Arbis! Shaynicke, guttinke arbislach! Keuf meine heise arbis! If you don’t speak a word of Yiddish, but you know exactly what those words mean, you may be a member of the All-of-a-Kind Family family. Next week the Museum at Eldridge Street is offering an All-of-a-Kind Family walking tour around the Lower East Side, and you better believe I’m going.
My dad grew up in a shtetl-like area of Jewish Philadelphia in the 1940s and ’50s, a neighborhood crammed with Yiddish-speaking grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. And I couldn’t tell you the first thing about my dad’s day-to-day Jewish life. But I could tell you exactly what Charlotte and Gertie bought with their hard-earned pennies on the Lower East Side.
This is the strange way culture gets transmitted in an open society, not just (not even) from parent to child, but through mass-produced pop culture—All-of-a-Kind Family, Fiddler on the Roof, An American Tail, Yentl. Memory is fragile, not easily passed on, and not always as entertaining (or durable) as a cartoon mouse or boisterous house full of girls.
Last week I visited Yidishe Kinder and marveled at the pre-war Yiddish doodles which, defying all odds, ended up in a glass case in 2017 New York. But of course, their survival was no accident. Almost two decades ahead of the totalizing destruction of WWII, YIVO set out to collect and preserve the material (and not-so-material) expressions of Eastern European Jews.
The stuff collected by YIVO got a second life as history, thousands of miles and decades removed from their near-destruction. But what happens when history itself is self-destructing? This is the surprising question raised by the it documentary of the summer, Dawson City Frozen Time, a question of special interest to those invested in the Yiddishist project.
In 1976 an excavator in Dawson City, Yukon, uncovered a cache of silent films that had lain underground, forgotten, for decades. Among the films were many previously thought to have been totally lost. Director Bill Morrison masterfully interweaves this incredibly rare footage with the story of Dawson City, the Yukon gold rush, and the unpredictable ways that capital, extracted from the very ends of the Earth, becomes the foundation of new industries and empires. In Dawson City, the edges of the Earth are revealed as much more than marginal.
Experts estimate that 70 percent of all silent films ever made have been lost. A great deal of that loss can be attributed to the film itself. Silent movies were shot on film made from nitrocellulose, the same compound used in blasting and explosives. The nitrocellulose films were so unstable that it was common for film reels to spontaneously burst into flame, often taking whole film studios and storage facilities with them. As the basis for a soon-to-be-billion-dollar industry, it was disastrous. But as an organizing metaphor, it’s unbeatable. Dawson City Frozen Time is the most riveting two hours you will spend inside this summer.
In a happy turn of chance, I ended up seeing Dawson City, a film about film preservation, with the only person I know who’s about to start film-preservation school, Ari Greenberg. I texted Ari when I got to IFC, I’m here. He was already there. A rege (one sec), he texted back. Of all my Yiddishist friends, Ari is the one who consistently emails, texts, and leaves Facebook comments in Yiddish. This, despite the fact that most of the time we’re talking about movies: what we just saw, what we want to see, and when we’re going to see it.
Even so, this time we did actually have a Yiddish pretext. A while back I lent Ari my copy of Miriam Udel’s National Jewish Book Award-winning study of the Yiddish picaresque, Never Better!, and now I wanted it back. The movie was supposed to be an excuse to facilitate the return of the book. The movie was superb, the book, alas, forgotten. I’m telling myself it’s OK because I’m going to see Miriam talk about Sholem Aleichem (and more) at the New York Public Library next week. By then I’ll probably have the book back. Maybe.
It’s interesting to me how for many people, especially non-Yiddishists, Sholem Aleichem is Yiddish. But the man behind Sholem Aleichem, Sholem Rabinovich, was much more complicated than that. He was a participant in the Haskalah, a Russified intellectual who most certainly did not speak Yiddish at home or teach it to his kids. This is not a criticism, khas v’sholem, but a statement of historical contingency.
Last week in her tribute to the recently departed Yiddish activist Gella Fishman, Rukhl Schaechter wrote how Fishman and those like her “stubbornly defied the tendency toward Jewish linguistic assimilation.” Fishman’s generation of Yiddishists, (mostly) European-born and Yiddish-confident, took their Yiddishism to the American street:
The respected defense lawyer Yosef Chernikhov insisted on addressing even strangers in Yiddish in public places, especially if he knew that most of the people present were Jewish, whether this was in the courtroom, in municipal offices, or in a bank.
I tip my hat to Yosef Chernikhov, cultural-resistance badass, level 1,000. I’m stuck here at level five, neurotically questioning my grammatical choices before each publicly uttered Yiddish sentence. While I can’t imagine addressing a court in Yiddish, I’m reminded that there are plenty of easy ways to “maximalize” our everyday Yiddish, one text at a time. (With an extra tip of the kapelyush to my dear friend Ari, zol zayn mit hatslokhe, khaver!)
Read: In 2014 YA goddess Lizzie Skurnkick reissued the complete All-of-a-Kind Family series. I bought it “for my niece” and sobbed my way through a re-read. When you do your re-read make sure you get the 2014 LS imprint reissues; they’re beautifully packaged with new introductory material by Sydney Taylor biographer June Cummins. (If June Cummins is reading this, Hi!, we’re all eagerly awaiting your book. No pressure!)
Hear: Swindles and Seductions: The Curious Affinity of Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer, lecture by Dr. Miriam Udel. Wednesday, July 5, 2017, 6:30 p.m. at the NYPL.
More Bashevis: Guys, it’s 2017. If you’re into Yiddish literature, Bashevis is your problematic fave. I mean, if you’ve read his books, you know this. But I dare you to watch this and not feel creeped out. And if you want more, catch The Muses of Bashevis Singer July 11 at YIVO.
ALSO: Thanks to Dawson City I’m suddenly obsessed with silent film, so this lecture on the lost silent-film adaptation of Salome of the Tenements is perfectly timed (June 28 at NYPL Mid-Manhattan). And if you’re in New York this summer, you have something to look forward to other than train delays and the increasingly fragrant streetscape. Two brilliant New York expats now in the Bay Area, Jewlia Eisenberg and Jeremiah Lockwood, are returning to their roots. Every Saturday in July at Barbès they’ll be working on their goth-gospel-Jewish project The Book of J. Absolutely not to be missed.