Given shelter at home rules, you’d think a Yiddish svive (reading group) might be the first casualty. We usually gear up with a nice selection of both sweet and savory and take a break midway, hovering over a table laden with deliciousness and catch up with each other — all in Yiddish. With a pandemic on, how are you going to take turns reading out loud in an orderly fashion, sharing some hard to find literary materials? Who’s going to be in charge now of the dictionaries we always need handy? And what, no nosh to share in person to keep us going?
I’m happy to report that svives are just Zooming along. We’ve increased our women’s Yiddish reading group from biweekly to weekly, now that everyone’s home.
A new member, our youngest girl genius, even managed to get to the YIVO library right before everything shut down, so we’ve got some unpublished treasures of Kadya Molodowsky’s to plow through. Talk about delectable.
Silver lining: After nearly two decades together, we seem to have finally settled on a meeting day and time that actually works for most of us, even the Vancouver and Australian khavertes. Though we may have lost one member — temporarily — to another svive. They’re reading I.B. Singer, so you know.
Another silver lining has been the generosity and intimacy of free online Yiddish concerts. They’re so accessible and enjoyable. I hope this practice continues far eybik, forever. The Folksbiene’s concerts have been a regular virtual scene. Yiddish punk troubadour Daniel Kahn performed his Yiddish blues from home, which is Berlin in his case. Kahn closed out his pensive thirty-minute concert by performing his shlagger Yiddish translation of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” It echoed and resonated with all this unknown we’re experiencing, the mounting losses of course, and even in my mind, with what heym means for Kahn’s Yiddish life: Berlin.
My virtual concert attendance began with a memorial concert the Folksbiene’s artistic director Zalmen Mlotek gave shortly after the death of beloved Yiddish cultural icon and former Forverts radio narrator, writer and co-worker, the unique Mikhl Baran. Baran had famously been camp director and Yiddish hep-cat father figure for nearly half a century to so many secular Yiddishist children, not least of which is Mlotek himself.
Zalmen and his fellow children of survivors attended the Jewish Bund’s heartrending Camp Hemshekh. Mikhl Baran’s death during the pandemic meant his send-off would be muted for the time being. But Mlotek would not stand down. His ingenious response was to perform a tribute concert of Camp Hemsekh favorites. There, in his home studio, he sat at his piano clad in comfy clothes, his music sheets flying as he pounded the keys. Mlotek jammed his heart out for Baran, providing a steady narration.
The moving historical context he gave included background on bizarro Hemsekh favorite “The Czar Song.” And we, the oylem, emoji’ed along.
Chana Pollack is the archivist at the Forward
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.