The Folksbiene’s recent production of di Kishefmakherin (The Sorceress) was a holiday hit, a foundational classic of the Yiddish theater “reconceived” and featuring a restored score. The 1877 Avrom Goldfaden operetta was the first Yiddish drama presented in the United States and it occupies a special place in New York Yiddish theater history.
All the way on the other side of the world, di Kishefmakherin also played a slightly different role in the history of Yiddish theater in Melbourne, Australia. Yiddish theater in Melbourne dates back to 1908, and by the 1930s, there were two Yiddish companies in the city. In 1940, two veterans of the famed Vilne Troupe (Yankev Waislitz and Rokhl Holzer) settled in Melbourne and within a few years were at the center of a golden age of Yiddish theater. In 1963, Charles “Sluggo” Slucki, a 15-year-old novice actor, had a small role in di Kishefmakherin. That production was not just a transformative moment for a young actor, but an initiation into an artistic scene that bridged prewar Polish art theater and modern Australian community theater. In a later revival of di Kishefmakherin, Sluggo learned Method acting from director Dina Halpern, an actress who had appeared in the movie version of The Dybbuk decades earlier.
Sluggo (as he was known to all) went on to a 30-year career as an award-winning drama teacher, touching the lives of countless students, both in Australia and around the world. As his son (and, full disclosure, my friend) David Slucki writes in Sing This at My Funeral: A Memoir of Fathers and Sons: “That idea he developed in those years on the Yiddish stage, that theater was transformative, life-changing, healing, and could fix the world, underpinned his teaching.”
Sing This at My Funeral and another new memoir, Moishe Rozenbaumas’ The Odyssey of an Apple Thief, look at modern Yiddish history through the lens of fatherhood and Jewish masculinity. In both books, men grapple with guilt, anger, and the terrible weight of war. Though very different, both carry a hopeful message of healing and continuity, returning to, and reinventing, the prewar traditions that nourished their own fathers (and mothers).
David Slucki’s father Sluggo was the heir to the prewar Bundist tradition of his father, Jakub. According to the book, Sluggo’s “adherence to the Bund, with its emphasis on equality, cultural elevation, and democratization, could not but shape the approach he developed to theater.” Melbourne was essentially the only place in the world in which the Bund experienced postwar continuity, due to the large number of Polish Jews who came there after the war. Jakub Slucki’s home became a hub of Bundist activity and Sluggo’s career in the theater was both a continuation and reinterpretation of that political legacy. David Slucki’s book is a love letter to Sluggo (who died suddenly in 2015) as well as his own reinterpretation of that legacy, from the point of view of a 21st-century academic.
To tell the story of his grandfather, David Slucki had to first find the primary sources that could fill in the gaps of his own family historiography. He travels to Los Angeles hoping to find a cache of his grandfather’s letters from half a century ago and, amazingly, finds them. The story of the letters is just one of many lucky, uplifting moments in a family story so profoundly shaped by catastrophe.
Slucki learns, in his grandfather’s own words, how he came to be separated from his first wife and children, setting out on a journey from Poland to the Siberian East (Yakutsk, where he spent the war years out of reach of Hitler’s forces). In lieu of dark family secrets revealed, there is only the heartbreaking story of a man who is unable to convince his wife to flee with him. Jakub Slucki left his family for what seemed like a short-term separation, but turned out to be fatally permanent. The guilt must have been absolutely crushing. Nonetheless, as David Slucki describes it, Jakub retained his commitment to transformative politics. The Bundist idealism that formed him as a young man in Poland allowed him to remarry and start a new family, and community, in his new country.
For a book with so much sadness at its center, Sing This at My Funeral is surprisingly wholesome. I read it as a sort of counternarrative to my own life and my own “what ifs.” What if I had grown up down the street from loving immigrant grandparents? What if I had been part of a Jewish youth movement (like the Bund’s SKiF) that connected me to a powerful cultural and political history? What if I had met my bashert at 13 and married at 21? By his own admission, David Slucki has, in many ways, led an idyllic, almost charmed life. But even the most charmed life is not insulated from the ripples of trauma, and Sing This at My Funeral had me sobbing more than once.
One of the most interesting parts of the book was how David Slucki grappled with his Bundist inheritance. Because his father and grandfather were community leaders, Slucki is naturally expected to take a public role. And yet, his desire to revitalize the community’s commemoration rituals is met with loud criticism. At one of the Bund’s April 19 ghetto commemorations, his mention of the occupation brings shouts of “he’s an idiot”—from a family member, no less.
Even with all the advantages of literacy and family and connection, Sing This at My Funeral deftly illustrates the difficulty of healing history’s traumas and the challenge of maintaining that historical connection into the future. Zaida Jakub’s story was too painful to share with his family when he was alive, and he died leaving a heavy silence around his pre-Australia life. With his own father’s sudden death, David’s connection to Jakub’s story was suddenly more tenuous, and more urgent. Filling in those silences meant not only tracking down his letters in a garage a world away, but being able to decipher the handwritten Yiddish. Sluggo’s generation already resisted Yiddish lessons at SKiF camp, though with Yiddish surrounding them, the language was still a natural part of their lives. But for David’s generation, full language transmission had become far less common. Sing This at My Funeral illustrates how personal silences can easily become amplified by communal history, even in the best of times.
The Odyssey of an Apple Thief picks up on some of the same themes as Sing This at My Funeral. Apple Thief was written by Moishe Rozenbaumas in the early 1990s and edited by his daughter Isabelle Rozenbaumas. Originally written in Yiddish, then translated into French and now English, it’s the story a young man living in his own kind of idyll in prewar Lithuania. That idyll is interrupted twice. First, the Depression strikes and his father, unable to accept that his once-prospering business has foundered, abandons his family, and flees to France. Young Moishe is still a child, but he must become the family’s breadwinner, or broyt geber.
His first job is as a photographer’s apprentice, retouching plates. “We could shorten the nose without need of plastic surgery,” he notes wryly. “This was particularly useful for young women whose parents had entrusted a matchmaker with finding a husband.” Often the bride and groom would only meet for the first time at the ceremony, at which point it was too late to discover the lies that technology helped them tell.
After a few difficult years as his family’s bread winner, Moishe moves up, learning the trade of tailoring, coming into his own as an artisan and as a young man. And then the Germans invade Lithuania: “It was the kind of weather for a vacation and not for war.” An unknown voice tells Moishe that he must flee. But he is unable to convince his mother and two brothers to come with him. With some maps in his pockets and wearing just his summer clothes, he rides out of Telz on a bicycle, embarking on his own kind of odyssey, one that takes him to Uzbekistan and points farther and then, finally, to a commando intelligence unit in the Red Army.
One of the pleasures of Apple Thief is that it is written with many decades’ hindsight. Rozenbaumas is eager to reflect on his life, good and bad, rather than gloss over the difficult and unflattering moments. He grapples notably with his own indoctrination into the Soviet system, achieved through four years of bloody army service, and then eight years higher education in the Marxist-Leninist university system. His army service and party membership provide his family with some level of material stability in postwar Vilnius, but his doubts about the Communist system begin to eat at him. In its own way, the story of Moishe and his wife Rosa’s flight from Vilnius to France in 1956 is just as dangerously daring as any other episode in the book. It takes real sang-froid to effect an escape not just with forged identity papers, but with a whole refrigerator in your luggage, too.
Apple Thief editor Isabelle Rozenbaumas has been a friend of mine for a number of years. My own work has been deeply enriched by her research into Jewish education in prewar Telz. Telz is still well known in the United States, as its renowned yeshiva was reconstituted in Cleveland. Telz wasn’t just its yeshiva, however, but featured a number of impressive Jewish educational institutions. Isabelle’s research has focused on the Yavne school, which educated its girls not just in Hebrew, but Latin, Greek, mathematics, and more.
So it was all the more interesting to learn of Telz from Moishe’s point of view. “We have not spoken enough,” he writes, “of the common folk, the artisans and balagoles (cart drivers, coachmen), who broke their backs to earn their daily bread, not getting enough to eat, struggling to survive from one day to the next. … This Telz existed also.”
Moishe paints himself as a restless prankster, less interested in school and more interested in nude swimming in the lake, with its delicious opportunities for observing the women swimming in their own section. When 7-year-old Moishe discovers his father is having an affair, he lies in wait for him and his mistress to leave the cinema and flings horse manure in their faces as they exit. It is that fearlessness and cunning that serves him through the most difficult times a human can imagine and makes The Odyssey of an Apple Thief such a remarkably compelling read.
One of the most astonishing twists in Apple Thief takes place toward the end: Just as those who fled east were protected from the destruction of the Holocaust, so was Moishe’s ne’er-do-well father protected in France, where he had settled when he fled Lithuania decades earlier. Moishe and his family reunite with his father in France, where his father helps Moishe become reestablished in the garment business. The silence and guilt between the two men, however, is insurmountable. Nonetheless, Moishe finds his way to forgiving his father and becoming a loving father himself. Apple Thief, reminiscent of Sing This at My Funeral, speaks its way into lifting even the heaviest of silences.
MORE: For The Odyssey of an Apple Thief book launch, scholars Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Sam Kassow will join Isabelle Rozenbaumas in conversation. The evening will also feature readings from the book by Yuri Vedenyapin and musical performances by violinist and singer Eléonore Biezunski, Yuri Vedenyapin (guitar, vocals), and Ilan Moss (accordion) including songs in Yiddish, Russian, and French. March 2 at 7 p.m. at YIVO. On the Yiddish Pour Tous Radio page you can listen to Moishe read the book in Yiddish as well as the original French translation … You can listen to David Slucki talk about inherited trauma and his book, here. Charles “Sluggo” Slucki was a beloved drama teacher in Melbourne for decades. You can see him in a brief 2015 interview where he talks about his life and his experience in the Melbourne Yiddish theater (and more).
ALSO: Ten Years Without Avrom Sutzkever remembers the great Yiddish poet on his 10th yortsayt. With Irena Klepfisz, Barbara Harshav, and Ruth Wisse. Jan. 28, 7 p.m. at YIVO … City College was a formative institution for so many who shaped Yiddish in the first half of the 20th century. Stories of New York: City College is “a series of discussions and films about the City College of New York, its rich Jewish history, and its transformative role in the lives of so many.” Feb. 2, Feb. 11, and March 16 at the Center for Jewish History. Tickets here … After spending months in the YIVO sound archives, Jeremiah Lockwood will present a talk called “Hefker khazones (Wanton Cantorial Music), Or the ‘Key to the Jewish Soul’?” His research brings to light impassioned debates among cantors and their critics in the early 20th century. Lockwood will be joined by Cantor Yoel Kohn, who will sing representative works from classic records. Feb. 4 at 7 p.m. at YIVO … At the turn of the 20th century, American Yiddish newspapers overflowed with advice columns offering implicit and explicit guidance to readers about how to live their lives. Ayelet Brinn will give a talk called “Dear Editor: Advice Columns and the Making of the American Yiddish Press” on how these columns helped readers navigate personal tribulations, American political infrastructures, and Jewish communal life. Thursday, Feb. 13 at 6 p.m. at McMahon Hall Room 109 at Fordham University-Lincoln Center … Beyle: The Artist and Her Legacy is a new documentary about poet and Sholem Aleichem Center leader Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman. It will have its New York premiere at the center on Feb. 23 at 1:30 p.m., 3301 Bainbridge Ave., Bronx … The Pawnbroker was a landmark in American cinema. Rod Steiger played a Holocaust survivor who took refuge managing a Harlem pawnshop. With an award-winning score by Quincy Jones. Screening and Q&A afterward with Maura Spiegel, author of Sidney Lumet: A Life. Monday, April 20 at 7 p.m. Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, 617 Kent Hall, 1140 Amsterdam Ave. … As part of the Yiddish Book Center’s Decade of Discovery series, they will be presenting a new program called “Zol Zayn: Yiddish Poetry into Song” at Symphony Space. The all-star lineup includes many Golden City favorites including Anthony Russell, Sarah Gordon, and Frank London. April 1 at 8 p.m. at Symphony Space, 2537 Broadway … Exciting news about the YIVO Summer Program. They’re expanding the offerings to include an August intensive called Next Level for Yiddish teachers and advanced researchers and performers.
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