Navigate to Arts & Letters section

A Mormon ‘Khupe’ in Hawaii

Rokhl’s Golden City: Traveling in the land of living ghosts

Rokhl Kafrissen
February 07, 2018
Image: Library of Congress
Image: Library of Congress
Image: Library of Congress
Image: Library of Congress

I always thought I’d honeymoon in Hawaii. I just never thought we’d have the khupe there, too. Then again, I never thought I’d be marrying my gay best friend in a Tahitian Mormon ceremony. Mentsh trakht un got lakht.

Before you send your mazel tovs, though, let me set the scene. One particularly grim November evening I was riding the subway home, having explained to my lovely therapist, once again, that a vacation was simply out of the question, no matter how good it might be for my “perspective” or some nonsense like that. Vacations are goyish. Vacations invite the evil eye. Vacations are for people who like having fun.

All of a sudden a text came in from the most unusual Jew I know, Shane Baker. Wanna go to Hawaii? I spit three times and texted back, hell yeah. Vacations may be goyish but turning down a free airplane ticket is just gauche.

Which is how Shane and I found ourselves not two weeks ago holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes under the grass khupe at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie, Hawaii. (As a lark we had introduced ourselves as a married couple celebrating our second wedding anniversary. By the time our tour group got to “Tahiti” and its mock traditional wedding we were in way too deep. The lie had taken on life.)

What we didn’t realize when we bought our not-inexpensive tickets (nonalcoholic luau included) is that the PCC is basically an extension of BYU Hawaii, and our lovely Polynesian hosts were mostly students at the university. In a way, the PCC experience is oddly representative of Hawaii today, reflecting both its Polynesian cultural roots as well as the mark that modern Christian missionizing has left on Oceania. It’s corny, performative, and wonderfully weird heritage tourism that made me wish I was writing a paper for Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett.

One of the surprising parts of traveling to Hawaii was that I never missed New York City. Being with Shane was like having the best parts of city life with me. But more than that, the unexpected duality of Hawaiian life—religiously Christian while deeply culturally Polynesian—left me feeling far less “other” than more familiar places like France or England. Hawaii wasn’t particularly Jewish, but it also wasn’t in any particular way anti-Jewish, if you know what I mean. That left Shane and I free to crack wise in Yiddish, invisible to the missionizing gaze ever present on Oahu, while we reclaimed Paradise for the Yidn. …

In her book Journeys beyond the Pale: Yiddish Travel Writing in the Modern World, Leah Garrett theorizes how Yiddish writers used the idea of travel to represent the motion of modernization. Artists like Der Nister and Dovid Bergelson “while located in sites that were marginal in relation to literary high modernism, reoriented the world map by making it a Jewish terrain in their stories.”

It’s not quite Der Nister, but the Dover travel guidebook Say It in Yiddish (1958) represents another way Yiddish speakers moved through and made the modern world their own. Say It in Yiddish gained a certain kind of notoriety in 1997 when Michael Chabon published an essay in Civilization magazine titled “Guidebook to a Land of Ghosts.” (The essay would also be the catalyst for his bestselling novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, maybe you’ve heard of it?)

In “Guidebook to a Land of Ghosts” Chabon called Say It in Yiddish “an absurd, poignant artifact of a country that never was.” As Jeffrey Shandler notes, Chabon’s rant against Say It in Yiddish struck many as both unpleasant and ahistorical. In fact, when the book was originally commissioned as one of Dover’s many bilingual travel guides (and commissioned by an editor who had grown up in a Workmen’s Circle school), Yiddish was still a lingua franca in many corners of the world where English had not yet penetrated. As we all learned in the first chapter of College Yiddish, yidn in ale lender redn yidish (Jews in every country speak Yiddish).

The only real disappointment on our Hawaii trip was connected to one particular Hawaiian Yiddish speaker we had hoped to meet, Risa Schwartz Whiting. Schwartz Whiting was born to Jewish parents in Belgium in 1939. When they were deported to Auschwitz in 1942, she was placed with a Christian Belgian family and raised as one of their own. In 1947, she learned in fact that she was not their biological daughter and that she and her brother were to be brought to New York and adopted by Yiddish theater impresario Maurice Schwartz.

Risa Schwartz Whiting navigated many worlds and many identities in her life, from actor in the Yiddish art theater to reader on the Psychic Friends Network, ending up as a beloved performer in Maui. Mostly she seemed like an awesome lady who lived an extraordinary life and I would’ve loved to have shared a mai tai with her. You can imagine how devastated Shane and I were when we finally got to Honolulu and got the news that she had died just a few months before at age 77. Koved ir ondenk

At the end of Journeys Beyond the Pale, Leah Garrett quotes Yehuda Amichai’s gorgeous poem “Jewish Travel.” Having just flown thousands of miles to paradise and back (and getting ready to go to Israel in a few days!!!) Amichai’s words on the necessity, and exquisite futility, of travel, spoke straight into me:

I think about people who are named for a place where they have
never been
and will never be.
Or about an artist who draws a man’s face
 from a photograph because the man is gone. …
Even the resurrection of the dead is a long journey.
What remains? The suitcases on top of the closet
that’s what remains.


Go: We are truly in a Golden Age of Yiddish heritage travel. This May you have your pick of competing Eastern European tours. For the Galitzianers there’s the YIVO inaugural Literary Tour of Jewish Galicia, May 17-25, 2018. For the Litvaks, there’s the Yiddishkayt LA Heartland of Jewish Culture tour through the historical Grand Duchy of Lithuania, including present-day Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania. Even better, my girl crush Sasha Lurje (of GOYFRIEND and FORSHPIL) just told me she is the artistic director of a brand new cruise called Yiddish Kultur Voyages. Have you ever dreamed of floating down the Danube while being entertained by the top talents of the Yiddish world? Spring 2019 is your chance. Twenty percent discount for people who register before March 2018. What are you waiting for?

ALSO: If you’d rather stay close to home, I don’t blame you, honestly. You can catch the Folksbiene’s program of early Yiddish theater and vaudeville at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Feb. 11 at 2 p.m. … February 13-18 my friend Frank London is in residency at The Stone with his multipart LES Elegy … My old svive pal Yankel-Peretz Blum will be speaking (in Yiddish) on a topic close to my heart, How Does One Learn a Second Language? at the Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center, 2201 Bainbridge Avenue, Bronx, Feb. 18, 1:30 p.m. … I know it’s a dumb cliché that Yiddishists only care about things like poetry and herring, but really? Is that so bad? Shearith Israel will be having its Herringfest on Wednesday, Feb. 28. … And if you’re still looking for the perfect Valentine’s Day date, have you considered a lecture on spirit possession? Alex Minkin will be talking about Jewish Spirits in Afro-Brazilian Religions, with a special focus on Yiddish. Wednesday, Feb. 14, 6:30 p.m. at the NYPL Program Room, 42nd St. and 5th Avenue.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.