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Downtown, in Exile

Rokhl’s Golden City: The Yiddish sounds of New York’s past—and present

Rokhl Kafrissen
January 15, 2021
Open Eye/Flickr
Gutbucket in 2009Open Eye/Flickr
Open Eye/Flickr
Gutbucket in 2009Open Eye/Flickr

There’s a reason Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse remained a New York party landmark for decades. It had a slightly sleazy, furnished rec room with an unlocked liquor cabinet vibe. Icy vodka flowed freely, and stomachs were buffered by pitchers of schmaltz at every table. (You can see for yourself in this scene from 1984’s dreadful Over the Brooklyn Bridge.)

What really made Sammy’s a guaranteed party was the live music, provided of course by a certified New York character and his keyboard. Over the course of the evening the music would go from so bad it’s bad to so bad it’s good to God help me I’m having a great time depending on how much vodka you drank and how fast.

A single visit to Sammy’s was enough to make a forever impression (and at minimum, leave an imprint on your stomach). I might go so far as to ask: If you haven’t staggered out of at least one late night birthday dinner at Sammy’s, and/or held your friend’s hair while she puked chopped liver on the Chrystie Street sidewalk, are you really a New Yorker?

Chopped liver lovers were understandably devastated to learn at the beginning of January that Sammy’s had closed forever, another pandemic casualty. It felt particularly awful to lose a place so agelessly heymish, one is tempted to assume that whoever Sammy was, in 1885 he walked through Castle Garden with Fievel Mousekewitz himself.

But Sammy’s wasn’t even that old, opening its doors in the mid-1970s, not the 1880s. And Sammy’s is just one link in a proud tradition of party cellars. You can catch tantalizing glimpses of New York’s banging Roumanian cellar scene (circa 1939) in Joseph Seiden’s otherwise wooden Yiddish melodrama, Der lebediker yusem (The Lively Orphan). Back then, you might be lucky enough to catch tsimbl virtuoso Joseph Moskowitz instead of a salty Israeli and his plinky Casio, but then again, a drunk, emo Yiddish Pagliacci might also be your night’s entertainment.

I’m distraught to see yet another beloved piece of New York nightlife bite the dust, but I’m reminded that what makes New York so great is that it is always remaking itself, in good times and bad. The owners have hinted that Sammy’s will be reborn in a new location in a post-pandemic New York. Of course it won’t be the same, but nothing ever is.

I’m now old enough to have seen many downtown clubs come and go, mostly victims to the run of the mill uncontrolled rapacity of New York development cycle. One of the most consequential nights of my life was seeing the Klezmatics play at the old Knitting Factory (on E. Houston Street) in the early 1990s. I went with my mom (!) and was duly scandalized when some joker with a sax jumped on stage with my new musical heroes, just honking away, like he owned the place. I never fully forgave John Zorn, but I eventually had to give him props when he won a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 2006.

Perhaps the centrality of the Knitting Factory as hub and incubator of radical Jewish culture has been slightly overblown, but it certainly was an essential address in the golden age of the downtown Jewish scene. Its relocation to Leonard Street solidified and expanded the Jewish music scene, as well as providing stages for a vast array of musical acts.

When I talked with Brooklyn-based guitarist Ty Citerman recently, he recalled how, as a musician touring outside the United States in the 2000s, the Knitting Factory was a larger-than-life brand, an identifiable marker of the coolest avant-garde music New York had to offer. His jazz-rock band Gutbucket was embedded in the late 1990s Knitting Factory downtown scene, and it was at that point he began seriously listening to the Jewish-jazz fusions coming out of those same places.

The Leonard Street Knitting Factory has been closed for over a decade, though the Knitting Factory name has since been applied to various venues in New York and around the world. None, however, has proven to have the same kind of magic as the first and second locations.

As the Knitting Factory was focused on building a global brand, a new club called Tonic took its place at what I would consider the center of the downtown Jewish music scene. Tonic’s opening in 1998 coincided with my own arrival in New York City, and I spent countless hours there until its (still devastating) closure in 2007. Tonic was the kind of place that was small enough to be intimate, but big enough to actually accommodate a crowd (or what passes for an avant-garde jazz “crowd”). Most importantly, on Sunday they had bagels.

Citerman recalls one Tonic show in particular as pivotal to his development as a musician. He had gone to see John Zorn and guitarist Fred Frith play a duo set. Zorn was sick, so Frith went on alone. That show “changed my notion of what a solo guitar performance could be, forever,” he said.Tonic had that kind of magical ability, Citerman told me, to facilitate intense connections, between audience and musician and between musicians themselves. At Zorn’s invitation, Citerman created a project for Zorn’s Tzadik Records, what ended up being the first Bop Kabbalah CD in 2014.

At the end of 2020, Citerman released Bop Kabbalah + Voices: When You Speak of Times to Come (Ven du redst fun naye tsaytn). It’s a dreamy set of Citerman’s guitar compositions, settings for Yiddish poetry sung by Judith Berkson and Sara Serpa. Berkson and Serpa approach the texts with an elegant restraint, at times recalling medieval chant, blending their voices in eerie and unexpected ways.

Citerman grew up hearing Yiddish in his family and had always felt drawn to the language. Like many, his downtown geography extends up to 45 East 33rd Street, the former home of the Workmen’s Circle (and its many associated organizations). It was there that he took his first Yiddish class with Pesach Fiszman (z’’l), and it was in the Workmen’s Circle’s unsexy, but always well-stocked, bookshop that he bought his first Klezmatics CD.

Many years after buying that CD, he found himself at Klezmatics co-founder Frank London’s apartment, chatting with the Yiddish Princess herself, Sarah Gordon. Gordon lent him a thick volume of Yiddish poetry in translation and the seed of Bop Kabbalah + Voices was planted. In the lead-up to the 2016 election, he was looking for texts that spoke to our own moment of unrest and resistance. It’s easy to see why Citerman chose Avrom Reyzn’s “Doyres fun der tsukunft” (Future Generations) as his starting point: “Future generations, brothers still to come/Don’t you dare/Be scornful of our songs/Songs about the weak/Songs of the exhausted/In a poor generation/Before the world’s decline.”

The YIVO Encyclopedia entry on Avrom Reyzn somewhat dryly notes that the “simplicity of his poems and their inherent adaptability to music gained them a broad audience and the affection of readers.” And while that’s true, the achievement of Bop Kabbalah + Voices is to point to the multilayered quality of that simplicity, especially when tied to an aesthetically far-reaching project such as this.

At the other end of the poetic universe is the new Cosmic Diaspora Trio jazz and poetry CD, Purple Tentacles of Thought and Desire and its companion volume of poetry, Jake Marmer’s Cosmic Diaspora. Marmer was my neighbor for many years, and my hook into the world of poetry. When he got married, the sheva brokhes meal at a shtibl in our neighborhood was probably the only occasion that could bring poets Steve Dalachinsky and Samuel Menashe to the same table as the black hat Jews who usually daven there.

I was surprised when I finally played the Cosmic Diaspora Trio CD and found Marmer’s poetry bursting with science fiction imagery: aliens, orbits, warp, vanishing point, critical mass. When I asked him about it, he told me, “Art is a skeptic’s spiritual experience and science fiction is a skeptics mysticism. You can be an utter skeptic of religious practices, but in the world of science fiction, you can have those feelings expressed in the language that’s more contemporary. It feels less scary … As a teenager I loved science fiction …” but then he emigrated to the United States from Ukraine. “I think the word alien freaked me out because I was an alien, legally, on paper.” The Cosmic Diaspora project can be read as a “processing of it all, the Jewish diaspora, being an immigrant into a new language and new country … moving from New York to California is another kind of diaspora, moving further and further out, outer space is the next thing.” (Does that mean a return to New York is the next obvious stop? I haven’t removed his old Manhattan address from my contacts yet, out of an abundance of caution.)

Along with him on the trip to the outer realms of poetry are a handful of outrageously talented musicians, passengers on a journey that’s not quite downtown, but not totally unrelated, either. Guitarist John Schott is another Tzadik Records artist and when Marmer was leaving New York for California, it was Frank London who urged him to be in touch with Schott. Joshua Horowitz (multi-instruments), Cookie Segelstein (violin, viola), and Stu Brotman (ocarina) are with Marmer in the California diaspora, but also collectively known as Veretski Pass, superstars at Klezkanada (where Marmer met them) and stages around the world.

As I was meditating on the now exiled spirit of the downtown Jewish music scene, I stumbled on one of the prose pieces in Cosmic Diaspora, something that spoke exactly to my mood. “It was one of those late weekend evenings … I was at the Stone in the East Village …” listening to jazz.

The Stone opened in 2005 in Alphabet City, a new concept in listening, led by John Zorn. In execution it was nothing but a bare room with folding chairs. You would find nothing extraneous at The Stone, nothing to lead your focus astray. No drinks, no fun, only music. It was, to say the least, extreme. This was a radical experiment, to provide the blankest canvas ever, on which anything might be written. I loved The Stone, even while dreading its controlling aura (and mourning its death in 2018).

Marmer describes this particular evening further: The musician, Shanir Blumenkrantz was playing, intensely focused on the music, as if “he was trying to hypnotize the notes on a sheet that shivered on the stand in front of him. Suddenly, a drunken voice hollered something incomprehensible right outside of the door …” Blumenkrantz mirrored the holler in his next melodic phrase. “It turned into a riff, one of many suspended in the air and sporadically reached for, as the improvisation continued to evolve. … I knew then that no music will move me as much as this kind … Nothing is outside of the improviser’s text …”

Indeed, Marmer says that many of the pieces in the book were written “while listening to live improvised music … Heat, intoxication, plastic chairs, photographed and real faces, growls and honks, all extend and expand the written score.” A wild feeling of expansion animates the Cosmic Diaspora projects, a tangible sense of exchange and growth across artistic realms.

There’s a special excitement to those live moments of interchange. As welcome as Bop Kabbalah and the Cosmic Trio are, the sound of their arrival is sadly muffled. No Zoom release can ever replace the exchange of energy in a room full of live people. And no more post-gig hangs mean no more unlikely chats leading to unexpected collaborations. The spirit of downtown is in exile because the people are in exile.

And yet: There is one more new poetry and music fusion project and it comes from two artists still firmly situated in the East Village, trumpet player and composer Frank London and poet Adeena Karasick. Salome: Woman of Valor is a multimedia, feminist reinvention of the story of Salome, and its arrival was made possible only because the pandemic forced its two very busy principals to pause their usual global wanderings, giving them time to finish a CD that has been seven years in development.

Salome is a curiously sketchy historical figure, appearing in the New Testament and the writing of Josephus. She’s known as the instigator of the beheading of John the Baptist and the cause of the tragedies of Herod. The image most of us have of Salome, however, comes from Oscar Wilde’s play of the same name, where she is first described as dancing the dance of the seven veils.

On top of the historically elusive Salome, Karasick has taken her expansive poetic toolkit and written a new story in the gaps, subverting the story’s anti-Semitic themes. An author of 10 books of poetry and an academic with a background in French literary theory and Kabbalah, Karasick’s linguistic reach is audacious. On Martyrology, for example, Karasick speaks in John the Baptist’s voice, imploring: “Martyr me, Salome, martyr me.” She invokes the traditional Jewish martyrology service, while London wails on the shofar, the whole then melded atop Deep Singh’s hypnotic tabla. It’s an unnerving performance on top of an uncomfortably sexy groove. And it’s a reminder that just as artists are always reinventing our language and our stories, when the time comes, they will surely be reinventing our ways of being together. How else could it be?

ALSO: West Coast folks: Seattle’s Congregation Beth Shalom is offering 10-session evening beginner and intermediate Yiddish classes, starting at the end of January … The Klezmer Conservatory Band played a key role in my own journey to Yiddish, and I’m sure many folks of my generation had a similar experience. The KCB is a beloved institution. Join the Yiddish Book Center on Jan. 24 to celebrate 40 years (!) of the Klezmer Conservatory Band. Register here … I’m not sure how he does it, but my friend Sholem Berger is a full-time physician as well as highly respected, and busy, translator into and out of Yiddish. On Jan. 31, he’ll be reading from his new English-language translation of the work of the great poet Avrom Sutzkever. Join the Yiddish Book Center as they celebrate the publication of Sutzkever Essential Prose. Register here … IWO, the Argentina-based YIVO satellite, is offering a number of seminars and Yiddish classes, Feb. 8-26, including a beginner’s section with no Spanish knowledge necessary. More information (in Spanish) here.

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