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Friday, March 26, 2010

Has the world's gone hopping mad?/Hasidic Lady Gaga

Jewish weddings have always been boisterous occasions and Hasidic weddings today are no exceptions. What has changed in the past ten years is the role that music and live entertainment plays. Weddings have become professionally run shows that incorporate a technological and artistic sophistication that rivals (and often surpasses) the vast majority of American weddings. Weddings with major (Hasidic) entertainers often spawn viral videos on Youtube which in turn help the artists sell CDs. Remember that this is all within a community that for the most part officially frowns on the internet. Hasidic singers (all male) don't exactly go on world tours so weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and fund-raising gala dinners for charities compose the bulk of the live music scene.

Yiddish is the dominant spoken language in Hungarian Hasidic Communities in Brooklyn but English is often incorporated into parties as a sort of special ceremonial register to contrast even more sharply with the traditional wedding songs (mostly in Hebrew, some in Yiddish) or prayers. But it's no just the language of America that is being incorporated into Hasidic entertainment but also its music, sometimes fairly covertly. In this clip the entrance of the bride/groom (announced by the Hebrew/Yiddish words khusn/kale) is punctuated by a Hasidic band playing a medley of Lady Gaga songs. Lady Gaga? Certainly not what one would expect a religious Jew to listen to at a wedding. Of course, most of the audience has no idea who Lady Gaga is (people of course will find the songs familiar as anyone walking down the street in Brooklyn has heard them). And those who know who she is or who have (חס-ושלום) seen her music videos is certainly not going to confess to the fact and risk putting their own standing in the community at risk or risk ruining the party for others by revealing exactly what is being played. So a catch-22 begins of most people not knowing what is being played and those who do know keeping quiet about it.

Despite what most people would assume, this is fairly typical of the historical religious Jewish engagment with popular culture. In Hungary, Yiddish was the language of the home, kheder (religious school) and yeshive (seminary) but Hungarian was used ceremoniously at events, including informal parties and I've heard from people who grew up there, even weddings. Just like English is now being used in America. The custom lyrics, written specially for the occasion, are also a standard part of Eastern European wedding entertainment (badkhenes), which often incorporates sophisticated rhyming, complete with multilingual puns and double entendres which serve to provide transitions between the various stages of the festivities and again, separate the holy from the profane. Hence, this strange culture clash with Lady Gaga being played by payes wearing Hasidim is not really a break from Jewish tradition but part of its continuation. So without further ado, here's the now famous Hasidic Lady Gaga clip

And more towards my taste, here is some much more traditional Hasidic Badkhenes in incredibly interesting Yiddish verse.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Man wrongly-convicted of murder adjusts to life as a free man

The state of North Carolina is the only state in the country which has a governmental commission that reviews the cases of inmates convicted of crimes for which there was limited evidence. Four years after its founding the commission has exonerated a man who served 16 years for a murder he never committed. Here is his story ,which serves as a sobering reminder of why the state and federal justice systems need reform. And why every state should be required to have such a commission.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Noise, noise, and when in doubt more NOISE/Fallas (aka burn baby burn).

I consider myself a tolerate person, especially with respect to cultural differences. I like to learn about people and cultures to find out what makes them “tick” and how things came to be the way they are. That doesn’t mean, however, that I come to like everything about every group of people or that I even learn to cope with some things well. No matter how “tolerate, open minded or willing to try new things” you may be, some things will just continue to drive you up a wall until you remove yourself from the situation. I hit that point with Spain’s noise pollution about three weeks ago and decided I had to temporarily flee the country (my decision was a reaction to Fallas as well, see below).

I mentioned the strange habit Spaniards have of screaming at each other at full volume while having a perfectly friendly conversation in an earlier post. I’ve since come to the conclusion that this may be due in large part to the fact that many of them are actually profoundly hard of hearing, even at very young ages. A 2008 survey found Spain to be both the second loudest and the most noise polluted country in the world (they are measured differently; noise pollution has to do with how widespread the noise is, loudness with the average maximum decibel level). Here’s one link to a report on the survey . Most surveys give Japan the (dis)honor, although many noise experts say that Japan as a whole is not particularly loud but that Tokyo pushes the whole country into the stratosphere. Whichever country is louder, one thing that should be noted about the noise in Spain is that unlike the noise in New York which is largely due to congestion and poor planning (planes flying right over people’s houses 24/7, highways everywhere), Spanish noise is most often the result of personal preference. Music is a great example. People here don’t listen to music wearing headphones. They just don’t. People actually walk down the street blasting music out of their cell phones which stay in their pockets. When it comes to living in a dorm this situation can become unbearable. I had thought things were bad at Rutgers where the walls shake with loud music on Thursday and Friday nights. Here EVERYTHING shakes, often close to 24/7. A few rooms down the hall from me (7th floor) there is a room with a speaker that is about 3 feet high (the doors are always open) and a bass amp that is even larger. When the music in that room gets turned on people on the 4th and 11th floors hear it. Things on my desk bounce up and down, even sizable things like my notebooks, not to mention coins, keys, candy and any papers that are not weighted down. But the most extraordinary part is how my ears actually hurt and my ability to hear decreases for hours even after the noise (ahem “music”) has been shut off. My roommate and I have actually IM’d on the computer while sitting in the same room because we were unable to hear each other! And this is a room that’s about 20 yards away. When I go over to them to tell them to turn it down or at least cut off the bass, I see three people composing emails and a fourth studying for a test. I notice a shattered wine bottle on the floor next to a desk, so I write a note (again, no way to actually talk) asking what happened. The answer was that it was on the desk and the bass amp knocked it off! “Turn it down!” I write in large letters as a response. “Go to the library” he writes back. I tell (write) him to go somewhere else entirely. It’s 2AM on a Tuesday night.

That room down the hall is the most extreme example I can give. But it is a microcosm for Spain rather than some kind of bizarre outlier. The majority of rooms are blasting music a good chunk of the time. A room at normal volume here would be much louder than anything anyone at Rutgers would experience on even the loudest of Thursday nights. And it’s not just college kids. Cars are much louder than in the USA. Many cars blast music at full blast and senior citizens are just as likely to do it as people my age. (Nothing is stranger than having the Three Tenors, yes OPERA, blasted out of a car at full volume as two wealthy looking women in their 80s drive by). More frightening to me is to see a car whiz by with three children tucked in the back, their mother driving while smoking a cigar and the volume so loud that I find myself covering my ears as if it were an ambulance with the siren wailing. The poor kids will be deaf and have emphysema before they can even do anything to avoid it! Cars, and especially motorcycles, also often don’t have mufflers. At least not to the standards of any other country I’ve ever lived in (including Mexico, Costa Rica and Lithuania which all have considerably louder cars than the USA). The only good thing about this is that you hear cars from further away than in anywhere else I've ever lived.

Libraries are also not immune from the phenomenon. It’s very common to see someone studying for a test while blasting music out of his iPhone. The usual response is for people to take out their own Iphones and to try to drown out the noise from their neighbor’s phone. Then people working on group projects begin to scream at each other over the “music” coming out of the phones. This is met with the phones’ volume being increased, which results in louder shouting and the whole thing soon spirals out of control.

And this is all on normal days. Everything reaches a whole new level during Fallas. What are Fallas? Here’s Wikipedia’s overview in English Here’s TV coverage of a mascletá from 2005 complete with a decibel counter. . Here’s a video of the burning of house sized effigies known as ninots during the celebrations (contains cursing): .

I did a Jay Leno style pop-quiz and found that although the weeklong celebration, in which everything in Valencia including the University where I’m studying shuts down, ostensibly celebrates Saint Joseph, few Valencians I spoke to knew who he was. When asked what is celebrated most people just told me “Valencia” or “it’s so old nobody knows” (this is probably true because the ceremony long predates the Catholic Church’s decision to make it about Saint Joseph, but they also didn’t seem to know who Saint Joseph was). The main events of Fallas are the daily mascletás and the crema, which is the grand finale. The mascletás are daily firecracker celebrations which happen in every neighborhood at 2PM. The emphasis is placed on noise and not on producing a visual display. The pyrotechnic manufactures who manage to produce the most noise for the longest period of time (it’s actually measured with decibel counters, see the clip) have the honor of supplying the pyrotechnics for the crema. The crema is the final night of the celebration in which hundreds of house-sized effigies known as ninots are burned in squares throughout the city. These effigies are extremely detailed and colorful and are often satirical representations of public figures and/or events. Craftsmen spend the entire previous year making the ninots, which are sponsored by civic organizations, trade unions and the like. (For those of you from Philadelphia imagine if the costumes worn in the fancies parade on Mummer’s Day were all burned simultaneously with their designers lighting them up and you’ll kind of get the idea).

These events are not the only times during Fallas when loud explosions take place and/or things are set on fire. Firework stores that open only from late February through the middle of March sell millions of fireworks and firecrackers to regular locals who line up around the block to buy them. For the week before Fallas and during Fallas itself firecrackers and fireworks are set off throughout the city, often with little or no warning to passersby. Little kids (8-12 years old) play with firecrackers in the street, forming lined “teams” and throwing them at each other. On the beach a week before Fallas (when I was still in Valencia) I saw a group of kids launch Roman candles straight at each other . (Here’s a video of a Roman Candle fight, a smaller one than the one I saw in Valencia. )While eating in a restaurant on the same day a drunken man on the opposite corner fired what basically amounted to a small mortar at the restaurant’s window. It exploded next to a family walking by, whose youngest son (about 6) was brought into the restaurant with minor burns on his shoulder and neck crying hysterically. His complaints of deafness (hopefully temporary) in his right ear led his parents to try to leave and bring him to a hospital. When a waiter went out to see if all was clear, another mortar (ahem “firework”) was shot at the restaurant and I and two other waiters led the distraught family out of the back of the restaurant, keeping guard on both sides least the man would decide to fire another round at them. We guarded them until we got to their car which was only 30 yards away (it was a scary thirty yards for me both ways though).

Granted, the vast majority of the none-official fireworks/firecrackers/rocketry were not done with such recklessness. Most of the time people just set off small rockets from their backyards or from their apartment patios, launching them so they’d explode in midair. But it was LOUD. Even when I left Valencia days before Fallas the city sounded like a warzone. Some of the rockets sounded like gunshots in rapid succession, some like shotgun blasts but most sounded like legitimate bombs.1 And there was no way to tell where the rounds had been shot from or where they were going. Something which was annoying while trying to study and actually terrifying while crossing a street. Having grown up in a city where gunfire was an occasional but regular part of life and said gunfire was met with whole classes in high-school “hitting the deck” and stepping away from the windows, my natural first reaction (never acted upon) was always to jump on the ground or hide under my bed. Even though I knew that they were fireworks and not bullets being fired, it was hard to “un-train” myself and strangely unnerving to hear what sounded like a .45 caliber handgun being shot and seeing people continue to calmly walk down the street.

Considering my hatred for noise and my dislike of living in what sounds like a warzone, I decided to flee to the UK to have a vacation. I’ll relate my various adventures and misadventures in London and Cardiff over the following days.


1. (I once camped near a military base in Maryland where bombs are tested called “the Aberdeen Proving Grounds” so I know exactly what bombs going off sounds like).

Monday, March 1, 2010

Norman Lear needs to brush up on his Yiddish

It’s no secret that Yiddish often suffers from a lack of prestige. One of the many signs of this lack of prestige is that it is often not taken seriously, or to be a real language at all. (Now is that a symptom or a cause? We could get into a whole chicken and egg dilemma here). Among the strangest ways in which people show their lack of respect for Yiddish is by quoting a Yiddish word or phrase, completely bungling its meaning and then using said word or phrase to prove some exoteric point that has absolutely nothing to do with the word or phrase they’ve attempted (and failed) to quote. Some would argue that this shows not a lack of prestige, but a respect for and a desire to use what little they know of the language in order to make themselves look more intelligent, cultured, in touch with their routes or “heymish” (which means “home-like” and not “Jewish soul food” as I once saw someone write!) But I’d argue that the very fact that someone would quote a Yiddish word or phrase and not double check the correctness of their usage shows that the language is not taken seriously. Could you imagine someone quoting and entirely mistranslating a Spanish, Japanese or German phrase in a newspaper? No self-respecting writer would do it. But Yiddish….. And if the language is not taken seriously, how can it be respected?

Enter Norman Lear and what might be the single most imaginative bungling of a Yiddish word I’ve encountered yet. Writing in the Washington Post section “On Faith”, Mr. Lear describes his own (generally humanistic) religious views and bemoans the fact that there are (in his opinion) no churches for people like himself. He then describes (and I kid you not) the world as it would be if everyone lived his or her every action according to the principles that Jesus would want them to. Lear continues, "that is "mamaloshen," a Yiddish word describing the understanding that comes when one's common sense derives as much from the soul as the mind.” Mamaloshen, of course, means nothing of the sort and the word’s derivation and meaning are quite easy for anyone to work out for themselves. Mama (it should be “mame”) means mother, loshn is a Yiddish and Hebrew word for language. Hence, “mamaloshen” is the Yiddish word for “mother-tongue.” Mame-loshn is a word that is most often used to refer to the Yiddish language itself. Hence the phrase “redstu mame-loshn” (do you speak Yiddish, literally “do you speak the mother tongue?”).

Of course, nearly every person who does speak Yiddish (or Lear’s “mamaloshen”) as their mother tongue is not measuring their every move based on what Jesus would have wanted them to do. Yiddish after all is a Jewish language and one that today is mostly spoken by very religious Jews (btw they’d refer to themselves as “heymishe yidn”, which again has nothing to do with “Jewish soul-food”!) That’s not to say that Lear’s main point, that most things considered right by most religions overlap is not true. He’s right of course. And judging from the Jewish roots of Christianity it shouldn’t surprise anyone that most things done by religious Jews would follow Jesus’ teachings. That’s because Jesus himself was mostly following Jewish religious tradition. It’s just that the use of a misunderstood (reinvented?) Yiddish word to explain the logic behind Jesus’ teachings is particularly strange and in my experience, completely new.

Now to set the record straight I have nothing against Norman Lear or most of the people who bungle Yiddish words in order to make an esoteric point (ok it does annoy me). I just wished they’d brush up on their Yiddish before doing so. With that in mind Mr. Lear, if you end up reading this (a blogger can dream right?), please contact Yugntruf Youth for Yiddish and we’ll check your Yiddish words or phrases for your next articles.