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Rokhl’s Golden City: ‘Yentl’ and ‘Painted Bird’ Edition

In this week’s Yiddish-inflected culture guide, Babs and other sort-of-prohibited, cross-dressing, cross-cultural encounters

Rokhl Kafrissen
June 07, 2017
Photo collage: Tablet Magazine; background photo: Susan Sermoneta/Flickr
Photo collage: Tablet Magazine; background photo: Susan Sermoneta/Flickr
Photo collage: Tablet Magazine; background photo: Susan Sermoneta/Flickr
Photo collage: Tablet Magazine; background photo: Susan Sermoneta/Flickr

Fathers who initiate their daughters into the world of book learning, always at some social cost: It’s an archetype I certainly relate to. My father the professor taught me to read widely and question everything, a habit that has bought me more trouble than accolades over the years.

My 4-year-old niece is growing up in a world in which the most important incarnation of this trope is Beauty and the Beast. As Disney princesses go, Belle is hardly the worst. But the defining version of my childhood was 1983’s Yentl. Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy. Yentl, the story of a daughter brought into the masculine world of learning gemore (lernen gemore—sacred learning, the only kind of learning in Yiddish that stands alone, without the reflexive particle “zikh.”) Yentl, the first major studio film to be written, produced, directed by—and star—a woman.

Now, I understand there are some out there for whom Barbra Streisand just isn’t their cup of tea. Let’s call those people “haters.” But if you’re willing to buy into the astounding Barbra-ness of it all, the audacity of a woman unashamed to place her own voice, her own age-inappropriate face, her own unapologetic subjectivity at the center of a movie, then I urge you to catch Yentl in glorious 35mm at Anthology Film Archives next week. I rewatched Yentl recently and was more than pleasantly surprised to find that not only was it deeply entertaining and moving, but the humorless Yiddishist in me was gratified by the thoughtful choices Streisand made when confronted with the difficult task of adapting Yiddish material for an American audience. Readers, against all odds, Yentl works. And it stars a young Mandy Patinkin, the sexiest Ashkenazi bear ever to grace the big screen. Not to be missed.

The closest my parents ever came to a proper religion was reading, and by extension, library-going, and as soon as I could join them, I did. My parents never tried to shape my tastes, nor did they exert any control over what I read, with one exception. Every once in a while, my dad would solemnly tell me that the most disturbing book he ever read was Jerzy Kosiński’s The Painted Bird and that I should never, ever pick it up. When he described the plot—a little boy survives World War II while witnessing unspeakable acts of violence and sadism—any potential sweetness of forbidden literary fruit immediately soured on the vine.

My father’s prohibition bubbled to the top of my mind when I saw an intriguing review of Jerome Charyn’s new, fictionalized account of Kosiński’s time living in the United States, Jerzy: A Novel. Two summers ago I picked up Charyn’s short-story collection, Bitter Bronx. I was doing research for the characters in my first play—midcentury, marginal Jews, survivors in the shadow of violence, past and present—and Bitter Bronx spoke to the world I was building. Charyn’s urban magical realism captivated me, reminding of nothing so much as an outer-borough Angela Carter. Seeing he had a new novel out, I knew I had to get it immediately but I wondered, too, what relevance a controversial figure like Kosiński had today.

I polled my friends, they themselves intimidatingly well-read in everything Jewish/Eastern European/Holocaust. Had they read it? Nope. Had I? Had I? Didn’t I just say my daddy told me not to? And anyway, given what we know now, should I bother? It didn’t take long before The Painted Bird was revealed to be not quite kosher, with accusations of fabrication, plagiarism, and misrepresentation eventually dimming Kosiński’s star.

But for a minute in the mid-1960s, a disturbing Holocaust novel centered on a deeply traumatized child was a cultural phenomenon. Which is how my dad, a young engineering grad student (with a sideline in being a cool single guy with a motorcycle) came to read it. When I asked him about it the other day, he simply said, “At the time I read it, he was in and the book was in.” Strangely enough, The Painted Bird might be the last genuinely trendy novel I can recall my dad reading.

Where Jerzy Kosiński traded in a kind of grotesque, sensationalized trauma, poet Avrom Sutzkever took his experience in the Vilna ghetto, as well as his time as a partisan, and spent the rest of his long life creating a body of work at times mythic, delicate, and surreal, forever searching out the breadth of Jewish longing. Maia Evrona is a young translator who has spent a number of years working on Avrom Sutzkever and is currently translating what is considered his masterwork, Lider fun Togbukh. She just published a new translation, this one coming from In Midber Sinai, a heartbreaking short poem titled “Toys.” In it, Sutzkever addresses an absent child, invoking the “seven streets” of the Vilna ghetto.

Your toys, my child, hold them dear,
your toys smaller even than you.
And at night, when the fire drifts off to sleep,—
wrap them up in the stars from atop a tree.


Savor: Avrom Sutzkever’s ‘Toys newly translated by Maia Evrona.

Watch: Yentl at Anthology Film Archives, June 12, 16 and 18 as part of the Cross Dressing and Drag on Screen series curated by John “Lypsinka” Epperson.

Eat: If you go see Yentl at Anthology Film Archives, get the complete Old World experience and have dinner beforehand a few blocks up Second Avenue at the Ukrainian National Home (140 2nd Ave, at 9th Street). It’s more heimish than Veselka (or, the Ukrainian version of heimish) and generally less crowded. I like the beef stroganoff. Leave room for blintzes.

ALSO: Over the last couple years my brilliant friend Zisl Yeysef Slepovitch has been doing groundbreaking ethnographic work on the party music of Lite (the traditional homelands of Litvish [Lithuanian] Jews). June 7 he joins Puerto Rican and Chinese musicians at the breathtaking Eldridge Street Synagogue for a night of cross-cultural musical mashups. Thursday, June 8, the New York Klezmer Series continues at Brooklyn’s Jalopy with Kleztraphobix, a straight-ahead American “klezmer” band powered by the hardest-working simkhe musicians I know. And finally, the Jewish Plays Project has caused some controversy with its annual play competition, whose guidelines explicitly reject submissions in Yiddish or with Holocaust-related themes. While I’d rather just see the guidelines revised, the JPP is going some way to mend fences, this year featuring a staged reading of the Yiddish translation of Awake and Sing, June 9 and 10, 14th Street Y, free tickets, reservation necessary.

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

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