

That's the real apocalypse. It's not zombie-like angels and Old Testament giants running rampant in the Holy City. It's American Jews gone wild, and, even in the Jewish holy city, utterly failing to be the sorts of Jews their parents want them to be. One even gets a call from her father and refuses it.

Come to think of it, this may be the most Jewish horror film ever made.


Dress British Drink Yiddish: The SeaPea Fizz Cocktail

Another cocktail created by Jewish mixological giant Frank Meier, the head bartender at the Paris Ritz in the mid-20th century. This is both a tremendously simply drink, and, for some drinkers, utterly terrifying. Two of the ingredients, after all, are absinthe and egg white, and these are the sorts of ingredients that make the timid imbiber swallow hard once and think twice. Let's tackle them one at a time.

People make such a fuss about absinthe, and I can't peer down my nose at them, as much as I would like too, because I once did too. It's a drink that was outlawed in the United States in 1912 and only became legal again in 2007, and absence, in this case, makes the heart grow stranger. All sorts of folktales sprang up about the drink: It was toxic, it was hallucinogenic, it was a drink that produced muse-like visions for the waiting artist.

Never mind that there were already anise liqueurs that were pretty much exactly like absinthe, such as Pernod, which was produced by a former absinthe manufacturer, and Herbsaint, which was used as an absinthe substitute in many classic cocktails that called for absinthe. Both lacked an ingredient -- namely, the bitter wormwood that made absinthe so legendary -- but worked in a pinch, and still work. Quite a few modern absinthes are meant to be drunk straight or with water, and so have an especially potent flavor that risks overpowering a cocktail. I still make my sazaracs with Herbsaint, and prefer them that way. I find it useful to forget all the fairy stories about absinthe and just treat it as another cocktail ingredient, and, sometimes, it's not the best option.

I think it is for this drink, however, because the cocktail is meant to highlight the absinthe flavor. Like a lot of Meier's cocktails, it favors the flavor of lemon, and lemon goes really well with asbinthe, both mellowing the drinks bitterness and making the anise flavor pop. I don't know that it is the best absinthe cocktail I have ever had, but this is the one that best showcases the flavor of the absinthe.

So what about the egg white? Well, the drink is a fizz, which indicates citrus and seltzer, but recalls one specific drink: The Ramos Gin Fizz, where sugar and extreme shaking emulsify the egg white, creating a light, frothy drink with a marvelous head, like an alcoholic cloud. This is that, but with absinthe rather than gin, and is marvelous in the way -- absinthe is the sort of drink that seems like it should be dense, as it is the sort of thing poets contemplating suicide would drink. But this makes the drink light and buoyant, an absinthe for the rest of us who prefer our drinking with a little less brooding.

And that is as it should be, as the drink was named after one of the lightest and most buoyant men of Meier's era: The songwriter Cole Porter, whose initials give the drink its name. Cole Porter, who was not Jewish, but who once explained his approach to songwriting to Richard Rodgers, saying "I’ll write Jewish tunes."

Here is how to make the SeaPea:
  • 3/4 ounce absinthe
  • 3/4 ounce simple syrup (1:1, sugar:water)
  • 3/4 ounce lemon juice
  • 1 egg white
  • soda water
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker; Shake without ice. Add ice and shake until well-chilled. Strain into a glass. Top with soda water.


Jewish Horror Films: The Unborn (2009)

Generally speaking, I like writer/director David S. Goyer. Specifically speaking, I like the deco paranoid supernatural noir fantasy "Dark City" that he cowrote, am a fan of his work on the "Blade" films, and enjoy his work on the Christopher Nolan Batman movies. He also wrote the recent Superman movies, but I won't hold that against him, as I suspect they were more a product of director Zack Snyder than Goyer.

Goyer has a punky, pulpy sensibility in his best work, perhaps best exemplified by the opening scene to the first "Blade" movie, in which vampires dance at a rave in a slaughterhouse, culminating with blood spouting from the building's sprinkler system. It was a scene with real verve, and a lot of Goyer's best work seems pitched at near-hysteria, with everything just a little too broad and noisy to be tasteful, which is just how I like things. Tasteful can be awfully dull; give me something brash enough to be tasteless in a fun way.

Unfortunately, "The Unborn" is not that. This is a film about possession, and, to Goyer's credit, he rarely seems to borrow from "The Exorcist," but instead invents his own cinematic representations of intrusive evil. Goyer is Jewish, and, theoretically, this is a film about a dybbuk. There's even a Jewish book in the film, Sefer Ha-Marot, The Book of Mirrors, that is filled with woodcuts of terrifying exorcisms.

It's all invented, naturally. There never was such a book, and, if the woodcuts are real, they are likely not Jewish. The film's dybbuk is a cinematic invention, somehow both very ancient and called into existence by the Holocaust, which I will discuss in a moment. The dybbuk represents itself through floods of potato bugs, for some reason, as well as dogs with upside down heads, and both are legitimately unnerving. The dybbuk also appears as a hollow-eyed boy who looks a bit like a very mean Eddie Munster, and he is less unnerving, in part because these sorts of children show up in this sort of film with great frequency. Years ago, I met Kyra Schon, who played the little girl in "Night of the Living Dead," perhaps the first hollow-eyed child in contemporary horror. I asked her what she thought about all the ghoulish children in movies nowadays and she told me she sees them and thinks, well, there I am again.

There are three parts to the film: The haunting, which I have described, the exorcism, which is pretty chaotic and mostly consists of Gary Oldman as a rabbi and Idris Elba as an Episcopal Priest shouting a lot, and the backstory. As I mentioned, the backstory is set during the Holocaust, in Auschwitz, no less. We learn of a Nazi doctor who had a special affinity for doing medical experiments on twins, and the film's dybbuk used this as the opportunity to inhabit the body of a dead twin, and has been chasing twins in the family line ever since.

This is inspired by a true story, and it is a terrible one. The Nazi in question was Josef Mengele, who earfned the nickname the Angel of Death, and indeed performed hideous medical experiments in Auschwitz, often paying special attention to twins. In fact, an experiment shown in the film, in which the Nazi doctor injects the eyes of twins to see if they will change color, is something Mengele actually did.

And here's where things get tricky. I am not opposed to using the Holocaust as a setting for horror, per se. It's a real-world horror, and many Nazis were obsessed with the occult, and I am not someone who thinks horror is a degraded genre that should keep its grubby hands off the really serious stuff. Instead, I think horror exists in a tremendous metaphoric space with is well-suited to exploring difficult ideas or historic events, such as the Holocaust. In fact, the Hellboy comics regularly makes use of Nazi imagery, including a murderous German who, in the film version, was hideously disfigured due to obsessive self-surgery, and exists as a sort of monstrous metaphor for the Holocaust. I think this works quite well, and I trust Hellboy creator Mike Mignola's control of his material enough that, should he ever directly tackle the Holocaust, I think he would have a lot to say about the subject.

Goyer, and "The Unborn," doesn't, alas. The Holocaust flashback doesn't really inform the film so much as it provides a suitably horrific backstory. The film does not tackle the big questions of genocide, nor the smaller questions of how, under the right circumstances, a certain percentage of men will become monsters. Mengele and his surgical experiments are vastly more terrifying than a pale child who likes big ants, but he seems somehow generic in this film, in part because he's unnamed, and in part because his purpose is simply to create the circumstances of the dybbuk.

The story barely even exists in a Jewish context. While the film's lead character is Jewish (played by Cuban-American actress Odette Annable, who nonetheless is passably Jewish), and her father is played by an actual Jewish actor, James Remar, they never reference their Jewishness and it is possible the protagonist doesn't know about it until she first meets her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. Gary Oldman plays a rabbi, but his presence is relatively small and he joins forces with a priest because they mutually agree that the dybbuk precedes organized religion.

So the lead character is not especially Jewish and the dybbuk predates Judaism, and this contributes to the Holocaust scenes feeling tacked on. I suppose there might be something interesting in taking the world of the Holocaust, with its occult murderers and Jewish victims, and seeing how it plays out in the secular world, where nobody much thinks about the occult nor Judaism. Such a story could ask what the meaning of the Holocaust is in this world, which is so far removed from the specific circumstances, and could ask if this sort of evil could duplicate itself without those specifics.

But I'm writing a different film than "The Unborn," which does not concern itself with those sorts of questions, and so I find its use of the Holocaust to be tasteless, and not in the way I like Goyer to be tasteless.

I will note something I found interesting in the film, however. One of the woodcuts in the Book of Mirrors shows a possessed woman with an arm reaching out of his mouth, and this lone image seems to have inspired the entirety of "The Possession," which returns to variations of that image again and again.

I tracked down the original source of the woodcut: It's from a 1598 book, and shows a priest exorcising a woman. I don't know what to say about the fact that these two mainstream Jewish horror movies couldn't seem to make use of actual Jewish imagery to tell their stories, but it's disappointing.


Jewish Horror Films: Forbidden Zone (1980)

It's strange. We're at a moment in history, just now, where a vast amount of the popular culture of the past is accessible to us, instantly, on demand. This is a utopian future for those of us who, when young, obsessively and frantically sought out the debris and forgotten oddball masterworks of earlier years: comic books, science fiction films, obscuro pop music, poverty row cartoons, that sort of thing.

They seemed then less like artifacts of the past than transmissions from an alternate dimension. You'd be listening to oldies radio late at night and a song like The Revels' "Foo Man Chew" would come on. This was a puzzling, punning doo wop song based on Sax Rohmer's weird pulp novels about an Asian supervillain, and you'd be left with nothing but questions: Why did this song get made? Who was it meant for?

But, if you were like me, it was meant for you, and so you'd add it to a list and spend years hunting for it in old record stores, and, when you finally found it, years or even decades after you first heard it, it was the most extraordinarily satisfying experience. A lot of us had these long lists of lost oddities, sometimes kept in our heads, sometimes written out, and we haunted the places that recycled these sorts of things, and we treasured what we found.

Here's "Foo Man Chew." It took me three seconds to find it on YouTube. I can download it instantly from iTunes, or, if I am more old-fashioned, it's inconsequentially easy to locate a 45 RPM record of the song on eBay.

Maybe I'm looking in the wrong places, but it used to be that there was a lot of art made by fanatical collectors, and it all had the quality of collage, of a new work assembled from older work that the artist loved and desperately needed to share. There was a special taste for the camp, the kitsch, and the tchotchkes of the past, and you saw it in the New Wave movement, in bands like The Cramps and Man or Astroman, in the films of Tarantino and David Lynch, in pop surrealist art.

I suppose it's still around -- pop surrealism still seems to be chugging along, at least. But I can't help but wonder if the sheer easy availability of the pop works of the past has somehow devalued it, or, perhaps, instead I have simply aged to point where culture from my teen years is a new generation's nostalgia, and that's what they are ransacking, rather than the mid-20th century art that I grew up obsessed with.

Whatever the case, 1980's "Forbidden Zone" is a perfect representation of the sort of film I am talking about. I don't know that it's appropriate to call it a horror film, despite the fact that much of it takes place in a pop version of hell. It's a midnight movie, from when there were such things as midnight movies, and the earliest review I have read of the film dismisses it as seeking to capitalize on the same circuit that supported "Rocky Horror Picture Show," as though that's something that could have been capitalized on. But the film made its tour of college and art house theaters, attracting little attention, if the newspaper archives are to be trusted, but building a cult audience anyway, probably thanks in part to the fact that it was an early example of the work of composer Danny Elfman and his band Oingo Boingo.

The film really can be credited to Danny's older brother Richard, who cowrote and directed the thing, although it showcases Danny's then-passion for 1930's-40's big band jazz and novelty music and the cartoons of the Fleischer Brothers, which I mentioned in an earlier article. If I were being reductive, I would say the film is a feature-length examination of everything upsetting about Flesicher brothers cartoons, but "Forbidden Zone" is a film that defies easy reduction.

Let me give an exceptionally brief summary, which is unhelpful and probably impossible, but traditional in this sort of essay. The film tells of the Hercules family, who seem to be a mix of Ma and Pa Kettle-type hillbillies, Jewish old men (including a wrestler in a fake beard), and a French woman. At some point, they all end up sliding into a hellish dimension through an alimentary canal-styled portal hidden in their house. There, they battle a monstrous queen (cult film great Susan Tyrrell), her diminutive husband (Hervé Villechaize), and the devil himself, leading a swing band (Danny Elfman).

The whole of it plays out on sets that are largely painted onto wooden flats in the style of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," involves musical numbers borrowed from Cab Calloway and Yiddish novelty, and includes dozens of topless women (including Hell's princess, played by Gisele Lindley and looking like one of Bettie Page's more outrageous photo shoots had come to life), a frog-headed man, Warhol superstar Viva, trash film leading man Joe Spinell, and performance artists The Kipper Kids.

The film is deliberately outrageous, including frequent uses of racist imagery, which has been the subject of repeated criticism that Richard Elfman has been publicly defensive about. The criticism is valid: The first thing we see is a blackface image, they recur throughout the film, and they feel like a legacy of underground comix, where white artists explored the things that shocked and upset them, including racist caricature. However, there, as here, the exploration felt blunt and abstracted, or, worse, intended to be funny, oblivious of the genuine hurt that these sorts of images can cause to people for whom they are not an abstraction.

A lot of this sort of thing shows up in the film, including images that seem to make sport of the transgender experience and sexual violence. It makes parts of the film difficult, and, for some viewers, impossible, and that's a fair cop. If people take issue with the film, well, the film has given them cause, and they get to.

I suspect the real function of these moments was similar to how the racist songs of Johnny Rebel and the repeated images of snails being killed is to Crispin Glover's film "What Is It?": To unnerve the audience. There is a lot about "Forbidden Zone" that is unnerving, and I do think the act of unnerving someone is a valid artistic one; it's pretty central to horror films. But it is possible to unnerve someone right out the door, and purposeless cruelty is a good way to do that. People probably draw the line at different places, based, in part, on their own experiences of the world. If I am forgiving of racism or transphobia or sexual violence in a film, it is likely because I have never experienced any of it. That's worth considering when making a film, even one intended to be upsetting, and doesn't seem to have been considered here.

But alongside the unnerving elements of the film, there is a lot that is genuinely beautiful. The most-available version is colorized, which was always Richard Elfman's intention with the film, and it looks fantastic, colored in a delicate, faded way that is reminiscent of hand-tinting. The hand-painted sets are a delight, and well-used, especially in an opening scene that gives a panorama of hell that both looks like it cost about $15 to make and nonetheless manages to astonish. The performances are often delicious, especially Tyrrell, who could always be counted to goose a movie with a style of furious overacting that somehow managed to be droll, as though her whole noisy performance is a very dry, very subtle joke.

And finally there is the film's Jewishness, which may only appeal to me, but is there, is abundant, and is fascinating. The filmmakers seem to have sought out popular culture that is Jewish inflected and then set out to parody it, including a remake of a Three Stooges short called "Swingin' the Alphabet," the Fleischer Brothers' "Minnie the Moocher" cartoon, and even an old novelty number called "The Yiddishe Charleson." The gates of hell are guarded by an old Jewish man who speaks Yiddish, played by the Elfmans' own grandfather, Herman Bernstein.

Perhaps this was also meant to be disquieting. There is a little shock you get when you watch Flesicher Brothers cartoons, especially Betty Boop, and start to get the feeling that anyone in their university could be Jewish, and probably is. "Forbidden Zone" magnifies this, makes it part of the texture of the whole unsettling world. Not only are our heroes bizarre grotesqueries who engage in mindless violence and have a doglike tendency to just hump any appealing curve they see, and not only must we watch them bumble around a surreal, hand-drawn hell, but so many of them are Jews?

Unlike the film's ironic racism, I'm okay with its ironic antisemitism, at least in part because the filmmakers are Jewish, and in part because it feels legitimately transgressive. The Jews are not represented as caricatures, as with blackface, but are strange, distinct character with qualities drawn from real Jewish history (there actually were Jewish wrestlers, and The Yiddishe Charleston was created by Jewish musicians for a Jewish audience.) If audiences are unsettled by Jews in this film, it's not because the filmmakers seem to be mocking Jewishness in the way that blackface mocks black people, but because they are being exposed to a raw, Jewish id attempting to represent itself.

Besides which, I like the idea that it is possible to ransack the Jewish past for its own otherworldly transmissions of lost culture, and create new art from it. And unlike the pop debris of mainstream culture, a lot of the Jewish stuff is still harder to get your hands on: Try to locate Patsy Abbott's dirty Yiddish songs on YouTube or iTunes, as an example.

Maybe, because this sort of Jewish is still rare, it can still be discovered and treasured.


Week 38: Back in Business

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 255 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 147 hours
I have reviewed 2,991 individual flashcards

As I mentioned last week, I was struggling with lagging attention in my Yiddish studies, which I knew was going to happen sooner or later, because I just can't managed to keep my attention on any one thing for too oh look a squirrel.

I seem to have beaten this tendency, at least for the moment. As I planned, I pared back on memorizing longer sentences, started to learn individual words again, and added in a few fun things here and there, such as words that would be appropriate for Halloween (the Yiddish word for werewolf is volkulak, by the way.) I also switched my study time mostly from the evening to the morning, and I prefer that, as I seem to remember better in the morning and I prefer having my Yiddish studies behind me rather than before me.

It has worked out well. I am able to add 15 new cards per day, which was lagging, as I was having so much trouble with complete sentences that I did not want to add new cards. It's been a lot easier for me to study the cards, as I wake up two hours before I go to work and so have a decent amount of time to complete some chore or other. And it's a lot easier to add new words than entire phrases, so have managed to push ahead somewhat, adding in words I won't get to for a day or so; this is the first time I have been able to do this since the very beginning of  this project, when I was just plugging in words from a word list. It's nice to have that buffer of new cards.

I know my interest will wane again in the future, and I've never really developed tools for addressing when this happens. I suppose I have always reckoned that I could get back to something when my interest came back, and that's mostly been true. But there are some things, like language studies, that you can't just take an indefinite break from. I studied Irish for about five months a couple of years ago and have now managed to forget how to read it and every word except thank you. 

Beyond that, there is a lot in life that benefits from an approach other than that of an occasionally interested dilettante. The hardest lesson of my life is that worthwhile things often take far longer than you expect, far longer than you can imagine, just day in, day out of constant, frequently tedious or frustrating work. It takes an awful lot of discipline to accomplish anything, and part of that discipline is the discipline to work through dull or frustrating patches.

If I can develop that discipline due to this project, it will be a great benefit to me. I really do think I have suffered from it's absence.


Jewish Horror Films: Minnie the Moocher (1932)

I don't know when I first saw a Fleischer Brothers cartoon. It's possible I first saw one of their Popeye the Sailor cartoons, or their take on Superman, or something else. I spent a few summers in the Catskills with my grandfather when I was a boy, and he could not receive broadcast television and so had an early form of cable television. Almost everything that played on his television was very old and strange, including old Buster Crabbe serials, an Abbot and Costello cartoon series, and silent films.

I sometimes felt like if I followed the cable back to its source, it would turn out to be coming out of the grave of a television programmer from 1955, but, considering the fact that everybody in my grandfather's bungalow community was geriatric, this was probably brilliant programming for them.

I think this is where I saw "Minnie the Moocher," and it's the first Fleischer film to have really stuck with me, because it's so deranged. There are a couple of other films by the same studio that are similar, one based around Cab Calloway singing "St. James Infirmary" and one based around Louis Armstrong singing "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal You," and both are likewise mad, but I'm including "Minnie the Moocher" in this collection because it actually is a horror movie, if one that is only seven minutes long.

I will very briefly summarize the cartoon, as much as I am able. The main character is Betty Boop, the cartoon flapper that was one of the Fleischers' signature characters. She flees home after a protracted intro where her parents torment her, but, outside, with a dog name Bimbo (who, we are given to understand, is her boyfriend), she is beset by a singing walrus, whose voice is Cab Calloway's and whose movements were rotoscoped from Calloway's actual dancing. The walrus is soon joined by all manner of horrors, including ghosts, witches, and skeletons that dance about. Terrified, Betty returns home.

But this description cannot hope to convey the weirdness of the cartoon. The Fleischer's house style was stylized in a way that now looks primitive, and their characters exist in an extraordinarily lively and plastic universe, in which inanimate objects become animate and vice versa. This happens constantly and for no seeming reason -- a splash of ink will hoist itself up and run back to its inkwell, and a wooden statue will spring to life to comfort a weeping Betty. All of these moments are meant as visual gags, but, even before the skeletons started dancing, to my childhood eyes it all seemed perfectly nightmarish.

It also all seemed somehow essentially Jewish. Let me do a little inventory of how so:

1. The Fleischer Brothers, Max and Dave, were Jews; they were from an immigrant family from Kraków, although they were raised in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. Despite the fact that their work seems primitive, as I said, Max was an exceptionally well-trained draftsman, having studied under the celebrated illustrator and educator George Bridgman. Dave, in the meanwhile, worked early as an usher for a vaudeville theater, and both brothers were raised, for a while, near Coney Island. The brothers were extraordinarily influenced by their urban, New York, immigrant Jewish upbringing, and their movies often reflected this, both in aesthetic choices (once you know the Coney island influence, the amusement park's graphics are the obvious source of their film's primitivism)  and content. The brothers made films that were urban, deliberately surreal, expressionistic, and sometimes astonishingly adult. The films were also very Jewish -- in this one, we meet Betty Boop's parents, and they are strongly accented Jewish scolds.

2. In one significant way, Betty Boop reads as a Jewish character. Although Boop was inspired by two iconic jazz age women, Clara Bow and Helen Kane, she was primarily voiced by Mae Questel, the Bronx-born daughter of Orthodox Jews who later went on to play a series of roles in live action films, almost always playing an old Jewish woman. Additionally, the Fleischers placed Betty in a world that constantly tips its hat toward its Jewish content -- it's astonishing how often "Kosher" signs, written in Hebrew, show up. In one cartoon, Betty is met on a tropical island by natives who cry out "Sholem Aleikhem!", apparently recognizing her as a landsman.  In a later cartoon, when Betty dreams of herself as a mermaid, she is met by a fish with sidelocks who speaks Yiddish.

3. Cab Calloway was not Jewish, but, if we were to play Lenny Bruce's "Jewish or Goyish" game, where he identified things by whether they seemed Jewish or not, Cab Calloway is Jewish. His operatic, swinging, minor chord jazz borrows from Jewish cantoral singing -- raised in Baltimore, which was then an immigrant port town, Calloway had long exposure to Jews, and in his autobiography claims that he even attended synagogues as boy. There was often a Yiddish inflection in Calloway's songs, sometimes overtly, such as his songs  “Utt-da-zay," based on a Jewish folk song, and “Abi Gezunt," which mixed Yiddish with jive talk.

Additionally, Calloway had a long, close relationship with his manager, Irving Mills, a Jew who was either from Odessa or Mahattan's Lower east Side, depending on who you ask. Mills cowrote at least one song with Calloway: None other than "Minnie the Moocher."

Calloway, and "Minnie the Moocher," have a long and almost subterranean reach in films by Jewish filmmakers. Calloway appeared as a sophisticated gambler in Normal Jewison's "The Cincinnati Kid," and later played the Blues Brother's mentor in the film based on the characters, directed by John Landis and featuring a showcase performance of "Minnie the Moocher."

But the song's, and the Fleischer film's, biggest influence seems to be on Jewish brothers Danny and Richard Elfman. I will detail the film they made together, "Forbidden Zone," in another essay, but suffice it to say the film seems to be an effort to make a feature-length version of everything upsetting about the Fleischer Brothers' cartoons, and leans heavily on the music of Calloway, including a performance of "Minnie."

As Elfman has gone on to be a film composer, the Calloway inspiration just keeps coming up, often in scenes that seem the most Fleischer-like: the dancing bones in "The Corpse Bride," which I have already written about, and the Oogie Boogie sequence in "The Nightmare Before Christmas."

And I get it, man. The Fleischer Brother's "Minnie the Moocher" climbs into you and sort of sticks there. Many years ago I wrote a short play called "BoyElroy," which consisted of a series of monologues inspired by cartoon characters. The play was first produced as a midnight show at the Blue Barn theater in Omaha in 1999 and then again at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham in 2007, and looks like it might be done again in Las Vegas next year.

Going back and rereading the monologues, there is one called "Betty," and it starts like this:

I left home
with only a note
to explain.
The note read,
You don’t treat
me so sweet.

This is literally cribbed from "Minnie the Moocher." It's the note Betty leaves her Jewish immigrant parents when running away. I didn't remember this fact until I rewatched the Fleischer cartoon a few days ago while preparing to write this essay, but perhaps I should not have been surprised. That little seven-minute short is like a virus, crawling inside Jewish artists and later exploding outward as some new piece of art.

And now you know about it, and you, too, have been infected.


Dress British Drink Yiddish: HE'BREW Beer

I have been focused on liquors, but some of you are beer drinkers, so let's talk about beer. After all, when you go into an Irish pub, you could buy whiskey, if you like, but there is also a selection of Irish beers to choose from, and even a specifically Irish mix of beers, generally Guinness and Harp, where the beers are layered one atop the other. (If I can put on my Irish-American cap for a moment, don't call this a black and tan in an Irish bar, as the Black and Tans were a violent temporary police force established to suppress the Irish War of Independence; call the drink a half and half instead.)

So if we are to have a Jewish bar, even in our own imaginations, we must have beer. Fortunately, not only is there a Jewish beer, but it is a very good one: HE'BREW Beer from the Shmaltz Brewing Company of Clifton Park, New York. The drink originated in 1996, when a group of homebrewers in San Francisco made a pomegranite ale, and, for many years, the beer was contract-brewed at established breweries and hand delivered in the Bay Area. Three years ago the company opened its own brewery, and has expanding its distribution considerably. I don't know if I could get it here in Omaha, but it was easy to locate bottles of their Hop Manna IPA last time I was in Minneapolis.

There are a lot of beer lines out out by HE'BREW, including their original pomegranate ale, and they are generally well-reviewed. Additionally, their names typically reference something explicitly Jewish, such as a double rye IPA called Bittersweet Lenny’s R.I.P.A, named after comedian Lenny Bruce, and a sour brown ale called Funky Jewbelation; some of these are released in limited series, so if you see a HE'BREW beer you haven't seen before, grab it; it may not be around long.

The IPA I bought had a very thick head, the sort of thing where you pour just a little beer and it starts to foam over so you leave it alone for a little while and then come back and pour just a bit more and then the foam rises and threatens to spill and so you go away again for a while. The beer was bitter, as an IPA should be, and citrusy, with a strong malt flavor, and if I try to describe it further I'll just start babbling nonsense: It's musty with an apple finish and the insouciance of an electric candle.

I tossed a shot glass of bourbon into a glass of the IPA to try the stuff as a boilermaker, which is always a bit risky, as whiskey and beers don't always go well together, but this was perfectly pleasant. I suspect the IPA would make an enjoyable shandy mixed with lemonade, but I drink so much lemonade so quickly that's it's never around when I have beer.

Perhaps a better beer cocktail to make with HE'BREW would be something called a Czech Sour, whose roots, like HE'BREWS are both San Francisco and Eastern Europe. The cocktail comes from the Bay Area's Burritt Room and is inspired by Czechoslovakian drinks, and combines Becherovka herbal liqueur with grapefruit bitters, gum arabic, lime, and a pale ale (HE'BREW had a limited pale, but you might have to sub in one of their IPAs), and then topped with cinnamon.

You could probably also layer their nut brown ale with an IPA for a half and half, but I feel like the resulting drink deserves a Jewish name. Um, let's call it the Samuel Goodman, after the Jewish rugby coach who led the American team to gold medals at the 1920 and 1924 Olympics.

Why? Because a traditional rugby ball is black and tan.


Jewish Horror Films: The Corpse Bride (2005)

The animated film "The Corpse Bride" is a sort of mirror universe film to "The Possessed," in that the latter borrowed from a fake Jewish story and managed not to be very Jewish at all, while this film tried to strip away all Jewish content from an actual Jewish story and somehow failed.

The publicity around "The Corpse Bride" has always been maddeningly vague about the source of the story, and perhaps did not know. We are alternately told that it is Russian folk tale and a 19th century Jewish folk tale, and all of this is sort of wrong. There are a couple of versions of the original story, which tells of a groom who slips a ring onto what he believes to be old branches and discovers her has accidentally married a corpse. Perhaps the oldest is found in a 17th century Yiddish book telling stories of the city of Worms (so: German, not Russian, and 200 years older than is credited).

In this story, titled "The Demon in the Tree," the bride is, as you might guess, a demon rather than a corpse, so it is not quite the same story, but there is a similar tale from about the same time, originating in Palestine. That story is found in a collection of tales about the founder of Jewish mysticism, Rabbi Issac Luria, and is called "The Finger." In it, the bride is a corpse. (And, again, not a Russian story; the filmmakers seem to have fallen into the same trap many American Jews are also guilty of, of just assuming all European Jewish history takes place on a 19th century Russian shtetl.)

In the Issac Luria version of the story, the man flees, and, as he is to wed the next day, goes on with his wedding. The corpse arrives to disrupt things, insisting he already married her, and Issac Luria convenes a court to decide the matter. The rabbis decide that the man had already committed to his living bride, and so she gets first dibs, and the corpse screams and dies again, this time permanently. This is interesting, because the fact that Luria had to find a loophole for the living bridegroom suggests that is is not actually against Jewish law to marry a ghost, which I would not have expected.

Tim Burton's film hews pretty closely to this story, minus, of course, the rabbinic tribunal. He sets the film in what some viewers claim is Victorian England, but it isn't. It's some generalized Victorian European city. Sure, the entire cast speaks with British accents (including star Johnny Depp), but I have seen films in which Nazis address each other in English with perfect Received Pronunciation accents, so the English accent sometimes is just a placeholder for any country in Europe, which I think would surprise the English, who just made heroic and extremely short-sighted efforts to separate themselves from Europe.

The design of "The Corpse Bride's" little hamlet feels instead like one of those Bavarian villas that show up at the start of a werewolf movie, and this might as well be one of those old black and white monster movies for the amount of color in the village. It's a gray place, and apparently its only residents are the local lord and his family, who are titled but broke, and the local fishmonger and his family, who are untitled but rich. As a result, an arranged marriage has been struck between the daughter of the former (voiced by Emily Watson) and the son of the latter (Depp). Nobody is especially happy about this and it all goes rather poorly, and then Depp puts his ring on a corpse and it gets worse.

The corpse is voiced by Helena Bonham-Carter, making her transition from the delicate, pretty, posh characters she played in her early years to the moody and somewhat deranged characters she specializes in now, and I thoroughly prefer. She drags Depp down to the Land of the Dead, which is, it must be said, both more fun and better lit than Depp's gray hamlet, and they mostly hang out in a bar while a cabaret band of skeletons play.

There's more to the plot, but I won't detail it, although it involves a villainous murderer who is underwritten but manages to be entertaining anyway thanks to being voiced by Richard E. Grant, who can make any line, no matter how tepid, sound like a droll, very naughty in-joke. Instead, I want to discuss how the film ends up feeling Jewish despite the fact that it was made by filmmakers, especially Burton, who made no efforts to include anything Jewish, and probably would have done it poorly had they tried.

For one thing, there is the overarching theme of the interloper, the person who should have no privileges but is claiming them anyway. Depp's family are working-class strivers who have amassed money, and so are useful to the established gentry, despite the fact that they are despised by them. And then there is the corpse herself, who insists on her right to marry someone who should be off limits to her.

In a story set in Europe, this combination of alieness mixed with economic interdependency feels somehow essentially Jewish. European gentry did arrange relationships with Jews to prop up their faltering economies, and the average European would have found a marriage to a Jew to be just as unthinkable as a marriage to a corpse. In fact, on her mother's side, Bonham-Carter is descended from Viennese Jews and from a half-Jewish Spanish diplomat, while on her father's she is descended from a Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and so her own family history reflects the complexities of these sort of relationships.

Bonham-Carter's corpse also has a sort of Jiminy Cricket character, except, rather than being a grasshopper that rides on one's shoulder, this is a maggot that lives behind the corpse's eye, which he will push out of her head occasionally to make a sardonic comment in the voice of Peter Lorre. I could reach for a metaphor here, as the Nazis loved to compare Jews to maggots, but I won't, because the metaphor was certainly not intended by the filmmakers. Instead I will just note that Peter Lorre was a Jewish actor, and so the presence of his voice, even in imitation, makes everything a little Jewish for me.

But I think the thing that gives this film an unexpectedly Jewish quality is the soundtrack by Danny Elfman. Elfman is a great recycler of antique sounds, and, for this film, he borrows from both hot swing music and the collaborations of Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill. Especially in the barroom scenes in the Land of the Dead, there ends up being a Brecht feeling to the whole undertaking, or, at least, the feel of the movie "Cabaret," which always felt like Brecht by way of Broadway to me. The house band is presided over by a one-eyed skeleton singer in a raked bowler derby, apparently inspired by Sammy Davis Jr., and you sort of expect him to start singing "Mac the Knife," or, failing that, "Mein Herr." And, since he sings a Danny Elfman song, he basically sings something that sounds like both.

And there is one final Jewish influence I want to mention, and it's one I will explore in more detail in my review of another Elfman film, "The Forbidden Zone." This is the influence of the Fleischer Brothers, who were early and, by contemporary standards, primitive filmmakers whose films teemed with garish, sometimes nightmarish images, and whose work influenced Elfman. I know that Burton, who was a product of Disney, intentionally referenced a Disney short called "Skeleton Dance" with this film's skeleton band, but when you throw the Elfman soundtrack on it, instead the scene seems borrowed from a different cartoon, a Fleischer cartoon, in which the character Betty Boop is menaced by skeletons as Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher" plays.

Come to think of it, I will do that film as a separate entry, even though it is only seven minutes long, because it has so many moving pieces, all of them, including Calloway, Jewish-infected, that the moment something comes up that seems to reference it, it suddenly turns everything Jewish. 

Especially when, as in this case, everything started out Jewish anyway.


Jewish Horror Films: The Possession (2012)

If you do a Google search for "Jewish horror film," 2012's "The Possession" is the first and most common search result. It is also the only explicitly Jewish film produced by Sam Raimi, who, like fellow horror directors J. J. Abrams, Larry Cohen, David Cronenberg, William Friedkin, Stanley Kubrick, John Landis, Eli Roth, Rod Serling, and Stanley Kubrick, is Jewish. And like the others, his Jewishness sometimes seems to inform his filmmaking, but is almost never explicit.

There really aren't that many Jewish horror movies, for some reason, despite the number of Jewish directors who make this sort of film, and a number of Jewish actors who regularly appear in horror movies, including Peter Lorre from the classic era of horror films and more contemporary performers like Eva Green, Daniel Radcliffe, and the recently deceased Anton Yelchin, all of whom staked out iconic roles in films of the uncanny.

I'm not quite sure why this is. Jews not only have a vivid folk heritage to draw from that is just teeming with demons, monsters, and curses, but also a sizable body of supernatural and occult literature. But for whatever reason this hasn't often translated to the screen.

I suspect the main reason "The Possession" wound up having Jewish content because it claims to be based on a true story, and that true story was inextricably Jewish. In fact, the story is closer to an online trend called creepypasta, which are urban legends, of a sort, that make the rounds through the internet, often without any attribution. This isn't that, exactly, but it's a closely related trend that I will call "haunted eBay." In this instance, an object on the online auction site eBay is promoted as being haunted, which gooses its value considerably, although most also include a "this is for entertainment only" notice, perhaps fearing legal action when it turns out the burned doll they sold is just a burned doll and not a spirit of the angry departed.

In this case, the haunted object in question was a wine casket. According to the original listing of the item, it was bought at an estate sale in Portland in 2001 and had been the possession of a concentration camp survivor. The family claimed the woman called the casket a "dibbuk box" and behaved superstitiously toward it. Opening it, the casket contained a few strange, seemingly totemic items, such as a wine cup and a sculpture inscribed in Hebrew.

At once, terrible things started happening: A break-in at the seller's store, the seller's mother suffering a stroke, etc. The item sold, and then resold, a series of sellers who all claimed to have had traumatic experiences upon owning the box, although I suspect this is actually an example of what I'll call "haunted object flipping," where an eBay reseller hopes to make more money off the sale of a supposedly haunted object by adding to the story.

And I love this story. I don't care whether the box was actually haunted or not. I love that there is a strange market for objects made special by urban legends, and that this has been supercharged by the web. I don't know what the movie version of that story might have been, but I would have enjoyed watching it.

This is not that story. "The Possession" instead follows the barest outline of the original story on the oringal eBay posting, with a child buying a Hebrew-carved box from and infirm old woman (possibly Polish, possibly Jewish, possibly a Holocaust survive, although all three are hinted at rather than made explicit, and, even then, barely hinted at.) The girl opens the box and all sorts of terrible things happen. And since this is called a dibbuk box, the film's screenwriters (Juliet Snowden and Stiles White) borrow a little bit from the Jewish story of the dybbuk, which is a ghost or malevolent demon that possesses people. So the little girl is possessed.

As every other critic has pointed out, a lot of this is cribbed from "The Exorcist," and not necessarily well. Even so, the film has its pleasures. Even though the dybbuk box is Jewish, the family at the center of the story is not, including the father. He's played by the gruffly handsome Jeffrey Dean Morgan, an actor I have always liked, and he limns his role with a crinkly-faced concern for his daughter. He also does something I approve of: He immediately believes something supernatural is afoot. I do not like movies where characters insist on behaving like skeptics, because, in my experience, the average human will immediately blame any door that blows closed on a ghost. We're not just inclined to believe supernatural experiences, we actively seek them out.

While the film was produced by Raimi, whose named was featured prominently in the promotional materials, the actual director was Danish filmmaker Ole Bornedal, and he brings a sort of stately formality to the film, making it almost a Danish modernist version of a horror movie: If this was an end chair, it would be sleek, elegant, and primarily functional. It hard not to wish Raimi were the director, as the movie could have used his signature hysteria. Nonetheless, the movie literalises the dybbuk's possession in an entertaining way: The possessed girl actually has a tiny monster living in her that occasionally makes efforts to emerge, most startlingly in a scene in which she examines the inside of her mouth with a flashlight and see two fingers dart up from the back of her throat.

The film also presumes that, because dybbuks are Jewish spirits, it will take a Jew to get rid of it, and so they bring in beatboxer and reggae singer Matisyahu as a sort of punky Hasidic exorcist. There's an entire scene set in Borough Park (presumably subbed in by a Vancouver neighborhood, as the movie was filmed there, and looks it) filled with be-shtreimeled Hasids sitting around a dimly lit, empty room, muttering darkly and unhelpfully about Jewish folklore. There is a rebbe in the center of this room, speaking Yiddish with the grim determination of somebody turning down a bank loan. The Hasids all leap back in terror when they see the wine casket, which is contrary to my reading of historical Hasids, who would have leaped toward the thing, stretching out wine glasses and crying out it was time to makh a tikkun.

I would have liked more of this sort of thing, but it is not forthcoming. Instead, we are left with the non-Jewish family in the basement of a hospital, with Matisyahu circling them with a tallis over his head, shouting Deuteronomy 6:5 in Hebrew, if I caught the Hebrew right, which is mostly directions for wearing tefillin and I did not know it could be used to exercise a ghost. Spoiler: After a few hiccups, the prayer works, and the dybbuk crawls back into his box, looking like an exceptionally crabby baby.

The film has a typically ambivalent coda, which I shall not spoil, but I was left hoping that there would be something else: After all, a non-Jewish family has just discovered they live in a Jewish universe, or at least the supernatural world is Jewish. What do you do with that knowledge?

I feel like you would have to become Jewish, wouldn't you? I mean, if tefillin prayers will send demon babies into wine caskets, there must be something to Judaism, mustn't there?

Maybe that's why there are not so many Jewish horror movies. Because for the audience to enjoy them, to suspend their disbelief, they must watch a movie set in a Jewish universe, where Jewish mystical and theological conceptions work, and are correct, and that's asking a lot of a mostly non-Jewish audience. Horror films are usually set in a world with no overarching theology, are set in a Christian world, or, in the case of folk horror movies, are set in a world in which ancient paganism is in conflict with Christianity.

This is not that. This is a story where gentiles are characters in a Jewish world, and, if there is one thing the past few years have shown, the majority is very rarely comfortable being relegated to being supporting players in any story. They can't see someone with a sign that says "black lives matter" without screaming "all lives matter," they can't see a women's only space without demanding to know why men are excluded, they can't stand to hear themselves described as cisgender, because how dare transgender people come up with a word to describe people who are not trans.

It's hard to tell a story set in the world of a minority, even when you make gentiles the main characters, as in this film. See what happens when filmmakers try to market films about the black experience to white audience members, and what happens when filmmakers cast women in lead roles in films typically dominated by men. It seems to me that it happens with horror films, even if the directors are Jewish, even if the actors are Jewish.

I'm going a little off topic here, but I wonder if this might also explain another phenomenon: That of the Jewish character who is instead presented as being Italian, as happened with half of the cast of Seinfeld and the entirety of Everybody Loves Raymond. Perhaps the fear is that audiences can stand Jews up to a point,  especially in comic roles, but don't want to have to inhabit a Jewish universe to do so. I just did a series of articles on films set in Jewish summer camps, and in almost every case the Jewishness of the film was subsumed almost to the point of invisibility.

I don't know. Maybe it's strange to want a movie in which Jewish victims are torn to pieces by Jewish monsters. I don't think so, though. I have done some film work in my life, including playing a chinless zombie in a movie shot in Waco and a zombie with an intact chin for an internet commercial shot in Los Angeles, and it's a lot of fun. Horror movies are fun, period.

Maybe Jews should get to have that sort of fun once in a while.


Week 37: The Flibbertigibbet

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 247 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 141 hours
I have reviewed 2,944 individual flashcards

 To my frustration, I find my attention lapsing again. This is a dangerous time for me, as I have gotten to the point where I can maintain a project for a very long time -- almost a year -- but then I entirely lose interest in it because I have become distracted by something else. I am, in my heart of hearts, a flibbertigibbet and a dilettante, and I used to hop from one project to another every few weeks or months. The fact that I can sustain a project for nearly a year nowadays is a Herculean act of will on my part, but there is always a friend to have drinks with, or an online argument to have, or a dog to play with, and they all sap my will.

But this project was not intended to last nine months. It was intended to last ... I don't know. Forever? And so when I feel my attention slipping, I must make efforts to reverse that slippage.

Here are the areas I am having trouble just now:

1. I have been studying at 10pm, just before I go to bed. This is a convenient time for me to study, but perhaps not the best time, as if I get distracted, and I do, I find myself starting late and being unable to finish mt studies before 11pm, when the flashcard program rolls over to the next day. Additionally, I really should go to sleep at 11pm, as I wake a 7am, but instead I want to hang out with my girlfriend and dog for a bit before I go to sleep. So it would be better if I found a different time to study, or perhaps several times, so I am not studying in one solid block of time.

2. I miss learning words just because I found them entertaining, and learning entire sentences, as I have been doing, is hard work. I think I need to get back to word lists and only learn a few sentences per day, so that there are still things I learn relatively quickly and enjoy learning. It has started to feel a bit like a chore, and that is deadly for me.

3. Similar, it can be easy to get into a rut, and I don't want that either. It is important to occasionally have a big, pleasurable experience that re-energizes you. I think I need to think about what that might be.

4. I probably need to set some new goals and deadlines as well. I had pretty specific goals when I started, and I think they have been replaces with much longer mini-projects. It's one thing to decided to learn the most common six hundred words, which can be completed in about six weeks. Its another to decided to memorize the entirety of "Say It in Yiddish," which might take a year. I need a mix of small goals and big ones, and ways to identify if I am accomplishing these goals.

I will think about all this over the course of the week. Like all flibbertigibbets, my main concern is fun, and if I can't keep this project fun for myself, I run a real risk of losing interest, which would be an awful shame just now.


Week 36: 100th Post

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 242 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 139 hours
I have reviewed 2,916 individual flashcards

Today is a double anniversary, of sorts, or, at least, a doubling of accomplishments. With this post, I have now written 100 blog posts, which I actually get to give myself a merit badge for, hooray! (For those new to the blog, I decided to mark my progress in Yiddish the way Boy Scouts do, by sewing merit badges onto a sash.)

I have also been studying Yiddish for nine months, or, rather, probably more than nine months, since I started this blog two weeks after I started studying, promptly forgot, and so have never been right when I have counted weeks, which is so me I can barely stand it.

Nonetheless, sometime recently I finished my first nine months of almost-daily study, almost learning 15 new words or phrases per day. I don't know that I have ever committed this sort of time or effort to a project, and there is no real end in sight. As long as I can come up with new projects for myself, I will keep plugging away, and I always seem to be able to come up with new projects.

As an example, I have just about finished learning 150 Yiddish proverbs, the amount I set as a goal for myself several months ago, and something I already have a merit badge prepared for. In preparation, I have ordered a book of Yiddish curses, and will teach myself an as-yet undetermined number.

Nine months may be a little too early to do any sort of retrospective, but I always feel like anniversaries are an opportunity for reflection, and, in your first year of doing anything, semi-anniversaries are important. I have almost had my dog for six months, and, when we reach that moment, you had better believe I am going to throw a party.

So, nine months in, what can I say? While I am far from fluent in Yiddish, I increasingly feel like a have a solid grasp on the language's essentials. I just tried to work my way through an article on the Yiddish Forward page, and while I struggled with quite a few specific words, nonetheless I was able to get the gist of the entire article, rather than just the headline (which I understood perfectly), which is considerable more than my last experiment in reading the paper six months ago, when I was able to struggle my way through just headlines and even then failed to understand essential words.

But the question of fluency has become the least interesting one to me, because, in the past nine months, I have realized that there is value to learning Yiddish besides hypothetically being able to have a conversation in the language sometime in the future, or the likelihood that I will be able to understand Yiddish well enough to be able to read books written in the language, although that is appealing. I have gotten very interested in the ways Yiddish might have value for people who don't, or won't, or will not have the opportunity to use it as a vernacular language.

I guess I am a test case for this. I will probably write a longer post about this down the road, but my studying Yiddish led the this blog, and this blog has led to me exploring a variety of ways I can be Jewish. Because I am a secular Jew, and it is not like there is any organization dedicated to the experience of secular Judaism, I have spent much of my adulthood being Jewish but not doing Jewish, if you understand what I am saying. I self-identified as a Jew, and feel like my worldview and ethics have been profoundly shaped by my Jewishness.

But being Jewish is not just a matter of feeling Jewish or believing Jewish things. Culture is something you participate in by doing stuff -- it is something you perform, and I wasn't performing being Jewish in any specific way.

This project has provided me with an abundance of ways to perform being Jewish in a secular way, and that is something I will continue to explore. Nine months in, I find I'm not just thinking Yiddish, I am being Yiddish, and that's what I was looking for, I think.


Week 35: Some notes

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 237 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 135 hours
I have reviewed 2,889 individual flashcards

I don't know that I have much to say about my self-education this week, except that it is hard to study when you are on vacation in Minnesota, although I managed to do so every day except the one when I was on the road until very late in the evening

I will also make a brief note about  "Say It in Yiddish," the book I am currently studying from: Some of the sentences are fairly long. I don't have a sample sentence in front of me, so I will invent an example: "I would like to have a seat at the front of the airplane/train/subway/bus." These can be a bit hard to learn, and when I find myself getting backed up in my learning, where there is a pile-up of words or sentences that I am struggling with, I stop adding new sentences to focus on the old ones. I have already had to do this a few times with this book.

I want to take a moment to jot down some notes based on my experiences so far, in case anybody wants to try something similar:

1. The process I use to create flashcards is a bit cumbersome. I will usually look to Google Translate first, but Google Translate's Yiddish skills are lacking. So I then need to cut and paste Google's faulty translation into an app called Keyman to correct it. The Keyman app is occasionally glitchy -- it constantly tries to resize my text to the smallest size possible, so must be resized. 

Worse still, sometimes it gets in a mood where it refuses to convert the Hebrew letters from their final form to their regular form, which it is supposed to do automatically. For those of you who don't know what I am talking about, Hebrew has five letters which look different when they appear at the end of a word, some of which have been used or not used in Yiddish, depending on the era and the mood of the writer, apparently. However, I have found that the solution to this in Keyman is just to type the letter again, which will force the first version to convert into a non-final form, and then you can just erase the second letter. 

I don't know if this is true of Keyman in general, or is just a failing of an add-on I download called Yiddish Pasekh, but as far as I can tell the add-on hasn't been updated since 2009, so I think we can expect this glitch to remain.

2. One of the books on language acquisition I read at the start of this program had a recommendation regarding flashcards: It recommended using images for the English translation, rather than simply typing out the English. This is supposed to help you start making direct use of foreign words. Let's say you see a beach, and because you associate images of a beach with the Yiddish word, plazshe, you will just remember the Yiddish and not have to make an intermediate step of thinking "beach, let's see, what is beach in Yiddish."

I don't know whether this is true or not. I never remember the Yiddish word for beach, and, despite using an image on my flashcard, I still make the intermediary step of thinking of the English word. Nonetheless, I enjoy looking at pictures more than I do written words, especially when I locate fun images for the word I am learning, so I use images, as recommended.

But there are a lot of words that just don't translate well into photographs. At first, I did the best I could, and would just remember, oh, this picture of a hilarious dog is actually the image for the Yiddish word for an animal's mouth, which is pisk. And that worked for maybe the first thousand flashcards and maybe the first six months. But now there are too many flashcards for me to remember what a vague image is supposed to represent, and I don't review some words for months or longer, so I forget what I meant by certain images, and some flashcards are for entire phrases, and that isn't easy to represent with images.

So I have been adding words to my flashcards, especially for words that can't really be represented by images. I've tried to find a middle ground, though: Usually I locate images of the word I am trying to remember.

3. It's a bad idea early on to learn a lot of synonyms for the same word. It's impossible to know how or when to use the different versions and you wind up getting confused when looking at flashcards which image links to which version. It's even worse if you try to memorize a bunch of words that use the same basic root. There is probably some memorization trick to simplify this, but, honestly, I just want to repeat the text of a flashcard a few times a learn a word and not have to resort to a variety of mnemonics depending on what I am learning.

The only thing I am really willing to do is to change a card if I find it impossible to learn. I will select another image, or additional images, and if I have no idea how to pronounce a word (sometimes Yiddish is pronounced quite a bit differently than it is written), I will jot down a transliteration of the pronunciation. 

4. I forget everything. It took me a long time to be okay with this, in part because the Anki flashcard program keeps an ongoing tally of how well you remember something, and it was frustrating to see my score getting worse and worse week after week. It's frustrating to have a word you know very well and then suddenly forget what it is.

But this is the process of learning. It happens to me in English as well. I forgot what the word was for mnemonics when I was writing a few paragraphs ago and spent a minute or two looking it up before I suddenly remembered it.

It helps that I have now been through this process of forgetting and remembering in Yiddish many times, and so I see how much faster I am at relearning words and sentences that gave me endless trouble previously. Something I spent literally days on a few months ago I now remember after only a couple of repetitions. 

I've come away from this with a newly rediscovered respect for just how long it takes to learn something. I have been a self-educator my entire life, but have never tackled something as awesomely complex as a language, which requires daily work, every day, for just years and years and years. In a few days, I will have been studying Yiddish for three quarters of a year, and have barely learned enough vocabulary to communicate concrete, basic sentences, much less the sort of complicated abstractions that language is capable of. 

I keep running up against the question of how to keep the subject interesting for me, especially as I am a hobbyist working mostly in isolation. And I find myself butting up against the issue of waning interest, especially as my studying becomes increasingly time consuming while the actual usefulness of what I learn rapidly diminishes. The first 1,000 words of Yiddish are exciting, because they are such workhorses that you discover yourself understanding far more Yiddish than you expected. The second thousand are fun, because you're selecting a lot of fun words. But by the time you've learned 3,000 words, there's a lot of quotidian language that doesn't show up all that often, a lot of synonyms, a lot of specialized language that may not have much practical value.

I'm not terribly concerned, though. If there is one thing I have a talent for, it is amusing myself, and so there will always be another Yiddish project I can come up with that will give me pleasure and contribute incrementally to my understanding of the language. If you're a hobbyist, you have to know how to make your hobby fun.


Jewish Theater: Why I Will Not Be Submitting to the Jewish Plays Project

I have just written a play, and, when you do, you fish around for what to do with it. If this were any other profession, well, this would be a horse with a cart in front of it. If you’re manufacturing a product, you probably should have some idea where to sell it before you make it, or you risk having a product nobody wants.

Plays don’t work like that, though, not usually. I do know there are some playwrights with mercenary sensibilities who carefully track the market and write plays specifically for it, tailoring certain plays to specific institutions, and bully for them. It seems an awful lot of work to me, especially considering how little playwrights generally make, but if it works for them, hooray.

Most of us, however, write the play that we feel like writing. Something has tickled us, and we sense dramatic possibilities, and, with greater or lesser success, we write a script that explores those possibilities. Afterwards, we see what we’ve got, and then see where it might go.

This can be an enormously frustrating process, because sometimes it feels like there are a million playwrights out there, all pitching simultaneously and indiscriminately, so wherever you send your script there is a slush pile of other scripts a mile high. And theater producers have their own agenda, and, unfortunately, it’s not generally to find bold new plays and introduce them to the world. You’re usually not really competing with other playwrights who have written new plays; you’re probably competing with a play Neil Simon wrote in the 1970s. Or Shakespeare. Always Shakespeare.

And even with theater projects that look to develop new work, there may be a collision of agendas. As an example, there is the Jewish Plays Project, which initially seemed like a good match for my play, which is about an actress whose career consists of appearing on the fringes of Yiddish stage. In fact, I completed my play within a self-set deadline, and that deadline was the moment when the Jewish Plays Project opened their doors to submissions.

But I have reconsidered and won’t be submitting, and let me tell you why.


The Jewish Play Project

This is a project that has some lofty goals. “The JPP is reinventing Jewish theater,” it claims, and what do they mean? Well, their call for artists says they are looking for people who “make new work that challenges old stereotypes.” In their “about” section, they say they are looking to put “bold, progressive Jewish conversations on world stages.”

“A revolution is underway in Jewish culture,” the website states. “In music, in books, in film, artists are creating amazing new pathways to Jewish identity. We believe that it is time for theater to join the movement.”

Now, there is nothing wrong with a bold mission statement, per se. It tends to generate a lot of excitement, especially when an organization is presenting itself as being somehow revolutionary. But this mission statement has identified an apparent problem in Jewish theater that it is the cure for. We can suss out what this problem is, as it is the inverse of what the JPP is seeking to do: Jewish theater is full of old stereotypes. It is not bold, nor progressive, and does not participate in creating new pathways to Jewish identity.

Indeed, the JPP is absolutely clear what sort of plays they do not want, embedded in the list of what they do want. It is as follows:

“Full-length plays that deal with contemporary Jewish themes that have never been produced in New York City. The following must be true of a submitted play:

1. It contains significant Jewish themes, characters, content, or points of view.
2. It is not a Holocaust play (stories that deal directly with the history of the Shoah, its survivors and their children, or the World War II period more generally).
3. It does NOT fall into the beloved category of "ethnically stereotypical comedy" (No "Yiddishemammeh" plays, no "My Afternoon With Bubbe", no "Jewtopia")
4. It is in English. (We welcome translations).
5. It runs at least 75 minutes.
6. It has not had a full production in the NY Metro region, or a major regional theater (LORT C or above).”

Besides this, neither musicals nor short plays have a clearly defined place at the JPP, although their submissions are not explicitly rejected. There is apparently some sort of development process for them, but not as part of their annual contest.


What is left out

So, just to be explicit, there are certain broad categories of Jewish plays that do not have a home at the JPP’s annual contest. These include plays about the Holocaust, comedies that make use of so-called ethnic stereotypes, and non-English plays.

The JPP is, of course, free to make any decision it wants to about what sorts of plays it does and does not want to develop. But I am free to take issue with the idea that excluding these categories of theater makes the contest bold or progressive, or significant, or representative of the revolution underway in Jewish arts that theater needs to join.

No, what we have here is an expression of a personal taste, probably mostly that of the JPP’s founder, David Winitsky. And there are problems with his tastes, because, rather than creating the opportunity for bold new Jewish theater, it arbitrarily limits those opportunities. It excludes an enormous amount of Jewish storytelling, not because there is anything inherently wrong with that sort of storytelling, but because somebody just has a preference against them.

(I will also note that going through the staff of the JPP, there is not a single playwright among them, and there is only one playwright listed on the advisory board. Based on long experience, this is a red flag, as playwrighting programs that don’t include significant input for playwrights on their staff or advisory board are often oblivious to the needs and concerns of playwrights.

Additionally, looking through the JPP’s list of “panel readers,” who are the first ones who vet the plays, I see very few playwrights, although it can be hard to suss out, since the readers are listed by name without any other identifying information. I know that Susan Bernfield and Sandra Daley-Sharif are playwrights, but almost all of the other names I recognize are directors and literary managers, and I will bet that the vetting process is largely done by non-playwrights. I don’t have the space to detail why the general exclusion of playwrights from the gatekeeping process in American theater is a problem, but would suggest taking a look at the book “Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play” by Todd London, which carefully details just how bad this has been.)


Why what is excluded is important

I would go through the list of excluded topics one by one, but the first, the rejection of plays about the Holocaust, is so blinkered that I don’t even know where to begin with it. It’s the sort of exclusion of a topic so profound that it shouldn’t be the sort of thing you just mention in your submission rules, but take a full page to explain. It would be like having a Jewish theater project and saying you will not accept plays about Hasids, or Israel, or, I don’t know, rabbis.

The Holocaust isn’t just a theme, after all. It is the single most important event to happen to Jewry in the 20th century. The only comparable event in the history of Judaism is the destruction of the Second Temple, and even other modern genocides are somehow in the shadow of this one. I do not need to argue why Holocaust plays should be in a Jewish play festival; a Jewish play festival needs to explain why this sort of play would be excluded. Because at the moment it is incomprehensible.

But let’s talk about the other exclusions. Firstly, the JPP takes issue with what it calls “ethnically stereotypical comedy,” which it leaves undefined, but offers up “Yiddishemammeh,” “My Afternoon With Bubbe" and "Jewtopia” as examples. The first two are not especially helpful, as they are not real plays, although they not unmeaningful, as I will get to. “Jewtopia,” however, is a 2004 play about Jews and dating, with a significant subplot about a Gentile who wants to date Jewish women and enlists the help of his friend to learn how to act Jewish.

If the JPP doesn’t especially like plays like “Jewtopia,” that’s just fine; I don’t especially like them either. The project takes issue with stereotypical treatment of Jews, and that's laudatory. But, then, it isn’t terrifically clear what the JPP considers to be a stereotype. Neither Yiddish mamas nor bobbes are inherently stereotypical, and I have genuine concerns about the fact that we see mothers and grandmothers mentioned, but not fathers or grandfathers. The oppressive Jewish mother and doting Jewish grandmother might be overused tropes, but they are still capable of being well-used (see Reizl Bozyk’s performance in “Crossing Delancey” as an example).

By specifically excluding them, but not identifying the stereotypical qualities that are at issue, the JPP removes our ability to represent a certain group of Jewish women at all. If I can sum it up using a single actress, this submarines the entire career of Lanie Kazan, because it does not distinguish between her performance in “My Favorite Year” and her performance in, I don’t know, “You Don't Mess with the Zohan.” And that’s a shame, because her performance in “My Favorite Year” is spectacular.

I think it is meaningful that these characters are represented here with Yiddish words. I think what we’re seeing is a specific expression of taste that isn’t rooted in a progressive agenda, but is instead rooted in embarrassment. There is a Yiddish expression for that embarrassment: mein bobbe’s tam, which means “my grandmother’s taste.”

Mein bobbe’s tam was lowbrow, religious, and smacked of the old world. It was for things that assimilated American Jews found tacky and foreign, such as lungen stew and spitting to ward off the evil eye and going to shund Yiddish plays. For contemporary Jews, these qualities seem stereotypical, but they were not expressions of stereotypes, they were expressions of character. It is not radical to exclude mein bobbe’s tam, because it involves rejecting a specific Jewish immigrant experience, and, even more specifically, a women’s experience.

There are not so many plays about Jewish women that we can afford to discourage new ones because they are about women that embarrass us.

English is not the only language of American Jews

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the submissions guidelines is the rejection of plays that are not written in English. The JPP is aware of the fact that there has been exciting new work done on the Jewish experience in other arts, but somehow has missed out on how much of that has involved ongoing experiments to preserve Yiddish as a language of creative expression.

And it’s not just Yiddish. One of the most distinctive qualities of Judaism is its long history of preserving Jewish languages, and, in the case of Hebrew, actually reviving a language that had not been a vernacular for thousands of years.

One of the great creative tools Jews have is multilingualism, and the extraordinary variety of languages we can use to express the Jewish experience, which includes Ladino and Arabic, both of which, like Yiddish, represent the primary languages of specific Jewish experiences. By refusing to consider these as languages for Jewish theater, we are forcing Jewish art to assimilate to a language that is not especially Jewish, English.

Perhaps this is for purely practical reasons. It’s a little harder to do a play in a non-English language. But it’s not that hard, and laziness or a lack of theatrical imagination is not a compelling reason to exclude explicitly Jewish voices from a Jewish theater project.

I guess I’m just not of the opinion that limiting the opportunities to represent history, the experience of women, and the diversity of Judaism on the stage is either bold or progressive. To me, this is not an example of a theater project encouraging new conversations about Judaism, but limiting them. I would prefer to see the conference accept plays that are consistent with their bold mission statement, rather than reject them for unexplained reasons that seem mostly to be an expression of personal taste.

Until they do, this isn’t really the Jewish Plays Project. It just excludes too much of the Jewish experience, and without justification, explanation, or any mechanism of community response to address it.

And it’s too bad, because there really aren’t that many specific opportunities for the development of Jewish plays. But, then, this isn’t either. It’s just an opportunity for a particular kind of Jewish play, and excludes everything else.