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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

American folktales/folklore

A couple weeks ago I received an email with the curious subject header “act now to preserve American culture.” Preserve American culture? If it said Lakota culture, Yiddish culture, Appalachian culture or even French culture I wouldn’t blink.* But American culture? I figured it was an email from some racist organization going on again about how everyone would be speaking Spanish in the US in fifty years because we’re evidently being invaded by “breeding aliens” from Mexico.** But American culture? I was in Israel at the time and everywhere I looked I seemed to see a picture of Justin Bieber staring at me from the Hebrew edition of Disney Magazine. Not to mention lots of Justin Bieber coming out of radios intermixed with the occasional Lady Gaga and Jay-Z. Heck, it seems at times here in Spain that I can’t escape from American culture, so why would it need to be preserved? Luckily I opened the email and saw that they were referring not to pop-culture but to American Folklore, and in the case of this particular group to American folktales. And that is very much a tradition that needs to be preserved and further disseminated.

Many Europeans make two self-contradictory claims about American culture. The first is that there is no such thing (“it’s just a mix of British culture with a bunch of other things”) and the other is that it’s inundating their own culture. The second claim of course refers to pop culture and is unfortunately true. What many Europeans and for that matter many Americans don’t realize is that the US has an extremely rich folk culture. Some of the culture is characteristic of particular ethnic groups (Cajuns, Blacks, Scotts-Irish Appalachians, American Indians etc) but much American (read USA-ean) folkloric tradition transcends any racial or ethnic origins and was/is shared by most Americans through common retelling in education and entertainment. It is through this folktale tradition that true apolitical American values are transmitted. And despite the disastrous and sometimes even evil foreign policy of the US government and the ridiculous influence US pop-culture has on the rest of the world, there are still lots of values and ideas in American folk-culture that are worth maintaining at home and trying to export abroad. Ideas the rest of the world would benefit from having.

American folktales define a culture that is constantly grappling with the relationship between individual liberty and the communal good. Although rooted in the American south and old west, the American folktale tradition is a profoundly anti-racist and humanist tradition. American folk heroes Jim Bridger ,Bufallo Bill David Crockett and Johnny Appleseed were all anti-racists who actively opposed the genocide of American Indians. Bridger himself married two different Indian women and faced public ridicule for having “gone native.” To say that Johnny Appleseed effectively began the modern environmental movement is only slight hyperbole. We still eat apples from trees he planted (and their descendents) after all.

Beyond content, American folktales have a certain method of being told in person that is both as distinctive as it is hard to put into words. They are the types of stories that are best told by one person to another individually or at most to a group of no more than a dozen. They are stories in which both the listener and the teller willingly suspend disbelief for a laugh or a moral all the while citing real historical events and personages. They are stories that are told as one works or travels. Stories that lose something when read or even listened to or watched on video. They are stories that thrive on one on one human interaction.

One of the reasons I’m so fond of the American folktale tradition is that I grew up with it. A childhood friend’s grandmother would come to my elementary school every week and tell folktales. The Boy Scouts, which were an enormous part of my childhood and teenage years, is built on a mythology rooted in the American folk tradition. Although many of the stories were admittedly corny for us as teenagers and many times overly didactic***, they are one of the single biggest factors that make the scouts so successful.

Growing up in Philadelphia we swapped tall tales of the exploits of neighborhood drug dealers, along with more famous nationally known criminals like D.B. Cooper just like Americans three generations ago reveled in the exploits of gunslingers in the Wild West. Going to college in New Jersey I also continued living within the folk tradition. New Jersey has been famous for its folktales and local legends for two hundred years and no amount of modernization or globalization will be able to endanger the tradition there. In fact, recent developments such as the magazine Weird NJ (which has since been franchised around the country) have helped to preserve interest in folk culture. (It may sound ridiculous to some of you but Weird NJ is essentially a folklore magazine!). Whenever a group of students at Rutgers decide to go hunting the Jersey Devil or to see the Miggetville in Jefferson Township, they’re participating in the folktale tradition. Several well known urban legends have been credited as starting at Rutgers, including the “garden gnome story.” Of course, when good urban legends age they become folktales.

“Getting one over” on someone is also a big part of the American folktale tradition. People in some western states (especially Wyoming) still try to pass off the Jackolope to tourists as being real. Reagan once brought a jackalope to a meeting with foreign heads of states and tried to convince them that it was a real. Recently I heard a really good Jackalope related urban legend that goes something like this. Some guy at a taxidermy store in Utah was down on his luck when a Japanese tourist happened to come in. He sarcastically told the tourist that the Jackalope in the store was in fact the last of its kind and the Japanese man not only believed it but paid him 5,000 dollars in cash for the dead rabbit with antlers glued on its head. The man bragged all around town about his sale and used the money to start a savings account for his infant son. A week later while walking to work a limo pulled up and a Japanese man got out and kidnapped the man at samurai-sword point. The man was brought to Tokyo (who knows how, again, suspend disbelief!) where he had antlers crazy glued on his head and was paraded around Tokyo as the “hick-a-lope” for a fee. The man kept his exotic creature until he had raised his lost 5,000 dollars and enough money to ship the “hick-a-lope” back to the US.

So in conclusion, although individual historical figures and motifs may disappear from American folktales, I don’t see the American storytelling tradition dying any time soon. That said, I am very pleased to hear about organizations such as the American Folklore Society and the National Storytelling Association which promote the American storytelling tradition. The NSA’s annual storytelling festival draws 10,000 people annually. I know where I’m going next summer .

*I receive emails from organizations dedicated to the preservation and vitality of Lakota culture, Yiddish culture, Appalachian and French culture in Louisiana. Because I’m on these mailing lists I sometimes get emails from groups representing other cultures or in this case, “American folk culture.”

**The idea that the Mexican government is somehow coordinating the massive illegal immigration of poor Mexicans as a “reinvasion” in revenge for the US stealing 1/3 of Mexico’s land in the 1840s is surprisingly widespread. Because US immigration law recognizes any person born on American soil as being a citizen, even the children of illegal immigrants, many feel that anyone who comes working (legally or illegally) is a potential “breeding alien,” an unabashedly racist phrase which I’ve heard used on both CNN and Fox News.

***One of the most annoying things would be when a scoutmaster of another troop would tell what sounded at first like a really good folktale that would somehow devolving into a warning not to do drugs. “Indian chief had told Satamo not to go to rattlesnake hill and like Satamo you’re faced with your own rattlesnake hills in the forms of drugs and alcohol.” Good grief! I can’t think of a quicker way to lose everyone’s respect.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Four Yiddish Film Clips Everyone Should See

Someone sent me an email requesting that I write another blog post about Yiddish. At first I was honored to find out that someone was reading my blog often enough to care what topics I was covering and to make a request. My second reaction was panic. Panic? How you ask, does someone who spends more time thinking about, dealing with and blabbing on about texts/films/people in Yiddish than any other subject become panicked by the prospect of blogging about Yiddish? Well, actually for exactly that reason. I’ve got too much to say about Yiddish to easily mold it into a series of blog-posts. Blog-posts should generally be short (although mine usually aren’t). Plus, I’ve been using this blog as way to write about all the non-Yiddish aspects of my life and especially to provide a record of my semester abroad to consult in three or four decades when my memory needs prompting.

Furthermore, I’ve already written a ton of material about Yiddish, specifically five articles on different topics (three ideological, two research related) and I have another dozen outlined. And because I’m planning on publishing these articles, I can’t (and don’t want to) cover the material on my blog. On the other hand, as I am writing this blog in large part at the request of friends and one of them requested a post on Yiddish, I feel I owe him/her said post. All of this raises the question; what can I write about that’s related to Yiddish that I’ll never cover in a published article in a print publication?

In the end I chose Youtube. The world’s greatest collection of unfiltered human memory also contains thousands of films in Yiddish and tens of thousands on Jewish topics. But most of those films about Yiddish are in Yiddish and hence unintelligible to the vast majority of people reading this blog. So I took an afternoon, watched a few hundred films and weeded out the films in Yiddish with English subtitles which I felt that the largest number of people would enjoy and perhaps learn something from (don’t worry, they’re not the least bit didactic). These are films which will appeal to Jews who don’t speak any Yiddish, Yiddish speakers who don’t know anything about the topics covered, as well as non-Jews who have no particular interest in Yiddish and are just interested in various cultural and artistic topics. I elected to highlight films in Yiddish specifically to promote them (as much as this hardly read blog promotes anything) and also so that Yiddish speakers unfamiliar with them could hear interesting varieties of cultured (and purposely-uncultured) Yiddish.

Although the thing I most like about Youtube is all of the original content which is made specifically for Youtube, three of the four clips that follow are excerpts from professionally made movies. This was basically unavoidable. At the present juncture I am the only person in the world making original film clips for Youtube in Yiddish with English subtitles. There are another seven or eight people exclusively making original Yiddish films for Youtube but they are not subtitled. Hence the vast majority of the films in Yiddish with translations are excerpts from professionally made documentaries. I have chosen not to highlight any of my own films because I will be doing lots of things with them on this blog in the coming months.


Beyle Schaechter Gottesman
is one of the great living links in the chain of Jewish cultural tradition. Born in Vienna in 1920, she grew up in Czernowitz Ukraine (later Romania). After surviving the Holocaust, she moved to America in 1951 and has lived in the Bronx ever since. Her poetry and song-writing career began when she contributed to Yiddish language children’s magazines and edited the writings of the students at her children’s own afternoon Yiddish school in the Bronx. Poetry for adults, as well as ballads and reworkings of traditional folksongs brought wide acclaim but she remains most proud of her songs and poetry books for young readers.

I’ve had the pleasure of having several long conversations with her and talking to her about her work and her creative process. She’s a warm person with a soft welcoming presence who prefers not to talk about herself too much but to hear other people’s stories. Despite her sometimes self-effacing nature, or perhaps because of it, Schaechter-Gottesman has served as an unparalleled mentor to two generations of Yiddish singers from diverse backgrounds, as well as a resource to traditional singers working in other languages. Her songs have been covered by practically every major non-Hasidic Yiddish singer and are taught and sung around the world. Her son Itzik is a folklorist and expert in Yiddish song as well as an editor at the Yiddish edition of the Forward (Forverts). Her granddaughter Esther is a Yiddish singer and teacher as well (there’s a wonderful clip of them singing together and her reciting an English translation of one of her grandmother’s poems on a BBC documentary on Yiddish that can be heard here at the 3:50 mark).

Her brother was the Yiddish linguist/professor Mordkhe Schaechter whose children and grandchildren are all active in the Yiddish cultural world (naming them all with proper bios would take up another four paragraphs so I’ll have to cover them in a later blog post.)

Gottesman’s poetry is multilayered and rhythmic, often telling a simple story with clusters of meaning hidden in rhymed alliteration which are only discovered upon reading the poem (or hearing the song) a second, third or fourth time. In short, much of her poetry first appears deceptively simple but carries a weight that returns in waves of understanding hours and even days after reading it. Gottesman revels in capturing everyday experience and reflecting on it in verse. She has described her poetry to me as “physically rooted,” usually reflecting on physical sights, sounds and smells rather than esoteric emotions. Or rather, she uses ordinary physical imagery in order to reflect on higher level emotions. Her poetry jumps from rural towns in pre-war Europe to the hustle and bustle of New York (listen to the BBC clip) and everything in between. Her imagery includes flowers, car engines, angels, the moon and stars as well as machine guns. Her topics cover an equally wide territory, from ballads about the Holocaust to her haunting “Ballad of September 11th” from children’s songs about geese to comical reflections on New York City traffic and everything in between. Her most famous song is probably her ballad (harbstlid: song of autumn), a reflection on growing older.

Gottesman won a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2005 for lifetime achievement. This is the highest honor an artist can receive from the US government, and it marked the first time that an artist working in Yiddish received the award. Here’s an interview she conducted with them in 2005:

Shimon Dzigan
(Lodz 1905-1980 Tel Aviv) and Israel Shumacher (1908-1961) were the greatest Yiddish comedians of the 20th century. Popular theater and film stars before the Holocaust, the duo escaped to the Soviet Union during the war where they ended up being interned in a Soviet Gulag. After returning to what was left of Jewish Poland, Dzigan became convinced that humor would provide an effective therapy for traumatized Jewish Holocaust orphans. The duo lead ground breaking role-playing psychotherapy for Jewish children in orphanages outside of Lodz (1947-1950) and made a docu-drama feature movie about their experiences (undzere kinder: our children). The movie was unfortunately banned and forgotten until recent years. The two restarted their comedy act in Israel, adapting their old routines to reflect the different political and social reality in Israel. They soon left Israel for Argentina due to the government ban on Yiddish theater. When they returned the ban had loosened somewhat and the duo remained successful despite the fact that none of their material was played on the radio due to Yiddish radio being illegal (news and emergency announcements were permitted in Yiddish but there were no dramas or comedy on the radio as there was in English, German, or Arabic). After Shumacher’s early death, Dzigan continued with a solo-career which culminated in his being the first Yiddish entertainer to perform (with subtitles) on Israeli TV in the late 1970s. The introduction to this show, as well as the skit itself, highlight Dzigan’s approach to Jewish humor. Both Dzigan and Shumacher were amateur folklorists who re-adapted the work of popular Yiddish writers such as Sholem Aleichem as well as routines they learned by interviewing people.

Outside of the Jewish world their film Our Children has gained prestige among film historians as well as psychologists and historians of the Holocaust for being the first film to realistically portray posttraumatic stress in children and for being the first film to criticize how the Holocaust was presented in popular media. Here's a summary of a workshop at a psychological conference based on the film:

Yale Strom’s Film The Last Klezmer may be my single favorite film made about Eastern European Jewry (and that’s saying a heck of a lot). The film follows the incomparable Leopold Kozlowski as he struggles to make sure the title of this movie becomes a misnomer, i.e. to pass on the legacy of Klezmer music he grew up with before the Holocaust to a group of devoted (mostly non-Jewish) students in Krakow. I spoke with Yale recently in Israel and am happy to report that Mr. Kozlowski is still performing and teaching in Poland. This clip is self-explanatory.

Despite the turmoil of the past seventy years, the high quality New York Yiddish newspaper the Forverts (largely supported by its much more widely read English language sister-paper The Forward) soldiers on in New York under the editorship of a new generation of Yiddish scholars and writers. I originally subscribed to the paper out of loyalty to the language but now read it for the articles it publishes covering issues and perspectives which don’t appear in any other paper. Among the columns I most enjoy are the political coverage of Israel and the contemporary science articles. They also run frequent “dispatches” from Jewish communities around the world, something the paper has been doing since it was established in 1897. (As several young readers have complained to me, the paper is at times heavily weighted down in scholarship on Eastern European Jewish history, articles which would be better suited to appear in a historical review or scholarly journal if such a thing still existed in Yiddish but this will of course be a boon to Jewish historians in a generation or two, albeit only those few literate in Yiddish). This film covers the daily operations of the newspaper. The version in Yiddish has more than 130,000 views. The version in Yiddish with English subtitles curiously enough only has a little over 700.