Monday, December 19, 2005

Yiddish Culture Made Easy

At the one-day Yiddish Experience I went to December 18 as I walked out of the classroom, I spoke with my conversation partner who asked where my people came from. I replied, "Near Minsk in White Russia in a little shtetl (little Jewish village)." She said she recently went to White Russia for a visit and suggested I go. I asked her, "What was it like?" She said, "Like 200 years ago." I said, "No cars." She said, "Right." I had visions of horse and carts like some shtetl stories I've read. When I stood in line for lunch when asked a question, I'd say "yo" or "neny" or "a denk" (yes, no or thank you).

During lunch my mom and I shared a table with one of the Yiddish teachers who looked about 40 and who spoke all through lunch in Yiddish with two of his students who were young women in their early twenties. That's the first Yiddish conversation I've heard in many decades. It was just fascinating to hear people talk and talk and talk and talk in Yiddish! On the other side of my mother was a friendly looking woman so I asked her, "Vi heyst ir?" (What's your name?) Already, a Yiddish conversation!

After lunch we went downstairs to the chapel to hear Janet Hadda, Professor Emerita of Yiddish Language and Literature at UCLA spoke about I.B. Singer and his heroes. He seemd to have a lot of heroes: his brother Israel Joshua who was a successful Yiddish writer long before I.B. Singer was; his mother Basheva; and his rabbi father. Hadda said at first many Yiddishists (lovers of Yiddish) didn't like I.B. Singer because they didn't like his openess about sexuality. Many of his male characters have multiple wives like Herman Broder in the novel Enemies, a Love Story. But the current generation of Yiddishists seems not to be put off by Singer's treatment of sexuality in his novels.

The last event of the day was a workshop by Theodore Bikel, a great singer. He was accompanied by Deborah Strauss and Jeff Warschauer as he gave a workshop about Morechai Gerbirtig, one of the greatest songwriters in Yiddish. Bikel would tell us a little about Gerbirtig's life, sing a song, and then talk a little more.

Gerbirtig was born in Kracow, Poland, in 1877 to a poor family, and became a carpenter. In his spare time he wrote wonderful poems and songs, but never recorded. Luckily, another Jew in Krawcow wrote down Gerbirtig's poems and songs in two manuscripts, and these two manuscripts miracleously survived the Holocaust: one copy wascarried to Israel while the second copy survived in YIVO, the Yiddish archive in New York. Gerbirtig himself was killed by the Nazis in 1942, but Bikel reminded us his music survived the Shoah.

Bikel sang us Gerbirtig's song "Yankele,": a mother sings to her son Yankele to go to sleep, hoping he will grow to become a great scholar but she knows it will cost her much hard work "and many tears to make a man out of you." In "Motele" there is a father-son dialogue with the father berating the son for fighting in kheder (religious school), chasing after doves, and breaking windows. The son defends himself by saying that grandfather told him that the father also liked to chase after doves and the teacher whipped the father, but dad turned out all right and so will he.

Besides these songs, Bikel also sang us two love songs: in one a non-Jewish goatherd tries a woo a Jewish girl who says that any romance in impossible because of their different religions. The final song was a spirited pro-worker march that Gerbirtig wrote. Bikel's singing was mesmerizing while the musicians who accompanied him were wonderful. I could have sat there hours more listening to Bikel who has immense knowledge of Yiddish song as well as being a captivating performer.

All in all I was inspired by my one-day Yiddish extensive to try for a whole week! Next year, a week of Yiddish language and culture.

Learning Yiddish

I've always wanted to learn Yiddish because there is great poetry, particulary by women, in that language--poetry which hasn't been translated into English. I particularly love the Yiddish poet Kadia Molodowsky who, I think, is a major poet in the 20th century but little known outside the Yiddish-speaking world. So when my mother asked me to go to the study Yiddish with her, I said yes, and we both attended the one-day intensive on Yiddish language and culture called the Sixth Annual Winter Yiddish Intensive held at the University of Judaism.

In the morning there were Yiddish conversation in four levels, but I took the Beginners which didn't require any previous knowledge. My mother joined me though I think she should have really taken Yiddish 2 for Advanced Beginners since as a child her father spoke to her in Yiddish while her mother spoke to her in English. I said that's a realy bilingual household.

When we arrived the teacher Sheindl gave us all cards which said "yo" (yes) on one said and "nenh" (no) on the other side, and when she asked us questions we had to hold up our cards. Since I didn't know how to say yes or no in Yiddish, I was already learning. From my childhood I knew how to say "hello" which is "sholem alekhhem." One says hello back by reversing it or "alekhem sholem" which means "peace be with you" forwards or backwards.

Then I learned how to ask what is your name, and answer "Ikh heys Galia," ("My name is Galia"). I chose the name "Galia" because I was named after my great-aunt Galia but in this country they Anglicicized her name to Julia. We had names like Leah, Sara, Galia except one man was named Jerry! The youngest in our class was an eight-year old girl named Leah, so the teacher renamed her Leahla--the "la" is a dimunited attached to children's names.

We learned a little conversation asking about each other's health, and learned that (zeyde) grandfather has a heachache, so one of us suggested he take two aspirin (Er mus nemen tsey aspirin tabletn." Then we learned numbers one through a million and how to say her phone numbers and address in Yiddish which wasn't that easy. After we learned our numbers, we learned how to ask how many people are in our family, and answer with their names. The teacher explained to us that Eastern European Jews were afraid of the Angel of Death taking their children, so when asked how many children they had, they said "nicht eyn, nicht tsvey, nicht dray" (not one, not two, not three).

Also, the teacher gave us a list of proverbs in Yiddish. So here are two Yiddish proverbs:
1. Az men vil nisht alt vern, zol men zikh yungerheyt oyfhengen: (If you don't want to get old, you should hang yourself while you are still young.)

2. A bisl un a bisl vert a fule shishl! (Little by little becomes a full bowl!)

Thursday, December 15, 2005

2005's best movies

1. A Bright, Shining Moment- wonderful documentary about Senator George McGovern's campaign for president in 1972. The absolutely fantastic film, which played briefly in a few Los Angeles theaters, told the story of an authentic American hero George McGovern and his amazing grassroots campaign--or democracy in action. Against huge odds, McGovern won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 on a pledge to end the war in Vietnam. With Gore Vidal, Dick Gregory, Gary Hart, Gloria Steinem, Frank Mankiewicz, Warren Beatty, George McGovern et al.--a great cast all playing themselves. Directory Stephen Vittoria did a magnificent job. In 1972 McGovern was seen as loosing in a landslide to Nixon, but McGovern's campaign director at the end in the film said that all the McGovern people did was lose but Nixon's people went to jail. Yeah.

2. Rent- wonderful musical that reinvigorated the American musical bringing it into the modern era. Fantastic songs. Rent is a rewriting La Boheme, telling about bohemian artists in the Lower Eastside of Manhattan in the 1980s dealing with creating art and living and dieing with AIDs--artists are gay and straight; white, Latino and black. Fantastic cast. Dancing. Tears. Laughter. See it!

3. North County- at long last an American film which opens up how women are seen in U.S. cinema. The film is based on the true story of how pioneering women iron ore miners in the Mesabi Iron Range in Northern Minnesota were brutally sexually harassed on the job and fought back. This is a film about heroism in America. The lead character is played by Charlize Theron but the fine cast also includes Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sissy Spachek. This film changes how women are portrayed in the American film. North Country has beautiful photography of Northern Minnesota in wintertime.

4. Goodbye and Good Luck- Director George Clooney who also starred did a great work on Edward Murrow, newscaster at CBS, taking on Senator McCarthy, at the height of his red baiting power. The black and white film, which is quite beautiful, captures Manhattan in the early 1950s. This film shows courage and hope in our national politics and illustrates how nation news media actually took great risks to tell the truth.

5. Walk the Line- biopicture about Johnny Cash whose music influenced country and western, rock 'n roll, punk and folk. The film has a great score created by musician T-Bone Burnett of Johnny Cash's wonderful music. This intelligent film which integrates Cash's songs into his lifestory illustrates both the music and the life. Anyone interested in American music should see this film.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Rexroth was a great Californian

Last night Saturday December 10 I saw the centenary celebration for poet Kenneth Rexroth, the man most responsible for creating current California culture, at Beyond Baroque. The event was the best reading held in Los Angeles this year. What was wonderful was to see an audience ranging in age from 18 to 88 to celebrate Rexroth: he was a superb poet,, scholar, translator, editor; he was a teacher for generations; he was instigator for the San Francisco poetry renaissance; he was inspirer of California counterculture; and he was a creator of our populist culture in California.

Many read Rexroth’s radical verse, and he was always a rebel, from his youth supporting the Wobblies, the West’s most radical worker’s organization; to being a conscientious objector to World War II; to his life-long belief in anarchism; to his long commitment to Buddhism and fighting prejudice against Asians in California; to his being one of the great poets for the environment in the United States. Michael C. Ford, the Los Angeles beat poet, did a great job as organizer and m.c. of the reading as well as read Rexroth’s poem elegy on the death of Dylan Thomas with the refrain “they kill the young man” which was both a lament for all the 20th century artists who died too young as well as for the young men and women who are dieing in Iraq.

I first connected with Rexroth by reading his wonderful books of translations of Chinese and Japanese women poets: he introduced me as well as many others to 2,000 years of women’s poetry. I think one of Rexroth’s great contributions is sharing his knowledge and translations of Japanese and Chinese poetry and his commitment to Buddhism first with small group of San Francisco poets and then inspiring the West Coast’s counterculture’s interest in Asian literary, religion and culture. Whenever I see young Californians studying yoga I think Rexroth in some way influenced them.

Rexroth was an advocate of reading poetry with jazz, so poet Uri Hertz read one of Rexroth’s fine anarchist poems in support of the Hungarian rebels of 1956 to a jazz duo of piano and bass. Bonnie Tamblyn and a young TV actress performed selections from Rexroth’s bestiary poems about animals with Tamblyn singing and playing her guitar while the young actress performed the poems.

As a young man Rexroth and his first wife Andre camped and hiked throughout California; his poetry is both a celebration of our forests, foothills, mountains, and coastline as well as advocacy for their preservation. He surely inspired Gary Snyder who followed in Rexroth’s footsteps first as a forest ranger and then as a ecological poet: the two men helped awaken a generation to awareness of the environment.

Rexroth was working class, a poor orphan who dropped out of high school; he spent a little time studying at Chicago’s Art St Institute, but was really self-educated, knowing more about poetry than almost any person in the United States. He taught himself French, Spanish, Chinese, Greek, and Japanese, and translated poetry from all these languages. In the reading poet Eloise Klein Healey read from Rexroth’s wonderful translations of the Greek poet Sappho while Chicano musician Ruben Guevera read from Rexroth’s fine translations of Spanish-language poets Neruda and Alberti’s wonderful poets of exile and love. I think Rexroth’s an inspiration for any young high school dropout struggling now in California to make a career and a life of themselves: Rexroth did it and so can they.

Early in Rexroth’s life he worked as a fruit picker, a forest ranger, a factory worker, and an orderly at mental institutions but after his literary reputation grew this high school dropout wound up teaching at UC Santa Barbara. One person read an outstanding poetic eulogy Rexroth wrote to an old political comrade lamenting the many defeats they had suffered in their lifelong rebellion. But despite these many defeats, Rexroth had great generosity and caring for the younger generation. Cari Tomlinson, one of Rexroth’s students at UC Santa Barbara, shared how he was a mesmerizing and generous teacher. Also Lewis McAdams told how as a young poet of about 20 he knocked on Rexroth’s door in San Francisco; the older man generously welcomed him into San Francisco’s poetry scene.

Two of the last reeaders were Rexroth’s daughter Mariana Rexroth who shared to us wonderful poems about the stars he so loved that he wrote for her when he was a little girl and then his widow Carol Tinker. After the reading Mariana caught up the huge cake, so each member of the audience could have a piece and join in this celebration of a wonderful man, a brilliant poet, and a great Californian.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Wilshire: Grand Concourse of Dreams

A few weeks ago I heard Kevin Roderick and his co-author speak about their new book Wilshire: Grand Concourse of Dreams at Dawson’s bookstore. Wilshire: Grand Concourse of Dreams looks like a fascinating book. The two authors were charming. The stories they told were fascinating.

The authors discussed Gaylord Wilshire, the wealthy socialist heir who came to turn-of-the century Los Angeles. Wilshire sounds like a unusual man. He was dating some of the daughters of the well-to-do, started a billboard business, and advocated socialism. He began a new housing development just west of downtown around McArthur Park, and some of the wealthiest people in town moved there to the beginning of Wilshire Boulevard. If you want to know more about L.A., go get this book.

Since I have been researching Upton Sinclair lately, I had already known that Wilshire was a friend of Sinclair’s. Wilshire got Sinclair to come out west. Sinclair tells us that Wilshire was running a gold mine in the Sierras as a “socialist experiment in mining; it was run ‘on a basis of comradeship, with high wages and plenty of socialist propaganda.’” Workingmen and women across the country invested in the mine. A socialist gold mine sounds quite out-of-the-oridnary but times were different in 1904.

When Wilshire asked Sinclair to visit his mine, Sinclair did, becoming entranced with California and settling near Los Angeles. Wilshire’s mine soon failed; he went back to L.A., started Wilshire Boulevard and his housing development, and then left for New York where he published Wilshire’s magazine, one of the country’s most important socialist journals. Sinclair stayed in Los Angeles while Wilshire Boulevard grew and grew until it reached from downtown to the Pacific Ocean—and the rest is history.