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Hey Kids, It’s Yidstock!

Rokhl’s Golden City: On campus in Massachusetts with the summer interns, singing folk-song adaptations of ‘Shnirele Perele’

Rokhl Kafrissen
July 25, 2018
Collage: Tablet Magazine
Collage: Tablet Magazine
Collage: Tablet Magazine
Collage: Tablet Magazine

I’m old. I’m old and I never went to Jewish summer camp. I’m pretty much fine with both these facts. With age comes independence and some small measure of wisdom. And missing out on Jewish summer camp was one of the things that freed me to wander up the Yiddish path.

What I really missed out on, though, was being an undergraduate summer intern at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. I wanted that internship so badly, with a depth of yearning only 19-year-olds can muster. In the end, I knew too much Yiddish (gey veys) and was rejected from the program. I can still hear my little heart breaking into pieces across all the years. Since then, I’ve only spent the briefest amount of time at the book center, mostly because I’m in New York City and the book center is not. I hadn’t even been out for the fabulous Yidstock festival the center has been running for the last couple years. The bands were often ones I could see at KlezKanada. Also, you have to transfer buses at Springfield. Who needs it?

Then a couple months ago my editor here at Tablet asked if I wanted to go to Yidstock. Did I? I’m not going to KlezKanada this year and 2018 is the year I discovered that it’s OK to leave Manhattan. After work that evening I was walking across 57th Street, on my way to the subway, and just as I passed Carnegie Hall who did I see but my old friend and artistic director of Yidstock, Seth Rogovoy. When the universe sends you such a signal you don’t ignore it.

So I went to Yidstock. (Don’t worry, I took the train.) And the music was fabulous, as expected. I saw Toronto-based klezmer bluegrass fusion masters Beyond the Pale and a special reunion of David Krakauer’s Klezmer Madness. Sarah Aroeste and Anthony Russell did a beautiful new Ladino Yiddish mashup. Montreal’s DJ Socalled (aka Josh Dolgin) performed with his new string quartet project (more about that soon, watch this space) and blew us all away. I finally got to meet some internet friends IRL. Miranda Cooper (Yiddish-world social media maven and brilliant young writer on the Yiddish beat, and former Tablet intern) and Jeremy Sarna (New England Conservatory recording engineer to the klezmer stars) among them.

A delightful surprise was that I stayed on campus with the summer interns. Saturday night I came back to the dorm and a big group of them were on the grass. They waved me over. They were about to do havdalah. Did I want to join them? Did they even have to ask? We then sang for a good hour, accompanied by banjo and accordion (it was a gathering of Yiddishists after all). I knew most of the songs, but what I wasn’t expecting was Adah Hetko’s hilarious English-language translation/adaptation of “Shnirele Perele”:

Chips and dip the Messiah’s in the house
So raise your glass, let’s have another round
Gonna dance all night and never go to bed
’Cause the Messiah is coming to put blessings on our heads …

The wannabe ethnomusicologist in me got very excited. Was I witnessing firsthand a spontaneous folk creation? Well, not quite. Adah (who just finished her master’s degree in Yiddish at Indiana University) later told me the song had been workshopped last year at Yiddish New York. Until the Klezmatics resurrected it 25 years ago, “Shnirele Perele” had been a Hasidic children’s song, and had already undergone its own composed, musical reinvention and then re-entered the Jewish music world as a new folk song. Adah’s was just another link in that chain. I guess I’m just lucky to know the folk behind the folk songs.

I was never a Yiddish Book Center intern and, so far, I’ve never been a student in YIVO’s Uriel Weinreich Summer Program. I applied to attend the YIVO program the summer after I graduated from Brandeis. I still remember the heartbreak I felt looking at the letter they sent me, comparing the scholarship money offered (tiny) and the cost of the program (enormous). I’ve still never done the program, and thus have never been a student of Chava Lapin’s. Chava, and the summer program itself, were the honored guests at this year’s YIVO Gala. Chava, for her decades of teaching and service on the YIVO board, and the summer program on its 50th anniversary. The gala reaffirmed what I already suspected, which was that Chava is both an intimidating and unforgettable teacher. Chava is one of those people you meet in the Yiddish world, someone who is both brilliant and accomplished in the field of Yiddish and then turns out to have an entirely separate body of achievement. In Chava’s case, as an oncology researcher. The fact that Chava is also an unrepentant, lifelong chain smoker (something mentioned by many of those honoring her) makes her all the more iconic. In her speech, summer program academic director Sheva Zucker noted that traditionally, if there is a question that cannot be answered we say teyku—roshe teyves for, roughly, this will get answered when Eliyahu comes. At YIVO, the equivalent is Gey freg by Chava Lapinen (Go ask Chava Lapin). And if Chava can’t answer it, Messiah is surely on the way. He better bring chips and dip.


Listen: Get a taste of Yidstock 2018 with the official Yiddish Book Center podcast here. … Jeremiah Lockwood and Jewlia Eisenberg have been working with the YIVO summer program students, as well as in the archives, on their new Celia Dropkin project, Bent Like a Question Mark. They’ll be presenting a concert of their new translations and settings of Dropkin’s arresting Yiddish poetry, Monday, July 30 at YIVO.

Go: Yidstock is over but if you’re craving live Jewish music then Toronto’s Ashkenaz festival (opening Aug. 28) will blow your mind. Dozens of events, most of them free, situated in the beautiful Harbourfront area of the city.

See: I finally saw Fiddler on the Roof (in Yiddish) and Tevye Served Raw and I can’t recommend them both highly enough. This is one of the best productions of Fiddler I’ve ever seen. Tevye Served Raw is by turns hilarious and incredibly moving. Both are very friendly to non-Yiddish speakers. There’s an easy criticism to be made that Fiddler flattens or simplifies Sholem Aleichem’s stories. As I’ve argued before, I think that critique misses the point. Fiddler and Tevye Served Raw (featuring scenes with Yiddish text written by Sholem Aleichem himself) are two different, complementary texts. What struck me the most was how the emotional moments of Fiddler are big. They’re designed for the Broadway stage. The same plot beats done in Tevye Served Raw, like the scene where Tevye turns Chava away, are tinier and more nuanced in comparison, but equally devastating in their emotional power. The night I saw Tevye Served Raw, Fiddler cast members Daniel Kahn and Jackie Hoffman were also there and I think I can say they felt the same way I did. How lucky we are to have both shows running at the same. Tickets for Fiddler here and Tevye Served Raw here.

ALSO: Speaking of Fiddler, the Digital Yiddish Theatre Project is running a series of smart pieces on every aspect of Fiddler and its many manifestations: start here. … The League for Yiddish is premiering the latest in its documentary series of conversations with Yiddish writers. Yonia Fain: With Pen and Paintbrush is at YIVO Thursday, July 26, 7 p.m. … Radical Brooklyn Klezmorim Tsibele will be appearing at the Brooklyn Roots Festival, July 29 at 1 p.m. … One of your last chances to see the New Yiddish Rep’s adaptation of Henoch Levin’s The Whore From Ohio, Thursday, Aug. 2, 7 p.m.

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