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Rokhl’s Khanike Gift List for the Yiddishist in Your Life

Golden City: Support #derkegnshtel and don’t be a seks farbrekher

Rokhl Kafrissen
December 13, 2017
(Inset image: Idelsohn Society)seks farbrekher
(Inset image: Idelsohn Society)(Inset image: Idelsohn Society)seks farbrekher
(Inset image: Idelsohn Society)seks farbrekher
(Inset image: Idelsohn Society)(Inset image: Idelsohn Society)seks farbrekher

Can an oyster dinner be heymish? Maybe when it’s at the swank yet unpretentious Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station. Hear me out. A few nights ago your humble correspondent was fruitlessly applying herself to some research at the New York Public Library when a text came in from Congress for Jewish Culture Director Shane Baker. Did I want to get an oyster pan roast? I sure did. Do I even like oysters? I sure don’t. No matter. A five-minute scrum through the holiday crowds and Shane and I were being seated at the famed Oyster Bar.

The Oyster Bar is located in a cavernous space in the lower level of Grand Central Terminal. It opened its doors in 1913, the same year as Grand Central itself. It’s the kind of place that feels like it should have sawdust on the floors but doesn’t. That old-New-York, frozen-in-time (not the prices, though) feeling makes the Oyster Bar deliciously heymish. Sure, they had plenty of bivalves in honor of the first graduating class of Hebrew Union College in 1883. But no one would ever call the infamous Trefa Banquet heymish. But a solid hour’s wait for one’s dinner, unaccompanied by a single explanation, let alone apology? Very, very heymish. You dig?

Luckily Shane and I had a lot to talk about, including some exciting international Yiddish travels this year, which I can’t divulge just yet. What I can tell you is that the Congress for Jewish Culture khanike soirée is coming up Tuesday, Dec. 19. There will be latkes, obviously, and top-notch entertainment. Shane tells me accordionist Lauren Brody will be taking part. As a founding member of Kapelye, Brody was one of the foremothers of the klezmer revival and a musician who, in my opinion, doesn’t get the koved she deserves as such. So, let Lauren and latkes be your enticement to go.

With khanike coming on, perhaps you want to get something for the Yiddishist in your life. First, indulge me? Remove the following from your online shopping cart: fridge magnets, novelty books, and pseudo-scholarship. If you’ve got a young and broke Yiddishist in your life, the best thing you can do is give them an expensive dictionary, a gift that lasts a lifetime. Beinfeld and Bochner’s Comprehensive Yiddish-English dictionary is a landmark translation of the massive Yiddish-French dictionary compiled by Yitskhok Niborski and Bernard Vaisbrot. Going in the other direction is the brand new Comprehensive English-Yiddish dictionary compiled by Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath and Paul Glasser. Sure, it’ll tell you how to say “email” in Yiddish. It will also give you indictment (di aynklogung), emolument (di hakhnose), sex offender (der seks farbrekher), and resistance (der kegnshtel). Unfortunately, neologisms are not marked in the Comprehensive English-Yiddish dictionary, so proceed with caution when using your new vocab with your bubbe. She may not have (yet) heard the word for dominatrix (di hersherin) or ovarian cyst (der tsist in eyernest).

Everyone’s already talking about Bad Rabbi, but for once, I agree with everyone. After spending years immersed in the trashiest (and not so trashy) Yiddish newspapers to be found on microfilm, YIVO academic director Eddy Portnoy has emerged with a crackling good book full of Yiddish occultists, shabes defilers and terrible, no good, very bad rabbis. You should buy a copy for yourself and one for your favorite Yiddishist…

Though it happened this fall, I’m going to nominate Digital Yiddish Theatre Project’s publication of the long-delayed seventh volume of the Leksikon fun yidishn teater as my favorite khanike miracle of 2017. While Volume 7 is a Yiddish-language PDF aimed at scholars and curious Yiddish readers, DYTP has been rolling out some amazing English-language material that unpacks this unique treasure.

Zalmen Zylbercweig wrote and published the first six volumes of the Leksikon over 54 years. He had just finished preparing the galleys of Volume 7 when he died tragically in 1972. The Leksikon is one of the richest reference sources we have on the modern Yiddish theater. It also has the advantage of having been undertaken by an amateur historian. As Faith Jones points out, Zylbercweig was light years ahead of (or perhaps, simply outside the realm of) conventional historiography. His inclusion of ephemera and oral history, for example, means that the voices and stories of women of the theater are far more prominent than in other sources, making the Leksikon even more relevant today. Eight days of oil almost pales next to 54 years of tireless Yiddish history shnorring.


Celebrate: The Congress for Jewish Culture khanike party is Tuesday, Dec. 19 in the Village. $36 per person, reservations a must. Email the Congress to RSVP and get further details.

Listen: After all these years, two records are still at the top of my khanike playlist. First, the eternal Moishe Oysher and his Chanukah Party (and the most exquisite setting of Maoz Tsur). And for the whole family, the Lori Cahan-Simon Ensemble Chanukah is Freylekh! Unlike the Moishe Oysher party, Chanukah is Freylekh! has a much more American flavor, as the songs were written here for American kids in Yiddish after-school programs. It even features the original Yiddish version of the dreidel song. Though the songs are American, the arrangements are high-energy, old-world party.

ALSO: You may have read that The Stone, John Zorn’s no-fun-zone temple of new music, will be shuttering soon. The Stone concept will be moving to the New School, but it’s just not the same. Every day it’s more painfully obvious that live music venues in New York City, the thing that makes this place a global cultural capital, are an endangered species. I also heard a reputable rumor that another downtown home for new Jewish music, Drom, is not long for this world. Given all that, I want to point out that the New York Klezmer Series at Jalopy has quickly become an institution on the Jewish music scene, an amazing weekly hang with a strong educational element. Please think about contributing during its fundraiser so they can afford extravagances like paying the musicians . … Make sure to get your tickets now for Dreaming in Yiddish, the annual tribute to beloved teacher Adrienne Cooper. I’ve gone just about every year since it started and it’s always one of the most inspiring, joyous nights of the year. … Keep an eye on the Yiddish New York page to keep abreast of all the amazing night time programming coming soon. Finally, allow the wild men of Dobranotch to bring you a little Moishe Oysher tribute from the train depot in Birobidzan and start your khanike right:

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