Jewish Mother

Translation below the fold. Do read the original, though, even if you don’t know Yiddish; the translation has a completely different rhythm. This poem plays on the iminutive form of the language, in which a noun is “reduced” twice to express intimacy and love. Kats (cat), for example, becomes ketsl (kitty or kitten), then ketsele (little kitten). The repetition of the sounds echoes the blur of “love-talk” that the author remembers from throughout her childhood. You can catch a hint of admonition in the line “not like a little animal,” and one could, if one were feeling anti-Semitic or misogynist, read the poem as an example of the type of smothering, obsessive Ashkenazi mother found in works like Portnoy’s Complaint, but the only reason it could be read as playing into the stereotype is because the stereotype already exists, waiting to distort it.

Mame Loshn (Mother Tongue)
by Sarah Traister Moskovitz

Sorele, zisele, mamele, sheyninke
Tayerinke, liubenyu, malakhl kleyninke
Zisinke Kroynenyu, bubelyu, liubelyu
Hertsele, pupele, zisele, gutele

Likhtiker peneml
Libinke eygelekh
Feyinke hentelekh
Zgrabninke fiselekh

Kluginke kepele
Glantsike herelekh
Roitinke bekelekh
Tseyndelekh perelekh
Es oif di lokshelekh
Pupikl, merelekh

Kum aher ketsele
Sphil zikh sheyn feygele
Nisht vild vi a khayele
Mayn meydele, freydele

Liu liu liu oytserl
Mayn kosher kind
Eyns in der velt mayns
Shlof ruik atsind

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Easter in Orange County

Last Sunday, sitting on the steps next to my container garden outside my Long Beach apartment, I heard a group of people singing in the next building. I thought of the seder I’d had a couple of nights before; my friends and I had sung the Ma Nishtana, which I only learned a few years ago and forget every year. Only two of the guests remembered the melody at first, but it only took a line or two for it to come back to the rest of us. I wondered if the neighbors could hear us. I’ve never had an anti-Semitic incident in this neighborhood, so I thought it’d be kind of cool if on the other side of our open windows, people were listening to us sing.

I watched families walking in and out of apartments, carrying children, greeting relatives. I smiled as I listened to the singing. Then I realized it wasn’t a hymn or some other Easter song – they were all singing a pop song. Blink 182 or something.

Oh. Well, it was still nice to hear singing. Yellow jackets buzzed around my bacopas. My bean seedlings were just starting to twine around the railing, and my lavender was blooming like the world was going to end.


According to the Slingshot Collective, “the modern world is the ugliest, saddest, dirtiest, and most stressful and dangerous place humans have ever created.” I don’t know if it’s the ugliest, the saddest, or the est of any of those other things, but many parts of it certainly are ugly and sad. I was thinking about that quote, along with various discussions I’ve witnessed about the “lack” of white American culture – whiteness as negative space – and white Americans’ need to appropriate more exotic cultures, when I tested a theory out on my husband: that the United States has one of the shallowest national cultures on the planet. Continue reading

At Last!

Okay, everybody, CALM DOWN. You can stop panicking now. I am delighted – no, relieved – to announce that we finally have a klezmer song about toxoplasmosis.

Via JVoices:

What is toxoplasmosis, you ask? Why, it’s the scary brain parasite that I PROBABLY TOTALLY HAVE. I’m forgetful. Also I get writer’s block a lot. Therefore: toxo.

It’s the only plausible explanation.

Also, if you’re in L.A., you should come to the Doikayt seder tomorrow. I will be there! We will exchange sholem aleychems and then do hipster dances.

(Cross-posted at Alas, A Blog)

Moving Jewish Bodies

dancer1A few weeks ago I attended CIYCL‘s forum on Yiddish art in Los Angeles, where I learned about American Yiddish dance and theater throughout the 20th century. On the flier, there were two pictures of dancers: one of a woman kicking her leg high into the air, and another of a man (Benjamin Zemach) mid-twirl. I was fascinated by them because they were so unlike all my other experience with Jewish dance – the clumsy horahs I’ve muddled through at weddings, the antiquated folk dances from Israel and Eastern Europe. These Jews honed their art form, pushed their bodies. These Jews were daring, dynamic, sexy, and modern. These Jews weren’t artists-who-were-Jewish – they were Jewish artists. How did Yiddishkeyt move from a vibrant, avant-garde art scene to a static focus on constrictive tropes and nostalgia for romanticized Shtetl life? Is it really as simple as assimilation and Holocaust trauma? If so, why has our memory proved so selective? It seems we fixate on what’s safe – food, grandparents, traditional music and dance. So does that mean that what we’ve forgotten is maybe a little dangerous? Why? What is it about Benjamin Zemach’s twirl that has relegated him to obscurity? I’m not saying that klezmer can’t be cutting edge, as well – but you’ve got to admit it’s a bit fishy that half a century or more has been blotted out of our cultural memory.

What fires me up about Yiddishkeyt isn’t the shtetls, the horahs, or the clarinets. Marc Chagall’s paintings are lovely, but they leave me cold. Give me the political radicals, the union organizers, the socialists. Give me the dancers and poets and actors! That’s my Yiddishkeyt. That’s what I’m grasping for. But a Google search for Benjamin Zemach turns up little more than his obituary. Even the footage I saw of one of his performances was recorded in his later years; you could tell his body wasn’t as agile as it had once been.

zemachOf course, Zemach himself – along with the other actors and dancers whose performances I watched at the forum – focused on Old World themes, as evidenced by the costumes in the two photos. The irony of this isn’t lost on me. Is 20th and 21st century Yiddish identity ultimately recursive? Are we destined to circle back to the same modes of Jewish expression over and over again? Was all hope of a kinetic and evolving secular Yiddish identity lost with the rise of Zionism? And do other cultures share this problem? Federations and synagogues constantly complain about the lack of interest among young adults in Jewish identity – but sometimes it feels like Jewish identity doesn’t give us any room to stretch, to question, to move. We go on Birthright, we learn Hebrew, we study the Holocaust, we sing about the shtetls. But the identity that’s painted on our faces and bodies always seems to be expressed in someone else’s terms.

Shpil, Balalayke

While the feminist blogosphere devours its own innards, how about a little Yiddish folk music to take us into Shabbes? (Maybe at some point I’ll post my thoughts on the valid points and faulty logic in the Professor What If essay, but not today, my friends.)

I’m in a noisy coffee shop right now so I can’t attest to the quality of this version, but from what I can make out it seems pretty good. Legible lyrics and translation below the jump.

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Has anyone heard of this…?

Birkat Hachamah? Far out. From the Forward:

Jewish Groups Prepare for Rare Blessing of the Sun

As sunrise broke over New York City on the morning of April 8, 1981, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi — at the time he was known just as Zalman Schachter — stood on the observation deck of the Empire State Building and sounded the shofar.

For more than two hours after, Shachter-Shalomi led some 300 mostly young adults in an obscure Jewish ritual known as Birkat Hachamah, or blessing over the sun, a prayer recited once every 28 years when, the Talmud says, the sun reaches the same spot in the firmament as when it was created.

According to an account of the service in The New York Times, participants raised their hands in prayer, asked for healing for individuals and the earth, and released 70 balloons. At the conclusion, some worshipers joined in the singing of a Hebrew version of “Let the Sun Shine In” from the rock musical “Hair.”

The rite, Shachter-Shalomi told the Times, “helps us renew our relationship with the solar system and increase our awareness of the sun as a source of energy.”

Twenty-eight years later, Jews across the denominational spectrum are gearing up again for the observance with a range of planned celebrations, many of them environmentally focused. The sun prayer will be said, as it will several times in the 21st century, on April 8, which this year falls on the eve of Passover.

I kind of wish I could be in Safed for this:

In the northern Israeli city of Safed, an eight-day festival is planned featuring several environmentally and kabbalistically inspired events, including the ceremonial burning of leavened bread on the morning before Passover by concentrating the sun’s rays through an optic lens.

“Over the last 28-year cycle, we have suffered from pollution and the depletion of natural resources,” said the festival founder, U.S.-based artist Eva Ariela Lindberg, in a news release. “Let us use this extraordinary opportunity to co-create the next cycle by seeking alternative solar energies and a purer environment, recharging ourselves and learning how to honor the earth, our neighbors and ourselves. This is a time to renew, and bring fresh blossoms to our world for the next 28-year cycle.”

See also

Oh! And before I forget, there’s a Yiddish musical in L.A. tonight called Our Zeydes and Bubbes as Children. See the California Yiddish Institute’s website for details.

Quick Links: Fun With Yiddish and Ways to Help Gaza

People familiar with Leo Rosten’s Joys of Yiddish will recognize this illustration of the ways that Yiddish’s emphasis on tone and inflection to express meaning has influenced English:

Even the English question “I should buy two tickets for her concert?” can take on seven meanings depending on where the emphasis is placed — a common thing among Yiddish speakers:

I should buy two tickets for her concert? — “After what she did to me? And nu, her mother should return some of my calls now and then?”
– I should buy two tickets for her concert? — “What, you’re giving me a lesson in ethics? And who are you that you should think you know?”
– I should buy two tickets for her concert? — “I wouldn’t go even if she was giving out free passes — or if she paid me!”
– I should buy two tickets for her concert? — “I’m having enough trouble deciding if it’s even worth one – and you barely even call since your father died, nu, all the sudden you have time to see a concert with me?”
– I should buy two tickets for her concert? — “She should be giving out free passes, or the hall will be empty, what with that tone-deaf mother of hers, she can be no better.”
– I should buy two tickets for her concert? — “Did she buy tickets at our daughter’s recital? What, all the sudden she expects me to do for her? Hrmph!”
– I should buy two tickets for her concert? — “You mean, they call what she does a ‘concert’? This is an art form?”

The exercise falls prey to a few different stereotypes, but it’s fun nonetheless.

Also, I should have posted this days ago, but Laila El-Haddad has posted ways that you can help Gaza. Here’s a heavily abridged version so you can get the gist (visit her blog for a wealth of links):

1. Get informed. Sounds easy enough, but a large number of people I have met whose gut instinct is to sympathize with the Palestinians cause are surprisingly uninformed about the issue, or the history. Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est. And oh so true. Being informed will enable you to speak intelligently about the topic-whether to your family, to your friends, to your co-workers, or to your politicians….

2. Wear a Palestine pin, t-shirt, or arm-band-great conversation starters and ways to show your support. You can purchase a number of creative shirts online in the Palestine online store or Cafe Press.

3. Contact local media. Write letters to editors (usually 100-150 words) and longer op-eds (usually 600-800 words) for local newspapers. But also write to news departments in both print, audio, and visual media about their coverage. In the US You can find media listings in your country using search engines like google.

4. BDS!! Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. Now more than ever the BDS campaign must be used and intensified against Israel to end its impunity and to hold it accountable for its persistent violation of international law and Palestinian rights. Remember: It was only when Apartheid was abnormalized that the anti-Apartheid movement gained momentum.

Thus, our efforts must focus on abnormalizing Israel’s illegal occupation and its tactics. Begin work to encourage your local institutions to divest from Israel….

5. Contact elected and other political leaders in your country to urge them to apply pressure to end the attacks. In the US, Contact the State Department at 202.647.5291, the White House 202-456-1111 the Egyptian Embassy 202.895.5400,

6. Work towards bringing Israeli leaders before war crime courts (actions along those lines in courts have stopped Israeli leaders from traveling abroad to some countries like Britain where they may face charges).

7. Join local groups in your area active on the issue. Many-such as those here in Durham- have also been successful in at bringing coalitions from different constituencies in their local areas to work together (human rights group, social and civil activists, religious activists, etc) and most are made of ordinary people who also have other lives to live and so welcome any input and activism….

8. Visit Palestine! Two great groups that facilitate such trips are the Alternative Tourism Group, whose guide I helped write, and the Siraj Center.

If you cannot visit, support human rights and other groups working on the ground in Palestine, such as the Free Gaza Movement (which accepts tax-exempt donations).

9. Contact your local churches, mosques, synagogues, and other houses of worship or institutions and ask them to take a moral stand and act.

10. Support Palestinian farmers and workers by buying gifts and produce directly from the West Bank and Gaza…..

11. If you prefer, donate your money to a charity, or hold a creative bake sale (manaeesh anyone?)…..

I’ve written before about my feelings on Israel-wide boycotts (as opposed to, I should point out, occupied West Bank boycotts), but I think “abnormalizing” the occupation is spot-on. Bandwagons are unfortunately all too popular, and as long as the bandwagon supports Israel unconditionally, we’re not going to see any improvement. If criticism of Israel become more mainstream, however, I think it would increase exponentially as people either realized that it’s “okay” to deviate from accepted narratives or just went along with what people around them thought. (This does, of course, open up the floodgates for anti-Semitism, but that’s a whole different problem.)

By the way, like my shiny new button in the right sidebar there? Click it and sign JVP’s letter to Obama! They have the design on T shirts, too!