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Talking to the Dead

Rokhl’s Golden City: What happens when you channel a spirit that speaks Yiddish?

Rokhl Kafrissen
July 09, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

Lots of folks seek me out when they want to learn Yiddish. For quite a few, the goal is to be able to carry on a conversation with their grandparents. Even when the grandparents in question speak perfect English, there’s a sense that, as a medium of communication, Yiddish can be a bridge across time and space in a way that English could never be. But is it powerful enough to speak to the dead?

If you had asked me before this long pandemic year, I would’ve said, sure, I speak to Yiddish ghosts all the time. Figuratively, that is. Getting in touch with the dead is a big part of what goes into this column. I’m drawn to Derrida’s concept of hauntology, “the haunting of the present by spectres that cannot be ontologized away—that is, put into an ontological category of ‘being’ and ‘not being,’” as Helen Scholar summarizes it in her work on paternal DNA and the haunting of the family tree. After all, the foundational experience of being a Yiddishist is being told that Yiddish is a dead language.

Then, a few months ago, I got a call from Aliza Einhorn, a Brooklyn-based tarot reader, astrologer, and occasional medium for hire. She had started channeling the spirit of her Yiddish-speaking grandfather. He had appeared during the hardest days of the pandemic, answering questions and giving words of encouragement to her Patreon members. Now she wanted to work on some Yiddish conversational basics, to make things easier when her grandfather dropped in. Could I help? I’d only been waiting my whole life for someone to ask this exact question!

Full disclosure: I knew Einhorn long before she called to ask about Yiddish tutoring. She gave me a reading a few years back when I was on the threshold of a major life decision. I found her to be a sharply perceptive reader and her advice to me was decidedly nonsugarcoated. Since then, I’ve gotten a couple readings from her and she is the only person I recommend when a friend tells me they want to speak to a psychic.

I’m sure a lot of folks reading this will hear “channeling” and “medium” and think, “this is too weird.” And maybe it is. But maybe it’s also less weird than you think?

Einhorn has a new book coming out this month: A Mystical Practical Guide to Magic: Instructions for Seekers, Witches & Other Spiritual Misfits. She sent me an advance copy, and being a secret witch at heart, I devoured it. While the book is aimed at anyone interested in the subject, Einhorn’s writes openly about it from a Jewish point of view, and the book is dedicated (in part) “… to Jewish witches everywhere.” I took this as a sign to (virtually) sit down with her and find out what it’s like to be a heymish witch in frummest Brooklyn.

First, I needed to know about this Yiddish-speaking grandfather. What exactly happens when a spirit speaks to/through you? Einhorn described her grandfather as speaking a combination of Yiddish and English. How do you understand what he’s saying if he’s speaking a language you don’t understand?

“The act of mediumship for me, or any kind of psychic work, is always an act of translation, of putting it into your own words,” she told me. “You’re listening and you need some space and some silence.” (Mediumship and creating a relationship with spirits is also covered in the book.) She compares it to receiving a message in Morse code. “It can be kind of slow … so you have to wait and listen.” Then, she says, she can “give over” the message to the asker. “Give over” is a calque from the Yiddish ibergebn and has the sense of imparting or conveying the whole meaning of something. I smiled at this perfectly evocative bit of Yinglish description, bringing a message from yene velt (the other world) to this one. Farvos nisht? (Why not?)

This grandfather died years before Einhorn was born and she never knew much about him. So why was he showing up now? Sometime around 2018 she received a piece of shocking news from a cousin. This grandfather had been a Holocaust survivor, but had kept his story hidden well enough that while her parents were alive, if they knew, they had never breathed a word about it. But both her parents had died young, leaving a legacy of silences.

Again, I return to Helen Scholar’s reflections on genealogical work and the secrets revealed by new DNA technology. She writes, “Derrida’s ‘spectres’ are figures hovering between presence and absence … they are to be welcomed and understood rather than expelled. Their purpose, or perhaps their effect, is to trouble the distinctions between the past and present, dead and living, and to lead us away from the present to the past and the future and to a consideration of historical alternatives that could have been. The sensation of being haunted is concerned with an awareness of lost or potential futures, implied by a revealing of what is hidden or absent.” Who says metaphors always have to stay strictly metaphorical?

Around the same time that she got this surprising news, Einhorn was settling back into life in Brooklyn, to which she had returned after a four-year sojourn in Florida. She was also reconnecting with her adult niece, whom she hadn’t seen since the niece was a small child. This niece was now uncovering her own Jewishness as an adult, and the two of them went to see Yiddish Fiddler. In Brooklyn once again, Einhorn was surrounded by signs in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish, signs both literal and figurative. “You can’t get away from it, even if you wanted to.” Even for those with highly developed intuition, there’s still no substitute for sitting down and memorizing boring old verb conjugations. (That’s where I came in.)

Given that Einhorn has made witchcraft and psychic counseling her full-time job, I imagined that she had been gifted from birth with second sight. Or maybe she had been like me as a kid, tearing through every book in the library on anything remotely related to the occult. I was surprised when described a fairly normal childhood in Florida, where she attended Jewish day school and had no particular interest in the spooky. “I never played with a Ouija board, those things freak me out,” she told me. “I don’t watch horror movies. I don’t go to haunted houses.”

Indeed, the first place she witnessed real magic, divination via bibliomancy, was in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, sometime in the early 2000s. It was there that she saw Jews “look in” the rebbe’s letters, collected as Igros Kodesh. Anyone with a question can use these volumes by asking a question, choosing a page at random, and studying it for an answer. And since this is an age of miracles, you don’t even need the books themselves. There are websites where you can submit a question. Software will access the rebbe’s letters and “randomly respond with an answer“ right away.

On another website, the practice of looking in the rebbe’s letters is justified thusly: “Hashem did a great chessed with us and revealed a way of receiving the Rebbe’s directions, advice and brachos through the Igros Kodesh.” In fact, numerous justifications are brought in from the Talmud and rabbinic literature attesting to the kashrus (my term, not theirs) of this particular practice. Perhaps more important than those textual justifications, examples are given of randomly chosen letters that seem to address particular questions with surprising accuracy.

But if you’ve ever taken on a regular divination practice, the experience of those folks “looking in” the rebbe’s letters won’t seem so surprising. When you start doing it on a regular basis, patterns emerge, and the cards (or I Ching or whatever) will start to talk back to you in ways that range from vague to often on-the-nose or actually alarming. It may be true that these are all just vehicles for tuning in to some kind of universal, nonrational ways of knowing. It may also be true that humans are relentless pattern-seeking animals and we will find meaning in anything if we stare at it hard enough. (I’m OK with both of these things, though I completely understand folks who need to choose one or the other.)

I’ve had a tarot deck for ages. I’d pick it up every few years and then forget about it for a couple more. Einhorn’s new book is in large part about the how and why of a daily tarot practice for developing intuition. She believes that anyone can do it, just like she did. Having experienced Einhorn tuning in with extraordinary accuracy to my own particular questions, I had to give it a try. The book is written in the voice of a wise and patient friend, one who just wants you to turn off the noise and sit in silence, no matter how scary that can be.

That also means you have to be ready for who or what may show up. In the past two months the cards started telling me, rather insistently, that I was going to be married soon. Frankly, it sounded uncomfortably close to what I imagined the rebbe would tell me. Which would be fine if I had asked him, which I davke hadn’t.

In the book, Einhorn encourages readers to seek deeply within their own religious traditions, to explore the folklore and magic that may have been written out by previous generations. But she has no programmatic interest in making Judaism, or any religion, witchier. Nor does she feel an affinity with those bringing together the Jewish and neo-pagan worlds. She’s simply a Jew who happens to “read tarot cards and do a little astrology …”

What is so appealing about the book is her cheerful willingness to entertain conflicting ideas and conflicting sources of wisdom, without feeling obligated to square any kind of circle. She lives in a frum community but she is not quite part of it. She pulls cards all day long, consulting them on questions large and small. At the same, she says with a laugh, “I’ll read the rebbe’s letters and believe he’s talking to me.” She’s comfortable with contradictions, a proposal which doesn’t always sit right with her more religious friends and acquaintances. But she says, “Some things you can’t make sense of … you just live in a both-and kind of world.”

JEWISH WITCHES: Aliza Einhorn’s Mystical Practical Guide to Magic was published this week. You can buy it from Llewellyn or anywhere books are sold. Einhorn is always posting lots of great witchy content on Instagram as @alizaofbrooklyn. Or, just head over to her website, Moon Pluto Astrology … Cooper Kaminsky will lead a three-session class on Jewitch Semitic Folk Magic, organized by Catland Books. Class starts July 11. Part of the class will touch on ancestor work, “connecting to the Spirit world through our Jewish toolkit, beliefs, and traditions,” including “trance meditation for linking with the Spirit world.” Tickets here

ALSO: On July 17 my friend Annie Cohen will be giving a talk called “Yiddish, Jews & The Spanish Civil War.” Ticket purchases benefit Babel’s Blessing, providing free English classes for refugees and asylum seekers in the U.K. … On July 25 my friend Miryem-Khaye Seigel will be a guest at YIVO’s Yiddish Club, where she’ll join host Shane Baker to talk about Yiddish theater music. Register here … The Toronto Klezmer Society will host another outdoor klezmer jam, this time on July 25, at Christie Pits park … Happy 70th birthday to Folksbiene maestro Zalmen Mlotek! The Folksbiene will celebrate Zalmen (and his long career in Yiddish theater) from July 26-30 with a gala virtual concert called “A Yiddish Renaissance.” Tickets here … I haven’t seen it yet, so I make no representations, but I was thrilled to read that Jackie Hoffman (recently seen as Yenta in Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof) just opened a new off-Broadway show. Leaning into her obvious strengths, the show is called Fruma-Sarah (Waiting in the Wings.) Hoffman plays an actor playing Fruma-Sarah in a community theater production of Fiddler. “Sometimes to feel alive, you have to play a ghost.” At the Cell Theater, through July 25.

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

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