December 2020: Handpicked

Each month, the Yiddish Book Center asks a member of our staff or a special friend to select favorite stories, books, interviews, or articles from our online collections. This month, we’re excited to share with you picks by Rokhl Kafrissen.

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Rokhl Kafrissen is a journalist and playwright in New York City. Her "Rokhl's Golden City" column began appearing in Tablet in 2017, covering new Yiddish culture in all its iterations. Her opinion pieces and cultural criticism have appeared in newspapers all over the world. She was a 20192020 14thStreet Y LABA fellow, for which she wrote a play called Shtumer Shabes (Silent Sabbath), recently featured at Vancouver's Chutzpah! Festival as a work-in-progress.

Berele, by Nathan Chanin

Nathan Chanin's bildungsroman is my dream project for creating a bilingual translation for intermediate students of Yiddish. Berele leaves home and in his wandering he becomes a Bundist revolutionary, is sent to Siberia, and much, much more. How many contemporary young adult books include a chapter on learning to throw bombs?

Commemorative Gathering in Honor of 80 Years of the Bund, Featuring Avrom Kahan 

If you loved Nathan Chanin's early twentieth century story of young Berele the Bundist, this recording from 1977 allows us to catch up with Berele's real life analogs, decades later. A moving example of a particular kind of Yiddish performance; the still farbrent speeches of a Yiddish commemorative program.

In fayer un flamen: togbukh fun a yidisher shoyshpilern, by Rose Kahan   

Rose Shoshana (Kahan) was a Yiddish actress in Poland when the war broke out. She and her husband made a miraculous escape to Japan and then Shanghai. Her diary is an unusual look into the day-to-day realities of a tireless Yiddish kultur-tuer (culture-maker).

Integrale yidishkayt: teorye un praktik / Integral Yiddishkayt: Theory and Practice, by Avrom Golomb

Avrom Golomb was a pedagogue and iconoclast whose life work took him from Eastern Europe to Palestine to Mexico, Canada, and the United States. This slim, self-published booklet is both manifesto and cri de coeur on behalf of Yiddish in the Americas. A fascinating and frustrating text in which Golomb attempts to work out a grand unified theory of postwar Jewish life.

Inaugural Helen Sunshine Memorial Concert "Enchanted Garden: Songs in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Ladino" (2006) Adrienne Cooper and Marilyn Lerner

It's hard to believe it's been nine years since we lost the artistry and friendship of Adrienne Cooper. Though Adrienne kept an active performance schedule, there are surprisingly few full recordings of her concerts available, and this one is intimate and gorgeous.


Rokhl Kafrissen talks to the Yiddish Book Center's communications editor, Faune Albert, about her Handpicked choices:

Faune Albert: You talk a little bit about Berele in one of your columns for Tablet on Yiddish kidlit. There you write, "Berele illustrates an important moment in the history of Yiddish children's publishing." Can you say more about that moment? And about the illustrations (which are quite compelling)?

Rokhl Kafrissen: Yiddish children's literature was born at the end of the nineteenth century in Eastern Europe. The world of Yiddish periodicals was exploding, creating a kind of Big Bang for the universe of Yiddish literature to come, including texts specifically aimed at kids. These were often yontev (holiday)-themed stories based on the authors' childhood memories.

But by 1938, the United States was its own universe of Yiddish publishing. Politically affiliated Yiddish-language schools and camps created enormous demand for texts suited to their educational goals. Berele is a great example. It's an exciting young adult adventure novel published in 1938 by Farlag Kinder Ring of the Educational Committee of the Workmen's Circle. In this case, the adventure isn't just leaving home and getting an education out in the world, but learning how to throw a bomb, developing class consciousness, and joining a revolutionary workers movement. At one point he's even imprisoned alongside the sailors who revolted on the Battleship Potemkin! Nothing about Berele is watered down for the young reader, and the illustrations are equally dramatic.

FA: Do you have a favorite moment or speech from the Bundist commemorative program, one that you find particularly moving or salient for that time, or for our own?    

RK: I think the introductory speech alone is worth your time. It's hard to imagine a speech like this today, full of images of heroism and sacrifice, modern poetry and biblical allusion, spoken by, and for, an audience which knew all these things firsthand.

The speaker reminds us that, despite the Jewish world deeming the Bund a defeated movement, its fighters and battles remain a treasure of the Jewish people, and its history an important one to be remembered. The values of the Bund were and are no less urgent on its 60th, or 80th, anniversary than they were on the day of its founding in 1897. He recalls the poet and Bundist H. Leyvik speaking in Jerusalem in 1957, debating Ben Gurion. Leyvik asserted that Hirsch Lekert, the Bundist revolutionary and would-be assassin, was as much a biblical hero as the shepherd and soon to be king David when he slew Goliath. It's a bracing moment of defiant continuity.

FA: In terms of the diary of Rose Shoshana (Kahan), I'm curious—what were your biggest takeaways from that? From the perspective of a contemporary female Yiddish culture-maker, albeit one living within a very different context, were there things that resonated with your own day-to-day experience? And/or things that were just wildly different?

RK:  I hesitate to compare myself in any way to Rose Shoshana. To survive the war, she and her husband Lazar fled Poland and got Sugihara visas to Japan. They made their way to Japan and then relative safety in Shanghai. She showed incredible strength to survive everything she did, including an epic journey from Eastern Europe to Asia. I wonder whether I would have the courage she did.

What resonated for me was the sustaining belief she had in the value of art, and herself as a creator. Making art was integral to her survival. And music and theater were so incredibly important to the thousands of Jewish refugees in Shanghai. I think of her all the time, especially when times are tough and that inevitable 'why bother' feeling creeps in.

FA: Grand unified theories of nearly anything culture-related can be pretty difficult to sustain. Most fascinating and most frustrating, to use your words, aspects of Avrom Golomb's book, for you?

RK: In Integrale yiddishkayt, one of Golomb's principles is that Jewish life today must take in earlier forms and customs of Jewish life. The Jewish life of yesterday must become to us as holy as the mitsves. "I will say it starkly: some of us chuckle at Snipishok, that symbol of provincial Yiddish life, but even that should become sanctified for us. Just as the Pharisees and Sages of the Talmud established their custom 'in commemoration of the Temple, according to Hillel,' in the same way, we must establish our own customs 'in commemoration of the Temple of Kasrilevke'—more urgently and more firmly."

What does Golomb mean here? "In commemoration of the Temple, according to Hillel" appears in the Passover hagode, in which we learn that Hillel made a sandwich with matse and the Temple sacrifice (lamb). Today, with no Temple, we use matse and bitter herbs. The "Hillel sandwich" is one specific ritual which indeed connects us to Temple days, across thousands of years. It's stood the tests of time, of editing, of forgetting. But how do we invent a hundred, or a thousand, new rituals which can begin to do the work Golomb proposes? And down to what detail? As much as I am invigorated by Golomb's vision of a modern Jewish life that could be, I am daunted by the enormity of what was.  

FA: There's so much communicated in the songs of Adrienne Cooper and Marilyn Lerner in this concert that you've chosen, so much passion and emotion. It's a different way of connecting to Yiddish culture. What role does music, Yiddish or Jewish music or music in general, play for you in your writing and your work? 

RK: It's no exaggeration to say that Yiddish music (specifically, second-wave 1990s klezmer) set me firmly on the path to Yiddish. It was at a time when music was the essential building block of my identity. I was the teenager whose bedroom walls were covered with Beatles posters. If someone somewhere had sold Klezmatics posters, I surely would have bought ten. Alas, no posters were available, so instead I dove into the music. I listened obsessively to whatever Yiddish-language recording I could get my hands on, memorizing every word phonetically. And while I may be challenged at applying grammatical rules, that early memorization of songs has served me well. I've often been able to connect those rules with some lyric in my head. Even today, when I sit down to think about Yiddish culture as a whole, it's often through song that I make my entry to this or that question.