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Sunday, October 7, 2012

From the Archives: The Rosa Stories or "Back to Writing Seriously"

I have started writing short-fiction again after a hiatus of several years. I started seriously writing short stories as a young teenager and in some ways I took it much more seriously then than I do now. I sent manuscripts to magazines and contests for publication and despite a few encouraging notes from editors I never got anything published. I last tried submitted something for publication when I was 16 or 17. I did continue writing fiction throughout my college years and took two creative writing courses but life got too busy and I put it aside, using this blog as a way to keep somewhat in "writing shape" as it were. 

Getting back into it after a hiatus is fascinating. First of all the world of publishing has changed drastically since I first submitted a story to a science fiction magazine at 13. Back then only printed snail-mail manuscripts were accepted (with a self-addressed stamped envelope) and manuscripts had to be formatted according to very particular specifications (which inevitably varied in completely arbitrary ways at every publication) which if deferred from in even the slightest manner would get your story thrown into the "rejected" bin without being read. Today few publications still accept snail-mail submissions for short fiction. Email and online submission forms have finally conquered the field. Secondly I now get to read what I wrote a decade to three years ago with a much more skilled and sober eye and pore over the many flaws in my writing. I was expecting the work from my aborted science fiction career (age 12-15) to be dreadful but it actually isn't; you wouldn't know a kid wrote the stories and it looks like what it is, okay second-rate amateur science fiction that had no place being printed in the professional magazines I was submitting to. One of the stories is actually worth rewriting, cleaning up and sending it to the same magazine that rejected it a decade ago. Similarly some of the work I wrote for my first creative writing class five years ago is decent albeit flawed and two of the stories I wrote in my creative writing class three years ago are actually quite good although one has a serious flaw towards the end that I was not a mature enough writer (or reader) at 21 to catch or remedy. In short, the stories I hadn't read in years were better than I had expected and it's definitely worth my time to continue with it. The question that I cannot yet answer is if and when I'll be able to write anything better than I did three years ago after such a long hiatus. 

In any case, going through my old work I found these writing exercises for my freshman-year creative writing class that I don't remember writing. They were both specific assignments assigned and written over one week. The first assignment was to create a character of the opposite sex and a different race and class than yourself and write his or her reaction to a news story featuring a current political controversy. The second was to write a story featuring the same character interacting with a relative. Since I'm never going to do anything further with these and as they're better than I would have expected my writing at the time to be (albeit not great literature by any means), inspired by my friend 
Julie Sugar who often posts things she wrote years ago I decided to post the two stories exercises below. Let me know what you think..... 

                                                                    Exercise 1: 

Kids asleep, lunches made for tomorrow, I throw back my hair over my left shoulder and turn on the TV. I put in the tape and press the big button like the landlord has shown me. I run my fingers through my hair, its turning greasy like spilled fruit juice after it dries on hands on a rainless summer day. I usually have beautiful hair, my Mom’s Mayan hair. Her people were short and of winding hills. They were stout. Very stout. As a child they seemed almost square to me, their torsos far taller than their legs. They’re beautiful people, my mother’s, but nothing is as nice as their hair. Usually my hair would be beautiful too but money’s tight and I haven’t had shampoo in months. If it’s a choice between rice for my daughters or us having clean hair, the rice will always come first. In my country, Guatemala, I’d make my own shampoo. But I don’t know where to get the ingredients here in America, in the big city, where it seems like even the hills are made of cement. 

Last week Rosa came home from school and said “Mommy, you need to speak English. You need to talk like Mrs. Chen.” I told her that I can’t speak English. She looked at me and said “Eight years in this country and you can’t speak English, you’re an embarrassment”. She’s nine years old. I don’t understand where she picks up such things. “I asked Mrs. Chen to tell me how you could learn English. She said you must take classes or watch TV in English. Take classes Mommy.” I don’t explain that I can’t read or write anything but my own name and that to take a class I need to know how to write and that even if I found one where I didn’t, it would probably be a trap. I don’t tell her that I can’t afford CDs and a player or that I tried to get a library card but I couldn’t because I had no utilities bill or proof that I even live where I do because I pay my rent under the table. I’ve never told her that I’m illegal or that she is too. After all, little girls can’t tell secrets they don’t know. 

I told her that I would get the landlord to tape the English news for me and here I am putting it in right now. I watch it but I only understand the pictures. I hear some words that sound like Spanish words but I don’t know for sure. After the second commercial break, a white woman is shown screaming at a group of Mexicans. She looks angry, real angry, the type of anger that can only come from fear. I am a simple woman of the Guatemalan mountains, I have no words for such anger. I rewind the tape and put a piece of paper against the screen and trace the letters. My landlord speaks English. I will have him tell me what the words mean. 

It’s 11:30. I turn on the news. “Buenas noches. Como están, y bienvenidos a una otra edición de Ultima Hora con Enrique Gratas”. The news begins, with the same words as always. It’s comforting. I wonder if the English news begins with the announcer asking how everyone is. It’s seems silly to me because he never gets an answer. But I like it. 

My eyes focus intently on the screen before I even realize what I’m looking at. It’s the woman from before, the angry one with the vicious eyes. They are interviewing her and dubbing Spanish over her words. She explains that she has formed a group that she calls “Mother’s Against Illegal Aliens,” that she is distributing a petition to convince the lawmakers in Washington to make it so that children born in this country won’t be citizens if their parents are illegal. I think of my two younger daughters, who were born here and have rights. I cringe inside. The woman continues, her first name is Michelle, I don’t catch her last name. She says that my children should be deported and that I have no right to send them to school and force her children to learn Spanish. I wonder if this woman is really a mother. I think that if this woman really is a mother, she must not be a good one because if she cares nothing for my children she must not care for her own either, because nobody who truly hates anyone’s child can really love their own. 

I don’t understand what she means about her children having to learn Spanish, none of my Rosa’s friends at school speak to her in Spanish, most of them don’t know it and those that do aren’t allowed to speak it. The teachers yell at them to speak English, Rosa is embarrassed because most of her friends can’t talk to me. I wish they could, they seem nice. I want to know what they’re talking about when they play their games with invisible buildings. Rosa will only say that she is playing princess. I know what a princess is but I don’t know this game. If she is pretending to be one I can guess why, because deep down she wants a mother who rules things and has command over her people in her land. Not one like me who can’t even speak to them. The woman with the vicious eyes continues speaking. She speaks about the fourteenth amendment for a long time. I don’t know the amendments but I know that if a child is born here it’s a citizen. A nurse at the hospital told me. She’s got no reason to lie. The woman with the vicious eyes continues that the amendment is being misinterpreted. Misinterpreted I wonder. How can a law be wrong for more than 200 years? The woman with the vicious eyes continues. She says that American children need to be protected from learning that breaking laws will get you ahead in life. I picture Rosa’s friends. They’re not learning anything about breaking laws or bad lessons from my daughter, she doesn’t even know that she’s illegal. How could any of her classmates understand that she had broken a law as a baby? How would a child think that crossing a desert and working two jobs is cheating? What kind of mother would teach such a thing to her child? 

I teach my daughter to love everyone and treat them with respect. But I don’t know how to teach her to deal with people like this. How am I going to explain to her that there are people like this in the world? I just don’t know. I’ll have to try. 

                                                                       Exercise 2: 

One day Rosa doesn’t come home from school. I flip out. My middle daughter, Angela, has come on the bus without her. I feel like cotton’s been put up my nose and down my throat. I can’t breathe in, I can’t breathe out. I begin to feel the apartment shrinking, pushing me between a wall and a sword as they say. But I can’t show any of it in front of Angela. I don’t want her to panic as well. The obvious hits me. They are supposed to be on the same school bus now, have been for a week already. In two years she’s never been late before. 

“Angelita mìa, where is your sister?” 


“What do you mean you don’t?” 

She looks ashamed and looks away with one eye following my face slowly as her head turns. 

“I asked the driver……. Said they had told him she wasn’t coming” 

“Who are they?” 


“Was it Mr. Lamar or another?” 

“Mr. Lamar.” 

I would breathe in relief but I have had this entire conversation without taking a single breath. I trust Mr. Lamar even though I can’t talk to him, I know he’s responsible. In the winter he walks the kids in our apartment complex to their doors because we’re the last stop and it’s long dark by then. He walks with a limp. His right knee’s bum. Rosa says he was shot in a war. I can’t picture him dressed as a soldier but he has a certain sadness about him that tells me what she says is true. 

I don’t know who to call at their school that speaks Spanish and would know where Rosa is. It’s 4:20, nobody is around in my building, the landlord’s out, nobody useful is left at their school either I figure. 

The phone rings, I pick it up, the voice is speaking English. It sounds official like a TV announcer announcing a tragedy. I get nervous. My heart hurts- doesn’t skip any beats- just hurts. 

“Espere un minuto, pleeze. Mì hija speak English” falls out of my mouth toward the phone which I hand to my daughter. She listens for a half minute, says very little, listens and hangs up. Her voice is softer, more timid when she speaks English. She sounds like another person, like someone else’s daughter. 

“Rosa’s been bad. She’s in… I don’t know the word, she’s in punishment. They want you to get her there.” 

“At the school?” 


I have work in an hour but I have no choice but to grab the baby, take Angela and get on a bus and go. I know Angela is avoiding telling me what happened. I don’t blame her. She’s only seven. She wants to protect her big sister. 

When I arrive, Rosa’s in a little room with two other little girls and two female teachers reading books. Other than my daughter, they’re all black; nobody says anything, everybody looks pissed. Rosa gets up and walks towards me, I ask her if she can leave, she says she can. I bow forward a little as we leave and she just runs behind me. I ask her what happened when we get outside. 

“Mamì, what’s an opportunity?” she says. I stop cold. Never in her entire life before has my daughter avoided a question from me. Never! I’m so surprised I answer her. 

“An opportunity is when you are able to do something that you could not do before and might not be able to do in the future. Why do you ask?” 

“They told me I will have one opportunity tomorrow to correct what I did”. Neither of us says anything. “Did you ever have the opportunity to do something special Mommy?” 

“No,” I lie. “Never.” I think of the Cardinal who came to my village when I was twelve. I had been working the fields every weekday since I was five with my father, but that day we got the day off in advance of his arrival. My father was the only adult man who wasn’t full Quiché Maya in the village and he translated the Cardinal’s Spanish words into Quiché for the others. He had always spoken to me and my mother in Spanish, she and the others spoke in Quiché to me, so I understood everything that was said in either. Some of the other children knew only a little Spanish and needed my father’s translation. The church was looking for girls to go away to school to learn to read and write and learn about Christ. He said that after the massacres the new government wanted us to be educated, to be able to speak good Spanish and read it. This did not go over well with the crowd. We blamed the military, the white men in cities for what the priest was calling “genocide”, a word my father could not translate because it did not exist in Quiché. We did not blame our own poverty or ignorance. But despite this I wanted to go, badly, I wanted to see more of the world. I begged my Mom, and she agreed that I should go to be educated by the Sisters. But my father wouldn’t have it. “No!” he said. He never elaborated, never gave a reason and never changed his mind. I think he did not trust white people, even though they were half his blood. He never mentioned his father, just that his father lived in the city but never with his mother and that my father had learned Spanish there. I often wonder what would have happened if I had gone to live with the Sisters. I would probably have lived for good in the city in Guatemala, married a mixed person like me or become a nun. For a moment I wonder if my life would have been better. It’s a horrible thought because I know that if I had left I would never have met my husband or had my daughters. 

I turn to Rosa. “You know what an opportunity is. It’s made up, it’s bullshit. Things don’t just come along that give you the chance to do something, you’ve got to do it yourself for yourself.” 

She looks at me as if I have just removed my nose and handed it to her. 

“That’s why I got in trouble. ‘Cause I said bad words.” 

I know she has missed the point which is okay because I may have as well. We go home, the four of us by bus. I wonder what the other girls did to end up in punishment. 


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Lithuania Redux 7: The Kids Don't Speak Russian.

The Castle in Kaunas.  

I traveled to Lithuania in June of 2010 for a one week trip. At the time I had just completed six months of study in a Spanish University. It was my second trip to Lithuania and when I got back to the USA I began composing long blog entries combining my recollections of my last trip to Lithuania with emails I wrote home to family and friends from when I studied Yiddish there for a month in 2008. This is the seventh of nine entries. (Entry one is here), (entry two is here)(entry three is here), (entry four is here) , (entry five is here), (entry six is here). I had hoped to post a new entry every week.  So far I've failed at that goal, sometimes by a matter of half a year.  

(I almost forgot about this series of posts on Lithuania that I never finished until a friend asked me about it.  I went to write another post and discovered that I wrote this one in September of 2011 and apparently it got completely lost in the shuffle.  Originally I had refrained from posting it as I had aimed to put up the posts in chronological order but now I think it's better to just post it than delay this series any longer).

As I mentioned earlier, Russia still looms very large to the East of Lithuania.  But culturally and linguistically Lithuanians are doing everything possible to distance themselves from decades of Soviet rule.  In the Soviet era and the immediate period after independence nearly every student learned Russian to fluency and if conversations, friendships, or romances were to happen with foreigners they would have happened in Russian.  For that reason if you visit Lithuania, speak some Russian and need to talk to someone older than 30 odds are good that you’ll be able to communicate with them in it.  Although certainly not every fifty-year old in Lithuania speaks Russian, most do, and far more do so than speak English by a margin approaching 6 to 1 according to statistics I once saw floating around.  (I should also note that many people in the Vilnius area are ethnic Poles and speak Polish so if you’re Polish and travelling there that’s always worth a shot too).  In general, outside of storekeepers in tourist areas and people who went back to university after the Soviet era, there are few people over 35 who speak any English beyond pleasantries. 

Once you get to people who came of age in the post-Soviet period, however, the linguistic situation changes drastically.  Many Lithuanians now in their mid to late 20s learned some Russian in school but speak English better while people in their early 20s and younger usually know no Russian whatsoever but often speak English.  This pattern I had discovered was confirmed while wandering around Kaunas with a friend we had made along the way, a Canadian in his early 30s who was riding his motorcycle to nearly every country in Europe.  Like most Jews born in the 1960s-1980s in the Soviet Union, his mother tongue was not Yiddish or the national language of any Soviet republic in the former Jewish heartland (Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, etc) but rather Russian, the language the youngest generation of Yiddish speaking Holocaust survivors adopted for its utility in the post-WW2 Soviet landscape and the language they chose to speak with their children.  In the case of my new motorcycle riding friend, he had grown up in the USSR, moved to Israel as a teenager and moved to Canada in his early 20s so I had no trouble communicating with him in English. But as he explained to me in a bar as we watched in shock as the Brazilian soccer team imploded for the second time during the world cup, he was speaking to people on the street in Russian when he travelled throughout the FSU in part in order to gauge how useful Russian still was in various countries.  He had only been in Lithuania for a few days and was surprised by my description of the correspondence between age and second language ability. 

But sure enough, when we left the bar my “Lithuanian age/second language correspondence theorem” was proven correct.  We were supposed to meet my friend from Kaunas and our Israeli fellow traveller at a castle but we had only a vague sense of where it was.  So we wandered down the main street for a while and found that strangely enough nobody was around.  Finally after turning a couple of corners and picking a random direction we ran into two young girls of about ten.  My motorcycle voyaging companion tried Russian but they just looked at us completely confused and the shorter of the two girls said “ar kalbate angliškai?” (do you speak English?) or something similar from which I caught on that she spoke some English.  So we asked for the castle and although she didn’t know the word “castle” I had no problem making myself understood and getting perfect directions in good English (“walk straight, make a right” etc etc).  The moral of the story is that kids in Lithuania are far more likely to understand English than Russian these days and tourists should vary which language they try in accordance with their interlocutor’s age.    

Friday, June 8, 2012

Good News from the Yiddish World 2

As has been typical with my writing on this blog my promise to write a second half of “Good News in the Yiddish World” within a matter of weeks has turned into an abject failure since I’m starting on this post a year and a half later.  All the same, I thought it was important to round up some of the good things happening within the Yiddish speaking world in general and Yiddishist communities in particular again in English.  As you will see there are, as always, a lot of different things going on at once. 

I started the last entry of “Good News in the Yiddish World” by explaining that I did not want to highlight any of my own work/involvements on my blog.  The reason for this is that I feel that it is a bit immodest and in bad taste.  The truth this time around, however, is that since I’m now the chairman of Yugntruf-Youth for Yiddish and a fellow at the Yiddish Book Center I’m involved in far too many important initiatives in the Yiddish world for me to omit them in a summary of recent events. So in order to maintain some level of modesty I’ll recount two of the important things I’m involved with first with brief summaries so that I can get onto what other people are doing more quickly.  
      1. I'm working on an historic and incredible digitization project at the Yiddish Book Center involving recordings from the collections of the Jewish Public Library of Montreal.  The importance of the collection and the quality of the recordings are unprecedented for material that will be made available to the public.  You can read about the project in this article from the Yiddish Book Center’s magazine Pakn Treger by Nancy Sherman as well in a blog post I wrote for the fellows’ blog “Tsum Yarid."  Aaron Lansky, the founder and president of the Yiddish Book Center also conducted an audio interview with me about the collection which you can listen to here.  Additionally, I am making films using excerpts from the Montreal Reel to Reel collections combined with still photography and English subtitles in order to highlight some of these recordings and make pieces of them accessible to a non-Yiddish speaking audience.  The films are being released under the title “Oytsres: Treasures from the Frances Brandt Online YiddishAudio Library.”  I am particularly proud of my film featuring a speech given by Chaim Grade in 1958 on his thoughts on the significance of modern Yiddish literature in Jewish history. Working on this material has been a profound honor and you will be seeing and hearing a lot more about it once the first batch of the recordings become available online in July.

    2.  Yugntruf Youth for Yiddish recently announced the re-launch of its youth-oriented eponymous Yiddish language magazine Yugntruf.  In order to stimulate more young people to write creatively in Yiddish we have released a call for submissions for a contest to find the best original short story and poem written in Yiddish by a writer younger than 35 years of age.  The authors of the two winning entries will each receive a cash prize of 500 dollars and publication in the Yugntruf Zhurnal.  In addition to fictional stories and poetry the journal will feature editorials, reportages and letters written by and for young Yiddish speakers from around the world.  For more on the contest here see here (English) and here (Yiddish) .  Leyzer Burko and I will be the editors-in-chief and several others will contribute their knowledge as copy and design editors.  We are also looking for original works of art in any medium.  Please help spread the word.  

     3.  I was also interviewed by the Yiddish Forward about my work at the Yiddish Book Center, Yugntruf and some of my ideas about revitalizing Yiddish. 
      4.  Kevin Scannell, who founded and runs the indigenoustweets project interviewed me about Yiddish revitalization efforts and technology for his project’s blog in November of 2011.  You can read the interview here.  In my opinion Dr. Scannell’s project is the single most exciting and important effort on behalf of a wide variety of indigenous and minority languages in the arena of computer technology since the dawn of the internet.  The indigenoustweets website employs a variety of webcrawling robots which figure out what language someone on Twitter or Blogger is using and makes lists of the rarer languages so that speakers of a particular language can find one another.  The site thereby highlights the increasing linguistic diversity of the web and encourages others to tweet in indigenous and minority languages.  Dr. Scannell further uses his website as a way to spread resources for language localization and helps speakers of indigenous and minority languages create Twitter, Facebook and Mozilla translations in their languages. The project is worthy of a book-length write-up so I’m not going to try to summarize every aspect of it here but you can read/hear more about it at the following links:  here (an interview with Kevin) and here (an article about his work) .  You can see the full list of more than 125 languages and their twitter users here.  Here is the listing for Yiddish.  Per the Indigenoustweets’ counter there are currently 258 people who have tweeted in Yiddish and they have sent an astounding 25,000+ Tweets. 

     One historic function that Yiddish played on Twitter was serving as the test-case for trending hashtags in right to left languages. Dr. Scannell sent the first such tag to my Twitter account to show that the function was working.  You can see my Retweet of the historic Tweet here.  For Yiddish Twitter users being able to make a right to left hashtag is very cool but it’s not likely that such a hashtag will ever trend, let alone change the course of historical events.  But Dr. Scannell’s breakthrough could (and probably is) literally saving lives in places like Syria and Bahrain where Tweets in Arabic are being used to warn protestors and revolutionaries of impending military crackdowns and to get the word out about atrocities.  Before March a person tweeting in Arabic was forced to use hastags in Latin letters which were not readily accessible to people not proficient in the alphabet.  Now if a person in Syria needs information on a particular neighborhood in a particular city they can search through Arabic hashtags for it, which means that they will find the information they need more quickly. Within a day of the first Tweet to my account I saw hashtags popping up on my Twitter feed in Hebrew, Arabic and of course, Yiddish.  In short, I’m proud to have made a tiny cameo in this historic event and of course I’m extremely grateful to Dr. Scannell for featuring an interview with me alongside other accomplished language activists from around the world.    

     5.  There have been all sorts of interesting creative and artistic projects in Yiddish in the past two years and among the strongest have been some great songs coming out of the Hasidic world.  Yoely Lebovits, the self-appointed and beloved Pester-Rebbe, is an actor, Badkhen (a Jewish cross between a wedding-jester, comedian and master of ceremonies) and creator of Yiddish comedy CDs.  He’s also a talented singer who like his friend Lipa Schmeltzer incorporates musical styles and trends that originate from well outside the confines of traditional Jewish music.  My favorite of his recent songs is a bilingual (mostly Yiddish) country-ditty which is a metaphysical meditation on getting pulled over on the New York thruway due to transporting misbehaving children. In what other country song (and in what language but Yiddish) will one encounter dancing goats?  

     On a more serious note from the world of Hasidic music there have been some interesting recreations/translations of popular Israeli songs into Yiddish.  Shlomo Artzi’s popular song “Moon” was recorded in a more religious version by the Hasidic singer Dudi Kalish.  The beautiful and haunting recording actually made it onto mainstream Israeli radio in Yiddish in the summer of 2010.  

    In a more faithful translation the Hasidic singer Shimmy Engel teamed up with popular Modern Orthodox Israeli singer Yishai Lapidot to record a bilingual version of Lapidot’s beloved classic “My Little Leaf.”  The Yiddish version of the lyrics was written by Motty Illowitz.  The music video switches seamlessly between Israel and Hebrew and New York and Yiddish with the two versions of the song and their respective singers complimenting each other.  Collaborations like this between Israeli modern-Orthodox singers and Hasidic singers in the US are a new phenomenon that will hopefully continue and lead to more great music. 


    Other than weddings and Bar-Mitzvahs the biggest social events in the Hasidic world are fundraising dinners.  Music videos featuring Yiddish songs specially composed for these dinners are often shown and some of them end up on Youtube.  Here are two such films from the Vizhnitz Hasidic sect in Israel.  The first has bilingual (Yiddish/Hebrew) subtitles; the second has only Yiddish subtitles.  The first music video is a tribute to the sect’s Rebbe, showing him as a father to all of his followers.  The second is a tribute to the pre-war Vizhnitz yeshiva and its reestablishment in Israel. 

       Both films feature many typical elements of the genre, including extremely melodramatic lyrics and imagery sung by young boys (as women cannot sing publicly in front of men).  Like most of these songs the two here highlight cultural continuity.  One of the verses of the second song speaks of “continuing the thread” and the metaphor is further developed by the fact that the song’s protagonist is a tailor.  Videos such as these provide invaluable insights into how Hasidic communities chose to portray themselves to their own members and how they retell the history of the Holocaust.  

    6.  On the more secular side of Yiddish music a constant bright-spot in recent years has been the work of Daniel Kahn.  I won’t get into Kahn’s music too much for now because I am planning on eventually writing a full blogpost on him and some of his fellow travellers but for the time being you can get a feel for his work from the music video for his reworking of a Mordechai Gebirtig song from the 1930s. If the Occupy Wall Street movement had a Yiddish language anthem, it would sound (and look) quite a bit like this.  


    7.  Language teaching websites and computer programs that students of other languages take for granted are not available for students of Yiddish because there is practically no market for them and very little governmental support to create such programming.  Hence it is always good news when any online Yiddish teaching websites appear and the Swedish government’s office for minority and regional languages (Yiddish is an official language of Sweden) has created what is by far the best online Yiddish resource.  It is a trilingual (English,Yiddish, and Swedish) picture-dictionary with sound that features thousands of words categorized by topic.  Although a few of the words did not meet the approval of Yiddishist colleagues and friends (too Daytshmerish, or a word being an odd neologism were the most common complaints) the website has been met with near-universal acclaim and is being used in several Yiddish classes.  It is especially well suited for young Yiddish speaking children who seek to expand their vocabulary in any of the three languages. Even I, who pride myself on my knowledge of all sorts of obscure Yiddish vocabulary, have learned a dozen or so words from the site (moose!, lily, lynx, octagon, etc).  The only confusing aspect of the site is that you must click on “Jiddsich” repeatedly in order to refresh it whenever you switch languages or load a page for the first time.

    8. Yiddish and Eastern-European Jewish culture more broadly are famous for being terribly covered by the media and the worst offenders are usually writers for Jewish publications and/or New York newspapers. The situation is so longstanding and predictable that two people I know are actually writing academic papers and books on how and why Yiddish is portrayed so badly in the media that as I like to tell people it “manages to disprove the old adage that ‘all publicity is good publicity’.”  With this in mind you can understand why I’m suspicious when I meet journalists who want to write something about Yiddish culture, especially ones I fear might want to write the always popular and never original “Yiddish is still dying but now a bit more slowly than before” type stories that are published at least somewhere every month.  But when I met Columbia journalism students Sam Guzik and Miranda Neubauer at a Yugntruf event in early 2010 I was instantly won over by their dedication to the story and passed along the names and contact information of a dozen people to them (to their credit they had already talked to half of them!)  Instead of merely writing an article for a journalism class they produced an entire website composed of videos, interviews, interactive timelines and more.  The final product, focuses on Yiddish in New York City.  In particular the site focuses on the use of Yiddish outside of Hasidic communities and although it rightfully places its subjects into historical context as being rarities it does so without portraying them as being quixotic freaks.  Pound for pound (bitmap for bitmap?) the resulting website is the best site on contemporary Yiddish culture not created by a Yiddish organization. The article and film on Yugntruf and Yiddish farm are especially worth seeing.      

Kibbitzing and Kvetching Around the Clock from Sam Guzik on Vimeo.

    Hopefully more projects like this will emerge in the coming years and there will be a generational change in terms of how the language is covered in the media.  

    9.  Since it was mentioned in the previous section on Sam Guzik’s and Miranda Neubauer’s project I feel that it’s time to get to the single most exciting new initiative in the Yiddish World of the past two years: Yiddish Farm.  When Yiddish Farm co-founder Yisroel Bass first told me his idea of starting a Yiddish speaking organic farm about four years ago I told him that I thought the idea would go nowhere due to a lack of interest.  Thankfully, he didn’t listen to me because as it turned out I was about as right as Decca Records when they rejected the Beatles because they felt that guitar music was on the way out Yiddish Farm has been an unprecedented success and has breathed fresh air (both literally and figuratively) into the lungs of Yiddish speakers and students.  Yiddish Farm has been successful for a variety of reasons, some expected and others totally unanticipated.  Like wider American society the Jewish world has seen a huge uptick in interest in organic farming and Yiddish Farm has taken advantage of this by recruiting people with a background in farming who are interested in learning Yiddish as well as native Yiddish speakers and advanced students of Yiddish who are interested in learning about farming.  Yiddish Farm’s two summer sessions (one for Yiddish speakers and one for those learning Yiddish from scratch) provide one of the few places outside of the Hasidic world where someone can be fully immersed in Yiddish.  One unexpected factor that has greatly helped Yiddish farm has been how much the project has been embraced by some Hasidic Jews in nearby Kiryas Joel who help out on the farm, send Yeshiva students to deliver compost and of course provide additional native Yiddish speakers. The farm was even featured in a Hasidic music video where Yisroel makes a cameo.  
    The farm not only provides a bridge between modern-Orthodox, Hasidic and secular Jews but also is part of a small-scale revival of the idea of Jewish territorialism inspired in part by Yisroel’s studying of the history of the Freeland League.  You can learn more about this important project from their website as well as from this piece co-founder Naftali Ejdelman published in the Algeimeiner Journal and from an interview that the Yiddish Book Center conducted with Naftali.

    10. I have both felt and argued for the past several years that the greatest untapped treasure of all of Jewish history for historians is the pre-WW2 European Jewish Press, especially the newspapers in Yiddish and Ladino.  While nearly every ancient Hebrew manuscript, religious text, and line of the Bible has been poured over dozens of times, millions of pages of newspapers that detail daily Jewish life remain almost entirely unexplored.  Both the Yiddish and Ladino presses were used to establish national identities without nations and as national presses the way in which even the most seemingly apolitical of stories were written carried political connotations.  Most Jewish newspapers today outside of Israel are weeklies that cover intra-community affairs and little else.  In the interwar period, however, the more than 100 daily Yiddish newspapers in Europe covered all local, national, and international news as well as stories that were of unique interest to the Jewish community.  Needless to say what one can learn from these newspapers is nearly limitless.  How did, for instance, a Jewish newspaper in Lodz report on Yeshiva students caught smuggling cocaine?  How did a people who were not supposed to make graven images sell makeup?  How did Jews poke fun at themselves?  What did Polish or Lithuanian or Latvian Jewry think of their cousins in America? How did serious scholarship on historical religious figures like Rebbe Nachman of Breslov written by esteemed figures like Hillel Zeitlin share space with trashy soap-opera like “shund” dime-novels?  I’ve learned the answers to all of these questions and others by reading the interwar Yiddish press.  Unfortunately very few people can do so because you have to A. know Yiddish and B. until very recently you had to go to one of the dozen or so libraries in the world where the newspapers survive on microfilm and then you had to sit and look for things at random on a microfilm machine.  Needless to say, these newspapers are severely underused in academic research and nearly completely ignored by non-scholars.  Which is a real shame because if you want to know what daily life was like for a Jew in Greece or Poland between the 1830s and the Holocaust the best place to look is at the newspapers they read.

     In early 2011 with absolutely no fanfare the Lithuanian government put a non-comprehensive but nonetheless quite extensive collection of publications from the interwar period online in PDF form. Altogether the collection makes up tens or (possibly) hundreds of thousands of pages of text in Yiddish and tens of millions of pages in Russian, Lithuanian and Polish.  You can view the collection here. To search for publications in Yiddish select Jidiš under Kalba.  Among the many treasures to be found are issues of Yivo-Bleter (a Jewish-Studies journal from the YIVO Institute), the famous health publication edited by Tsemakh Shabad folks-gezunt (literally “People’s Health” but more along the lines of “Public Health”), the popular children’s magazine Grinike Beymelekh (Green Trees), and the popular Vilna newspaper Vilner-Tog (published under different names, sometimes “The Day,” sometimes “Vilnius Day.”) Needless to say I’ve spent several hundred hours reading through these publications and I feel that it’s well worth the time for anyone who can read the language to do so as well. 


    In addition to the publications put online by the Lithuanian government (all of which were published in what is now Lithuania), the National Library of Israel in partnership with Tel Aviv University put up the Warsaw newspaper Haynt (Today) in a version that can searched by author and article title.  The digitized newspaper is part of the stunning “Historical Jewish Press” project which features newspapers from throughout the Jewish Diaspora and Mandate Palestine.  The entry on Haynt features an impressive scholarly introduction by Avraham Novershtern in English. 

    Hopefully the presence of these newspapers on the internet will lead to more people reading them as they can now be read at any time anywhere in the world (traveling to New York from New Brunswick, New Jersey just to read a 70 year old newspaper was too much even for me to do on a regular basis.)  But since few people can read Yiddish and the memory of the world of interwar Polish Jewry is quickly receding into the historical past it is becoming an increasingly important task with every passing year to bring the historical material in the pre-war Jewish press to life for a wider readership.  And nobody does that better than Dr. Eddy Portnoy, professor of Yiddish-language and literature at Rutgers University.  Unlike most historians who focus on highbrow culture and write for a small audience of academics, Dr. Portnoy is a scholar of popular culture who writes in large part for a general audience. Dr. Portnoy published a wonderful series of articles on the Jewish Press in Tablet Magazine from mid-2009 until early 2011.  You can read my three favorites here, here and here

    11.  Reading through historical Yiddish language publications I’m always struck by how the intellectual level of the average publication far exceeded that of the average publication in English at the time. Much as American cultural critics have noted the alleged “hyper-masculinity” of certain populations I often argue that Yiddish culture exhibited a “hyper-intellectualism” during its heyday.  This hyper-intellectualism was one way that Yiddish speaking intellectuals sought to counter the charges that Yiddish wasn’t a real language or culture. 

    Yiddish intellectual culture sought to bridge the traditional Jewish world with the latest advances of wider society while maintaining a separate cultural space that borrowed freely from surrounding cultures but was not consumed by it.  As a stateless language without government agencies to conduct/fund research in it, Yiddish speakers needed to create and support their own institutions.  The most legendary and important of these was the YIVO which functioned as both a graduate-school and a language-regulator for various school districts and which at its height published half a dozen academic journals on an extremely-high intellectual level in Yiddish.  Among the journals were “Jewish Economics” (Monthly), “Jewish Sociology” (Monthly), “Jewish Ethnography” (quarterly) and “Yiddish for All” (monthly?), the last of which was written for a popular audience.  In addition to the YIVO, Jewish trade associations published extremely intellectual journals such as publications for doctors, lawyers, union-organizers, linguists, historians and even sport-trainers. There were also, of course, numerous scholarly books on all aspects of Jewish life published in Yiddish. 

    One way that I try to demonstrate to people just how sophisticated some of these publications were is by showing off the bibliographies at the ends of articles and book-chapters.  It’s not unusual to see a bibliography for a twenty page article that cites 25 sources spread over five languages (I once saw an article on the Bible that cited sources in 12 languages including Ancient Greek!).  Before WW1 the most important languages for scholarly articles on Jewish scholarship (secondary and tertiary sources) were German and Russian with Yiddish, Hebrew, English and Polish lagging behind.  German remained extremely important during the interwar period until the rise of the Nazi-Party shuttered most Jewish publications but Yiddish overtook the place of Russian as a language of Jewish scholarship throughout Poland, Lithuania and the Ukraine during that time. Although the murder of the Eastern-European Yiddish heartland greatly reduced scholarly publications in Yiddish the language remained a primary vehicle for publishing secondary and tertiary sources in Jewish studies long after the Holocaust.  YIVO continued publishing scholarly collections in Yiddish (although English eventually overtook it) and the first scholarly journals on the Holocaust were both published in Yiddish (funem letstn khurbn being the most important). As specialized scholarly publications folded or switched to being published in English, Spanish, Russian, Polish or Hebrew, newspapers and literary magazines began to publish more scholarship in Yiddish.  And the trend continues to this day.  The Yiddish Forward has published several extraordinary articles by Dr. Yechiel Szeintuch in recent years that easily hold their own against scholarly work published in English (Dr. Szeintuch mostly writes and publishes in Hebrew).  Dr. Szeintuch’s June 2011 article on Elie Wiesel’s Yiddish writings is particularly strong.   

    There is also still, amazingly, some serious scholarly work being published in Yiddish in fields well outside of Jewish Studies.  Ghil’ad Zuckermann, the always fascinating and ever controversial linguist of Israeli Hebrew (which he terms “Israeli”) published a superb Yiddish language article on the Yiddish influences on Modern Hebrew in the Jerusalem-Almanac.  You can see the article here.  (In good Yiddish scholarly tradition it cites 22 sources spread over seven languages).   Dr. Stephen Cohen, a chemist who has extensively researched the history of publishing about chemistry in Yiddish wrote an article in Yiddish on chemistry terminology in Yiddish for the magazine Oyfn Shvel which can be read online here.  Among the many stunning features of the article is the entire periodic table with Yiddish equivalents. 

    In short, although it is but a trickle of what it once was, there still is sophisticated scholarly work being published in Yiddish and its continued existence is yet another symbol of the language’s tenacity.  

    12.  Speaking of scholarship and Yiddish, the creation of dictionaries is probably the oldest form of linguistic scholarship. The history of Yiddish dictionaries extends back to at least 1542 when a Latin-Hebrew-Yiddish-German dictionary was published by Elia Levita (for comparison’s sake the first English dictionary was published only four years earlier).  You can see a list of over 100 Yiddish dictionaries to be found at the YIVO here.  Among the newest Yiddish dictionaries is a Yiddish-Japanese dictionary containing 28,000 entries that was compiled by Kazuo Ueda.  The massive tome sells for 60,000 yen (nearly $800 dollars American) and is the first Yiddish dictionary for speakers of a non-European language other than Hebrew.  You can read more about the dictionary in English here and in Yiddish here.
    13.  Although seven decades have passed since the beginning of World War 2 there are still elderly Jews scattered throughout Eastern Europe who remember the intricacies of Jewish life in their towns before the war.  Some are even still living in the very same towns they grew up in.  Poor diplomatic relations between the USSR and the West made interviewing and reaching these Holocaust survivors nearly impossible until the 1980s and such work did not begin in earnest on a large scale until the late 1990s.  Several groups are now conducting yearly ethnographic expeditions to Eastern Europe in which informants are interviewed on film about a range of topics including their Yiddish dialect, their town’s folk-customs, personal/communal histories and the music they heard growing up.  One of these ethnographers is Dr. Dmitri Slepovitch, a Belarusian expert on the Jewish music of the formerly Litvak Yiddish speaking territories and a world class musician in his own right.  In addition to making the recordings available to scholars and the wider public, Dr. Slepovitch created an innovate show “Travelling the Yiddishland” in which he accompanies recordings of his own ethnographic informants on clarinet with a live band. All of the songs feature Russian and English subtitles.  You can see a trailer 

   And here is a performance from the concert.  


     Dr. Dovid Katz has travelled throughout Lithuania and the Lithuanian-Jewish Diaspora for two decades interviewing people about folk-customs, linguistic nuances, the Holocaust and more.  He is currently working on an atlas of the linguistic features of Lithuanian Yiddish, excerpts of which can be viewed here.  Dr. Katz has also conducted numerous ethnographic interviews, excerpts of which can be seen here.

    The AHEYM Project (Archive of Historical and Ethnographic Yiddish Memories, “Aheym” itself meaning “homeward” in Yiddish) at Indiana University, led by Dr. Dov-Ber Kerler and Dr. Jeffrey  Veidlinger and directed by Dr. Asya Vaisman (Schulman) conducts interviews with Yiddish speakers throughout Eastern Europe.  Others working on the AHEYM project include Sebastian Schulman, Anya Quilitzsch and the Yiddish poet Dr. Moisei Lemster.  The project has received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities to help make the more than 750 hours of interviews with over 300 elderly Yiddish speakers from throughout the former USSR more widely accesible.  You can watch the films that have been publicly released so far sorted by topic or click on the clips by their location on a Google-map (great for comparative dialectology). The website also explains the informant’s background. Among my favorite clips is this one where Efim Skobilitsky speaks about his mother’s religious education in Berdichev where he remembers that some non-Jews spoke Yiddish better than Russian.    



  This comical ditty about getting drunk (with subtitles) is also incredibly charming:

     As with many things in life where as the song goes “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” the true value of these ethnographic expeditions won’t be fully appreciated by most until it is no longer possible for such work to be done.  As the historical era of native Yiddish speakers in Eastern Europe largely comes to a close projects such as these will enable the knowledge and insights of individual informants to be shared with both scholars and a popular audience well into the future.  The fact that such work was, and still is, being conducted in the 21st century in situ decades after most thought that there would not be enough informants is a dramatic demonstration of the fact that historical memory and even linguistic competence (many of these people hadn’t spoken Yiddish in 30 plus years!) remain intact far longer than people would imagine.  Hopefully this project will serve as a model for ethnographers and linguists working with other languages such as Romani and Adyghe that have been displaced by genocide.  

   14.  There are a surprisingly large number of Yiddish textbooks for beginning Yiddish students (at least 13 serious ones for English speakers I’m familiar with) but there is a real dearth of material available for intermediate and advanced Yiddish Students when compared with other languages.  The go-to standard for second year Yiddish students is Mordkhe Schaechter’s “Yiddish Two."  The text, like all of Dr. Schaechter’s work is expertly crafted and extremely detailed and erudite and can serve as an excellent self study resource for the motivated independent learner. I myself worked my way through it and learned a lot of elements of advanced stylistics and aspects of the grammar of formal written Yiddish that I had never picked up passively reading or using the language with friends. But like most intermediate textbooks that focus on grammar Dr. Schaechter’s work cannot and should not be used alone, rather the intermediate or advanced student needs a series of texts to read to acquire passive vocabulary that are both authentic original literary texts and which are selected to match the level of the student.  The texts in such “graded readers” should become progressively difficult as the book continues and should have glosses for the more difficult words written in the language the student is learning using the student’s native language only when absolutely necessary (i.e. in this case words should be glossed in Yiddish with Yiddish equivalents unless it’s impossible). With Spanish I can select among literally thousands of such texts as well as language arts books written for native speakers (my favorite Spanish reader I’ve used is actually a 9th grade literature textbook for Mexican public schools, it’s perfect for me as the difficult words are glossed with easier Spanish words).  With Yiddish, however, there are only a few such books available so any new work is always welcome.  And Yiddish students and interested Yiddish readers of all backgrounds just got a wonderful new graded Yiddish reader that has just been published by the Ohio State Press.  The book, “Jerusalem of Lithuania” by Jerold Frakes includes several dozen selections from literary sources on the history of the Jewish community of Vilnius Lithuania.  The texts are well glossed in Yiddish and are more than sufficiently interesting to serve as a book worth reading in its own right.  In addition to its primary target audience of advanced Yiddish students, the book will also prove valuable for a native Yiddish speaker who wishes to improve his or her knowledge of literary Yiddish and/or Lithuanian Yiddish.  

    15.  A wonderful movie about the life, times and writings of Sholem Aleichem was released this past year.  You can read a review of the film here ( gave it four starts!).  Here is the trailer for the film.  


    16.  I’m not a huge fan of mobile devices.  Onetime when a 92 year old man at work asked me (in Yiddish) when Yiddish books would be available for kindles I didn’t understand what he was saying because I didn’t know what a kindle was and the word sounded like an odd dialectical pronunciation of a diminutive form of the Yiddish word for child (a colleague showed him how to get the books on his machine).  My general attitude towards Ipads, droids, Ipods and the like is “why do I need this if I’ve already got a computer?”  Despite my not understanding the need for them, I am extremely taken by the idea of “apps” and I recognize that there are some wonderful potential uses for apps as language learning tools.  I would just prefer the apps to be on my computer!  In any case, two great Yiddish apps have come out recently.  The first is an app created by Rodolfo Niborski to teach children to write in Yiddish.  A sequel to the ap teaches 350 Yiddish words.  

The second app, the Yiddish Bible app, is an enormous and stunning undertaking which uses the Bible as a starting point for opening up new technological possibilities for the Yiddish language.  The app takes a digital version of Yehoyesh’s classic Yiddish translation of the Old Testament with modern standardized spelling and aligns it with a dictionary so that when you click on any word an English definition will appear. Furthermore you can also read the Yiddish text alongside the original Biblical Hebrew or an English translation. This allows the app to be used as a vehicle for the user to teach himself Yiddish, Biblical Hebrew, English or of course study the Bible in any combination of the above.  Here is a video-demo.
      The potential for parallel bilingual texts combined with built in dictionaries on mobile devices is endless and I highly suspect that many more such projects involving classic Yiddish texts will emerge in the coming years.  

    17.  Despite my previous complaining about Yiddish’s habit of attracting terrible media coverage, there were two major stories on cable TV about the language that were decidedly positive.  Meena Lifshe Viswanath was interviewed by CNN in February about her involvement with the language. And Spain’s national television network RTVE’s weekly show on Jewish culture “Shalom” dedicated half of an episode to the Yiddish language in the form of an extended interview with Rhoda Henelde Abecasis, a well known translator of Yiddish literature into Spanish.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Some (Lots of) Thoughts on the Death Penalty: Part 2 of 2. Troy Davis, Steve Earle and How it Will End

                        Troy Davis

This is part 2 of 2.  If you haven't read the first part you can read it here 

The convenient fiction believed by many casual supporters of the death penalty that a person would not be executed in America in the 21st century if there were serious doubts about his or her guilt was erased this past year by the case of Troy Davis. Before I get started on the Troy Davis case I must note that I was involved with the case for five years and ran Troy’s Facebook group for a time so I cannot be impartial in describing what happened and therefore I won’t try.  Although I like millions of others believe Davis was innocent, far more important to me in my initial decision to get involved with the case was the fact that Troy was convicted with no physical evidence and several members of the jury that had convicted him questioned their decision after hearing suppressed evidence and changed testimony that leaked out in the years after his trial. While Troy had to be convicted by evidence which could convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt, when the very jury that convicted him expressed doubts in light of new facts Troy’s appeal process required him to prove his innocence beyond a reasonable doubt.  Ultimately, as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia famously opined in 2009, to execute Davis it did not matter whether Davis was really innocent or not but what counted was whether he could prove his innocence in order to overturn his original conviction.  Despite winning over a majority of Americans and becoming the most dramatic death penalty cause-célèbre in history, he was unable to prove his innocence beyond a reasonable doubt in court and as such was executed.  

About a year before the Davis case became fairly well known (it WAS well known among anti-death penalty activists and as one I learned of it probably during my sophomore year of high school) I took a petition around my neighborhood and shot off some emails.  After Troy’s first execution date came and went his case “went viral” online among the wider public and prominent individuals and organizations as diverse as the Pope, Amnesty International, Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter and even prominent advocates for the death penalty like Bob Barr and William Sessions (former head of the FBI) argued against Davis’s execution on the grounds that there was simply too much doubt in the case.  Barr in particular was uncomfortable that the Georgia Supreme Court had decided in March of 2008 to believe the original testimony of witnesses who had identified Davis as the shooter after the very same witnesses testified to the court eighteen years later that their original testimony had not been accurate and in several cases that they had been pressured by the police to identity Troy as the shooter.

Troy Davis was sentenced to die a second time on September 24th 2008 and I remember the night very well as I was violently ill with food poisoning and had an exam to take first thing in the morning.  I followed local Georgia news-website reports that Troy was being taken to the death chamber and figured that the matter was over. (Although there are telephones in death-chambers in case the governor or the Supreme Court calls, it almost never happens.) As there was no TV coverage to follow I decided not to participate in the death-watch from afar and went to sleep.  After returning from my exam the following morning my roommate informed me that Troy was not only still alive but that his dramatic last minute stay of execution had resulted in enormous media coverage (which had been sorely lacking in the run-up to that execution date) and when I turned on the TV Troy’s sister Martina Correia was being interviewed.  That was the moment when Troy’s case went from being well-known among death penalty opponents and people who closely follow the criminal justice system to becoming a fixture of the national consciousness for the next three years.  

I became much more active with the case.  I called local rabbis, pastors, priests, Imams and other religious figures to help along a petition-drive aimed at members of the clergy.  I phoned the relevant government offices in Georgia every week and helped organize a vigil at Rutgers and advised anti-death penalty activists I was still in touch with at Central High School in Philadelphia (my alma-mater).  Despite my interest in the case, however, I wasn’t planning on becoming more involved with it.  As fate would have it though, the interconnectedness of today’s social media and political instability halfway across the globe would see me become much more directly involved. 

In July of 2009 the Chinese government severely suppressed the protests of Uyghur activists in China’s western provinces who wanted greater political and cultural autonomy.  Widespread rioting began and communal clashes between Han Chinese and Uyghurs in the Uyghur’s regional capital followed by anti-Uyghur pogroms in majority Han Chinese areas left hundreds dead.  In the middle of this bloodshed Uyghur activists as well as cyber-activists throughout the Muslim world began a campaign targeting websites belonging to the Chinese government.  Once the Chinese government gained the upper hand and was able to effectively repel these attacks, some of the online pro-Uyghur forces began to hijack the websites of all sorts of western liberal groups, among them Troy Davis’s Facebook group.  After seeing that Troy’s group had been hijacked and that hundreds of people were leaving due to the constant Uyghur related spamming (much of it in the Uyghur language as well as Chinese), I began checking the group every few hours to see if the new-administrators would abandon it.  And luckily enough, they did, giving me the opportunity to become the group’s new (and sole) administrator. Since I had control of Troy’s Facebook group, I ended up talking to some of the inner-circle working on the case and learned much more about Troy and his family. I soon turned over control to Amnesty International and others working with Troy but remained on as an administrator and stayed in contact with some of the people closest to Troy.  

Despite being behind bars for more than half his life, I learned from Troy’s supporters and his sister Martina that he had managed to play a profound role in helping to raise his nephew De’Jaun.  American society likes to think of those on death-row or in prison for life as being in limbo, or of being almost dead, hermetically sealed-off from the rest of society.  But prisoners who chose to participate in their family’s lives play just as great of a role as those on the outside.  As you can read in this heartbreaking but inspiring article,  Martina made sure that her brother was involved in her son’s life from day one and Troy served as a father figure to him.  The tenuous arrangement became even more poignant when De’Juan was six and Martina was diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer and given just six months to live. A single mother raising a young son and singly-handily spearheading a campaign to get her brother off death row, Martina now found herself fighting for her own life as well. Martina decided that if she wouldn’t be able to be there for her son she wanted to make sure that her brother would be.  Some eight years after her cancer diagnosis I spoke to Martina Correia on the phone for the first time.  Initially it was a pretty mundane conversation.  I retold the odd circumstances by which I had ended up in control of her brother’s Facebook group and what I had been doing on the case and asked if there was more that I could be doing.  Martina then asked me what I knew about her brother aside from the particulars of his murder conviction and she spoke to me about her son and herself and the role that Troy played in their lives.  

You often read about people being “inspiring,” “amazing” and “stunning” because those words are thrown around too often.  But Martina really was all of those things and more.  From only three fairly short telephone conversations with her spread over half a year I can honestly say that she was the single most extraordinary person I’ve ever spoken to.  There was a graceful eloquence combined with an uncompromising fighting spirit to her that cannot be put into words.  Martina was a force of nature but she was also incredibly humble and caring.  The second time I spoke to her she asked me what I was doing in school and I mentioned that I was cramming for a bunch of tests.  When I spoke to her nearly two months later the first thing she asked me was how my exams had gone.  Little could I have imagined from the strong voice speaking to me from the other end of the line that her cancer had returned with a vengeance.  She died on December 1st, 2 months after her brother’s execution.  Here is a portion of an interview with her and her son. 

I learned of the Troy Davis case because of my opposition to the death penalty in general but became particularly committed to it because of Martina and her family.  I believe that it is always wrong for governments to execute their citizens and I think it is doubly wrong when there is a good chance that someone being executed is innocent.  But there is something particularly evil about removing someone from this world who is contributing to our society by helping to raise a child.  How does that prevent crime?  Whom does it help? Even for those who have killed, what moral does it teach to kill someone like Stanley Williams who try to atone for their crimes behind bars?  Where is the place for mercy and redemption in our society? 

As Martina’s health failed and Troy’s final execution date neared the case slowly became issue number one on the national agenda.  The simple primary message that Martina had spread about her brother’s case for years, that there was simply too much doubt for him to be executed, began to resonate far and wide.  I have followed the run-ups to dozens of executions and have never seen anything like it.  Although the mainstream media largely ignored the case while Troy was still going through his appeals, by the week of his execution the case was all over the television. First to cover it was left-leaning MSNBC. Then CNN and FOX News and finally the nightly evening news broadcasts at 6:30 on CBS, ABC and NBC were all wall to wall coverage.  I saw signs in the windows of random businesses in Amherst and in Philadelphia reading “save Troy” and “we’re all Troy Davis.” I heard an old man explaining to his wife on the train that he thought the death penalty was morally right but that if we as a society kill someone whose guilt we cannot agree upon than we are not mature enough to continue the institution.  The man’s wife noted that she felt the death penalty was always wrong and with no forewarning the entire train-car began debating the Troy Davis case and the death penalty itself.  The fact that the death penalty itself was even being widely discussed, let alone its existence critiqued, scared some of the death penalty’s strongest supporters.  A man representing a pro-death penalty lobby on Fox News said that it ultimately didn’t matter whether Troy Davis was innocent or not because too many people questioned his guilt for him to be executed.  The man wasn’t concerned about Troy but rather the damage that his execution might do to the institution of capital punishment itself.   And for a moment it looked like the misgivings over this case might have been able to sink the death-penalty altogether.  Major reporters such as David Gregory who do not primarily cover judicial issues took to Twitter to express their concern. On the evening Troy would die, I turned on MTV hoping to get a minute’s break from the death-watch during the three hour delay when the Supreme Court temporarily stayed his execution only to see that they had preempted regular programming to cover the story and the reactions of musicians to it.  

I have long been of the opinion that the greatest obstacle to eliminating the death penalty is the fact that it is rarely discussed.  There are many reasons for this.  An interesting one that is often overlooked is that like all topics that involve death people are uncomfortable discussing it because they are at some level unwilling to discuss death itself as they do not wish to be reminded of their own mortality.  I had hoped that the Troy Davis case would break through and put the death penalty squarely into the mainstream discussion for the long-term. It didn’t but the case led many people to become anti-death penalty activists.  If anything that will be Martina and Troy’s greatest legacy.  

A few weeks after Troy’s execution a friend told me that he felt guilty about not having done anything more than having signed a petition for Troy and asked me who else was on death row whom I felt was innocent whose case he could help publicize.  I responded that if he wanted to get involved in anti-death penalty activism it shouldn’t matter who on death row is innocent because when a government as a representative of the people executes a person it means that we are ultimately all guilty of murder.  My friend felt that my argument was too melodramatic but agreed that the death penalty was wrong in all cases.  Despite this, he said that he’d only feel comfortable volunteering his time to help someone he believed wasn’t a murderer.  The same debate was touched on brilliantly by MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell the day after Troy’s death.  You can watch it here, it speaks for itself.   

Dick Gregory, it should be noted, did skip Troy’s execution to protest the execution of Lawrence Russell Brewer, one of the three men who committed the vilest and most disturbing racially motivated hate crime of the 1990s.  Gregory, however, also spoke out constantly about the Troy Davis case and gave one of the eulogies at Troy’s funeral.  That said, O’Donnell’s point in highlighting Gregory’s skipping of Troy’s execution is dead-on as Gregory certainly knew that he would be the only prominent person protesting Brewer’s execution. And so by protesting the execution of a man who hated him just for the color of his skin, Gregory demonstrated the power of mercy more than anyone else that night except for Troy himself.  Here are Troy Davis's final words.  I will let them attest to his character and the type of man we as a society felt compelled to kill.  

A Voice of Protest: The Music of Steve Earle

Because the death penalty is so rarely discussed soberly in America it’s rare to see critical portrayals of it in art.  One person who breaks the mold and often tackles it in his work is the singer, actor and political activist Steve Earle.  Earle is perhaps most well known to my friends as “Bubble’s” sponsor on The Wire but he is also one of America’s most interesting contemporary songwriters. Earle is almost unique among figures in American public life because he like me promotes the view that the death penalty is murder perpetrated by an entire society. Earle got his start in country music and his 1990 song “Billy Austin” is a classic country murder-ballad with the unique twist that it is an anti-death penalty song (for the long tradition of murder ballads in country music see here and here).  The haunting song’s final verse ends with the song’s anti-hero and admitted murderer Billy Austin asking the executioner “can you pull that switch yourself sir with a sure and steady hand/could you still tell yourself sir that you’re better than I am.”   You can see the music video here.  

The song, airing on country stations must have been somewhat of a shock politically when it came out considering post-1970s country music’s near universal association with the political right. Even so, the song remains popular and judging from the comments on Youtube even some people who support the death penalty are impressed by Earle’s virtuoso storytelling.  

Another classic Steve Earle song that tackles the death penalty is “Ellis Unit One,” which was used in the film “Dead Man Walking” about the life of Sister Helen Prejean, the nation’s most prominent anti-death penalty activist.  While “Billy Austin” is from the perspective of a murderer, “Ellis Unit One” is from the perspective of a death-row prison guard and reveals the emotional tool that the work takes on him.  

A more personal song Earle wrote about the death penalty is “Over Yonder,” a song inspired by his relationship with Jonathan Wayne Nobles with whom he exchanged letters and whose execution he witnessed at Nobles’ request in 1998.   Earle explains his opposition to the death penalty as he introduces the song.  

When Will It End?

Several people have asked me recently if and when I think the death penalty will be abolished in the United States. I’m certain that it is a matter of when and not if but it could take a very long time yet and I don’t know for sure by which mechanism it will end. It took constant campaigning for decades for the death penalty for people who committed their crimes as minors (under 18) to be done away with. And in that case it wasn’t public opinion but rather the court decision of Rooper V. Simmons (2005) that brought it about. Public opinion remains divided on the issue, despite the fact that in 2005 other than the USA Saudi Arabia and Iran were the only countries in the world killing people for crimes committed as minors. And it was only three years earlier that the Supreme Court banned executing those determined to have an IQ below seventy. Forty-four such people were executed in the US between 1984 and 2002 alone. People convicted of crimes other than murder and treason were only finally spared the death-penalty in 1964 (when a very unlucky James Couburn was executed for robbing a store at gunpoint even though he never fired a shot). All of these milestones in curtailing the death penalty in my country came long after they had been passed in every other modern industrialized nation. So it’s not a surprise that the death penalty itself should hang around longer in America than it should. What does surprise many people is when I tell them that what will probably eventually end the death penalty in America is controversy over how it should be administered and how much pain and suffering the person being killed feels. Although death by hanging, electrocution, firing squad and gas chamber are all on the books in at least one state, nearly every execution in the US is now conducted by means of a lethal injection (there was one death by firing squad and one by electrocution in 2010, the last hanging was in 1996.) Lethal injection is a relatively new technique, it was first performed only in 1982 but it soon became the dominant form of execution because it appeared to be painless and courts starting in the 1970s began to demand that executions not be “cruel and unusual punishment”. I say “appeared to be painless” because the drugs used today in most states are almost certainly quite painful; it’s just that nobody notices as the person is paralyzed when they are killed. This combined with the fact that the procedure is not performed by doctors because their professional associations won’t allow them to participate in executions and the drugs are often dosed and administered by people who are completely unqualified and paid in cash (to protect their anonymity) will probably be what eventually dooms the death penalty. Being hung, gassed or electrocuted is clearly painful and most people object to firing squads because they strike a majority of Americans as being vengeful or uncivilized (being shot through the heart is by far the least painful method of the bunch). So unless we decide to become disturbingly imaginative that pretty much leaves only lethal injection. And as such it will probably be the painfulness of lethal injection and not the moral bankruptcy of killing people to show that killing is wrong that will eventually end the death penalty in America. 

As for me personally, I will be happy when the death penalty ends in this country no matter what. But it would be especially nice if we don’t end the death penalty just because we cannot decide on the most civilized way of killing people but rather if we end the death penalty because we decide as a country that civilized societies don’t kill their own citizens. I’m not too optimistic that that is how it will be ended but perhaps if enough of you read this and join us, the anti-death penalty activists, you can prove me wrong. Anyone out there willing to try? Anyone? Lives are on the line.