Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Yiddish on the Beach

Rokhl’s Golden City: A day in Coney Island

Rokhl Kafrissen
August 16, 2017
Inset photo: Arnold Genthe, undated/Library of Congress
Inset photo: Arnold Genthe, undated/Library of Congress
Inset photo: Arnold Genthe, undated/Library of Congress
Inset photo: Arnold Genthe, undated/Library of Congress

“Today I know exactly what I should have done that summer—my work. But then I wrote almost nothing. ‘Who needs Yiddish in America?’ I asked myself.” So opens Isaac Bashevis Singer’s (relatable on many levels) short story “A Day in Coney Island.”

These days Coney Island isn’t exactly teeming with Yiddish writers (and readers) like it was in the mid-1930s when “A Day in Coney Island” was written. Then again, today, almost nothing in New York City is like it was five minutes ago.

Miraculously, Coney Island, while not the same as it was five or 50 years ago, still feels like the place it might have been a hundred years ago. You can ride a roller coaster where the first modern roller coaster clattered to life in 1884, or get a hot dog at Nathan’s Famous, much like in 1916.

And when a humble chronicler of modern Yiddish culture decides to take a much-needed beach day, in a city full of beaches, the choice is obvious. As the Barry Sisters sang…

You don’t have to run to Miami down south / here you get the same sand in your ear and your mouth / here you sit in the sun / don’t cost a cent / s’iz bilik vi borscht un ir vert farbrent [it’s cheap and you get the same sunburn] / In Coney Island

I haven’t been to the Coney Island/Brighton/Seagate Brooklyn Riviera in ages. I think one of my last visits (as Facebook reminded me a few days ago) was almost exactly eight years ago. I was working with the Folksbiene Troupe, an outreach group that takes Yiddish theater all around the city. My role was simple—iberkvetcher, advancer of supertitles. Hey, it may not look like much, but keeping up with actors is its own art. We played a show for a mostly Russian-speaking crowd at the Shorefront Y and then partied it up at the delightfully kitschy disco-dining experience that is the Primorski Restaurant.

Though Brighton/Coney Island may be the most Yiddish of all beaches, it’s still smart to bring your own, as backup. This time I brought two Yiddish ringers with me, Isabelle Rozenbaumas and Sarah Weinman. All of us had been working ourselves to the bone and agreed that a day in the sun was what the doctor ordered.

Isabelle, also known by the name of her multimedia memory work project, Bat Kama At, has been working on a brand new French translation of Emanuel Ringelblum’s Ksovim fun geto, the complete collection of Ringelblum’s diaristic chronicle of life in the Warsaw Ghetto. For those who are interested, I think the French edition will be worth getting, as it will be more complete than the existing English-language edition, which relied on still censored documents.

The third member of our group, Sarah Weinman, is also known as the lady behind the Crime Lady newsletter, also known as the author of an in-progress true-life account of the kidnapping that inspired Nabokov’s Lolita. Sarah and Isa were coming to relax and get some sun. I was hoping they might reveal the secrets of their brilliant industriousness.

The best part of going to the beach is working up an appetite for lunch. When the 1910s All of a Kind Family escaped the Lower East Side swelter for a day at Coney Island, Mama packed up bread-and-butter sandwiches made with a slice of rye and a slice of pumpernickel. With the sandwiches came that most-Ashkenazi veggie side: hard-boiled eggs and salted whole tomatoes. Heaven. Throw in a cucumber and that’s exactly what we ate in the summer in my utterly assimilated 1980s Long Island home. It’s amazing how some things persist.

For me, the beach is just a nice bonus on top of the real attraction: lunch in Little Odessa. If you choose well, a fading picture of the Rebbe watches you eat treyf from his perch between a mounted deer head and assorted Russian tchotchkes. On our table: varenishkes, shmaltz herring, salad. Dos heyst lebn. (That’s living.) If you get lunch on Brighton Second Street, for example, you’re mere feet from the ocean, without boardwalk prices.

After lunch, we entered the ocean at the Brighton end of the beach. Well, Sarah and I stood in the sand, breathing in the sea air while Vilne-born Isa dived into the water to work on what she called her Baltic calisthenics.

Did you know that back in the 1870s, Brighton Beach was developed as a reaction to the vulgarities of Coney Island? The idea was to keep out the Jews who were already crowding into Coney Island. Jews, no doubt, like a certain rambunctious family of five girls (and one charming little boy).

After you’ve lunched, had your dip in the ocean, and wiped the sand from your feet, it’s time to make your way down the boardwalk. One of the things that I do keenly miss is boardwalk music, a thing I didn’t even know existed until two years ago. Well, not just boardwalk music, but boardwalk-specific, raucous Yiddish/Russian “folk” music that formed its own sub-sub-genre and made a slight comeback with the release of the Brothers Nazaroff album The Happy Prince.

Sarah, Isa, and I had to walk down the boardwalk unaccompanied by an out-of-tune mandolin or aggressive whistling. OK. Fine, we had plenty to talk about, anyway. As we approached the entrance to Luna Park, we were stopped short by a man lounging on a bench accompanied by the largest iguana I’ve ever seen in the flesh. (Or scale.) Isa clutched my arm and whispered not undramatically, “They were here before us.”

There’s nothing like seeing a 3-foot mini-dinosaur to suddenly remind you of the insignificance of your own problems. And that now is always the perfect time for varenishkes.


Watch: Bashevis (and Judd Hirsch) read “A Day in Coney Island,” from the movie Isaac in America.

Listen: In 2006 the Klezmatics collaborated with the Woody Guthrie estate to set a slew of his previously unrecorded “Brooklyn” songs to new music. The result was the utterly charming Wonder Wheel.

Eat: Is there anything more appealing than a plate of dumplings and a nap in the sun? Head to Varenichnaya before the summer is over.

ALSO: At times it can be hard to find live Sephardi music in New York City. But next week it’ll be raining Andalusian culture at the American Sephardi Music Festival, Aug. 24, 27, and 28 at the Center for Jewish History. You have another chance to see Yerushe, Eleonore Biezunski’s archival exploration project. This time the theme of the show is women’s Yiddish folk song. It’s at Barbès, so get there early if you want a seat. Sunday, Aug. 27 at 7 p.m.

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