Is There Light at the End of the Tunnel?

Rokhl’s Golden City: Irving Penn, Florine Stettheimer, the late, great Uriel Weinreich, and the fragile continuity of Yiddish culture

By Rokhl Kafrissen|July 12, 2017 12:00 AM

They say when you have a near-death experience there’s a bright light guiding you down a long tunnel. If you’re a New Yorker, that tunnel may be a subway tunnel. And the light may be hidden behind a haze of garbage smoke. At least it was for me. Which is to say, the infamous A train that recently lurched off [1] the rails and broke in half? I was there.

To be fair, it was more of a near-near-death experience, but still. It was the kind of moment that reminds you that life, and holiday weekends, are of a finite quantity. And rather than spend my long Independence Day weekend doing important sofa and Seamless work by myself, I should call a friend, get my butt off the couch, and do something elevating for a change.

To do that I called on the most unusual Jew [2] I know, Shane Baker. First up, I wanted to see the much-buzzed-about Florine Stettheimer exhibit [3] at the Jewish Museum. Then, Shane suggested the scrumptious Irving Penn retrospective [4] at the Met.

While I enjoyed Stettheimer’s languorous noodle-ladies and dizzily joyful New York scenes, I just couldn’t find in her the long-forgotten feminine genius I was hoping for. Irving Penn, on the other hand, is worth every ounce of hype perpetually spilled on him. Sigh.

The two artists, Stettheimer and Penn, don’t have much to say to each other, except perhaps in one important respect: their elusive Jewishness. Both were highly assimilated Jews; Stettheimer of the fabulously wealthy German-Jewish banking class and Penn of the unleisured, first generation Eastern European working class. Penn’s Jewishness was perceived as so tangential to his life that it went unmentioned in most of his obituaries. The website of the Irving Penn Foundation doesn’t mention it, either.

Stettheimer’s work was highly autobiographical, often portraying her family. The lack of Jewishness in her work doesn’t necessarily hide anything, but rather reveals the exceedingly small role Jewishness played in her life. And Penn? I was struck by his decades-long pursuit of pseudo-ethnographic excursions to places like New Guinea, Morocco, and Peru. The results are no less stunning than his high-glamour Vogue editorial shoots. But what was in his attraction to the far-flung and exotic?

I’d argue that if there is a Jewish sensibility to be found in Penn’s work, it’s one shared across artistic and cultural fields: the Jewish tendency to displace one’s feelings of Otherness, projecting that sense of marginality outward—the further, the better, the safer. The field of modern anthropology, for one, would be nothing without the anxious but cosmopolitan Jew eager to explore, document, and categorize Otherness without ever having to turn that critical eye on his own context.

Things are quite different today and being too Jewish isn’t always a career death sentence. Last Wednesday I went to Dr. Miram Udel’s absolutely fascinating talk on Bashevis and Sholem Aleichem, Swindles and Seductions, at the New York Public Library. It was already standing-room-only by the time I got there, with a healthy contingent of students from YIVO’s acclaimed summer Yiddish intensive, the Uriel Weinreich Program [6] in Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture. (Don’t worry, I made Shane give me his seat.)

A few days later I attended the annual lecture in the memory of Yiddish scholar Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter. This year’s theme was of particular interest, the 50th yortsayt of Dr. Uriel Weinreich. If you’ve ever taken a college Yiddish class, chances are good you’ve consulted his still-definitive textbook and dictionary.

Weinreich was a friend and peer of Noam Chomsky, and a brilliant scholar of linguistics who blended psychological and anthropological insights into his projects, creating a highly original body of work still useful decades on. And, perhaps it goes without saying, Weinreich wasn’t afraid to take up Yiddish as an object of scholarly attention.

In his obituary [7] in The New York Times, Weinreich’s colleague Marvin Herzog was quoted as saying that in his tragically short 40 years, Weinreich “accomplished more than can be expected in three normal lifetimes.”

I’m still alive, despite the best efforts of the MTA, and now older than Weinreich was when he died. Uriel Weinreich had the advantage of being born and steeped in the Eastern European context; he attended gymnasium in Vilne and happened to be the son of that most brilliant expositor of Eastern European Jewish history and language, Dr. Max Weinreich. What can I, a very humble daughter of Long Island and product of Yiddish class in a Brandeis basement, have to show for my own 40-something years?

Further on in Weinreich’s obituary, a letter he wrote to the Times in 1965 is quoted: “Surely there is a connection between the underdeveloped creative impulses of contemporary Jewish culture in America and its monumental ignorance of the Yiddish past. The proper question, therefore, would seem to be: Can the American humanities afford to develop much longer without authoritative access to the Yiddish strain in our heritage?”

I’m not sure I’ve accomplished much, certainly not compared to Dr. Weinreich. But the question of Jewish cultural continuity, and its utmost urgency, is one that has not been far from my mind the last 20 years. So, rather than be dissatisfied with my own paltry contribution, I shall take heart at the continuity between myself and Dr. Weinreich, and keep pushing ahead, with what talent I do have at my disposal.


Protest: If you’re concerned about the state of the subway, take a look at the Riders Alliance for ways to make your voice heard [8].

See: More of Irving Penn’s stunning ethnographic portraiture [9] in the Art Institute of Chicago’s permanent collection.

Learn: It’s too late for this summer, but if you’re interested in an immersive Yiddish learning experience, you can check out the comprehensive list [10] of offerings from Ottowa to Warsaw to Weimar.

ALSO: I can’t think of a more perfect moment for a Woody Guthrie celebration [11] than right now. This Sunday July 16 at Jalopy is “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore”: A Tribute to Woody Guthrie on His 105th Birthday. And if you’re feeling Manhattan-nightclub fancy, you won’t be disappointed with the cabaret bill of Yiddish singer Eleanor Reissa and klezmer dynamo Frank London [12] at Feinstein’s/54 Below. Finally, after Miriam Udel’s talk, Shane introduced me to a most intriguing young (OK, Yiddish young) artist, Yevgeniy Fiks. He takes his place at the intersection of queer, Yiddish and (post) Soviet art with provocative multimedia installations [13] that need to come to New York soon.

Find this story online: