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The New Hamans

Postwar issues of a Yiddish journal for children brought the history of Purim to the present

Rokhl Kafrissen
February 28, 2023
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

“Nazis. I hate these guys.” Has there ever been a cooler, more concise expositor of anti-Nazi praxis on the American screen than Indiana Jones?

I grew up in the 1980s, when Holocaust education had gathered tremendous steam, but not necessarily a lot of child-centered pedagogical care. My generation was exposed to all manner of violent, traumatizing imagery, with little thought as to what we might be internalizing about what it meant to be a Jew. While kids who attended a Habonim summer camp, for example, might have learned about armed resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto (and beyond), the history of Jewish resistance, armed and spiritual, was not much considered in the mainstream. I certainly never heard a word about it.

What we did have, however, was Nazi-puncher extraordinaire Indiana “your cultural treasures belong in my museum” Jones. Indy was smart, he spoke a dozen languages, he could fight his way out of the tightest jams, and, of course, he happened to look like Harrison Ford. The only problem with Indy was that our Nazi-punching hero, dreamed up by a movie-crazy Jewish kid, wasn’t Jewish. I often wonder what it would have been like if my generation had had a Jewish Indiana Jones, someone to live out our fantasies of revenge and protection, someone to counterbalance the fear and helplessness instilled in us by our well-intentioned, but inadequate Holocaust curricula.

If just learning about the atrocities of the war was traumatizing 40 years later, how much worse it must have been for American Jewish kids during and after the war. I recently spent some time looking through issues of Yungvarg, a Yiddish-language magazine produced for American shule (supplemental Yiddish school) students in the IWO (International Workers Order) ordn school system. These issues were from the years immediately after the war, through 1950. Specifically, I was interested in how they used their Purim issues to talk to young kids about the war, and to address their fears and anger.

The origins of Yiddish children’s literature can be found in the special yontev supplements Yiddish newspapers would publish during Pesakh, Sukes, and Khanike. Adult writers would reflect on their own childhood and stories often had a holiday hook. But because of this particular system, there just isn’t that much of this classic Yiddish kid-lit material when it comes to Purim. Which is a very curious thing, given how joyous Purim is, how full of wild and colorful details it can be, and how very child-centered it remains.

So, the creators of a magazine like Yungvarg didn’t have the large pool of “classic” Yiddish texts available for reprint and adaptation. What you find, at least in the years I looked at, are contemporary texts written by a dedicated circle of IWO-JPFO (Jewish People’s Fraternal Order, the Jewish lodge of the IWO) activists, texts that feel extremely of their historical moment, while still managing to charm a 21st-century reader.

Itche Goldberg was the editor of Yungvarg, as well as the the movement’s adult-oriented Yiddish journals, in addition to directing its other cultural activities. As The New York Times wrote in his 2007 obituary, Goldberg “pushed for more Jewish content in the Yiddish schools of his day, including more study of the Bible and of Jewish holidays, to the dismay of some of his anti-religious colleagues.” And even just a casual browse of Yungvarg reveals a cultural enterprise at odds with many of the popular conceptions about the Communist Party-aligned Yiddish left. The Yiddish, for the most part, rejects Soviet spelling reforms, and hews to a YIVO standard. The texts in Yungvarg differ in reading levels and were aimed at various ages, but the literary and, indeed, the Jewish quality, is consistently high, reflecting Goldberg’s belief in giving the ordn shuln students an education rich in traditional Jewish concepts. This is especially evident in the texts written for each year’s Purim issue. The Purim-related texts sparkle with loshn-koydesh (Hebrew-Aramaic) vocabulary and a real yidishn tam (Yiddish flavor.)

But one of the texts that jumped off the page for me was a mini purim-shpil simply titled "A gutn purim.” In it, the characters of Students Alef, Bes, Giml, etc., open the scene with some ungentle teasing. One student, dressed as Mordkhe der tsadik, admonishes another to stop speaking English. The girl, dressed as Esther, dryly responds to him, in Yiddish transliterated English, oh-key, Unk. Another student asks the Mordkhe character if he’s dressed as a Smith Brother, referring to the bearded founders of the then-famous cough-drop empire.

The tone starts out extremely casual and American as the students tease each other about the quality of their costumes and their relative ability to protect (Esther) or harm (Haman) the Jews. But then a teacher shows up with an older class. The tone shifts, as the teacher begins speaking in rhymed couplets, a traditional Purim literary trope.

Vil ikh aykh itster bakonen
Mit a nayem mordkhe un a nayem homen

Now I want to acquaint you
With a new Mordecai and a new Haman

Imagine my surprise when I read the next lines, in which we find that the “new Haman” is dressed as the mufti of Jerusalem and at his side are two English soldiers. The position of grand mufti of Jerusalem had been created by the British, hence the two English solders by his side. The mufti had been an enthusiastic ally of Hitler and the Axis powers during the war. This particular issue of Yungvarg was from March 1948, mere months before the establishment of the State of Israel, something the mufti violently opposed. The state was established and the mufti indeed lost his position before the end of the year.

After the mufti’s introduction, the children all recite together:

Megst zikh redn perzish, arabish, oder english
Megst meynen bist shtark, un makhn zikh “tof”
Oyb du bist a soyne fun di yidn, a homen haroshe
Vestu, muzstu, hobn a shvartsn a bitern sof

Whether you speak Persian, Arabic, or English
whether you think you’re strong or tough
if you’re an enemy of the Jews, a Haman the wicked
you will, you must meet a bitter end

To which the teacher responds, omeyn. They then call two students from the crowd, the new Mordkhe and new Esther, two students dressed as members of the Haganah. (!) If we all help them vanquish the enemy, the teacher says, then we will have a “new, a joyous, a luminous Purim—1948.”

I’m sure I don’t need to belabor the complicated history in which this little text is embedded, but it’s also a fascinating window into the mindset of the adults writing and directing Purim activities, as well as that of the kids they were teaching. It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like, not only to have been a child watching the Holocaust unfold from afar, but immediately thereafter, watching the perilous fight for a Jewish state, surrounded, as this text makes clear, by yet more enemies, more Hamans, intent on the extermination of the Jewish people. What an absolutely terrifying time it must have been, and how much hope they must have placed in these new heroes who appeared in “Erets-Yisroel.” I’ll admit, it gave me chills.

The ghosts of the new Hamans are still present in the March 1949 Purim issue of Yungvarg. One of the texts therein is a short story called "A grager: a frey-zikh, a drey-zikh.” [A frey-zikh, drey-zikh is a carousel.] The story is told from the point of view of a student named Dovid. His parents buy him a Purim grogger and, unsurprisingly, immediately start to complain about it. The noise gives them a terrible headache. Nonetheless, they don’t regret buying it. After all, says Dovid’s father, rattling the grager and giving Haman a headache is a “groyse mitsve,” a big mitzvah, something Jews, in fact, are obligated to do.

Dovid can read the room, however. He takes his grager outside to play. He falls asleep and has a marvelous Purim dream. In it, he is a riz, a giant, and he is carrying a giant grager. His grager is so large that many children can play on it, like a carousel, or a frey-zikh, drey-zikh. He goes outside to look for Hamans to grager them into headaches. These days, he tells us, a Haman is a Nazi or an antisemite. But it’s not so easy to pick them out of the crowd. Nonetheless, he will find them, he says. But he needs the help of his fellow children; their laughter will cause the Hamans to faint away and disappear. So, Dovid goes to the Yiddish school to get their help. He tells them they have to do two things to become giants, too, and defeat the new Hamans. First, they have to study hard in Yiddish school. This, to be frank, pisses them off. Don’t their teachers already bug them about studying enough? Second, he says, they have to really hate the new Hamans. That part is easy and they cheer. One of the students says, they themselves saw the new Hamans murder millions of Jews. They hate the new Hamans. They despise them! They—

Dovid cuts them off. That’s enough. The kids join him on the giant grager to defeat the new Hamans with their laughter and their pent-up anger. It’s a joyous, cathartic moment imagined from a child’s point of view. Alas, it has been a dream all along. Nonetheless, the story speaks to a child’s fantasy of revenge and the need to channel that anger into something positive.

In another short story in that issue, the Purim story is retold briefly in a more traditional way. But at the end, when the king must undo his previous order to allow the slaughter of the Jews, the text brings a slight variation on the megile. Here, Mordkhe asks for permission for the Jews to be armed (bavafn) and fight back. “Mir hobn nit keyn moyre tsu kemfn far undzer lebn,” we have no fear to fight for our lives. What’s more, he says, Haman’s army will be terrified when they see “az di yidn zaynen gut gegreyt,” that the Jews are well prepared.

The ordn shuln were fighting an uphill battle to transmit Yiddish culture through their schools, and, indeed, the IWO would be targeted by red baiters in the early 1950s and its assets liquidated within a few years. Still, the teachers and activists of the ordn shuln persisted as long as possible in their project. They understood that giving Jewish children a substantive, historically connected Jewish education was, quite literally, a matter of life and death. Survival was understood to be just as much a matter of rootedness and self-knowledge as it was a matter of self-defense. After all, Hitler didn’t want to just murder Jews; he wanted to wipe out their culture, their civilization.

Today, in 2023, Nazis are quite literally threatening theater goers at a new production of Parade, the musical about the murdered Jewish factory manager Leo Frank. These wannabe Hamans have made a point of waging a disinformation war about Frank, trying to paint him as predator rather than victim. From the pages of Yungvarg comes a message that history, and knowing who we are, and how that has formed us, is itself a form of self-defense and a way of meeting the future. We don’t need an Indiana Jones Part 5 to punch Nazis. All we need are our own heroes of the past to help us prepare for the challenges of today.

ALSO: My friend Ilya Shneyveys will celebrate his 40th birthday in true klezmer style, with an all-star jam at legendary Brooklyn music spot Barbes. Shneyveys and friends will play a set of his original klezmer compositions. Saturday, March 4, 8 p.m., at Barbes, 376 9th St., Brooklyn. More information here … YIVO will present “Molly Picon as Lyricist,” a lecture by Ronald Robboy, part of Carnegie Hall’s seasonlong exploration of women’s contributions to the world of music. March 7, 1 p.m., online. More information here ... Borscht Beat records presents KLEZTRONICA Purim Edition! Featuring artists like the Tsnius-dik band, DJ Shney, Beila, and Brenda Roses burlesque. March 18 at 7 p.m. at Revision Lounge, 219 Avenue B, New York City … On March 26, the Folksbiene will present an important new show, pleytem tsuzamen (Refugees Together). Singers from Ukraine, Latvia, Berlin, England, and the Americas “will perform a contemporary musical commentary on what it means to be a refugee, weaving a defiant garment of hope in a threatening and threatened world.” Music and lyrics by Josh Waletzky and book by Jeyn Levison. Only two performances and tickets are sure to sell out quickly. Get your tickets now … The Yiddish Book Center is offering a new course called Shakespeare & Yiddish, taught by esteemed literature professor Ilan Stavans. Special focus will be paid to Shakespeare’s sonnets, King Lear, Merchant of Venice, and Romeo and Juliet. Class will be held each Wednesday in March. Registration is a must.

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