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Rokhl’s Golden City: A new generation’s Yiddish swag

Rokhl Kafrissen
August 13, 2021
Tablet Magazine; Glikl sticker image courtesy Cameron Bernstein
Tablet Magazine; Glikl sticker image courtesy Cameron Bernstein
Tablet Magazine; Glikl sticker image courtesy Cameron Bernstein
Tablet Magazine; Glikl sticker image courtesy Cameron Bernstein
“A Yiddish word … is like a curio”
—Jeffrey Shandler, Adventures in Yiddishland

There are a couple things that mark me as a child of the 1980s: pre-vaccine chickenpox scars, an undying love of Ghostbusters, and my most treasured childhood possession—a sticker book. My sticker book was a large photo album, the kind with clear acetate pages that lift up so photos can be placed underneath. The stickers weren’t kholile stuck to the page, but lovingly placed down, backing paper intact. The generation gap between me and my young niece is nowhere more apparent than in my abject horror at her insistence that stickers be used for their intended purpose.

It was with some significant joy that I’ve observed adult collectible (and stickable, if you insist) stickers recently coming back into vogue, both as promotional swag and as signifiers of identity. Better stickers than tote bags. I was secretly pleased when studies made the news arguing that cotton tote bags actually had a far worse environmental impact than single-use plastic bags. Genug shoyn with the totes. I’ve got totes inside totes inside totes, enough for a banquet of Thanksgiving Toteduckens. Gimme all the stickers.

Happily, the era of print-on-demand merchandise sites has also brought about a renaissance in Yiddish swag. While we may not all have the spare cash for T-shirts, mugs, and socks, everyone can afford a sticker or two (or three). This summer, connoisseurs of Yiddish swag have been snapping up the bespoke creations of Cameron Bernstein, a college student and Yiddish TikTok superstar. In her Redbubble shop, Bernstein’s got a wide range of designs, reflective of the life of a college student today. But her collection of vinyl Yiddish stickers is much smaller and more personal, created by hand, rather than using computer-aided graphic design. There’s a watercolor Golem, her own drawing of Glikl of Hameln (the foremother of Yiddish literature), and a quote from Sholem Asch’s Der tilim yid (The Psalm Jew). All three are visually striking. On her Instagram account, Bernstein posted the images, along with the closest we’ve gotten so far to a Yiddish sticker manifesto:

I think a lot of Jewish design “tshochkifies” Yiddish, throwing words out of their context into random places for the aesthetic. I understand the historical context, and the processes of acculturation which left later generations with sparse knowledge of the language beyond “kvetsh” and “shvitz,” and wanted to make swag that encourages deeper explorations and connections with the world of Yiddish language, culture, and history!

Bernstein’s post is a powerful callback to Jeffrey Shandler’s Adventures in Yiddishland (2006). In the chapter “Absolut Tchotchke,” Shandler describes his own collection of Yiddish “realia.” These are postwar, mass produced items bearing one or more Yiddish words. For him, “the most telling semiotic feature” of these items is their “atomization of Yiddish.” They “consistently present Yiddish as something less than a whole language.” The objects he describes are things like Yiddish poetry fridge magnets, humorous Yiddish glossaries, and real snack foods with joke “Yiddish” packaging (like Mashuga Nuts). Shandler notes that on none of these items can one find a complete Yiddish sentence. These objets speak only in exclamations and highly charged single words.

Situated within a newly vibrant network of young Yiddishists, Bernstein pushes back on that tradition of atomization with her designs, drawing inspiration from early and high modern Yiddish literature.

When I was starting out, if you wanted to buy something “Yiddishy,” fridge poetry magnets (and their ilk) were the only game in town. Shandler argues that many of these items are produced in what he calls the “mock” mode: “mock offerings of a mock heritage.” Even if the humor was gentle, the Yiddish embodied within was a punchline. Which made it all the more uncomfortable for those of us who received them as gifts from well-meaning friends and relatives. But that’s all there was!

Even just 20 years ago, Yiddish-themed swag of any form was extremely limited, and before online shopping, dependent on being in the right place at the right time. The annual KlezKamp and Klezkanada T-shirts were and are highly coveted. The YIVO summer program creates new T-shirt designs every year for its graduates, with the iconic YIVO logo on the front and Yiddish poetry on the back. Alex Weiser, YIVO Director of Public Programs, told me that they get numerous requests from nongraduates to buy the summer T-shirts, but as of now, they are limited to participants. Despite not having a “store,” YIVO puts out quite a bit of branded swag, but most of it is used as premiums for donors and other member outreach activities. (Scarcity makes the heart grow fonder.)

For a long time, the quintessential piece of Yiddishist swag was the button. Buttons are cheap to make and sell (you could even make them yourself with a machine), and they fit all ages, sizes, and styles. In 1952, the Congress for Jewish Culture issued a commemorative button in honor of I.L. Peretz’s centenary, as did the Arbeter Ring. In the 1970s Yugntruf (Youth for Yiddish) started selling its timeless redt mit mir yidish (speak Yiddish with me) button. (Now available on masks, mugs, and notebooks in their Zazzle shop.) Yugntfuf has also had a line of Yiddish word T-shirts for quite a while, shirts printed with meydele or yidish or other similar words, in Yiddish letters. While the single word T-shirts are fine, they aren’t exactly exciting. (Sorry.)

Few American Jews outside the Yiddish world understand the politics of Yiddishism (hell, many inside the Yiddish world don’t understand it.) So a redt mit mir Yiddish button could theoretically point to a defiant resistance to American monolingualism, and/or commitment to a certain flavor of 20th-century non-Zionism, but … the average person stands approximately zero chance of grasping any such thing at a glance.

What I find so interesting about this new generation of Yiddish swag is how it troubles Shandler’s earlier analysis of Yiddish realia, and puts radical (mostly left) politics all the way out front. And, because it’s Yiddish, of course, it all goes back to a folk song (or two).

In January 2017, a group of New York City activists brought a banner to the historic Women’s March. The banner read Mir veln zey iberlebn in Yiddish letters and transliteration, along with the translation, We Will Outlive Them. The banner cited the phrase as coming from a “Yiddish resistance song.” Ira Temple, one of the marchers carrying that banner, had been looking for the text to a song called Lomir zikh iberbetn. In the classic songbook Pearls of Yiddish Song, they found the lyrics, as well as a story accompanying the song. According to the text, during the war, the Nazis came to Lublin and rounded up the Jews of the city and commanded them to sing for the Nazi’s amusement. A member of the crowd started singing the Hasidic song, Lomir zikh iberbetn, ovinu shebashomayim (Let’s Make up, Father in Heaven). In a moment of defiance, the singer changed the words to mir veln zey iberlebn (we will outlive them) and the rest of the Jews began singing the new words, too.

As a member of the klezmer band Tsibele, Temple started performing their own adaptation with the band, calling it Mir veln zey iberlebn. Patches with the title in both Yiddish and English sold briskly from their merch store. The phrase quickly took on a life of its own, a perfectly zeitgeisty take on the Trump-era and the anger and fear it engendered. Today, you can buy all sorts of Mir veln zey iberlebn merch, like T-shirts or stickers at online shops, all unconnected to Tsibele.

I reached out to Temple to ask them what they thought of witnessing the folklorization process in real time. “I’m so glad people connect to stories and songs that include Yiddish,” they told me. “There is such a huge demand, and people respond to it so much.” They’re proud to have brought such a powerful sentiment out into the world, even if it’s now gone far beyond Tsibele and become “concretized,” as Shandler might say, in the world of reproducible merch. That success “reflects the training I received from [theater artist] Jenny [Romaine] and from the Yiddishist world.” Temple learned how to “assert the power of the archives and the generations that came before us and the complex, layered, writing upon writing upon writing that is accessible to us.”

Another old Yiddish song has found its way into the zeitgeist, and onto this new generation of merch. You can now get tote bags, T-shirts, and of course, stickers, with the chorus to a Russian-Yiddish anarchist song of 1905, Daloy Politsey (Down with the Police). In 1999, the song appeared on In Love and In Struggle: The Musical Legacy of the Jewish Labor Bund, a CD that featured the beloved singer/activist/teacher Adrienne Cooper. I remember being at KlezKanada in 1999, and learning the song from her at an outdoor singalong. Imagine a group singalong for Daloy Politsey, a song whose only easily singable words (at least for Americans) are in the four-word chorus. It was awkward, but also thrilling. I remember thinking to myself, I wish people outside the Yiddish world understood the radical potential hidden in the archives. And I guess I got my wish.

There’s a long and twisty road by which the song (and its insanely catchy chorus) has come to wider attention. Canadian singer-songwriter-provocateur Geoff Berner created a brilliant adaptation of the song in 2011, which really got it into the popular consciousness. So, I’m not surprised when I go on Twitter, for example, and see all kinds of folks outside the Yiddish world using Daloy Politsey (a song about bringing down the czar and his mother) as part of their social media identity.

I was surprised, however, when I went on Twitter and saw Chabad shaliach Mottel Lightstone offering his own Yiddish swag: a sticker that said Daloy Galus (down with the exile) juxtaposed with the “shouting man” graphic associated with the Bund. I was immediately skeptical about this combination. Turns out, it wasn’t just the anarchists who claimed Daloy for themselves.

Lightstone and his wife, Chana, run something called Tech Tribe, which is an affiliate of Chabad Young Professionals. The sticker is one of the pieces of swag they’ve created as premiums for supporters. When I asked Lightstone about the phrase, he told me that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, used the phrase publicly as early as the 1970s, “as a call for the end of galus, the state of spiritual and physical concealment we find ourselves in.” What’s really interesting is that his mother, Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson, mentions the phrase in her own Yiddish-language memoir! She recalls that when he was very young (before 1905), Menachem Mendel would come into the house repeating what he had heard on the street, daloy samaderzhavye (down with the ruling class).

Lightstone’s swag differs from that of the other folks finding meaning (and merch) in Daloy Politsey, as it has an explicitly religious/theological purpose. Others have connected the song to specific instances of contemporary police violence, such as the murder of George Floyd. Nonetheless, it feels like there is something they all share. “Ultimately, I hope that we can all experience the call of Daloy Galus—the radical sense that there is a lot of stuff broken in the world right now.” I’m not sure a sticker can bring about the redemption, but I love the idea of these sticky little bits of paper, all sharing something of the same culture, surprising us with their new old imagery, gluing us together in new and surprising ways.

ALSO: On Aug. 13, my dear friend Miryem-Khaye Seigel will be at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, leading a special Kabbalat Shabbat service commemorating the Night of the Murdered Poets. Watch the livestream here The Klezmographers (Eleonore Biezunski and Pete Rushefsky) will play an outdoor, late afternoon set at Barbes on Aug. 15, 376 Ninth Street, Brooklyn … Maison de la culture Yiddish in Paris is offering (virtual) Yiddish language classes as well as advanced literature and history courses (taught entirely in Yiddish), running for the full school year. Classes start September 2021. Enroll now … YIVO’s Fall Yiddish language classes are now open for enrollment. Class starts Aug. 30 and my sources tell me some of the class sessions are almost full, so if you were planning on taking a YIVO class, sign up now … YIVO and the Yiddish Book Center announced a really nifty collaboration for this fall. They are co-sponsoring a new leynkrayz (reading circle) led by Anita Norich. Students take turns reading a Yiddish text aloud and should be comfortable participating in Yiddish discussion. Starting Oct. 5, register now … YAAANA is offering an eight-session Yiddish for Advanced Students program in October … The Yiddish Philharmonic Chorus is holding auditions! Chorus repertoire is entirely in Yiddish, but no knowledge of the language is required. Rehearsals are Monday evenings in midtown Manhattan. Auditions will be held on Aug. 30 and 31. Email Binyumen Schaechter ([email protected]) to schedule an audition.

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

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