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Citizens Transformed Into Raging Animals, in Yiddish

Rokhl’s Golden City: New Yiddish Rep’s version of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, and a trombonist extraordinaire at KlezKanada

Rokhl Kafrissen
September 13, 2017
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This is what the sailor Igumenko had to do—march around his little horse a few times, like a Jew circling the synagogue on Simchas Torah, until he finally threw himself on top of it. The horse was somewhat addled.

“Screw it,” Igumenko said after a pause. “What are we waiting for?”

He took a breath with difficulty. “Lead on, Andreyev.”

“Where to?”

“All the way to the little wood.”


Now they rode out of the courtyard, three dots of the Hebrew vowel segol, and at the apex of the segol rode Andreyev.

It’s 1920 and Igumenko, Andreyev, and Zubok are agents of the Cheka (Bolshevik secret police). Their job is to prosecute counterrevolutionary crimes, and in the scene above, they’re setting out to investigate smugglers working out of the nearby Jewish shtetl, Golikhovke. The Jews, unsurprisingly, burn with resentment at the interference with their livelihoods. Thus opens Dovid Bergelson’s bleakly poetic novel of the post-Bolshevik Revolution, Civil War-era Judgment (Mides ha-din in Yiddish).

Only in a Yiddish novel could such men be described as performing hakafos when mounting their horses. Only in the hands of a master stylist such as Dovid Bergelson could such descriptions not only work but seem utterly right. Even the most brilliant stylists, though, are at the mercy of their translators. Happily, Harriet Murav and Sasha Senderovich’s new translation—the first to appear in any language—delivers a miraculous taste of the original Yiddish in English.

Though perfectly timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, its themes of mercy, judgment, and revolution are entirely appropriate for a secular kheshbn hanefesh (accounting of the soul). Twenty-five pages of illuminating notes on the literary and historical context of the novel will also make you feel a lot smarter—never a bad thing.

Judgment is not the only notable Yiddish translation this fall. In spite of dire predictions on the vitality of the Yiddish speaking oylem, the work of translation continues apace, both into and out of Yiddish. The best place to see this, of course, is the Yiddish theater in New York. With its simultaneous projected supertitle translations, Yiddish theater is no more challenging for nonspeakers than a night at the Met (and considerably less expensive). New Yiddish Rep just opened Nozhorn, a new translation of Eugène Ionesco’s classic of the surreal stage, Rhinoceros.

Rhinoceros is about a French town where little by little, citizens are transformed into raging animals. The play has special resonance today, with its exploration of the ways that fascism takes hold and casual dehumanization becomes normalized.

I met with Nozhorn translator (and cast member) Eli Rosen a few weeks ago after rehearsal, on the far west edge of the theatre district. Over drinks, Rosen described the many lives he’s lived: member of a Yiddish speaking ultra-Orthodox Borough Park community, khazn, and later, litigator at one of the most prestigious white shoe law firms in the country, actor in the Yiddish theatre and now, literary translator. Rosen’s path recalls the trailblazers of the early 20th century, young men (mostly) with German primers and math books hidden behind volumes of gemore, men who left the world of the Eastern European yeshiva to forge something entirely new, a synthesis of high culture and traditional yiddishkayt that still reverberates.

Rosen made his official Yiddish stage debut in last winter’s New Yiddish Rep production of Got fun Nekome. While Sholem Asch’s socially conscious drama is miles away from the absurdity of post-war France, Rosen told me that it was the language of Asch that was on his mind, and the tip of his tongue, as he began his translation of Nozhorn—an effort that began even while Nekome was still playing. For Rosen, it was as if “Ionesco put placeholders for Asch in the text.” If translation is a hallmark activity of modern Yiddish literature, intertextuality is the signature of a vibrant post-post-vernacular Yiddish scene.


The calendar says it’s still summer, but for me, KlezKanada signals the end of the season, even if I’m not there. Daniel Rosenberg, a music journalist in Toronto, is releasing a number of short audio pieces he recorded at KlezKanada. The first is “Anti-Fascist Klezmer—Daniel Kahn on Charlottesville & the 99%,” with more following soon.

Daniel has a new album titled The Butcher’s Share and I’m excited to get my hands on it. For one thing, it features his version (and translation) of “Shtil di nakht iz oysgeshterent,” a partisan song that has been on heavy rotation on my iPod these last few turbulent months. Daniel’s version is a duet with Latvian Yiddish singer Sasha Lurje (more on her in the next few weeks), and I’m getting chills just thinking about it.

Since Daniel hasn’t sent me his new CD yet (AHEM), it’s Ruth Rubin’s version which I’ve been leaning on.

Finally, there is a great new podcast about the contemporary klezmer scene called Radiant Others. It’s hosted by Daniel Blacksberg, trombonist extraordinaire and all around mensch. Be warned, the show is a little bit inside-baseball, but truly essential if you want to learn about the contemporary klezmer “revitalization” from the people who were there at every stage.

And coming in October will be a number of episodes produced at KlezKanada, so you’re really getting the full “you weren’t there, but now you can be” experience. And the music, obviously, is fabulous.


See: New Yiddish Rep’s Nozhorn is playing at the Castillo Theater, 523 West 42nd St., through Oct. 8.

Listen: [Long] Radiant Others, interviews with master klezmer musicians. [Bite sized] Daniel Rosenberg’s aural reports from KlezKanada.

Buy: I might be the only person obsessed with Dan Blacksberg’s Electric Simcha project, but that can change. If you ever wondered what it felt like to do a bunch of uppers, play a Piamenta record at high speed and do the hora for an hour, definitely check it out

Read: Shtil di nakht has perhaps one of the best Wikipedia entries on Yiddish weapon ethnography and is worth reading in its entirety.

ALSO: Dan Miron’s A Traveler Disguised is one of the books that completely changed the way I think about Yiddish literature. Next Thursday, Sept. 14, Miron will speak at YIVO in honor of Mendele Moykher Sforim’s 100th yortsayt. Also that Thursday (dang it), Polina Shepherd and Lorin Sklamberg are at Jalopy for the NY Klezmer Series. I’m not sure how to describe what happens when Polina and Lorin are on stage other than transcendent so, don’t worry and just go. (Sept. 14, 8:30 p.m. at Jalopy, 315 Columbia Street, Brooklyn.) Usually I stay away from books and movies about Nazis, but a new exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Operation Finale: The Capture & Trial of Adolf Eichmann, may have me breaking my rule (through Dec. 22).

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