Jan 27, 2016
Once, while I was attending a tour of Chinatown’s Museum at Eldridge Street—housed in a masterfully restored nineteenth-century synagogue—the docent paused to relate an experience she had had with a previous visitor: As they were ascending the stairway into the main sanctuary, the visitor remarked in a puzzled tone, “It’s a beautiful shul, but why did they decide to build it in this Chinese neighborhood?”
Like a good Jewish joke, this (true, I swear!) anecdote hints at truths that transcend its simple premise. Chinatown, like all neighborhoods, is a palimpsest: a new text covering up an older text, with traces of the previous text still visible to the naked eye. A visitor will encounter those traces—like the Museum’s building, constructed by Jewish immigrants in 1887 in the heart of what was then the predominantly Jewish Lower East Side.; it’s one the the oldest synagogues in the United States. But the influx of Chinese immigrants over the last several decades has changed the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood such that the conspicuous Jewishness of the building now reads as an anomaly.
On a recent gray and wet Sunday afternoon, I returned to the Museum to attend a concert by Litvakus, a five-piece klezmer band specializing in under-represented Belarusian and Litvak musical modes. 1 1 Litvakus’s website describes the band’s music as both Belarusian and Litvak (Belarusian Jewish). “Litvak’” is a Yiddish term that refers to a native of the region roughly conforming to the 14th-century borders of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Lita, and referring to the distinct Jewish culture of that region that persisted through many re-drawings of the political borders. Lita includes much of present day Belarus, with its own Jewish and non-Jewish cultures. Belarusian Jewish culture, then, is both a part of Litvish culture and a distinct “subculture,” perhaps especially in the 20th century after the creation of the multiethnic Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. Belarusian as a term refers both to the Jewish and non-Jewish cultures of the area. New York City in recent years has played host to several concerts that have attracted Jews of both the frum and fray varieties. The 2012 Eternal Echoes cantorial concert at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn featured both secular (klezmer impresario/ethnomusicologist Hankus Netsky, Israeli virtuoso Itzkhak Perlman) as well as overtly religious (renowned Hasidic khazn Yitzchak Meir Helfgot) performers on the same stage. More recently, the 2015 Yiddish Soul concert in Central Park (in conjunction with KulturFest, a project of the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene) featured, among others, neo-Hasidic heartthrobs Zusha as well as Hasidic pop star Lipa Schmeltzer, all supervised by the Folksbiene’s artistic director Zalmen Mlotek. One could easily apply Isaac Bashevis Singer’s dictum on the Western Wall to these recent Jewish concerts: “If you come . . . you’re bound to meet everyone you want to sooner or later. [It’s] like a magnet that draws Jewish souls.” 2 2 Singer, Isaac Bashevis. “The Penitent.” New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1983. Print. Litvakus’s appearance at the Museum at Eldridge Street was no different, attracting both the bare-headed as well as yarmulke-wearers of all varieties, from multicolored crochet to black velvet—and at least a couple sheytlekh.
Litvakus was formed in 2008 by “clarinetist, vocalist and composer”—and ethnomusicologist to boot!—Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch. Rounding out the ensemble are Craig Judelman on violin, Taylor Bergren-Chrisman on stand-up bass, Sam Weisenberg on percussion, and Joshua Camp 3 3 For this performance, Camp was absent—playing in Fiddler on Broadway—so accordion duties were handled by Patrick Farrell of the Yiddish Art Trio. Violinist Zoe Aqua of Tsibile also played on two pieces. on accordion. The group has received accolades from the likes of legendary downtown avant-rebbe John Zorn as well as Frank London of elder statesmen the Klezmatics. Classics as well as original compositions, instrumentals as well as ballads and anthems, are on offer here. And just as the Museum at Eldridge Street finds itself at the nexus of both past and present immigrant communities, Litvakus takes its inspiration from the porous border between Yiddish (in this case, specifically Litvish) and Belarusian cultures.
The Museum at Eldridge Street is an appropriate venue for a Litvakus show, nestled as it is in the heart of what was once the Litvish section of the Lower East Side, according to the museum’s Director of Family History Center and Cultural Programs, Hanna Griff-Sleven. Its main sanctuary, where the concert took place, is an architecturally awe-inspiring yet intimate and warm space for a musical performance, with handsome wooden benches, gleaming marble walls and columns, an incandescent chandelier, and—the pièce de résistance—a stained-glass window by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans. This particular concert—the first Litvakus show in New York City since an appearance at SoHo’s City Winery last summer—was co-sponsored by In geveb and the Museum itself.
The band kicked things off to a raucous start with “Polka Suite,” a fast-paced number that got all hands clapping. Next came “Propoisk Suite in A Minor,” which started off at a slow tempo before transforming into a catchy traditional sher melody. (“It’s a shame we can’t dance,” my friend lamented.) The unique sonic elements of Litvish klezmer were readily apparent in both songs—in particular a generous helping of drone and an ever-present briskly-paced waltz tempo. Also on display was the shawm, a double-reed instrument that features prominently in Belarusian music, producing a high-pitched sound not unlike that of an oboe.
Having hooked the crowd with infectious melodies and rhythms, Slepovitch began to explicate the lyrical content of certain songs for his audience, occasionally revealing an acerbic political statement masquerading as a freylekhs, 4 4 A freylekhs is an especially joyous nign. Freylekhsn were among the most popular dance tunes in East European Jewish communities, and served as the origin point for much klezmer music. like “Dzhankoye.” Originally a Soviet farming song—concerning not Birobidzhan but rather the Soviet Jewish agricultural experiment in Crimea—Slepovitch rewrote the lyrics in the wake of recent events in Russia and Ukraine, transmuting it from internationalist Soviet propagandist hymn to insurgent Ukrainian nationalist battle-cry, protesting the current state of affairs in “dem okupirtn land” (“the occupied land”). In a particularly subversive twist, Slepovitch celebrates the pleasures of a capitalist market economy that welcomes “nit banditn, nor turistn” (not bandits, but tourists).
Politics and history also figured into “Chashnik,” 5 5 This refers to the shtetl known in Yiddish as Tshashnik; currently Chashniki, Belarus. a love letter to the Belarusian shtetl that was both Marc Chagall’s hometown and the site of Stalinist purges in the 1930s. The lyrics touch on the dark underbelly of emigrant nostalgia: “aza benkshaft a reyne . . . s’iz shver tsu derkenen dikh haynt” (“such a pure longing . . . it’s hard to recognize you today”) with Slepovitch punctuating the space in between verses with “Hup, hup!” and “ot azey!” (“that’s it!”), as well as emphatic waves of his right hand and a nonverbal joyous outburst that might be transcribed “Oooooh!”
“Chashnik” live. The song’s title refers to the shtetl known in Yiddish as Tshashnik; currently Chashniki, Belarus.
Significantly, that azEY (rather than the standard azOY) is a shibboleth, a phonetic signifier of Litvish identity not preserved in the otherwise quasi-Litvish klal-sprakh of YIVO. Introducing a piece with words by the poet and author whose last name is Kulbak, Slepovitch self-corrected: the lyrics were written “by Moyshe Kulbak—Meyshe Kulbak, my landsman.” A simple change in diphthongs here makes the difference between homo- and heterogeneity. To say azoy and Moyshe rather than azey and Meyshe would be an act of linguistic and cultural erasure.
But Slepovitch also mourns the ongoing aftermath of a more violent, tangible erasure. To those who would question the richness of Belarusian culture, he responded: “People ask, ‘Where is your Belarusian poetry? There it is: dershosn, bagrobn” (“executed, buried”). But while the lyrics might be equal parts eulogy and anthem, the music is all anthem. I’d be remiss if I failed to note that, mid-concert, every single member of the staff on hand broke out in a spontaneous circle dance, making several circuits around the entire cavernous space like it was simkhes toyre. (Turns out we could dance). A Litvakus concert is equal parts ethnomusicology/sociolinguistics lecture and simkhe.
Underlying that simkhe is the question of translation: how does one present songs about the shtetl, composed in Yiddish, to English-speaking Jews in twenty-first century New York City? Yes, Slepovitch’s pithy song-by-song introductions obviously serve as a type of translation mechanism. But while the lyrics generally draw on Eastern European landscapes for inspiration, Slepovitch also (at this particular show, at least) played to the audience’s primarily American origins—humorously clarifying, for instance, that the Polesia region he was singing about was located near St. Petersburg “in Russia, not in Florida.” In the same vein, a band with a song called “Q Train Voloch” must necessarily be rooted in New York City. But even though English, not Yiddish, served as lingua franca in between songs and during the Q-and-A, it was clear that many in the audience were able to understand at least some mame-loshn, and some were Yiddish-speakers who didn’t need translation at all. The klezmorim (musicians) at times used Yiddish words to encourage the crowd to participate, and when, in describing a sorrowful tale of star-crossed young love (“Yosele-kokhanchik”), the phrase “nisht do gedakht”—“may it not happen here”—left Slepovitch’s lips, the audience responded with a knowing laugh.
While Slepovitch alluded to linguistics several times throughout the performance—for instance, he explained the aforementioned “oooooh!” was explained as a “typical Polessian vocalization”—he did so most memorably at the conclusion of the set, introducing the standard “Vu iz dos gesele?” (“Where is the Street?”). The song itself deals with erasure; like “Chashnik,” it is written from the perspective of a revenant, someone returning to her former shtetl to find it gone, alive only in dream.
Slepovitch had introduced “Chashnik” by noting that he was raised by linguists, and as a result grew up perhaps more attuned to linguistic nuance than others. Prior to concluding the set with “Vu iz dos gesele?” he went on to explain that he had learned the song as a child— not in its original Yiddish, but, rather, in Polish, which he had known merely as “an artificial language.” Yet without being able to name exactly what—unaware, in his youth, that he was listening to a translated text—something had always struck him as strange about the song’s linguistic phrasing. “Both the Polish and the Russian versions [were] crippled,” he explained, reading like “a carbon copy of the Yiddish.” It wasn’t until he became a scholar that Slepovitch realized that the song had been composed in Yiddish. 6 6 While the version commonly known in Yiddish was definitely written by composer Sholom Secunda, with lyrics by Israel Rosenberg, for the 1926 musical Mashe oder margarita, an unverifiable webpage suggests that the song is not based on a Jewish folk tune, but on a Polish or Russian one. Another layer of (possible) palimpsest! Any readers with further information are encouraged to send tips and corrections to [email protected].
The term Slepovitch uses to describe the strangeness of “Vu iz dos gesele?” in translation, “carbon copy,” is etymologically instructive. The Yiddish word for carbon copy, kalke, also carries the meaning of the linguistic term “calque”: a phrase from one language translated literally into a second language. But a calque is, in fact, not a mere carbon copy, but also a type of palimpsest. It consists of an older text (the primary language’s original expression) covered over with a newer text (the secondary language’s literal translation of the original expression). The calque’s origins might not be readily apparent to the casual listener, and the text underneath might be harder to see. But the giveaway trace, so to speak—the tipoff to the still-present older text—is the telltale oddity of the original expression dressed up in its in its new linguistic clothing. As Slepovitch had noticed in childhood without being able to articulate why, something just sounded off.
This sense of strangeness that Slepovitch describes isn’t too far off from that which a visitor to the Museum at Eldridge Street might encounter in struggling to contextualize the presence of a massive synagogue in an ostensibly Chinese neighborhood. But exposing the hidden text—dusting it off and shining a light on it—can serve as a clarifying counterweight to erasure: whether the slow erasure of history that comes with urban demographic shifts, the sudden and violent erasure of a shtetl, or the almost imperceptible linguistic erasure of a key marker of Litvish identity—Meyshe, not Moyshe. Exposing these texts can be revolutionary. But—to paraphrase another Yiddish-speaking New Yorker before them—Litvakus doesn’t want any part in a revolution you can’t dance to.