Navigate to Community section

The Queer Yiddish Musical Canon

What to listen to this month while celebrating Pride

Rokhl Kafrissen
June 23, 2023
Inset image: Adina Verson and Katrina Lenk in 'Indecent' / Photo © Carol Rosegg, 2015
Inset image: Adina Verson and Katrina Lenk in ‘Indecent’ / Photo © Carol Rosegg, 2015
Inset image: Adina Verson and Katrina Lenk in 'Indecent' / Photo © Carol Rosegg, 2015
Inset image: Adina Verson and Katrina Lenk in ‘Indecent’ / Photo © Carol Rosegg, 2015

It’s June, the season of celebrating weddings and celebrating Pride. If you wanted to combine the two, there would be no better place to do so than Northampton, a bustling college town in western Massachusetts. It also happens to be home to the most lesbian couples per capita of any city in the U.S. Northampton’s demographic claim to fame is due, at least in part, to its proximity to two of the historic “Seven Sisters” women’s colleges, Mount Holyoke and Smith.

It wasn’t until the early 1990s, though, that Northampton gained nationwide notoriety as “Lesbianville” with the publication of the local newspaper’s first same-sex engagement announcement. That announcement ended up making national news, drawing even more lesbians to the city, as well as quite a bit of negative attention, including a lurid feature in the National Enquirer. Nonetheless, Northampton continued to thrive as a haven for gay women.

Apparently, some even referred to Northampton as the “lesbian Ellis Island.” Having just returned from a week teaching at the Yiddish Book Center (in neighboring Amherst), I find the idea of a “lesbian Ellis Island” incredibly charming, as well as poignant. The linkage between modern Yiddishism and queerness is not inherent or inevitable, and yet, were one to draw a Venn diagram of the two, the overlapping area would be significant. It’s a phenomenon that has been noted since the very beginning of Klezkamp, in the early 1980s, if not earlier. The children (and grandchildren!) of those early Klezkampers now have their own rite of passage in the Steiner Summer Yiddish Program at the Yiddish Book Center. It’s hard to point to any demographic data (for obvious reasons), but by all accounts, queer students in the Steiner program have outnumbered nonqueer students for a number of years.

I got to hang out a bit with the Steiner students when I was there, including a music and dance party with local klezmer stars Burikes, whose members include second-generation queer Northamptonites. Getting to hear the band live was a special treat, and their spirit and down home virtuosity cheered me immensely.

You don’t have to have been born in Northampton to have been touched by its queer genius loci, as it were. My dear friend Miryem-Khaye Seigel graduated from Hampshire College, whose campus is also home to the Yiddish Book Center. In addition to being a highly regarded Judaica librarian, Seigel is a talented writer and singer of new Yiddish song. As she recently told me, all of her songs come from a lesbian perspective; that’s just who she is. Her album Toyznt Tamn (A Thousand Flavors) features “Di bahaltene libe” (The Hidden Love), one of her songs that is most explicitly about coming out.

When I asked Seigel about her own personal picks from the queer klezmer canon, she named two Klezmatics tunes from their Rhythm and Jews album: “The Kiss” and “Honikzaft,” a slow burn, homoerotic Yiddish adaptation of the Song of Songs.

One of the newer bands on the Yiddish scene is Seattle’s Brivele. When I asked the band for their picks from the queer Yiddish canon, Maia Brown (banjo, voice) named “S’iz der steppe” (also known as “Di arbuzn) as “a favorite of contemporary queer courtship.” Stefanie Brendler (accordion, voice) selected the score from Indecent, the 2015 Paula Vogel play about Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance. Brendler told me that the musical interludes play an important part in the storytelling, “not just the story of two women in love, but also how the Yiddish production thrived like a stealth queer, getting away with something in plain sight of the English-speaking American authorities.”

It’s no surprise that the Klezmatics came up again when I called on my friend Sarah Gordon for her queer Yiddish canon pick. I’ve heard some amazing stories about her mom, the late and dearly missed Adrienne Cooper, but the image of Cooper in a suit and tie at the YIVO prom was a beyond delightful surprise to me. As Gordon wrote:

I grew up hanging out at YIVO in the 1980s with my gay mom and her queer friends and peers where I was introduced to Yiddish and queer culture at the same time. I attended a YIVO prom where my mom wore a suit and tie, boys slow-danced together, and Yiddish peppered conversations. The fact that we have a thriving Yiddish scene is thanks to generations of queer Yiddish artists and academics who created (and create) spaces and space for Yiddish to grow and thrive. The Klezmatics are synonymous with queer Yiddishkeit, from gay verses of Ale Brider, to their album Shvaygn=Toyt [Silence Equals Death], they have acted as a model of what it is to take traditional material and proudly proclaim its queerness. [Klezmatics vocalist] Lorin Sklamberg has one of my favorite voices ever and his version of “Loshn Koydesh” is the sweetest, sexiest, queer Hebrew lesson of your dreams and mine.

The queer Yiddish canon is not just happening on CDs or in concert venues. It’s being written on the stage, too. GLYK is a new Yiddish theater collective out of Brooklyn, presenting new takes on older Yiddish works, as well as playful translations of American pop culture into Yiddish. Even their name is an act of play: a pun on the Yiddish word glik, meaning happiness or luck. But it started, as many things do these days, as a joke in the group chat, the Gay Little Yidn Kolektiv.

That joke slowly morphed into a real theater-making project. Initially hosted by the New Yiddish Rep in 2022, GLYK has moved on to other performances spaces, including a no-frills basement in Brooklyn. With a minuscule budget, they have to make every penny count. Performing in the Brooklyn basement meant getting lights from Craigslist and borrowing, as they told me, “every chair in North Brooklyn.”

GLYK is an expansive and expanding group of young, Yiddish-oriented theater makers who bring trash and high art together and “make them kiss.” The kolektiv has a nonhierarchical structure, with no one vision dominating, though there is definitely a shared sensibility. I recently chatted with two of its members, Ruth Geye and Sophie Hurwitz, who told me a bit about their project.

“I tend to be suspicious of ‘representation matters’ style politics,” said Hurwitz, “but the less cynical part of my brain thinks it’s incredibly life-affirming to be creating queer art in my ancestral language. With the exceptions of one or two members, it’s pretty much an all-queer group. But every member is finding their own meaning in the work.”

As for the role Yiddish plays for the members of GLYK, “individual members have different answers,” Geye told me, “but what unites us is being able to maintain and complicate a relationship to the past. A lot of what we do is find things that haven’t been performed in a while and change it or articulate our relationship to it.”

That ranges from newly recovered works by women Yiddish playwrights, to a new Yiddish adaptation of the Real Housewives franchise. Most of the translations into Yiddish are done by actor/translator Corbin Allardice, though Geye and Hurwitz emphasized that Allardice’s contributions are hardly limited to the trashy side of the GLYK equation.

It’s really hard to make theater in New York today, for many reasons, but especially on account of the costs and the scarcity of affordable space. In the face of those challenges, GLYK has sold out every show they’ve produced. Their next show will be at the larger Target Margin theater in Brooklyn, on July 2.

If GLYK is able to storm the New York Yiddish theater scene, it owes a debt to those who blazed the trail ahead of them. And after years of trying, I finally got an interview with one of the last remaining grande dames of the Yiddish theater, Miss Mitzi Manna. The only reason she agreed in the end was to promote her new music video for her cover of Lola Folman’s “Di alte moyd” (The Old Maid). But it was definitely worth the wait.

What follows are excerpts from our interview, which had to be edited for length, clarity, common decency, and to protect the dead.

RK: Thank you for sitting down with me, Miss Manna. Is it OK if I call you Mitzi?

MM: You never call me and you rarely write.

RK: I really enjoyed your rendition of Lola Folman’s “Di alte moyd.” Can you tell me when you made the video?

MM: 1953. If you see [Shane], tell him a lightbulb went out. I don’t know why he’s not in touch. He’s only punishing himself.

RK: Do you have any styling recommendations for my readers who want to pull off a Mitzi Manna look?

MM: Well, as you see, I go for a natural look. No surgeries. I have friends who had a little something done to their eyes and that’s fine for them, but I believe in aging … gracefully. Toward that end, I wear no makeup. Dress conservatively. Modestly. Men respect that.

RK: What do you think about the message of the song, that a woman needs to find a man before time runs out, no matter what he looks like. Do you think that still resonates for today’s women?

MM: As your great American philosopher Benjamin Franklin said, all cats are gray in the dark. As the late [Yiddish teacher] Pesach Fishman said, every pot has its lid, yeder tepl gefint zikh zayn dekl. As you can see when I’m doing dishes, I believe every tube has its brush, Rashi’s prohibition aside, you should pardon the reference.

RK: If I may ask, are you married, Miss Manna?

MM: It doesn’t take a marriage license, darling. Most men have been a disappointment to me. Those that weren’t are dead. Which is another kind of disappointment. Men are dogs. Without the loyalty.

RK: What do you think about the fact that you’ve become something of an icon for queer Yiddishists?

MM: Some of my best friends are queer. I’ve dealt with many of them in my time in the theater. I’ve even donned di hoyzn [pants] myself more than once over time. If I’m an icon, well, that’s a bit of a surprise. I mean, it makes sense, but it’s still a bit of a surprise. I hope it’s not a camp thing. More people should dress like me though, it’s true. I guess I reflect certain aspects of our Yiddish heritage.

RK: I absolutely agree.

MM: I was born in a basement in Berlin. And I came of age in a basement in the Bronx. I’ve pleased many large groups in basements. All across the world. On every inhabited continent. Me fleg zogn az mit yidish ken men oysforn a velt. [As we used to say, with Yiddish you can travel the entire world.]

RK: Do you prefer to work subterranean?

MM: Downstairs, back rooms, stage doors, I come, I go, and we have a few laughs in between. My friend Rozka used to say, “don’t settle for the easy pleasures.”

RK: Good advice.

MM: In the meantime, it’s not easy for the queer kids today. To draw a perhaps not so welcome parallel, we thought that times had changed for the better and now look what’s happening politically to the queer world. Well, it seemed like antisemitism might become a thing of the past at a certain point and now it’s becoming popular again, too. It’s shocking to me that we can go backwards as we do, but I guess people, like men, are dogs and return to their folly as the dogs to their vomit. I only wish they’d pick nicer follies.

RK: Halevai. We can only hope … Thank you so much for speaking with me. And I want to wish you a happy Pride, Miss Manna, dogs, haters, and transphobes aftselakhes (dogs, haters, and transphobes be damned).

ATTEND: There are still a few tickets left for GLYK’s upcoming show, Ekhte Balebustes/Real Housewives of the Yiddish Stage. “Featuring: the best of Bravo’s Real Housewives in a heimish Yiddish, F-lider by Kadya Molodowsky, Aktyor (Actor) by Paula Prilutski, Engshaft (The Straits) by Jane Rose & more.”

ALSO: Celebrate the 130th anniversary of the birth of Ida Maze with a Yiddish language seminar in her honor, “Lebn, klangen un opklangen fun shrayberin Ida Maze: The life, sounds and resounds of the Yiddish writer Ida Maze.” During this seminar, Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, Rivke Rebecca Margolis, and Hinde Ena Burstin will pay tribute to Ida Maze and her literary and community achievements, and will present some of the work of contemporary Yiddishists in reinvigorating Maze’s literary heritage for new generations. Note that this is a program out of Australia. Make sure you have the right time for your time zone. More information hereRegistration is now open for the Workers Circle summer session of Yiddish classes. Offerings range from beginners to advanced, as well as classes for music and song.

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