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The other evening, I -- along with 1,999 others -- crowded the concert hall at the Kennedy Center to hear the internationally renowned pianist, Evgeny Kissin, perform.

Musical notes
Musical notes. Flickr/Horia Varlan

Some members of the audience were drawn by the opportunity to see Kissin in person. Others were drawn by the program, which featured a number of works not usually part of his repertoire: sonatas and rhapsodies by Alexander Abramovich Krein, Mikhail Milner and Alexander Moiseveich Veprik, Russian Jewish composers of the interwar years whose compositions are known only to the cognoscenti. And still others came out that chilly wintry night warmed by the prospect of seeing and hearing one of the world’s leading musicians not play, but speak -- and in Yiddish, no less.

Whatever their varied motivations, everyone in the hall was mindful that the evening’s performance was an occasion or, as one of my fellow seatmates put it succinctly, a “moment.” After all, it’s not often that Chopin gives way to Milner.

The opportunity to hear a musician’s voice is rarer still. Most of the time we get to hear them say a few words when announcing the name of the encore they’re just about to play, but then, typically, the sound of their voice is drowned out by rumbles of appreciation from the audience. As for a soloist of any caliber, let alone one of Kissin’s stature, to get up from the piano, stand all alone and unencumbered, at center stage, and recite the poetry of Bialik, Peretz and Glatstein, what can I say? You had to be there!

Applying his textured, powerful and colorful pianism to Yiddish, Kissin made the language dance. He animated its words, sending them forth into the vast reaches of the auditorium. Even if you didn’t know Yiddish, or had only a passing and highly sentimentalized understanding of it, you couldn’t help be moved by the ways in which Kissin brought out its tensile strength, drollery and clear-eyed view of the human condition.

A celebration of sound as well as an homage to Jewish culture, the concert was produced by the Kennedy Center and Pro Musica Hebraica in yet another of its smartly and imaginatively conceived programs. It reminds us that music is as likely to be found in the cadences of Yiddish as in those of the classical tradition.

No matter how often I watch them, two classic comic routines have me in stitches every time. The first, the handiwork of Mel Blanc and Jack Benny, pivots around the sounds of “Sy, Si, Sue.” A marvel of timing and of linguistic ingenuity, the sketch is the verbal equivalent of ping pong as the two comedians sally back and forth and it’s really funny.

Sid Caesar Wikipedia
Sid Caesar/Wikipedia

My other favorite bit is also bound up with language and features Sid Caesar, who died last week. You know it, I’m sure: It’s the one in which the comedian bamboozles his audience into thinking he’s a high stepping, much decorated military man when, in fact, he’s a doorman with a whistle.

What makes this sketch amusing is not just the way in which it confounds expectations, subverting our reading of clothing. What really tickles the funny bone is how Caesar plays with sound, barking commands in what seems to be German, the language of authority, when he’s actually speaking gibberish, the language of nonsense.

Here and elsewhere, the celebrated comedian was playing -- some might even say toying -- with Yiddish , a language whose cadences, rhythms and gestures he picked up from his immigrant parents, but whose literature and history and elevated aspirations eluded him, as it did so many of his generation.

Sounding off in Yiddish, and on national television, no less, Sid Caesar introduced millions of Americans to an age-old language with which they were entirely unfamiliar. But its public debut came at a cost: By rendering Yiddish comically, the stuff of silly business, much got lost in translation.

Remember the lyrics to George and Ira Gershwin’s wonderful 1937 song, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off?” You know, the ones that go like this:

Matzoh balls
Flickr/Jessica and Lon Binder, FoodMayhem.com

You like potato and I like potahto
You like tomato and I like tomahto
Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto,
Let’s call the whole thing off.

Both celebrating and poking fun at the range of accents and spellings that characterized interwar America, the Gershwins’ droll linguistic perspective came to mind this week amid a flap within the Jewish community about the proper way to invoke the Yiddish word for dumpling, otherwise familiar to many as a ‘kneydl.’ Or is it a ‘knaidel?’

When it became known, courtesy of a smartly written article by Joseph Berger on the front page of the New York Times, that the winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee had rendered the word ‘knaidel,’ those who preferred an alternative orthography weighed in.

Before long, the blogosphere was cluttered with variant spellings -- and much more. In short order, what had begun as a light-hearted, human interest story metamorphosed into impassioned screeds about the integrity of Yiddish, the importance of cultural literacy and the legacy of East European Jewry. No one, it seemed, was prepared to call the whole thing off or, for that matter, to give it a pass.

Nor should they. At a time when Yiddish has become, in Jeffrey Shandler’s words, a “postvernacular language,” whose speakers range from Hasidim in Brooklyn to the Hispanic countermen at appetizing stores such as Russ & Daughters on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and the Dominican doorman at my Upper West Side apartment building who, come Friday afternoon, wishes me a “gut Shabbes,” there’s every reason to think long and hard about its fate.

At once funny and poignant, cause for laughing out loud and for wringing one’s hands in despair, this latest orthographic contretemps reminds us what’s at stake when it comes to the languages we speak and those we don’t.

Meteorologists thundered and the skies glowered as a major snowstorm loomed large on the horizon, threatening to thin the ranks of the audience for Zalmen Mlotek’s concert, “One Hundred Years of Yiddish Music,” which took place earlier this week at the DC-JCC.

Happily, music trumped meteorology. Showing their support for and interest in the sounds and sensibility of Yiddish, people -- some of them even wielding canes -- came out in force.

Their efforts were rewarded by a concert that not only showcased Zalmen Mlotek’s artistry and that of his special guest, Cantor Arianne Brown of Congregation Adas Israel, whose filigreed rendition of that old chestnut, Mein Yidishe Mame had the audience in tears. It also underscored the ways in which music constitutes community.

These days, we’re apt to think that the best way to engage with music is to listen to its rhythms within the confines of our own personal, digitally-enhanced space. I don’t disagree. But going by my experience, and that of my seatmates, at Mr. Mlotek’s performance the other evening, there’s something to be said for listening within the company of others.

For a few hours on a wintry Tuesday, it offered a form of communion with history and sentiment and, above all, with one another, that is increasingly hard to find.

Traipsing around the Lower East Side on a beastly hot summer day, I had lots of company. The streets were filled with tourists, shoppers and the cool cats who now call that downtown neighborhood their home. Most visitors, I suspect, were in search of the fabled hipster haven that the Lower East Side has become of late. As for me, I was in search of history.

Lower East Side tenement fire escapes
Fire escapes on the Lower East Side near the Tenement Museum. Flickr/manyhighways.
It’s hard to find. The Lower East Side, that “great ghetto” of the late 19th and early 20th century, is now a living and breathing palimpsest of past and present. Sleek glass condominiums nestle, cheek by jowl, with the area’s characteristic brick tenements, while Katz’s Delicatessen, whose stock in trade is a hot pastrami sandwich, is just yards away from il laboratio del gelato, a bright, clean, laboratory-like space that purveys all manner of gelati, from pink pepper tarragon to thai chili chocolate.

Yes, the streets are still filled with signs that dangle in the wind from a metal chain. That’s not something you see too much of uptown. But they’re no longer hand-lettered or written in Yiddish and Hebrew. Instead, crisp, stylish graphics in English beckon passersby.

The multi-layers that constitute the Lower East Side put me in mind of an equally layered short story, “A Cycle of Manhattan,” that was first published in 1919, when that one square mile of downtown real estate was bursting at its seams with Jewish immigrants. Written by Thyra Samter Winslow, one of the bright young things of the interwar years, whom no one reads any more (but should), the story chronicles the deracination of an immigrant family.

Starting out in a New York tenement neighborhood as the Rosenheimers, they steadily make their way out of the ghetto. By the time they reach Riverside Drive, they have jettisoned their past and acquired a new name – Ross – in the process. Their son, an artist, rejects the bourgeois comforts and conceits of his parents. In search of authenticity and truth, he ends up living in a downtown tenement. But not in any old downtown tenement. In a wonderful denouement, this one turns out to be the very same tenement which his parents and grandparents had inhabited when they first arrived in America.

The life cycle of that fictional family, and doubtless that of their real life counterparts, parallels the life cycle of the city. And still does.

Who among us doesn't have a relative whose name was changed at Ellis Island? Rare, indeed, is the American Jew whose surname is the same as that of his or her European and Israeli cousins. Normative rather than exceptional, the immigrant's acquisition of a new name seems to be as American a phenomenon as, well, apple pie.

But now, in an article published by Dara Horn in Azure magazine, we're told that the changing-of-the-name is itself a bube mayse, an urban legend, a fabrication of the immigrant mind. It simply didn't happen, or, if it did, these flights of onomastic invention took place well before Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe even came to the New World. By Horn's lights, name change had little, if anything, to do with tone deaf inspectors at Ellis Island.

"Ellis Island Medical Exam." Flickr creative commons photo by jjprojects.

In an imaginative and extended riff, Horn not only denies the historicity of name changing but also claims that the whole thing, from start to finish, is a tall tale of expiation, projection and apology. Having so readily turned their backs on the Old World in their eagerness to become one with the New, Jewish immigrants, she claims, made the whole thing up. It's all one big mea culpa for our sins.

"By inventing a story that depicts their name change as beyond their control ... these immigrants sent a powerful message to future generations: I did not shed my Jewish identity intentionally. And despite the values of the country in which we are living I hope that you won't, either," she writes.

When I shared the latest news with my students, they were taken aback, even baffled. And not just baffled. Suddenly they were cast adrift, floating free of family stories that had once anchored them. Only a few days earlier, one of my students had written lovingly and at great length about how his great grandfather's name had been changed by an official at Ellis Island, and now he was being told that his forbear had made it all up. Who to believe? Dara Horn or grandpa?

The choice is not an easy one. Maybe it's easy for Horn to throw down the gauntlet, come what may. But where does that leave the rest of us who cherish the stories of how Smilensky became Smith, and Zabarsky became Zabar?

I've yet to recover from the news that Betty Boop, that sexy cartoon personality of the interwar years who boop-oop-a-dooped her way into America's heart, was reportedly fashioned after the fun-loving, rebellious daughters of the Lower East Side. And now word on the street is that Fred Flintstone, another celebrated American pop culture character, also took his cue – or at least his sound – from Jewish immigrant culture.

Yiddish may not be what it once was – the lingua franca, the daily language, of Ashkenazic Jewry – but it continues to make itself felt and heard in new and unanticipated ways, or what Jeffrey Shandler calls "post vernacular" forms of expression.

While the Rutgers University professor singles out board games and other artifacts that make use of Yiddish, two contemporary phenomena are additional grist for his mill.

Recently, Tablet magazine inaugurated A Yidisher Pop, an online gossip column which innovatively linked our modern-day preoccupation with celebrity to that age-old language.

Elsewhere in the digital universe, the Forward features an online cooking class in Yiddish, "Eat in Good Health," in which the plummy tones of Eve Jochnowitz give the trills of Julia Child a run for their money as she sets about instructing contemporary foodies on how to prepare a brisket and other staples of the traditional Jewish diet.

Closer to home, on GW's campus, a minyan of students comes together twice a week to learn about the subtleties and intricacies of Yiddish under the tutelage of professor Max Ticktin, a devotee and longtime student of the language. Some are drawn to Yiddish by the prospect of connecting with their grandparents, others by its linguistic complexities.

Whatever their motivations or their medium, those who make a point these days of integrating Yiddish into their daily lives are to be commended for sustaining and nurturing a vital part of their cultural patrimony.

Betty Boop (from Wikipedia). She knew how to bat an eyelash, but did she call it viye in Yiddish?

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