The Uses of Yiddish

I suspect that language is always discovered in the study of it. You might think you know what, oh, Irish is, and then you study it, and you discover that Irish doesn't have a word for orange, never mind that it is one of the colors of the Irish flag, and this seems to say something about how contrary the Irish people can be, or about how we think orange is a color but others might think it is a yellowish red or a reddish yellow, or that, I don't know, the Irish have a previously undetected color blindness. I don't really know why there is no word for orange in Irish, and maybe they have added one in since I studied the language, which I only did for about four months. Nonetheless, my point is that when you learn another language, you learn things about it that you did not expect.

But, man, Yiddish. I have started to think that Yiddish is not just discovered in the study of it, but invented in the study of it. I know there are college programs that treat Yiddish just like any other language, and teach students with the goal of fluency, just as you would with any other language. But Yiddish isn't any other language, and fluency is just one of many possible goals in the study of the language. And the truth of the matter is, if you're going to study the language in a non-academic setting, you're going to have to decided what sort of Yiddish you want to learn, and then invent that Yiddish for yourself.

I am going to make a list of possible uses for Yiddish. This list will necessarily be incomplete, because language is always protean, and Yiddish, which has developed a robust and growing life as a post-vernacular language, may be more plastic than most. I don't think a list like this can ever be comprehensible, because I suspect the Jewish capacity for invention is unlimited, and so we will always be able to come up with a use for Yiddish that people hadn't considered before.

But I think it is worth looking at some of the uses of Yiddish, because each are going to have their own course of study, and if they are the sort of thing that the Jewish community supports, they are likely to need different sorts of support and different institutions of support. I will try to include examples where I can:


As far as I can tell, this is the approach that has the greatest institutional support just now, along with my next example. This is the classic approach to language: Learning it as a means of everyday communication. There are a number of college programs that teach this, as well as online courses, summer programs, and at least one podcast. This is probably the most demanding of the various uses of Yiddish, both because learning a foreign language is a tremendously protracted and time-consuming process, but also because, for most American Jews, there is just not that much opportunity to regularly use Yiddish as a vernacular language.


One need not be perfectly fluent in a language to be able to read and write in it, and there are a variety of institutions that support Yiddish as a written language, including at least one Yiddish-language newspaper, the extraordinary work of the Yiddish Book Center, and a variety of newer publications written in part or entirely in Yiddish. Similarly, written Yiddish is used as a language of historical research, again often in academic institutions.


There is an unbroken history of Yiddish being a language of performance in the United States, primarily in the form of Yiddish songs and in Yiddish theater, as well as a small but not insignificant number of Yiddish films. I suspect a lot of contemporary performers in Yiddish are not necessarily fluent in the language, but are attracted to its expressiveness, its history, and the creative possibilities it offers. Although these forms do not necessarily have the institutional support that Yiddish vernacular and literary studies do, as far as I can tell they are the most popular and widely experienced forms of modern Yiddish expression, especially regarding Yiddish music.


This is probably the most common expression of modern Yiddish: The use of atomized Yiddish words or phrases in English sentences as a way of signaling Jewishness, like when we say we schlep something rather than carry it. This approach has virtually no formal institutional support, although a large number of popular books on Yiddish seem geared toward this usage, at least tacitly.


This also has a great deal of popular if not institutional support, especially among the Orthodox. This is the use of Yiddish words for specific aspects of the religious experience, such as calling a synagogue a shul, describing praying as bentshn, and calling a sexton a shamash.


Jewish political groups have a history of making use of a few very precisely chosen Yiddish words to signal the Jewishness of their approach, including activist Jewish gay groups who have reinterpreted Yiddish words and phrases to express a modern understanding of the LGBT experience and Jewish feminists who have made use of Yiddish, in part, to discuss the intersection between sexism and antisemitism.


This involves both aspects of using Yiddish as a cultural signal and as a performative language, but messily. Some Jewish humorists use Yiddish to signal their Jewishness, while others use it as a sort of hipster argot in the manner of Lenny Bruce, while others use it because they think it sounds funny.


Some people just like the way Yiddish looks, and so, on craft and design websites like Etsy, you will sometimes find people who use Yiddish words or phrases as a decorative motif.


All of these approaches strike me as more or less valid uses of Yiddish, and only the first, the use of Yiddish as a vernacular language, requires fluency. I suspect most people are interested in several of these approaches to the language, and sometimes they will bleed into each other, or one will encourage another.

The more I discover about Yiddish, the more I think the future of the language will benefit from, and may depend on, encouraging as wide a variety of uses of the language as possible. I suppose my feeling is that the more ways we give people to experience Yiddish as something they can make use of, as something that serves a real function in their life, the more people will see it as a living expression of the Jewish experience and less as the dying language of foreign ancestors.

Let me use the world of nonprofits as a parallel for a moment. When I used to work at a nonprofit, I was forever reading about the ways nonprofits finance themselves, and a lot of it had to do less with seeking new members and donors than with taking existing members and donors and increasing their commitment level.

Perhaps this was because existing members and donors have already enjoyed the benefits of their participating, and so are more likely to support the institution. Or perhaps it is because of the sunk cost fallacy, where people who have already made an investment are likely to increase that investment because the original investment cannot be recovered, and they cannot believe they were foolish to make the original investment, and so they keep throwing good money after bad in the optimistic belief that it will all be worth it.

For whatever reason, it is easier to get increased commitment from people who are already invested than to seek new investors. But the survival of a language, either as a vernacular or postvernacular, requires a lot more than a few extremely dedicated individuals. And so I think we need a mechanism to get a lot of people involved with minimal commitment but maximum rewards, and we need to recognize that people have different interests and different desires for reward. Once we have people minimally invested in the language, we can start encouraging them to increase their commitment.

So the greater variety of ways people have to first encounter Yiddish, make use of the language, and be rewarded for doing so, the larger a group of people who might increase their participation. I know this is true of me: The more Yiddish I learn, the greater commitment I have to continue to learn it, both because my ability to use and enjoy the language increases, and also because otherwise why did I waste all that time?

There is no way for me to guesstimate how likely anyone is to learn Yiddish, how many of those will go on to learn more Yiddish, and how many will go on to learn even more Yiddish. There is not much institutional or even cultural support for Yiddish nowadays, and what there is is often prohibitive,. You're not going to hear much Yiddish in the mainstream institutions of Judaism -- the synagogues, the Federations, the summer camps, etc. In the meanwhile, most Jews cannot pursue a degree program, and many cannot take the time or afford to travel to shorter programs. Few are going to want to join a Haredi community that uses language as their vernacular. And even the day-to-day, slangy use of Yiddish as a Jewish in-language seems to be on the decline.

If Yiddish were a nonprofit, I would say we have the ingredients for a terrifying attrition rate and virtually no opportunity to turn people who are already invested into even more engaged participants. And it's too bad, because there are two things that Jews are really good at: We're really good at finding a place for languages that are no longer vernacular, and we're really good at building institutions.

It shouldn't be too hard, either. There already is an awful lot of Yiddish music around; we just need to commit to supporting it and bringing it into our communities. If we teach literature, teach Yiddish literature, even in translation. If we work in Jewish institutions, ask where we can use Yiddish in those institutions, even in small ways -- gatherings can be called kumzits, students can be called talmidim, etc. (I know there is some concern about institutions being overly Ashkenazi; I will address that in a later post.). If we work at summer camps, we might consider using some Yiddish to describe the camp experience, which is something we did in the past, and we might include Yiddish songs during singalongs. There are a lot of ways we can start putting a little bit of Yiddish back into the Jewish world, if we choose to.

I suppose we just have to choose to.


Week 42: Improbable Results

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 284 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 169 hours
I have reviewed 3,426 individual flashcards

My schedule has been entirely catawampus the past week. It's hard to move to a new state, immediately start a new job, live out of suitcases in your mother's guest room, look for an apartment, and take care of a dog, all while desperately revisiting your favorite locations and snapping photos of yourself in front of local monuments. It's a lot to do, and I have been exhausted and felt a little sick the entire time. It will be weeks until this is all settled, and months until I have really found a routine.

So Yiddish has likewise been cata and likewise been wampus, with me studying when I can, and making new flashcards when I can. As a result, I have mostly stuck to the easiest thing for me to do, which is enter new vocab words out of a dictionary I own, This is probably for the best as well -- as I mentioned before my move, I was starting to get overwhelmed trying to learn complete sentences, and my study time had started to spike past an hour of work per day.

It's become quite easy for me to learn individual words, for the most part -- there are always a few that stubborn refuse to get learned, and just show up again and again in my flashcards, forever unmemorized. But there is a certain logic to language, with words constructed out of other words, and once you have learned a few thousand, a lot of new words seem like they are just variations of words you already know.

I do feel that I must start learning Yiddish grammar in earnest soon. I can construct approximations of Yiddish sentences by swapping out words in sentences I already know, but it's limiting, and since a majority of the sentences I have learned are Yiddish idioms or proverbs or curses, they don't necessarily reflect how language is typically spoken. However, that must wait until I am more settled. And I like to complete one project before moving on to another, and I have several projects going all at once now: I am still working my way through a Berlitz audio series, although I am nearly finished with that; I add in a few Yiddish curses every few days; I am memorizing a Yiddish phrasebook, although I have mostly suspended that project until I at least have my own apartment; and I am adding new words from a Yiddish dictionary.

Regarding the dictionary, I would estimate that I add three-quarters or more words from each page, and I am already up to words that start with S, so I will probably have worked my way through the entire dictionary in a month or so. I will then go through and plug in words that I skipped, a few per day, until I have literally added the entire dictionary to my flashcards.

Once I finish with one of these projects, I'll start work on memorizing an entire Yiddish grammar book. I started this project with some bad advice from one of those "learn an entire language in 30 days" courses, which suggested that our brains just automagically decode and make use of the rules of grammar, and I have found this not to be the case at all: Not only do I not generally understand how a sentence is constructed in Yiddish, I don't even know why sometimes we say "nit" and sometimes "nisht," when both mean "not." (I just checked; apparently it is a pronunciation difference and has nothing to do with grammar, which I would never have figured out on my own.)

Learning grammar is, of course, one of the steps toward fluency, and it's one I haven't been in any hurry to do because I both think it is impossible for me to become fluent doing this project and because fluency is not especially interesting to me. I will write more about this soon, but suffice it to say that when you don't care about fluency, it lets you study Yiddish in entirely different ways, and those way are valid and enjoyable.

But here's the thing: I actually do want to be fluent. I can't help myself. As fun as it may be to groan out a Yiddish homily at just the right moment ("A cat can also look at a king" he said, and everybody nodded, agreeing.), I also want to be able to have long, effortless, perfect conversations in Yiddish. I know it can't be done, but I want to do it anyway, and so I will occasionally work toward that goal.

There is nothing wrong with trying impossible things. It's how you get improbable results.


St. Louis Park

As I mentioned in my last post, I have moved from Omaha back to my home town of Minneapolis. There are a lot of reasons for this. There are some family members with health problems, and my girlfriend and I wanted to be here, especially during the winter, if they had any needs. I have three nephews and a niece and feel as though I have missed a lot of their childhoods, and did not want to miss more. I also have brothers and a parent here, and another parent who is occasionally here and never in Omaha. So there was family.

And there is family of another sort. Both of my biological parents had roots in Minneapolis. My biological father, or, at least, the likeliest candidate for my biological father, still has family here. My biological mother has an ex-husband here and a widower in nearby Wisconsin, and it proved impossible to meet either when I was in Omaha, and will be easier here. I want to petition for my original birth certificate, for two reasons: Firstly, my biological mother was an Irish citizen, and I may one day wish to establish our relationship and seek Irish citizenship myself. Secondly, my name at birth was Baby Boy Monghan, and that's just the greatest name ever, and I want to have documentation of it.

I could talk about my frustration and disappointment with my Omaha experiences, but I will not. Suffice it to say that the town and I were not a good match. Not this time.  I had good experiences there in the past, and enjoyed working at the historical society, but I missed a lot about Minneapolis that cannot be found in Omaha.

I was born in Minneapolis but largely raised in St. Louis Park and, later, Minnetonka, two suburbs of Minneapolis. I have returned to the former, in the sense that I now work here. I recently accepted a position as Community Editor of American Jewish World, a local biweekly about the Jewish community that dates back to 1912. I will be writing local culture stories, editing bar mitzvah listings and synagogue service hours and that sort of thing.

My first day here, I passed a group of Orthodox Jews walking along the sidewalk, carrying lulavs and esrogs for the sukkoth holiday. Today, at the end of Sukkoth, I passed a man in a shtreimel and bekishe. It has been a long time since I have seen that sort of Jew, although I used to see them a lot, as I went to a Jewish high school. I was glad to see it. Although I am secular in my religious practice (or lack thereof), I am also not mad about this great American experiment of assimilation. I do not think there is anything particularly magnificent about the American mainstream, which mostly seems to me to consist of men in baseball caps loudly screaming that anyone who isn't just like them should go back to wherever they came from. So, while the Orthodox life is not for me, I do respect their refusal to assimilate.

There weren't so many of them in St. Louis Park when I was a boy. There were some -- I would see them walking to and from shul on Shabbos, dressed in black, the men in fedoras, the women in wigs. There are more now, and there are more of their institutions: shuls, mikvehs, schools. The local Lubavitchers are in the same building I now work in, and I am told they have a small chapel here.

This is the neighborhood that filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen came from, and is where they set their most Jewish film, "A Serious Man," which presents the neighborhood as a Jewish enclave in a larger world of bewilderingly goyish Minnesotans. I don't know how many Jews actually live here, and I think the Orthodox largely congregate around the shuls and a Jewish day school, Torah Academy, formerly my secular day school, then called Fern Hill. I feel like about half my grade school class was Jewish, but that may be an exaggeration. Still, walking around my old neighborhood, and remembering my neighbors, it is mostly Jewish names I remember.

There are a lot of explicitly Jewish memories of this neighborhood, My parents owned a second house in St. Louis Park, which they rented to a man named Mr. Brown, who was my Hebrew instructor at a Jewish High School called Maimonides, at the Jewish Community Center, also in St. Louis Park. Mr. Brown was a nice man with a strong comic sensibility, and he was fascinated by gematria, the Jewish form of numerology that takes the numerical value of Hebrew letters and uses them to create mystical connections between ideas and texts.

Just down the street from my old house was a house rented by an Israeli family, and they sent their son to school with me. I can't remember his name, but I remember he was quite unlike the Israelis I had met before, who were brash and tough. He was small and sensitive and quietly brilliant. I have, in fact, lost touch with everyone I went to high school with, despite it being a very small school (13 total students my first year there), and I have forgotten many of their names. There are some records of the school at the local Jewish historical society, and I may take time later to look at them, see who I remember, and see if they are still around.

Maimonides High School was a relatively short-lived experiment locally -- I think it lasted all of four years. Since coming back, I find myself thinking of it quite often. As happens in high school, it was a place of a lot of firsts for me, including my first kiss. I was also class president, by the way, I think mostly because it was largely a collection of misfits, and I was the most floridly misfit among them. But it was the first time I discovered that there was a place in the world for an oddity like me, and that, in fact, the things that made me feel so odd could, in the right circumstances, also make me a leader.

Anyway, it is both strange and good to be back. I don't know what effect my relocating will have on my Yiddish project or this blog, but it is a very large change, and I am curious to see what happens from here.


Interview with Eli Batalion and Jamie Elman of Yidlife Crisis

In 2014, two Montreal-based writers and performers, Eli Batalion and Jamie Elman, began an unusual web series: Yidlife Crisis, which consisted of a series of short comic vignettes, filmed for the web and largely performed in Yiddish. The series has now enjoyed two seasons and has included Howie Mandel and Mayim Bialik as guest stars, as well as expanding to another web series, Global Shtetl, that looks at the international Jewish community.

I emailed Batalion and Elman a series of questions about the show, Here are their responses:

Let me ask how YidLife crisis came about. I know Eli and Jamie went to school together and that Eli was the school's Yiddish valedictorian, but could you walk me through what that means, and how, years later, it leads to a Yiddish web series.

You’re basically correct. Eli’s background involved being surrounded by Yiddish speakers like his grandparents growing up, and then also leaning some Yiddish in elementary school. Jamie came to Yiddish strictly in high school. But being in Montreal, and around various institutions like the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre and Jewish Public Library that put focus on Yiddish, we were both tangentially exposed to it and a seed of sorts was planted vis-à-vis Yiddish, particularly with respect to its use in literature and performance. Later we would begin to discover that there was a Yiddish flavor in a lot of the comedy that we had come to appreciate. When meeting each other later in on life, and deciding to pair up on something that felt special to us, it was specially this notion of a Yiddish-based show that came about as the best idea.

I'm very interested in the process of making the show. How does it get written (especially in Yiddish?) How to you go about finding other actors, and how did you get Howie Mandel and Mayim Bialik involved in the show? 

We write in English, work with professional translators to get it into a high level Yiddish, then check that Yiddish flow against how we think it should be spoken and performed given the scene at hand and come up with the best version. We have been supported with grants to date to do this sort of thing. Our actors are either people that are already Yiddish capable that are particularly available in Montreal because of this history that we have in this city, or are just local actors. Howie and Mayim were each people we either had worked with or whose social networks we were somehow entrenched in. We got their attention and had the chutzpah to pitch them on being involved in something, and they both graciously agreed to do so.

I seem to recall that Yiddishists were a bit critical in the first season. How do you address the issues with making sure the show's Yiddish is accurate? How much general interest has there been in Yiddish, and do you think there has been an increase since the show came out?

We’ve taken a more traditional and academic approach to translating the Yiddish in the second season based on this feedback. We generally do like to test it out on a few people, and of course, everyone has their own subtle choices here and there, particularly choosing the better of two permissible choices (e.g. choosing the German or the Hebraic version of a word). The more people we can pass it by, the better, but it’s best to at least start with a more academic version, at least to please the academics!

We’ve recognized a small movement in learning Yiddish, particularly at the college level, but have also seen through our online promotion that there are others that are interested in learning, but just lack the resources with which to do so. Not everyone is capable of attending intensive courses at various institutions, or are aware of them, or have the time to access an online or printed resource. But we would like to think that we have definitely raised the needle for some in terms of awareness of the language and the possibility of picking it up in some way.

Could you talk about Golbal Shtetl for a moment. Did this emerge out of YidLife Crisis? How would you describe the program? You have been traveling around a fair amount -- is that a result of YidLife, and is Glocal Shtetl connected to that? 

Global Shtetl is the happy accident of purely YidLife Crisis touring and the desire, as part of our YidLife fueled travels, to be able to capture the adventures we’re going on vis-à-vis the Jewish communities of the world in different continents, countries and cities, often with a focus on Yiddish history and lingering aspects of Yiddishkayt and the Ashkenazic experience. Part of the implied “thesis” of Global Shtetl as per its name is that we’re all sort of still one Shtetl no matter how far we go, and that you will see the same migratory patterns in Canada, the UK, Australia, the US, Latin America, South Africa and of course, Israel. Granted, you’re going to find local variety and there are many complex factors that change the state of what the Jewish community has been and is in all these places, but it’s fun and interesting to find the commonalities, then find the details and points of uniqueness specific to each city.

Finally, I'd love to get a few words about Montreal, which seems important enough to the show to almost be another character. How much of the show is influenced by the specific details of the Jewish community there, and by the essentially multicultural character of the town?

As you can probably already tell, Montreal is a significant source of our content for a few reasons. For one, the Yiddish tradition in the city and the contributions of the Jewish community, particularly in various secular aspects of the city (not the least of which is our smoked meat, now espoused and literally purchased by Celine Dion no less!) Second is the city as a multicultural and multilingual template, a unique gem in North America which in some ways may be a model for more metropolises decades from now but which encapsulates what we think the best version of multiculturalism is, which is when there is fusion and cross-pollinating integration. There is a strong case for that in Montreal. And, since the city literally is where we grew up, amongst its community, it is all the more appropriate to set it there. Of course, we recognize we could easily put the show in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Brookline, Golders Green or many other largely Jewish neighborhoods, but we’re attached to Montreal for creative and personal reasons.


Week 41: I Have Returned to Minneapolis

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 277 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 164 hours
I have reviewed 3,318 individual flashcards

After five years away, I have returned to my home state of Minnesota and my home city of Minneapolis. I will discuss that in more detail in a later post, as it changes things for me a fair amount, especially regarding my Yiddish studies.

I have somehow been able to maintain my studies through this transition, although I took a week off from listening to the Yiddish language recording I have been working my way through for the better part of a year. I just had too many thoughts going through my little head to focus. There are a lot of details to a move, especially a very quick one, and this was quick: I made the move in a week, for the most part. My girlfriend is still in Omaha with our dog and will be joining me next weekend with most of our possessions.

I have been on the hunt for a new apartment, and am starting a new job, and it is for the best. But I imagine there will be new challenges, chief among them the fact that there is a lot more to do in Minneapolis, and I am easily distracted.

More soon.


Week 40: On the Road with Yiddish

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 270 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 159 hours
I have reviewed 3,223 individual flashcards

I have been on the road a little in the past few months, and may be again for the next few -- mostly traveling back to my home town of Minneapolis, Minnesota. It's a six-plus-hour drive, mostly spent listening to country music, chatting with my girlfriend, and occasionally checking in on our dog in the back seat to see if he is okay. Which he always is. He loves to travel.

But it's hell on my studying. Being on the road, and visiting family, and visiting Minneapolis, can be awfully distracting, and I can't be sure when I will be where and why. When I used to study at night, before I went to bed, I found it impossible to get home in time to study, or I would be too tired. Now that I study in the morning when I wake up, it's a little easier, but there are two parts to studying from flashcards, and the second part is actually creating the flashcards. I found it hard to find the time for that, and so didn't.

I suppose it would not be so bad if I couldn't add new words for a little while and so was forced to review the words I have already added, but I prefer to continue my learning unabated. The only thing I can do is try to take extra time in advance to get ahead on adding new flash cards, which is what I did on the last trip.

I'll note something that makes this especially time consuming. I have gotten to the point when I learn new words relatively quickly, but must revisit new sentences over and over again. My flashcard program, Anki, pushes stuff I have learned to the back, so I need review it less, and pushes stuff I am struggling with to the front, so I must review it more often.

This means that a lot of my current reviews consist of Yiddish proverbs, blessings, curses, and sentences drawn from phrase books. And some of these sentences are very hard to memorize -- I feel like I am learning them anew every single time I see them. This isn't so bad when there are only a few of these phrases per review session, as I can pick them up with a half-dozen repeats. But that's not what's happening. Because there are so many phrases I have a hard time remembering, they tend to dominate my review sessions, and so I must revisit them again and again and again per review session to learn them, because it is so much information I am trying to memorize all at once. I had a review session take me an hour and a half the other day because there were so many phrases, when they usually take me a half-hour.

I suppose the cure for this is to not add so many phrases into my deck. I mean, I added 150 proverbs or thereabouts, perhaps 200 individual phrases, and now a dozen or so curses. That's maybe one out of seven of my flashcards, so of course they were going to start to back up.

We'll see, though. If I keep having days where I must spend an hour studying, I'll pare back. But for the moment, I am seeing real progress on the sentences. There was a while where I felt like I just wasn't learning the sentences at all, because every time they would recur in my studies, I couldn't remember them at all. But now some are old enough that I have seen the reappear five or six times, and I ca feel them growing familiar. Some of the older ones I remember outright, some I must reread once or twice, and a few I struggle with, but it's clear to me that this just requires patience, which is the one lesson life keeps trying to force me to learn and the one lesson I dislike the most.

I am not a patient man.


Jewish Horror Films: An American Werewolf in London (1981)

I had planned to write about the way Jewish filmmakers sometimes code their characters as being Jewish, sometimes in subterranean ways. However, upon a recent rewatching John Landis' "An American Werewolf in London," I realized there's nothing coded, nothing subterranean.

No, Landis' two doomed American leads are unambiguosly Jewish. They hail from Long Island, lust over a young woman named Debbie Klein, and get upset when she beds a fellow named Rudy Levine. A nurse peeks under the sheets when one of the boys is hospitalized and declares him Jewish. They call each other putz and schmuck. And, most tellingly, when one of the boys has a nightmare, it is of werewolves breaking into his family home dressed as Nazis and massacring everyone with machine guns, which also destroys a prominently placed menorah.

I suppose I might have been a bit confused because Landis cast two Irish-Americans as the boys -- specifically David Naughton and Griffin Dunne. But, even then, Naughton has a certain swarthiness and Dunne is neurotic in a strangely cheerful, comic way that reads as Jewish. And who am I to complain that Irish Americans are playing Jews? Every single one of my biological ancestors came from Ireland, and I am a Jew.

So instead I will instead discuss the way the characters' Jewishness informs the film. The plot is brutally easy to summarize: Two American boys on a three-month tour of Europe are attacked by a werewolf on the moors of Northern England, and one is killed. The other awakens in a London hospital, falls in love with a nurse (the terrific Jenny Agutter), and received repeated and unwelcome visits from his dead friend informing him that when the moon is full, he will become a wolf and kill innocent people. And, on the full moon, that's exactly what happens.

I suppose one the the reasons the Jewishness of the film had seemed subtle to me is because the film feels so very English. Landis is not English, of course -- he was born in Chicago and raised in Los Angeles. But he lived in London for a while, both working in film (sometimes as a stunt double) and cowriting, without credit, the James Bond film "The Spy Who Loved Me." Landis has also demonstrated a taste for Hammer horror films in later interviews and writing, and so "An American Werewolf" is heavy on English atmosphere.

In fact, the film opens with a series of long, static shots of the moors, demonstrating a fascination with the strangeness of the English countryside that I have only seen elsewhere in folk horror movies; it would hardly be surprising if he moved his camera and revealed people dancing naked around an enormous megalith while a figure burns in a wicker statue. Instead, when the camera moves, it is to reveal our heroes, crushed into the back of a truck filled with sheep. It's a comic image, but a smart one, because it immediately shows them misplaced and ill-at-ease, but also because they are about to be lambs to the slaughter.

In fact, the next place they end up is a rural pub called The Slaughtered Lamb, with an appropriately gruesome bar sign. The bar is filled with English character actors, as is the whole film. There's the battered visage of screen heavy David Schofield, the brutal looking ex-wrestler Brian Glover, the Cockney crime film star Alan Ford, and even the dazzling (and badly missed) comic actor Rik Mayall in a small role. The casting is perfect throughout the film.

There are a few reviews of the film that claim that we shouldn't be looking for subtly in a John Landis film, but this is a tremendously precise piece of filmmaking, from making sure Northerners speak with Northern accents to the fact that it is set in a London that is an international city, especially filled with Indian and Pakistani neighbors -- it was the only film I saw that captured a London that looked like that until the films of Hanif Kureishi some years later. Landis created a film that was supposed to be set in a London that felt like a real London, including a tour of the nurse's tiny apartment and complaints about the cost of living, which American films don't bother with.

That being said, Landis is also a satirist, and the film doesn't simply place London on the screen, but heightens it slightly. Little children will always be dressed in Paddington Bear style duffle coats or schoolboy uniforms with cricket hats. Businessmen will always have their brollies with them, even when fleeing monsters. The police are either gruffly or genially incompetent, especially the bobbies, who all have 'ello 'ello wots all this then accents and seem puzzled and put out by any request for help. Northerners all wear wellies and flat caps, are unwelcoming to visitors, and all have occult secrets. Even when we see a few moments of The Muppet Show, it is of Miss Piggy and Kermit watching a brutal English Punch and Judy show and arguing about its merits. There is a lot in the film that is genuinely daffy, and so these details don't spring out immediately, but they provide the whole film with a sense that Englishness is being slightly lampooned.

Our surviving American, Laughton, is contrasted with all this, in a variety of images that show him being wildly out of place. He finds himself surrounded by English punk rockers on public transit (and is caught when he briefly mocks them), he finds himself locked out of an apartment with children laughing at him, and, in ones of the film's longest sequences, he wakes up naked in the zoo and must nakedly navigate his way back to the apartment.

In fact, Naughton spends about 40 percent of the film naked, and I don't think it is unmeaningful that we hear about his circumcised penis early in the film, as he will spend a lot of the rest of the movie accidentally showing it to English people. He's not just an outsider because he is American, or because he is naked, but especially because he cannot avoid demonstrating that he's Jewish. It's subtext, I know, but I feel like his Jewishness adds a sharpness to his foreignness. Even the film's Pakistanis and Indians feel somehow like they are part of the necessary texture of London -- they are immigrants, but immigrants from British colonies with a long history of expatriating to England. For how out of place he seems, Naughton might as well be a space alien, or, I guess, a werewolf.

There was a sequel to this called "An American Werewolf in Paris," which I shan't bother with, but I will mentioned that I was terribly disappointed that we didn't revisit London, because there is more to explore of the tension between Jewishness and Englishness. There is, after all, a very long history of Jews in England, and a lot of what we think of as typically English were either introduced by Jews (eg. fish and chips) or came out of markets that Jews dominated (eg. English fashion). I suppose it is a bit much to ask for a film in which a Jewish werewolf interacts with the Jewish population of London, but I would see that film.

And this is a deeper cut, but it is possible to read the werewolf story as already being a subtly Jewish one as well. In this film, Naughton references an earlier werewolf film, and it's not the Oliver Reed version made by Hammer. It's the older one, the Lon Chaney one. He's talking about 1941's "The Wolf Man."

This was a film written by Curt Siodmak, a Jewish author from Germany who fled his native country after hearing an antisemitic speech by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Now, Siodmak wrote a lot of horror films, and I'm not going to go digging through, say 1957's "Love Slaves of the Amazons" to look for Judaic content. But Siodmak created a lot of the mythology that we associate with the werewolf, including the creature being marked by a pentagram and only being susceptible to silver. The Wolf Man, as we think of the monster now, really was Siodmak's invention, created in the middle of the Second World War by a man who had fled Nazis, and includes two details that feel directly inspired by these events. Firstly, there is the idea that man can infect man with something that makes him murderous and monstrous, and secondly there is a theme of losing control of one's destiny in Europe and becoming a hunted wretch as a result.

Neither of these parallel Nazism precisely, or we end up with a wolf man who is a proxy both for Nazis, as a creature of murderous ideology, and Jews, as an outsider victimized by European fanaticism. So I am not making the case that Siodmak was directly translating his experiences into the film, but it's also impossible not to see echos of those experiences in the story. I mean, this is a movie where the doomed hero is marked with a star, and it's impossible not to see shadows of the Holocaust in that.

Unlike in "American Werewolf," the Jewish content in "The Wolf Man" really is subterranean. So I guess I did end up writing that essay after all.


Jewish Theater: Digital Yiddish Theatre Project

Nothing in America is ever really dead. I feel like I need to say that at the start, because Yiddish theater is constantly treated as a moribund thing, once vital, now to be discussed in a darkened room with covered mirrors while friends bring chafing dishes with hot meals and express their condolences.

But culture doesn't work like that, especially not in America, and especially not for Jews, who never let anything go. You've probably seen old images of children rolling hoops with sticks, which seems like something that could only happen in an America that didn't have any other form of entertainment. Well, they still do it at Wellesley College. Those bicycles with the big front tire called a penny farthing, which must have existed at a time when people had not yet figured out how to make tires the same size? People still race them.

So when writers speak of the Yiddish language, or Yiddish theater, as being dead or dying, they're hardly right. It has, of course, fallen from its once great heights, when 2nd Avenue in New York was a Yiddish Broadway, when there were as many as 20 performances per night at various venues. But Yiddish never stopped being a language of dramatic expression, and there continues to be American companies that specialize in Yiddish theater.

This is a long way to introduce my topic for today, which is the Digital Yiddish Theatre Project, but I feel it important to establish that we are discussing an ongoing concern, not antiquity. This is a project that concerns itself with both the past and the present of Yiddish theater, as demonstrated by the fact that one of their categories of article is "21st Century," and includes an interview with playwright Paula Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman, who recently created a play about the making of the classic Yiddish drama "God of Vengeance," (Vogel is also on the Project's board). Also in the section: A story about a pedagogic performance at the Yiddish Book Center based on the Wise Men of Chelm stories.

The Digital Yiddish Theatre Project concerns itself with a dazzling variety of topics about past and present Yiddish theater, and, since that is an interest of mine, I contacted two of the Project's founders to find out more. What follows is an edited email interview with Debra Caplan, Assistant Professor of Theatre at Baruch College, and Joel Berkowitz, Professor of Foreign Languages & Literature at the University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee.

My first question is about the origin of the project. I am very curious about how this came about, especially as you have such a physically disconnected board and membership who draw from so many disciplines. I see that it started as a conversation at the Association for Jewish Studies. How does this turn into a website?

Joel Berkowitz: The seeds of the project were indeed sown in a conversation Debra and I had at the AJS annual conference in 2012. Debra had just given a paper on the movements of the different incarnations of the Vilna Troupe, the company that was the subject of her Harvard doctoral dissertation. For her paper, she used GIS technology to illustrate those movements on a world map, and as we talked after her session, we started daydreaming aloud about what we might accomplish by simultaneously harnessing two resources: digital technology (mapping, coding, scanning, etc.) and the collective expertise and experience of a team of leading scholars of Yiddish theatre and drama.

Debra Caplan:  I presented a paper that applied data visualization to the Vilna Troupe (which ultimately resulted in this project:, and Joel suggested that we gather a group of scholars together to brainstorm how to bring the study and preservation of Yiddish theater into the digital age.

Joel Berkowitz: That discussion led to others, where we talked about who might be on our “dream team.” To keep things manageable, we’d have to be selective, based not just on expertise, but on carefully building the group to cover various languages, subject areas, and skill sets. The group we assembled collectively commands fluency in not just Yiddish and English, but Hebrew, Russian, Polish, German, Spanish, French, and other languages. The group includes scholars who work on theatre history, Jewish history, film studies, musicology, and other related fields—and significantly, includes several librarians and archivists, including a digital archivist. So we balance each other quite nicely. And just as important, we really like each other, and we’ve found that camaraderie not just fun, but conducive to getting a lot of good work done.

We assembled a team of scholars and librarians with divergent and complementary skills, languages, and interests. As you've seen, our members come from three countries and across the United States.

Debra Caplan: You’re right that we are, as the Sholem Aleichem title goes, tsezeyt un tseshpreyt—scattered and dispersed. Most of our core group is based in the US, but spread across the country. We also have team members in Canada, the UK, and the Netherlands. And our advisory board goes even farther afield, to other parts of Europe, Israel, and Argentina. We therefore do a lot of our work online: mainly email and a fair number of video conferences. Crucially, though, we’ve held two workshops in Milwaukee, each of which was attended by most of the group members. As useful as all of those online tools are, there’s of course no substitute for sitting in the same room, for hours at a time within a concentrated period, and exchanging ideas and mapping out how to execute them.

Joel Berkowitz: We then gathered together in person in Milwaukee in two workshops, one in 2014 and one in 2015, and developed our ideas for the site during those meetings.

The first of those workshops, in March 2014, gave us a chance to articulate our identity more clearly than we had before, and to figure out our first significant steps. Our main conclusion then was to launch a blog, which we rolled out about six months later. At that point, our focus was content rather than design: we wanted to start telling the story of the Yiddish theatre, collectively and in non-linear fashion, and that’s what we started at that point. By the time of the second workshop, we had gotten a certain amount of material up on the blog, and it was starting to get some attention. We also had (and have) a Facebook page with hundreds of followers (approaching 1000), and an active Twitter account, @yiddishstage. We also started planning grant applications at that workshop, which led to our getting seed funding from both Debra’s and my universities, the City University of New York and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. That in turn funded the second workshop, in October 2015, and the design of our new website, That design is still under way, but the site went live in August, and the blog has migrated to its beautiful new home, created by the fabulous people at Familiar Studio in NYC.

How do you do it? What is your process for soliciting articles, how often do you try to publish, etc.?

Debra Caplan: We strive to have new posts approximately every two weeks or less. We solicit articles from our members, and from others who have projects or skills that we find of interest, or who have something to say about contemporary happenings in Yiddish theater. We work with contributors to develop their ideas before submission, then there is an editing phase before articles are posted. Our project manager, Nick Underwood, is instrumental in keeping this entire process running and in scheduling posts.

Joel Berkowitz: A few core principles drive the blog. I’ve never laid them out like this, but here are the ones that come to mind, off the top of my head:

1. The blog is for everyone: that is, we want every post to offer something meaningful to both scholars and to the intelligent, interested lay person. Some posts contain new scholarship and some don’t, but all of them have to say something new about Yiddish theatre and drama, and all of them have to be written in lively, readable prose.

2. Authorship is fairly open too, so we’ve invited guest posts from a variety of colleagues. To many of our colleagues we’ve extended open invitations. At other times, specific posts have bubbled up organically. For example, a stream of really smart tweets from Rokhl Kafrissen that were sparked by the passing of actor Fyvush Finkel led me to encourage her to expand them into a blog post. The result was a moving an important commentary on Finkel’s legacy that we were really proud to run.

3. While contributions from colleagues—which doesn’t necessarily mean academics, I hasten to add—have greatly enriched the blog, we feel that it’s important for our core group to generate at least half of the blog content.

4. We want to publish frequently enough to keep the blog fresh and keep readers coming back for more. On average, we feel that a new post every two weeks or so is about right.

Is there a specific definition of Yiddish Theater you are working with? I guess I'm asking this question because, in my own writing, I keep coming across Jews representing themselves almost clandestinely, and so stuff that feels Jewish pop up in unlikely and surprising places. But I also am always curious about how people define theater, since there are so many sorts of performance that are theatrical.

Joel Berkowitz: We’ve never tried as a group, as far as I can recall, to define Yiddish theatre, and if we ever did, I certainly wouldn’t want the boundaries to be too rigid. As you suggest, theatre and performance can take a lot of forms, and on the blog we’ve made forays into film, amateur performance, and for that matter, manifestations of Yiddish theatrical culture that take us some distance from the theatre building itself, such as depictions of theatre personnel and performances in visual culture. But the Yiddish side of “What is Yiddish theatre?” can be just as fluid. One of the things that all of us love about Yiddish theatre is the many complex ways in which it intersects with other art forms and with other cultures—for example, in blog posts about a long-lost film that’s not in Yiddish at all, or contemporary theatre that incorporates Yiddish, but is performed mostly in other languages.

Debra Caplan: Well, I would say that Yiddish theater encompasses any theatrical performance in Yiddish. Joel, do you agree? As far as theater goes, I'd say the field includes all kinds of performance, from vaudeville to "legitimate" theater and everything in between. That being said, we're not a performance studies venue -- that is to say, we're not writing about performance that happens in everyday life or outside of performance venues. But we are interested in virtually anything in Yiddish that calls itself performance or theater. 

Joel Berkowitz: I would just add a couple of things. First, while the blog does focus on performance, it can also touch on analysis of dramas, whether as performed or simply as texts. The best of those texts include some of the great masterpieces of Yiddish literature; one fascinating feature of Yiddish drama is that so many of the writers who may be best known as fiction writers or poets had significant careers as playwrights (including Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, Peretz, Asch, Bergelson, Molodowsky, and on and on and on…). And numerous Yiddish dramas, whether they were ever performed or not, are worth getting to know, and introducing to our readers.

The other point worth adding is that discussions of Yiddish theatre can also be about what happens offstage. There are the often juicy, backstage dramas in the lives of theatre personnel, but also other areas of culture and society that theatre touches upon. We’ve had blog posts about film, for example, since the Yiddish film industry (like Hollywood in its early years) was populated almost entirely by people whose careers were primarily in the theatre. The blog has also taken us to visual arts, like photography and illustration, since such imagery infinitely enriches our understanding of what Yiddish productions, and the people in them, looked like.

I find the phrase "digital humanities tools" pop up on the site, and wonder if you could explain this further, and give examples of what you mean.

Debra Caplan: Digital humanities indicates a body of methodologies that apply computing to humanities subjects. We're interested in digital publication about Yiddish theater, as well as the kinds of digital conversations and connections that a website enables. But we're also pursuing several projects that will use more kinds of digital tools, including digital publication of archival documents, databases, text encoding, and data visualization we're also looking into expanding the mapping feature on our current website.

There is some discussion on your site about the benefits of digital technology, such as being able to scan through massive amounts of scanned text for keywords. How much of the world of Yiddish theater exists in a digital form just now?

Debra Caplan: There is a good bit of digitized archival material out there, but there's no central repository yet where one can find it. We see our role as curatorial -- our goal is to curate content about Yiddish theater (including digitized texts and archival documents) and generate new material that explains and contextualizes it.


Jewish Horror Films: World War Z (2013)

Since I just wrote about "JeruZalem," which details a sort-of zombie takeover of Jerusalem, it seemed appropriate to write about "World War Z," which details a sort-of zombie takeover of Jerusalem. Despite the similar themes, the films are quite different, with the former acting as a POV of a Biblical apocalypse and the latter a sprawling epic that behaves like a epidemiological procedural concerned with a fast-spreading plague.

In fact, most of "World War Z" is not set in Israel. It's based on the popular novel by Max Brooks, a former Saturday Night Live writer and voice actor who also happens to be the son of Mel Brooks. His book borrowed from oral histories of World War II, and so takes the form of a series of oral interviews, spanning the entire globe. It's a clever book, slyly satirizing government ineptitude and isolationism, and none of that made it into the film. Produced by Brad Pitt and directed by Marc Forster, the film instead is a series of connected set pieces, following a UN investigator played by Pitt as he hops the globe, trying to locate the source of the zombie infection.

This film's zombies are idiosyncratic. While the original cinematic zombies, associated with the films of George Romero, were slow-moving, these have taken the running zombies of the remake of Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" and supercharged them. The zombies run at you, bit you, and, 12 seconds later, you are likewise a zombie, and likewise running. This leads to crowds of zombies that are more like a flood or a swarm of bees than any undead creature shown on screen before, and their single-mindedness is terrifying: They will climb atop each other like ants, or leap off buildings, or smash through glass, to get at their victims, always teeth first.

Each scene with these monsters is self-contained and pretty similar. Pitt will show up, learn something new, and get out just as zombies overrun the place. But the film is well-made -- each scene feels distinctive, and some iconic, such as a moment when a zombie infections occurs on an airplane, mid-flight. Due to problems with the filming and the fact that the movie takes great liberties with the source material, aliening fans of the book, "World War Z" was predicted to be a bust. Instead, it earned a half-billion dollars, and I don't wonder why. It's not a great film, and loses much of what was great about the novel, but it is a bracing, efficient piece of filmmaking, and effectively folds the epic scope of Brook's novel into the more contained story it tells.

I won't concern myself with most of the film's set pieces but instead limit myself to the Israel sequence. Pitt's character flies to Jerusalem, mostly out of curiosity, as the city is one of the few that has not been overrun. It turns out that the Israelis had the foresight to build massive walls around the city before the zombie infection arrived. Pitt speaks with a Mossad agent, who explains that Israel has a policy, informed by the Holocaust and later violence toward Jews, never to disregard anything as unthinkable.

The Israelis have not only built a defensive wall, but are bringing in Palestinians, explaining that every human they save is one less zombie they might fight. Their plans don't really work -- the zombies manage to climbs the walls, piling up on each other like ants, and there is a long sequence in which Pitt and an Israel soldier (Daniella Kertesz) race through the narrow Jerusalem streets.

There was a bit of a dust-up over this scene, as there often is when Israel is involved, with critics claiming the scene is pro-Israel propaganda. I make it a policy to avoid Israeli politics, so I will not comment, but I will note that in the novel, the sequence is far more complicated, with haredi Jews revolting in a miniature civil war due to Israel retracting its borders to pre-1967 size, the authorities see as being tactically more defensible, and the zombie threat eventually causes a coalition between Israelis and Palestinians. By the end of the novel, Masada-styled walled enclaves are one of the ways people have started surviving the plague of zombies.

All this is so Jewish I can barely stand it, and very little of it made it into the film. And perhaps that is fine, as the idea of warring nations unified by a supernatural threat dates back at least to a 1963 episode of The Outer Limits called "The Architects of Fear," and was also the climax of "Watchmen," and so is well-trod ground. On the other hand, everything in "World War Z" is likewise well-trod, if sped up, and at least a haredi civil war would have the benefit of novelty.

I will say this: Jerusalem is a great location for a zombie film. Those narrow streets between stone walls and stone buildings are perfect for fleeing the dead. There's even a moment in "JeruZalem" when the characters race down the Via Dolorosa, which is supposed to be the path that Jesus took on his way to his crucifixion, and it goes unmentioned, which seems like a waste.

While we're at if, if horror movies are going to make use of actual Israeli locations, let's see one based on Brooks' suggestion at the end of "World War Z." Let's retell the story of Masada, on location at the desert fortress, with zombies taking the place of Romans. I mean, it's perfect. Set it during the swearing-in ceremony of the Israeli Defense Force, which used to be done at Masada, and, for the sake of our film, will be again, and ends with the declaration that "Masada shall not fall again."

So we have hundreds of newly trained IDF soldiers, man and woman alike, all in their late teens, and trained in the use of weapons. Trap them in Masada, surround them with zombies, and see what happens.

Hollywood, and Max Brooks: call me.


Week 39: The Curses

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 262 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 152 hours
I have reviewed 3,092 individual flashcards

This past week I worked my way up past 3,000 flashcards in my collection, which we can approximate as about 3,000 words, even though quite a few of my flashcards are complete sentences. Most of those contain words that are unique to the sentence, and I am at the point where I have to approximate how many words I have learned, as there is no longer any way to pinpoint the exact number of words I have used.

When I used to care about vocabulary acquisition as the path toward fluency, 3,000 was an important mark, as the 3,000 most frequently used words comprise about 90-95 percent of all words used in speech and writing, from what I have read. However, I moved away from studying frequently used word to words I find amusing, so, as an example, perhaps 50 words in my vocabulary are various euphemisms for sexual organs.

Still, 3,000 is an accomplishment, and so if I have a drink tonight, I will drink to myself, and all the terrible, terrible Yiddish I have learned.

Speaking of terrible Yiddish, I have started to teach myself curses. The subject is a popular one, since Yiddish curses can be so flamboyant -- flamboyant beyond credibility, as some of them are protracted, and who is going to stand around and listen to someone describe every one of their body parts and what should happen to them? I sometimes wonder if there wasn't some sort of semi-formal cultural environment for curses, like the African-American tradition of the dozens, where you try to top each other by insulting each others' mother, and everybody knows it to be a game and doesn't get especially offended.

There are a few books of Yiddish curses out there, and various curses that show up in popular Yiddish language books, but these were mostly not done by Yiddish speakers or scholars, and so are not reliable. I tracked down a book called "Let's Hear Only Good News: Yiddish Blessings and Curses" by Yosef Guri, who is the senior lecturer emeritus in Russian and Slavic Studies at The Hebrew University, and Guri was a native of Lithuania who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household (until he fled to Russia during the Holocaust), so I assume his book is both good Yiddish and good scholarship.

I have just started to learn these curses, and I don't know when I will need to know how to say, oh, syphilis should eat your skin. But it's better to know how to say it and not need to than to need to say it and not know how to.