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Virtual Yiddishland

Rokhl’s Golden City: Yiddish summer retreats rethink their offerings because of the pandemic

Rokhl Kafrissen
July 31, 2020
Photo: Avia Moore
Photo: Avia Moore
Photo: Avia Moore
Photo: Avia Moore

When I arrived in Yiddishland in the late 1990s, it sometimes felt like the most exciting times had already come and gone, the golden age of the klezmer “revival” now something to be studied. The folks who had set off the so-called revival in the early 1970s were now part of a Yiddish folk arts establishment. If you were so inclined (and I was), getting to know them was only a matter of being able to pay the entry fee.

Starting in 1984, there was KlezKamp, the Christmas week Catskills retreat that set the standard for peak experience klezmer. One of the early breakout stars of KlezKamp, Alan Bern of the band Brave Old World, called it the reemergence of an “ecstatic participation” and affirmation of Jewish cultural identity. It took a while, but eventually there were imitators, and to avoid competing with KlezKamp (and for other logistical reasons), they opened their doors during the summer. In fact, my very first klezmer-Yiddish world retreat was the Oxford Yiddish summer school (now long gone), at which I met Bern and the other members of Brave Old World. As artists in residence, Brave Old World drove home the idea that this thing we were exploring was not just another language, but a unified culture.

Shortly afterward, I moved to New York, in large part to be at the center of the Yiddish world. I remember one night being on the phone with a friend of mine. She was older than I was, with a fancy career, a family, and a band. She was telling me all about the two summer retreats she had attended, KlezKanada and the also long-gone Buffalo on the Roof. I listened in jealous awe as she told me about the many spicy goings on. Here I was in New York, and still somehow miles behind on everything that mattered.

But in fact, that would have been either the first or second year of Buffalo on the Roof, and only the third year of KlezKanada. When I finally got to KlezKanada the next summer, it felt like I was just catching up, when I was really getting in on the ground floor.

A couple years later, in 2001, KlezKanada, and the grounds of Quebec’s Camp B’nai Brith, felt like a second home. It was that year that Jenny Romaine led us both backward, and forward, into history, something perhaps only possible in the Yiddish world.

Folklorist Itzik Gottesman had collected a most unusual tradition from a man named Arye-Leibush Laish. In his town in Romania, kaboles shabes started not in shul, but at the river. Residents met at the river and walked backward to shul, singing a tune specifically for that backward walk. Using her many years’ experience making street theater, director Jenny Romaine took that bit of folklore and created a shabes happening. Everyone would meet by the lake with their instruments (as it had been the custom in Stanisesti) and march backward, playing or singing the Stanisesti nign.

It was ecstatically weird and fun and a little uncomfortable for the more emotionally reserved among us. And after almost 20 years, it is now firmly entrenched as KlezKanada tradition. At the time, I would’ve said it was just another brilliant KlezKanada experiment, the kind of thing that could only happen when creative people come together in community. But I didn’t foresee it becoming history.

This year was supposed to be a big one for KlezKanada, its 25th anniversary. Having spent most of its existence hanging on by a financial thread, it’s truly a milestone to celebrate. But of course, life has a way of getting in the way. The leaders of KlezKanada made the decision to go fully virtual rather than cancel. Immediately afterward, KlezKanada artistic director Michael Winograd sent out a call for participants in a virtual backward march, because … of course. Nonetheless, as a person who has found the onslaught of virtual programming oppressive, I needed to be convinced that this was a good idea.

I called my old friend Sebastian Schulman, now the executive director of KlezKanada. And just as I hoped, Seb came through. He told me that even before putting out a request for volunteers, he started getting notes from folks who wanted to help out. Rather than seeing a virtual festival as a poor substitute for a week spent lakeside, immersed in music, Schulman sees it as a continuity. As he told me, “What people really want is the chance to connect. And this is still a real way to connect. Going virtual makes connection possible …” And most importantly, “We’re not just making music for fun, we’re coming together to make the world a place we want to live in … If we don’t meet, community isn’t possible.”

In places where the pandemic has been successfully controlled, there are other options. My old friend Alan Bern now leads the three-week-long Yiddish Summer Weimar in Germany. The Weimar program will be going forward in person, outdoors, and with social distancing built into the texture of the festival, though with far fewer participants from outside Germany. With his usual incisiveness, Bern told me that finding a way to be both distant and together is “just the latest in a long line of challenges to our social being posed by contemporary society, including long-distance relationships, virtual communities, migrant or commuting work, and so on. In fact, one could say that many of us got used to something that’s actually a luxury and a privilege: to decide with almost no constraints when, where and how to meet with other people.”

Some festivals have decided that going virtual isn’t for them. Also celebrating its 25th anniversary, the sprawling Ashkenaz festival was due to take up residence again at Toronto’s Harbourfront, on its every other year schedule, at the end of August. Although it creates community in its own way, Ashkenaz is more about the spectacle than community connection.

Of course, Ashkenaz could have decided to go forward with a slate of virtual live concerts. As noted above, I’m a dedicated Zoom hater, the signature lag and jump of our virtual lives grating on me as much as the cyber squeal of a dial-up modem. The idea of more Zoom concerts fills me with dread instead of joy. But I’ve been trying to see this moment from the perspective of 20 years on, what might the Zoom age look like through the lens of nostalgia?

“Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable, and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit—all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: So much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart.” Legendary musician and producer Brian Eno wrote this passage in a diary he kept during 1995, a year in which he worked on projects for artists like David Bowie and U2, and CD-ROMs were the absolute cutting edge. If disintegration is really what the future wants, we’ve sown ’em a bumper crop.

Despite our (and my) constant focus on Zoom and other conferencing software, I’ve found myself most drawn to my old foe, the telephone. Writing this piece came with an extremely pleasurable by-product: catching up with klezmer-Yiddish friends around the world. All of them are in the middle of a frenzy of summer festival preparations, virtual or not. And all of them sounded the same notes of community and connection.

I met Jana Mazurkiewicz Meisarosh when we were both students at the Vilnius Yiddish program in 2008. She’s now the founder and CEO of the Yiddish Arts and Academics Association of North America. When we talked, she was getting ready for YAAANA’s Mama Loshn Festival of Female Creativity in Yiddish. She noted something that many others brought up: As horrible as everything is right now, it has brought together people from all over the world. People who would not ordinarily meet, whether due to financial, time or travel constraints, are now finding themselves in the same “rooms.” Mazurkiewicz Meisarosh was excited to tell me about the new connections she’s making between YAAANA in San Diego and the Yiddish speaking community across the border (figuratively), in Mexico City.

In London, klezmer fiddler Ilana Cravitz created her “Nign a Day” project to perform and record as many tunes as possible from the pioneering ethnographic collection by Moyshe Beregovsky, Tish Nigunim. After 42 performances, Cravitz can now point to not just an archive of recordings of little-known tunes, but a “snapshot of what klezmer fiddling looks like in the world in 2020.” And as she told me in our phone call, the people who turned up for Nign a Day weren’t there for perfect sound quality, but community.

In Brighton, England, Polina Shepherd has been leading weekly “Sing With Me” sessions in Yiddish and Russian, along with other online musical projects. A large part of Shepherd’s musical work is done with large choirs, but that’s been on hold during the pandemic. She, like many musicians, has taken an enormous financial hit on account of the pandemic. Ironically, choral singing, an activity usually associated with elevating, transcendent social connection, has become a site of pandemic panic, a potential “superspreader” event, khas v’sholem. Nonetheless, abandoning her musical work wasn’t an option. As Shepherd told me, the most important thing she’s learned through her virtual musical work is that “half of it is not just about music, but about people being together and connecting.” Before the singing sessions started, people from Iceland, New Zealand, and everywhere in between would find themselves chatting. They were talking “not just about music, but connecting via music. I knew that before but it has really come to the forefront.”

Back in the 1990s, Eno wrote, “The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.”

No matter where you fall politically, there’s no doubt that what is happening in the United States right now is indeed too momentous for the software hand we’ve been dealt. It’s still hard, though, to imagine Zoom recordings taking on the same aura of excitement as the crackle of vinyl or grainy film. But maybe one day, God willing, if anything good comes out of this crisis, we will come to associate the craggy AV atmosphere of Zoom rooms with a renewed sense of community, and perspective.

THE FESTIVAL MUST GO ON: The three-day intensive Workers Circle Trip to Yiddishland goes virtual, Aug. 16-18. Expect all levels of Yiddish classes, song workshops, and plenty of shmoozing with Yiddish lovers all over the world.

KlezKanada walks boldly forward, and backward, this year online, Aug. 24-28. Registration is open now. More information here.

Yiddish Vokh (Yiddish Week) has pivoted to Yiddish all summer long. Information here.

ALSO: Aug. 6, Museum of Jewish Heritage presents a lecture and concert called “Survivor Songs: The Amazing Stonehill Recordings.” Collected at Manhattan’s Marseille hotel in 1948, the songs of the Stonehill archive are a unique window into the lives of survivors. Professor Miriam Isaacs has spent the last few years immersed in the collection, transcribing and contextualizing its contents … Starting Aug. 11, my friend Avi Hoffman’s Yiddish Initiative (YI) will be conducting a six-week conversational Yiddish course, featuring his mom, longtime Yiddish teacher and writer, Miriam Hoffman … The recent Workers Circle program in honor of Mikhl Baran (z’’l), “Songs for the Family” (Yiddish songs for kids and parents), is now available for viewing on YouTube …,Throughout August, Yiddish scholar Dovid Katz will be delivering the Mervyn Smith Memorial Lecture series, presented by the Capetown Holocaust and Genocide Centre … Sunday, Aug. 9 will be a very special concert in honor of the 100th birthday of Yiddish poet-artist Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman (z’’l) … Frieda Vizel is once again offering her walking tours of Hasidic Williamsburg, as well as video tours for those still staying close to home … Friend of the column, clarinetist and klezmer history scholar Joel Rubin has finally published his landmark study, New York Klezmer in the Twentieth Century: The Music of Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras. It’s an academic volume with commensurate pricing, so make sure to get your academic institution or library to order a copy. And if you can’t get your hands on Joel’s book, go and buy Michael Winograd’s brilliant new CD, Michael Winograd Plays Brandwein. (Actually, Winograd has worked his butt off to become the premier interpreter of Brandwein and Tarras, so make sure you get the new CD in any case.)

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