Monday, January 15, 2007

Yiddish is Alive - And Dancing - in NYC.

Maybe it is just becase I have been more aware of it of late, or maybe because I have been spending more time in Brooklyn and with the younger generation of Yiddish activists, but in New York I am made aware daily of the presence of Yiddish language. In Europe Yiddish is generally considered a dying tongue , confined to pockets of elderly speakers, hasids in Antwerp, and linguistics departments at German universities. OK, and the eastern half of Paris... but in New York? In Brooklyn children still dream in Yiddish. A lot of my initial interest in the state of the Yiddish language is related to work I did as a linguist working with Native American languages and African languages spoken in the New World. One got accustomed to language communities that had very few speakers, or were teetering on the brink of linguistic morbidity. The general attitude towards Yiddish in Eastern Europe was that it was a dead language. Well, Yiddish ain't dead by a long shot. To paraphrase Frank Zappa... Yiddish isn't dead. It just smells bad. Or as I.B Singer said, Yiddish is taking a very long time to die. Take Yiddish theater... although the Yiddish theater has seen better days, the revived National Yiddish Theatre - the original Folksbiene - recently gave a performance of the Pirates of Penzance in Yiddish, not to mention Fyvush Finkel and Theo Bikel performing in "The Sunshine Boys" recently...You can still catch a bus in Yiddish in Brooklyn...Or buy a subway pass in Yiddish...Or just learn to behave properly. This signboard was found upstairs at the headquarters of the Arbeiter Ring, the Workman's Circle building which houses the weekely Forward newspaper, which comes out in both Yiddish and English. I think that this room may be used for one of the Yiddish children's classes... but essentially, this is a sane and practical basic guide to non-Jewish behavior...Now, if you want to learn how to move in Yiddish, well.... you would be well advised to check out the Tants Hoys. The word means "dance house" and the idea is that yiddish dance should be taught in a lively atmosphere to live music in order to make a sense of community. Not just "right foot, left foot, one - two-three" to some recorded music. Last night it was dancing at the Manhatten Jewish Community Center with dancing led by Dr. Zev Feldman, who has been at the forefront of research into early Klezmer music since the 1970s. Zev focused on Moldavian Jewish dancing, since those traditions have survived best into the recent era. Zev has basically reconstructed an aesthetic of Yiddish dancing based on his extensive contact with elderly yiddish speakers and his own family traditions. One interesting point was that while much of south/central Moldavian Jewish dancing is lively and fast, the northern style of dancing (as around Edinets, where Zev's family comes from) tends to be stately and slower, with a lot of grand arm posturing in place of fancy footwork. The band was perfect for the occaision, consisting of musicians who learned extensively with the late Bessarabian klezmer clarinetist German Goldenshteyn.Here we see clarinetists Michael Winograd and Christian Dawid of Berlin in a rare moment of not falling over each other laughing at some raunchy musicians joke. In the background is the legendary Pete Rushevsky - mere mention of him sends my blog statistics into a huge readership spike. The man has fans. Pete has singlehandedly turned an obsolete and famously unweildy folk instrument - the Jewish tsimbl - into the sex symbol of klezmer music. Welcome to my sexy party!Next to Pete is Jacob Shulman-Ment, the great vays hope of klezmer fidl. I met Jake in Budapest where he spent a year learning the Hungarian language and violin styles, and now he is - bazd meg! - my favorite person to speak Hungarian with in New York. Kiboszottan jol beszel a nyelvet! (Continuing apologies for lack of diacritic marks...) Jake has been playing with Romashka and recently released a truly tasty bit of traditional style Klezmer with Art Bailey's Orchestra Popilar, Branch from the Tree, which presents the music of klezmer cimbalom player Josef Moskowitz in a new and lively light. Definately my number one klezmer CD pick of 2007, since it made my Dad dance all around the kitchen, no mean feat for an 80 year old Moldavian Jewish ex-cop...Jake traveled around Romania last summer and made visits to many of the Maramures fiddlers with whom I did research, for example, Nicolae Covaci, who still plays quite a bit of Jewish music he learned from local Jewish musicians before World War Two. Jake is the kind of musician who doesn't just learn tunes... he learns the moves as well. The fourth Tantshoyz of the season will be on Tuesday, March 13 7:00PM - 9:30PM at the JCC ( 334 Amsterdam Ave. at 76th St.) with dance instruction by Michael Alpert! For more info about the event email Pete R. at klezbanjo AT And to top it all off, mayn shvester un shvoger had a good time at the tantshoys as well!

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