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Summer Heat, Guitar Gods, and RotFront

Rokhl’s Golden City: How a generation of Russian-speaking Jews who ended up in Germany after the fall of the Soviet Union became key figures in the klezmer continuity

Rokhl Kafrissen
July 11, 2018
Inset image: Facebook
RotFrontInset image: Facebook
Inset image: Facebook
RotFrontInset image: Facebook

I don’t go out in this kind of weather. I don’t get on the subway, I don’t go to marches (sorry), I don’t go to bars with outside seating where if the heat doesn’t get you the mosquitoes mercilessly feeding on your ankles will. Hell, I don’t even go to work since I quit my hateful office job at the beginning of June (plot twist!).

And yet, I found myself on a recent sweltering night willingly, excitedly, walking down the familiar steps of Drom on Avenue A. This would be my only chance to see RotFront, more formally known as the Emigrantski Raggamuffin Kollektiv from Berlin.

RotFront is a party band of varying size (hence the kollektiv) usually found touring all over Europe, especially Germany and Hungary. Alas, one of its founding members, bass player Simon Wahorn, was suffering visa issues and couldn’t make it at all. Subbing in for Simon, in a stroke of luck, was Moscow-based guitar god and front man for Yiddish punk rockers Nayekhovichi, Vanya Zhuk.

Zhuk was introduced no less than five times from the stage, and the trombone and clarinet player maybe once, speaking to his fame among Russian-speaking rock fans. Zhuk is among the pioneering generation of young, post-Soviet Jews creating a homegrown klezmer sound. His klez-rock band Nayekhovichi released a genre-busting CD titled Klezmer is Dead in 2008, thus announcing, once and for all, the end of the klezmer revival—and the beginning of the klezmer continuity.

Drom advertised the RotFront show as a “sweat-inducing mix of Ukrainian reggae, Hungarian garage-rock, ska, klezmer and hip-hop.” I mean, it was already 90 degrees before entering the airless cave that is Drom. I was drenched before the guy was done stamping my hand. Sweating wasn’t going to be hard.

I was drawn by the klezmer part, but I turned out to be one of the only klez people there that night. The crowd was almost entirely Russian-speaking and the only two familiar faces I found were first lady of the New York Yiddish stage, Yelena Shmulenson (FSU) and Golem frontwoman Annette Ezekiel Kogan (FSU by marriage). It’s too bad, too. If non-Russian speakers stayed away because they thought they might not follow what was going on they were totally mistaken. Though the crowd was heavily Russian, RotFront leader Yuriy Gurzhy spoke mostly in English and played a euphoric mix of German, Russian, and English tunes of every genre, heavy on the ska. Yes: You thought ska was dead. Ska was never dead. It moved out in the middle of the night and started a new life in the FSU (and Germany and Spain).

At the end of the show Yuriy called up Daniel Kahn to guest on their original tune “Disco Boy.” Berlin-based Kahn was a member of the Ragamuffin Kollektiv for years and his Yiddish verses on “Disco Boy”—Ikh bin a beyzer mame-trenner/A mashke-trinker, a shtetl-brenner … (I’m a bad mofo/ a whiskey drinker, burning down the town)—are perhaps better suited to a sweaty club dance floor than the polite pages of Tablet. But of course, that’s the whole point. In a world of digital ubiquity, nothing can replace the live experience.

In his other life Yuriy is a DJ and he brings that mix-and-match magical playfulness to the RotFront set list. I’ve seen a lot of klez-genre mashups, but hearing “Der Rebns Tants” mashed up with one of RotFront’s original bangers with a club full of Russian hipsters day-di-daying along was extremely magical. I later found out Yuriy and I were both born in [YEAR REDACTED] and I understood why, despite growing up on opposite sides of the globe, his musical sensibility hit me so hard in my secret nostalgia spot.

Yuriy is part of a generation of Russian-speaking Jews who ended up in Germany after the fall of the Soviet Union, now making up what is one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. Ironically, Germany was a refuge for Russian-speaking Jews in an earlier period, too—immediately after World War II, when thousands of displaced persons (DPs) left the ruins of Jewish Eastern Europe for the shelter of the DP camps.

It’s strange to look back now, and see how quickly Germany pivoted from the perfection of industrialized killing to the efficient housing, healing, and resettlement (with the supervision of the Allies, of course) of the human wreckage they created. The administration of the DP camps was hardly perfect, but all things considered, looking back now, it seems kind of miraculous.

The DP camps were a sort of liminal space between war and peace, life and death, where Jews, most of whom had lost everything, reinvented themselves and figured out how to move forward. I just finished reading a new self-published memoir that sheds light on the DP period, Miriam Hoffman’s A Breed Apart.

Though her parents were Polish, Hoffman was conceived in the gulag where her parents were imprisoned. At the end of the war her family ended up in the Hindenburg Kaserne DP camp, where they spent four years. Hoffman kept prodigious notes during that time and her book is a fascinating look into the lives of refugees. She also includes period material, such as her father’s Yiddish essays from the DP camp newspaper (translated into English) and her handwritten copies of Yiddish songs about camp life. Hoffman ended up becoming a beloved Yiddish teacher at Columbia and her life’s journey—from gulag to DP camp to the new state of Israel and finally, the Bronx—includes some of the most extraordinary moments of recent Jewish history.


Listen: Demons are real. Did that scare you? The Talmud says we’re surrounded by thousands of invisible demons. If we could see them we’d die of fright. Which is kind of the perfect metaphor for 2018. Except now, through the magic of the internet, we can see all the demons. Yikes. On the other hand, social media, and the magic of podcasting has brought us my favorite new podcast, Throwing Sheyd. The name is a pun, playing off the slang to throw shade (to cast aspersions) and the loshen koddesh word for demon, sheyd. So far, hosts Miriam and Alan have focused exclusively on the Talmudic world of Jewish demonology, but I’m hoping that future episodes will take us to the wide world of Eastern European sheydim. You can’t read an author like Isaac Bashevis Singer without an understanding of the culture of folk demons that permeated Jewish life. Heck, you can’t understand Jewish life and folkways today without understanding Jewish demons.

Though RotFront doesn’t have any more U.S. gigs, you can get your fix here: In addition to leading RotFront, Yuriy is a DJ who has been known to mix Serge Gainsbourg, the Barry Sisters, and trad disco in his sets. Check out his excellent assemblage of Yiddish bangers:

Learn: After many years teaching Yiddish at Columbia, Miriam Hoffman retired and moved to Florida. You can take intermediate Yiddish with her at the weeklong Trip To Yiddishland in August. More info here. You can buy her new book, A Breed Apart, and learn about Yiddishkayt Initiative, her project, with her son, Yiddish actor Avi Hoffman, here.

ALSO: Every Sunday in July my friend Eleonore Biezunski will be in residency at Barbès with one of her many delicious projects. This Sunday is Ephemeral Birds (with accordionist Ilya Shneyveys): Barbès, 376 9th Street, Park Slope, all shows at 5 p.m. Get there early, seats are limited. … Shane Baker is one of the funniest human beings on this planet. He’ll be teaching a Wednesday afternoon class on the works of classic Yiddish humorist der Tunkler. Wednesdays in July at the Workmen’s Circle, in Yiddish. Register here. … For the last six years I’ve been eagerly following the making of the feature film Who Will Write Our History, the story of the Warsaw Ghetto’s Oyneg Shabes archive. If you’re in the San Francisco area you’ll be able to see what looks like the only preview showings of the movie until its theatrical release in 2019. July 21, 22 and 28 at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. … Yiddish teacher and singer Paula Teitelbaum will be leading a workshop on Yiddish songs of love and summer, Tuesday, July 24, 6:30-8:00 p.m., Workmen’s Circle, on West 37th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, $10 (free for members). … Finally, if you’re like me, a nonsports lover, your patience with World Cup fever has worn thin. If so, refresh yourself with this delightfully ironic prewar song about Yiddish speaking Jews playing fútbol (soccer).

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