Having gone to Hebrew school four days a week for five years, I am both ashamed and angry that I know so little about Yiddish culture. How did this amazing trove of beautiful Yiddish plays, poetry and music somehow become a buried treasure? Was it hidden from me for decades, or was I just not ready for it, like some kabbalah of culture?
Now, at last, I’m getting a small taste of it time and time again. I experience something and am blown away by how timeless (and timely) it remains. It may be 100 years old, but it can speak to us all, if we’re willing to listen, like it was written today. Please allow me to share some with you.
The newest discovery that makes me go wow comes from the great Daniel Kahn. It’s a song called “Mentshn-Fresser,” written in 1916 by Solomon Small (Smulewitz), a Russian-born immigrant singer and composer for New York’s then-thriving Yiddish Theater. The song was written in response to the pandemics of his time—tuberculosis, polio and war. Over a 100 years old, it could just as easily been written yesterday.
Another example of something that amazed me was a spellbinding cabaret performance of Celia Dropkin’s poem “Di Tsirkus Dame (The Circus Lady)” by Anthony Russell. Dropkin was a leading Yiddish poet whose work was marked by erotic imagery and a touch of cynicism about love. She was considered a radical in her time, a woman writing poetry that was far more personal, emotional and free form than classic Yiddish male poets were writing.
As we can read below, the woman is dancing in a ring surrounded by knives. Always being judged by others, she wonders whether she should just throw herself on a blade. As in much of her work, the erotic symbolism is undeniable. With its fierce, sexual and uncompromising style, I find it shocking that it was written over 90 years ago.
“The Circus Lady” by Celia Dropkin
I’m a circus lady,
I dance between the knives,
standing in the ring,
tips pointing up.
My lightly bending body
avoids death from falling
by brushing lightly, lightly against the blades.
Breathless, they watch me dance
and someone prays for me.
Before my eyes the points flash in a fiery wheel,
and no one knows how much I want to fall.
I’m tired of dancing between
you, cold steel knives.
I want my blood to scald you,
I want to fall
on your naked tips.
I don’t think they were writing poems like that in the romanticized stories from Chelm!
The last example takes us to Broadway and the production of Sholem Asch’s controversial play, “God of Vengeance.” Written in Yiddish in 1905, it’s a story about an Orthodox family in a very unorthodox business: they own a brothel. Hoping it will lead to a more respected standing for his family and a better husband for his daughter, the father commissions a scribe to write a Torah. The only problem with the plan is that his daughter is in love with one of his sex workers.
In 1923, an English version of the play moved uptown, featuring what many consider the first lesbian kiss in Broadway history. That and the portrayal of the brothel and its owner caused such a scandal that the entire company was arrested and tried on charges of indecency. Ashamed of such a portrayal, Jewish community leaders of that time supported the arrests. I wonder what would happen if it happened today?
How can it be that a song, poem and play, all written a century ago in Yiddish, still speak to us today? The quality of this art is undeniable. That so few of us know about it is downright damning.
Yiddish, Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi…there are untold riches in our culture. I hope you’ll join me in discovering them.