Sunday, December 23, 2007

Zhurnal 2007: the Outtakes

As you gather in Kerhonksen, probably lining up as I write to get your registration package with a copy of the Zhurnal in it, I thought I'd give you a taste of some of the things that didn't make it into the Zhurnal.

We had hoped to include an excerpt from Anita Norich's new book, Discovering Exile: Yiddish and Jewish American Culture During the Holocaust. But Anita's book was published late in November and my copy didn't arrive until this week. I've since been reading it and it is, as you would expect, as thoroughly bracing as the class she gives every year at KlezKamp. If I'd had it in time I would have excerpted a section near the beginning of the book where she discusses two symposia of American Jewish intellectuals that took place, one in Yiddish in 1943 and the other in English in 1944. While neither symposium discussed the war then underway, the Yiddish one displayed a "creative paralysis in response to contemporary events," Anita writes. The English-language writers were more American in their response: "These intellectuals all shared the vocabulary of angst and alienation and a concern for the position of the creative being in American culture." Each sympsium evoked impassioned responses, in both languages: indeed, the two gatherings of intellectuals seemed to talk to each other. But in the end, the "urgency of the moment of destruction...was proportionately greater for Yiddish writers," Anita concludes. The book is available at Kamp, and there's going to be a book launch later in the week, where Anita will sign a copy for you.

Another item that didn't make it into the Zhurnal, this one because of space considerations, was my collection of feminist-camp Yiddish sheet music. I'm probably deeply odd, but I find these things fabulous.

Here we have "Mamenyu." It seems to me that the mere mention of a mother in a Yiddish song or play was a signal to pull out the hankies. While “Mamenyu” claims to be an elegy to the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the text hardly mentions them. Most of the song is a standard “orphan” ballad bemoaning the hard life and poverty of a child who has lost his mother. Finally in the last stanza four lines evoke the tragedy: “A fire broke out mid-day, and hundreds of workers were burned. Those who ran from the fire jumped to their deaths.” The lyrics then move on to a mother’s lament over a dead daughter, again using standard phrases (“shrouds instead of a wedding dress”) rather than making specific reference to the tragedy. Aside from the four lines relating to the fire, the lyrics seem to have been recycled from similar material, and with good reason. The sheet music for “Mamenyu” appeared within hours of the tragedy it supposedly commemorates. I came across it when I was researching artistic responses to the Triangle Fire. But while there are many sincere Yiddish-language poems and novels, this song remains a curiosity.

"Take Me Away From This Machine," sung by Jennie Goldstein, came from a musical called "Girls of Today." In this melodrama the heroine comes under the spell of a sweet-talking no-goodnik who gives her money but gets her hooked on drugs. Early on in the play she’s mostly concerned with getting out of the sweatshop. “My strength is giving out. I can’t go back to the shop: every bone in my body aches. Tell me, what can I do? Save me from this living death: take me away from this machine!” The more famous song from this musical, by Herman Wohl, is “Samet un zayd” (Velvet and Silk). When the heroine realizes her boyfriend has ruined and left her, she cautions, “don’t sell yourself for velvet and silk.” Still good advice.

Finally we've got "Beser Iz Tsu Blaybn a Moyd," (It's Better to Stay an Old Maid). It sounds like it comes from a musical comedy, but if so the sheet music does not indicate it. With words by J. Reingold and music by Rumshinsky, it may have been a song from a show that bombed. My theory is that, rather than mention the unsuccessful show, they simply repackaged the sheet music as “a humorous song” in the hopes of salvaging something from the turkey. The plot: a young woman gets married and finds she's expected to be wife, mistress, maid and nanny, all in one. Too bad you can't turn back time, she laments: if you know what's good for you, stay an old maid! That is just lip-smacking stuff.

I hope you enjoy the Zhurnal. Winnifred and I are deeply sad not to be there with you this year; we're unable to get away from commitments on the West Coast, but we'll be following this blog with great interest.