Weekly Reader Yiddish and Social Justice
January 16, 2022
As we noted last week, 2022 at the Yiddish Book Center is going to be all about women and Yiddish. That’s the theme for this year’s portion of the Decade of Discovery, a 10-year-long celebration of the Book Center’s 40th (and by the time it ends, 50th) anniversary. But that doesn’t mean we’re letting go of 2021 so easily. Last year, the theme was Yiddish and social justice, and in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it’s worth taking a look back at some of the things we discovered. They’re worth revisiting—this year and every year.
The Ballad of Little Rock
In September 1957, nine Black pupils set off to attend Central High, a school of 1,900 white students in Little Rock, Arkansas. After a three-week standoff involving the National Guard and hate-filled white protesters, they finally made their way to class. One of the most extended fictional responses to their plight is this epic Yiddish poem by Dora Teitelboim. Published in Paris in 1957, the poem is accompanied by a powerful illustration from the celebrated African American cartoonist and civil rights activist Ollie Harrington.
What does Yiddish music have to do with African-American spirituals? More than you might think. In this oral history interview, singer Anthony Russell explains the common themes that inspired him to bring the two traditions together.
The Black Cantor
Speaking of Yiddish spirituals, there is a fascinating history of Black singers performing Jewish cantorial music going all the way back to the 1920s and ’30s. On this episode of The Shmooze podcast, cantorial savant Henry Sapoznik talks about Thomas LaRue Jones, a much-beloved singer of traditional Yiddish songs and cantorial liturgy on the stage, radio, and record, and the recent effort to raise funds for a headstone for LaRue’s unmarked grave.
If I Were in Alabama
We are used to reading about Jewish engagement with the American civil rights movement from an American perspective, but poet Yoysef Kerler offers a view from the Soviet Union. Kerler was aware of what was happening in America because the USSR highlighted the plight of African Americans, if only to distract from its own human rights abuses. Ultimately, the civil rights movement influenced both the refusenik movement of Jews seeking to leave the USSR and the movement to aid Soviet Jewry in the United States.