Picture this: I’ve got klezmer clarinetist Michael Winograd blasting through my headphones when I run into the actual Michael Winograd, in the flesh. Instead of meeting in some dark Brooklyn club, though, we’re trudging across a gigantic strip mall parking lot on a brilliantly hot Friday afternoon. We’re both a bit dazed—by the sunshine and by the proximity to so much big-box shopping.
Luck has smiled on the Jewish people and placed us in a hotel a few hundred feet from the largest Whole Foods I’ve ever been in. Half the New York klezmer world is also here, so it must be Yidstock, the Yiddish Book Center’s annual summertime Jewish music and ideas festival. Strip mall shopping aside, Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley is in full summer bloom. Lush green hills and frequent cow sightings welcome weary New Yorkers and, if it isn’t quite the Old Country, it’s a whole ’nother country.
This year’s Yidstock, which was held July 11-14, featured a stellar musical lineup, as usual, curated by longtime klezmer world observer Seth Rogovoy. I was excited to hear Winograd and get my hands on his brilliant new CD, Kosher Style. Along with Winograd’s neo-trad virtuosity, Yidstock audiences were treated to Toronto’s ethereal Aviva Chernick, an achingly beautiful new Daniel Kahn and Sarah Gordon Americana duet project, and much more. But what I was most excited about was possibly the weekend’s quietest event, the premiere of a new documentary about NEA National Heritage Fellow, and Yiddish world treasure, Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman (1920-2013).
Schaechter-Gottesman was born in Czernowitz, Romania (in what is now Ukraine). She had already begun training as a fine artist in Vienna when the war broke out. Though she came to be best known for her songs and poems, the Yiddish Book Center-produced documentary, Beyle: The Artist and Her Legacy, makes clear how central painting and drawing were to her creative life. As her granddaughter Esther says in the movie, Beyle’s creativity could not be bound to just one medium; she needed them all.
After the war, Schaechter-Gottesman settled in New York with her husband, as did her brother, the famed Yiddish linguist and pedagogue Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter. On Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx, she and a few other Yiddish-speaking families formed the nucleus of a community in which the children were raised in Yiddish. Schaechter-Gottesman wrote songs and musicals for the kids, as well as helping them produce their own mimeographed newsletter called Enge-Benge. Her son, Itzik Gottesman, became a folklorist and Yiddish teacher. Itzik’s daughter, Esther, is a fluent speaker as well as interpreter of Beyle’s songs.
Song was at the center of Schaechter-Gottesman’s work and life. She was a prolific songwriter and many of her songs were taken up quickly as modern classics, appearing on countless new Yiddish and klezmer CDs, with sophisticated new settings. But to understand Beyle, you have to understand the role of group singing, and the unaccompanied folk tradition, in the community she built. The house on Bainbridge Avenue hosted countless “zingeray” afternoons, where songs would be taught, exchanged, and reinterpreted. In the movie, Schaechter-Gottesman herself locates the source of this rich tradition within her own mother, Lifshe. She didn’t need notes, Beyle says at one point, like people do today. I had to chuckle at that. One of my most indelible memories of Schaechter-Gottesman involves being with her during a song session at Yiddish Vokh, many years ago. We were singing something, nothing terribly obscure, but a friend and I were referring to song sheets. Beyle made it clear that it was our responsibility to have the basics memorized. And she was right!
I was somewhat apprehensive about seeing Beyle: The Artist and Her Legacy, only because I’ve sat through so many maudlin and ahistorical documentaries about the Yiddish world. Despite its short runtime, Beyle beautifully captures its subject in all her complicated facets, as a survivor, a mother, a teacher, and above all, an artist who never stopped creating.
It can be difficult to recover the legacy of female artists who were ignored by peers and critics of their day. It’s even more difficult when those artists created limited edition, bespoke bodies of work. Ester Karp, Dina Matus, and Ida Broyner were fine artists associated with Yung-Yidish, a cultural movement and journal that flourished briefly, between 1918 and 1921 in Lodz, Poland. The movement was decidedly avant-garde and male dominated. However, Yiddish Book Center bibliographer and editorial director David Mazower has been working to complicate our understanding of Yung-Yidish by painstakingly reconstructing the life and work of Karp, Matus, and Broyner. Mazower gave a fascinating morning talk at Yidstock about the work of the three women, and his ongoing quest to assemble the pieces of their stories. His work began with a stunning find in the book center vaults:
“Turning the torn and brittle pages, I found the title—Himlen in opgrunt (Heavens in the Abyss)—and the name of the artist: Ester Karp. Published in Lodz in 1921, it was a glorious fusion of words and images. Karp’s pictures flickered and danced, alternating with carpet pages of deep blue calligraphy for the text. …
… Our book turns out to be one of three stunningly beautiful art books illustrated in linocut and watercolor by a trio of young Jewish women artists fresh out of art school. Their names—Ida Broyner, Ester Karp, and Dina Matus—are all but unknown. … The poems are apocalyptic, the artwork dreamlike and fantastical, and the colors radiant as enamel.”
Each of the three artists made one of these books, of which only 200 of each were produced. The run was understandably limited, as each copy was painstakingly hand painted by the artist. Mazower’s talk featured slides of these stunning works, with side-by-side comparisons of slightly different versions. The few extant photos of the women reveal a tantalizing glimpse of female studio life, worldly and Yiddish and incredibly modern.
The story, though, brought in so much more than just the brief bohemian moment of 1918-1921 Lodz. Ester Karp’s father had been a photographer in Skierniewice, and he taught his daughters the trade. A lucky eBay find led Mazower to discover that one of Ester Karp’s eight sisters, Rivke, had moved to Jerusalem before the war. There, she became the first professional female photographer to open her own studio in the city, in the 1920s. A single photograph of Ester, taken by Rivke, connected them, almost a hundred years after the fact, giving us just one more precious image of an artist too good to be lost forever.
WATCH: The Yiddish Book Center is making Beyle: The Artist and Her Legacy available for free screenings. It would make a beautiful addition to any Jewish arts or film festival.
LISTEN: Daniel Kahn sat for an interesting Yidstock interview with Seth Rogovoy. Radical, he reminded us, means to the root. Nothing is new. What’s so brilliant about Winograd’s Kosher Style is its radical not-newness, steeped, as it is, in the midcentury peak klezmer moment. As Kahn, a friend and collaborator of Winograd’s, put it, the album is “virtuosic and virtual art,” “projecting a ‘what if’ around itself where the blues revival might’ve included Muddy Waters and Dave Tarras … playing a whole world into existence.” Now you’ve heard the hype. If you’re in New York you can catch Michael Winograd and The Honorable Mentshn live on July 28, 3 p.m., Lincoln Center, Hearst Plaza, part of the Center for Traditional Music and Dance Next Generation Traditions program. If you can’t make it to New York, you can still peep the first music video from Kosher Style.
MORE: Klezmer fiddle legend Alicia Svigals performs live accompaniment for Das Alte Gesetz, a silent German film about Jewish life in 1860s Galicia. Aug. 6, 7 p.m. at the JCC on the Upper West Side. Tickets here. …On Aug. 12 the Congress for Jewish Culture, YIVO, and the Jewish Labor Committee present the annual program honoring the Night of the Murdered Poets. This year features something completely different, a staged reading of the only known play written by Shloyme Mikhoels, Der Boyer (The Builder). With Shane Baker, Yelena Shmulenson and more. (In Yiddish) 7 p.m., at YIVO, 15 West 16th St. More info here. …This is the 100th anniversary of the death of Yiddish writer Jacob Dinezon. Long known mostly as a close friend of I.L. Peretz, a new translation project aims to bring Dinezon out of the shadows. Tuesday, Sept. 3, 7 p.m. at YIVO. … Co-editor Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath will speak about the new Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary (in Yiddish). Special musical guest: singer Rachel Weston from London. Sunday, Sept. 8, 1:30 p.m. at the Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center, 3301 Bainbridge Ave., Bronx. …The Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus presents an encore of their Yiddish Flavors of Love program, (Yiddish with English translation) Sept. 15 at 3 p.m, Merkin Hall. Tickets here. … I’m having something of a Sholem Asch moment in my own life, reading an Asch novella and short story in my Yiddish classes, and recently taking part in a table read of another Asch play. I’m reminded how his work still vibrates with a timeless energy, whether it’s his contemporary work or his powerful historical dramas. This fall, the Yiddish Book Center presents The Plays of Sholem Asch, a weekend of lectures and play readings. Featuring top Yiddish theater scholars and artists. Nov. 1-3, Yiddish Book Center, Amherst, Massachusetts.
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Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.