Capturing Chasidim


As a street photographer, Maya Dreilinger echoes the sentiments of the 1982 “Missing Persons” song “Walking in LA.” Driving around the city, “you don’t see a lot of people walking,” she said. “But the Chasidism are always out on the streets and not just on Saturdays.”

With her camera, Dreilinger spent about two months documenting the streets of the Chasidic community bordering La Brea Avenue. Her exhibition, “La Brea on Robertson,” currently on display at the Workmen’s Circle, presents an intriguing mix of photographs and paintings that in some ways reveal more about the artist than the subject matter.

Born in Israel and raised in Los Angeles, the 30-year-old Dreilinger admits to having pre-conceived judgments about Chasidic Jews before she embarked on her project.

“I believed that their culture was restrictive, that women were always patronized,” she said. “But being around them for two months, I was humbled. Now I have no more anger or resentment, only respect.”

While other photographers have sought to document Chasidism from more of an insider’s perspective, Dreilinger purposefully maintained her distance as an outsider. She wandered around the La Brea area dressed as she normally does and refused the occasional invitation to dinner at someone’s home.

“I didn’t want to go in that direction,” she said. “I wanted to be only the respectful observer.”

Upon viewing Dreilinger’s work, Eric Gordon, director of the Workmen’s Circle, immediately thought of Roman Vishniac’s photographs of pre-war Poland.

“Maya has a discerning eye, and I love the humor in her work,” he said. “As for her subject matter, we may not be a religious-centered organization, but we are devoted to Yiddish culture. A socialist from the 1930s might have condemned this exhibit, but we’ve evolved since then. They [Chasidim] are part of our Yiddish community.”

The majority of Dreilinger’s photographs clearly show her outsider’s perspective. Several depict rear-view shots of Chasidic men and boys walking down the street and radiating inscrutability. A Chasidic boy, shown in the midst of prayer in an unidentifiable interior, seems completely absorbed in his own world. In “Kosher by Kehilla,” two women walking toward a street sign for a kosher bakery appear partially visible. Only their skirts and the top of a hat can be glimpsed.

In contrast, other photos subtly reveal the intrusion of the modern world. “Grandfather’s Touch” shows a little girl, with her father and grandfather, who carries the kind of plastic backpack desired by most trendy kindergartners. In “The Alley,” a group of black-garbed men pass an alleyway near the corner of Fairfax Avenue and Beverly Boulevard. Three men who appear to be Hispanic laborers inhabit the alleyway. One of them looks at the Chasidim, wide-eyed curiosity written across his face.

Often, Dreilinger succeeds in capturing the community’s varying attitudes in being photographed by an outsider. Some of her subjects smile broadly and pose for the camera. Some regard the camera as an alien interloper.

In some portraits, a sly humor can be found. A striking juxtaposition, for example, appears in “Trio,” where through the illusion of a reflection two young men look as if they stand next to the bust of a mannequin while they peer into the window of a clothing store. At first glance, the headless mannequin bears some resemblance to a Torah scroll.

Dreilinger took 14 of her black-and-white photographs and painted over their surfaces, sometimes leaving only a portion of the original image intact. These are hung situated across from the originals, and many a viewer will be tempted to keep traveling back and forth to cross reference the works. These paintings explode with vibrant color and whimsicality and, for the most part, do not evoke the sense of restraint and limitation found in many of the original photographs.

Take the Chasidic women walking toward the bakery sign. In the painted version, they wear bright red suits. The dress of an elderly woman standing outside the Westside Jewish Community Center on Olympic Boulevard has been colored in with bright flowers suggestive of a Hawaiian lei. In “Close-up,” a young, handsome Chasidic man posing against a wall has been colored and shaded so that he resembles an urban nightlife character from a Toulouse-Lautrec painting.

In other paintings, Dreilinger has added natural landscapes that sometimes enhance and other times completely obfuscate the original photograph. One of these paintings depicts two Chasidic girls with their hands over their mouths wandering amidst a rural, mountainous backdrop. In the original photograph titled “Contemplating Girls,” they stand on a city street with other schoolchildren.

Dreilinger says the paintings brought her “emotional release.”

“I hope I captured what is mysterious about these people and at the same time, beautiful. I wasn’t interested in showing ugliness,” she said. “But I did want to open people’s eyes.”

“La Brea on Roberston: Paintings and Photographs by Maya Dreilinger,” Jan. 22-March 5, Shenere Velt Gallery, Workmen’s Circle, 1525 S. Roberston Blvd. For more information, call (310) 552-2007.

 

A Bissel ‘Kvetch’ Goes a Long Way


“Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods” by Michael Wex (St. Martin’s Press, $24.95).

If you asked me whether I enjoyed Michael Wex’s hilarious and learned book, “Born to Kvetch,” I would find myself in an impossible quandary. To admit the rare pleasure I derived from reading it would be to violate what Wex argues is the very essence of Yiddish sensibility: a stubborn, cynical and often maddening refusal to concede satisfaction, with anything. So, despite my enjoyment of Wex’s fresh linguistic psychoanalysis of Yiddish culture, I am bound as a Jew to respond — aftselochis! (spitefully) — with nothing more flattering than a kvetch. Thankfully however, Wex provides a variety of ingenious Yiddish idioms whereby I might indicate approval of his work, without betraying my Yiddishkeit by “speaking goyish” — that is, by expressing satisfaction or direct, cordial flattery.

So, did I like this book, you ask?

Let me tell you: “Mayne sonim zoln nisht hano’e hobn fun a aza bukh!” (“My enemies should never enjoy such a book!”)

Wex analyzes the many ways that Yiddish — a language that has perfected the art of the curse while experiencing deep discomfort with praise — developed a strategy to deal with those rare times when a Yiddish Jew (henceforth, the “Yid”) has nothing negative, nasty or bitter to say.

Imagine, for example, that the Yid has somehow managed to spend the night with Halle Berry and is asked, “Iz zee shayn?” (“Is she pretty?”). Without lying — or risking sounding satisfied by responding in a goyish (positive) way — the Yid can turn his reluctant concession of Berry’s undeniable beauty into both a kvetch and a curse: “Mayne sonim zoln zayn azoy mees” (“My enemies should only be as ugly” [as she is pretty]).

The inquirer gets far more than he asked for, always a risk when conversing in Yiddish. Not only has he received an honest, if tortuously indirect, response to his question, but he also has learned that the Yid has bitter enemies, and he has shared in the nasty Yiddish curse that these enemies should all turn metaphysically ugly.

The “my enemies” trope is one of dozens of Yiddish expressions that Wex not only expertly translates and probes, but also psychoanalyzes with never-failing comic insight in constructing his depiction of the essential sensibilities of Yiddish, the Jews’ language of never-ending displacement, dissatisfaction, disillusion, deflation and denial. Wex argues that to understand Yiddish properly — he dubs it “the international language of nowhere” and “dybbuk-infested German for blasphemers” — one first must understand the history and sacred literature of the Jews since biblical times, with a particular focus on the long Jewish historical experience with goles, or exile.

Wex is at his best when tracing Yiddish expressions back to their Hebrew and Aramaic roots in biblical and talmudic sources, then mining their deeper meanings and what these reveal about the essential Yiddish mentalité. According to him, the history of the Jews as a people was inaugurated by what is arguably the most audacious collective kvetch in recorded civilization: Having been freed from centuries of brutal slavery by God’s spectacular plagues visited on their enslavers and then His dazzling miracles to enable their own escape from Egypt, the Jews almost immediately complain about the catering services in the Sinai desert. They’re sick of the manna, they’re thirsty, they want meat. Why couldn’t they have just stayed in Egypt, where they got free room and board, instead of having to die of starvation in the desert? Worst of all, what will the non-Jews say when they do indeed die in the desert? God responds to the Israelites’ astonishingly ungrateful kvetching with what Wex defines as the counterkvetch.

God decides to answer the Israelites’ complaints about the food in the desert by giving them something to kvetch about. The Jews want meat instead of manna? Moses tells them: “God’s going to give you meat and you’re going to eat it! Not one day or two days; not five days or 10 days or 20 days. But for a month you’re going to eat it, until it’s coming out of your noses” (Numbers 11:19-20).

Every demanding child of Yiddish-speaking parents has encountered a well-worn version of this maddening, all-purpose counter-kvetch to a simple, innocent request (though Wex doesn’t cite it explicitly). The child wants ice cream? “Ikh vell dir bald gebn ayz-kreem!” (“Oh, I’ll give you ice cream, all right!”) the parent retorts. Unlike the biblical paradigm, though, this really means “No!”

Wex contends that almost two millennia after the biblical period, Yiddish became the most effective vehicle ever to express “dos pintele Yid,” the essential spark of a Yid since ancient times, particularly that which always has differentiated him from the goy. Yiddish, more than just a language and less than most languages, embodies a skeptical state of mind, a discouraging posture and a perennially suspicious attitude toward an ever-hostile world. Yiddish is, as Wex illustrates abundantly, fundamentally a language of exile (goles) and alienation, and it has developed hundreds of expressions to convey the Yid’s jaundiced view of life, which centuries of displacement and oppression have engendered.

Beginning with a chapter on the linguistic and cultural foundations of the kvetch (“Kvetch-que C’est?”), and ending with myriad Yiddish expressions for death (“It Should Happen to You: Death in Yiddish”), Wex explores just about every aspect of exilic Jewish life, as reflected in Yiddish idiom. The chapters, “The Yiddish Curse: You Should Grow Like an Onion” and “Sex in Yiddish: Too Good for the Goyim,” are particularly rich (and shmutzig). Wex’s 10-page discussion of the various forms of corporal punishment and insults meted out to generations of Jewish children by kheyder-melamdim (Hebrew school teachers) is a fine example of the author’s ability to produce a long and ribald rant that would turn comic Dennis Miller green with envy. His long, descriptive list of the forms of assault at the melamed’s disposal (the knip, shnel, patsh, zets, klap, flem, frask and, finally, the much-dreaded khmal, whose victim will be so knocked out as to “see Cracow and Lemberg”) will have readers falling out of their chairs, as will the melamed’s extensive repertoire for demeaning his students’ intelligence. Beyond being physically assaulted, the less gifted kheyder student risked being called any, or all, of the following: nar (fool), shoyte (moron), sheygets (non-Jew), shtik fleysh mit oygen (piece of dead meat with eyes), puts mit oyren (prick with ears), puts mit a kapelyush (prick in a hat), goylem af reyder (golem on wheels) and shoyte ben pikholts (the idiot son of a woodpecker). As for the institutions of the kheyder and its melamed, Wex offers this insight:

Airless and overcrowded, full of preadolescents forced to trudge through steaming jungles of syllogisms, bubbe-mayses and kid-eating prohibitions — you can’t touch your hair while praying, you can’t pet a dog on Shabbes or go swimming during the hottest three weeks of the year — the kheyder had to be run by a combination of prison guard, exegete and child psychologist. But we’re in goles; we got the melamed instead.

Wex is a rare combination of Jewish comic and scholarly cultural analyst. Between his lines, brimming with linguistic comedy, there is a more serious message in “Born to Kvetch,” one that includes a trenchant, basically fair, critique of the earnestly humorless, secular enthusiasts of “modern Yiddish,” particularly the advocates of what is known as klal shprakh — the standardized version of the language invented mainly for academic purposes by the founders of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. While klal shprakh certainly fulfills an important need for, say, classroom instruction, it is not, never was and, Wex argues, can never be an adequate replacement for the idiomatic, natural, mimetic Yiddish of native speakers, so steeped in what Yiddish’s greatest scholar, Max Weinreich, famously coined, “derekh ha-Shas,” (the pathways of the Talmud). Other than a handful of klal shprakh devotees — described by Wex as “strident nudniks talking to their children as if they were all speaking Yiddish on ‘Meet the Press'” — most of today’s native Yiddish speakers are Chasidim of Hungarian origin, whose Yiddish is incomprehensible to those who know only klal shprakh. And, as Wex wryly observes: “Klal shprakh has adherents; Chasidim have babies.”

The vexing (or, should I say “Wexing”?) problem that lovers of Yiddish must face after reading this marvelous book is: What kind of a future might this bountiful and beautiful language — one that, Wex observes, “likes to argue with everybody about everything” — have in an America of catastrophic Jewish cultural loss? In this era of unprecedented Jewish success and comfort, when most Jews desire little more than to imagine that their long and bitter exile — whose conditions nurtured all that is so rich, moving and comical about Yiddish — is a thing of the past, and when the main association most American Jews have with Yiddish is happy, campy klezmer music, can we find a way (to paraphrase Jesse Jackson) to “keep kvetch alive?”

Article reprinted courtesy The Forward.

Allan Nadler is a professor of religious studies and director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University, and a consultant for academic affairs at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

 

Curb Your Verbosity


 

Do rabbis have to be wordy? Actually, no — or at least, not according to Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe. For the past eight years, Wolpe has been doing the unthinkable and actually condensing his lofty thoughts into succinct, easy-to-read-and-digest 200-word essays in the New York-based Jewish Week. Recently, Wolpe published “Floating Takes Faith, Ancient Wisdom for the Modern World,” (Behrman House), an anthology of his best columns. The selections in the book attempt to blend secular culture with Judaism, to prove that we have as much to learn from 17th century French aphorists like Francois de La Rochefoucauld as we do from Jewish scholars like Ibn Gabirol.

“No one tradition has a monopoly on wisdom,” Wolpe said. “I also want to help people learn to look for Jewish messages in the culture around them.”

Wolpe said that his desire to write a shorter column came as he was writing longer ones, but they were “infrequently published and infrequently read.” Once he started cutting words, the columns got a bigger response.

“When people see a rabbi’s name and a lot of words, they automatically assume that they are about to read a lot of superfluous stuff, and it’s hard for people to commit in a paper to read an entire column,” he said. “It’s much easier for them to read a brief, punchy point. And I also felt as though the central lessons that I had to teach, even though they could all be expanded upon, could be expressed succinctly.”

Wolpe’s goal with this book and with his columns is to achieve the most coveted accolade of all newspaper columnists — to have his column posted on someone’s refrigerator.

“I want to be put up there right next to that 30-year-old Art Buchwald column that has turned yellow,” he said.

In the meantime, he is continuing to write his columns and keeping them short.

“There is something to be said for brevity,” Wolpe mused. “But not too much, because you have to be brief.”

 

Israel Seminar Gives Teachers Refresher


When it came to modern Israel, Ziva London found herself living in the past. Having immigrated to the United States 23 years ago, the Jewish-day-school teacher recently realized that her concept of the Holy Land reflected the Israel she knew there as a citizen more than two decades ago. Talking to fellow Israeli teachers at B’nai Shalom Day School in Greensboro, N.C., London discovered that she wasn’t alone.

“We didn’t have the resources and knowledge of how Israel has been changing according to the international arena,” said London on a break between sessions at an Israel teacher education workshop at the University of Judaism (UJ).

Ziva and her colleagues were not the only educators wanting an educational update or a refresher course so that they could effectively teach students about the Jewish homeland. Seventy teachers from 13 states, Great Britain and Canada gathered Aug. 1-6 for the Pre-Collegiate Teacher Education Workshop on the History, Culture and Politics of Modern Israel, a seminar conducted by Emory University’s Institute for the Study of Modern Israel and hosted by the UJ.

With a decline in tourism since the re-emergence of suicide bombings in key Israeli cities in 2001, fewer American Jews are visiting Israel. With less exposure to the realities of Israeli society, many Jewish educators feel that their knowledge of modern Israel is either limited or passé.

“A lot of people have antiquated ideas about Israel,” said Dr. Nadav Morag, the UJ’s director of the Center for Israel Studies and chair of the political science department. “This is not the Israel of the kibbutz and people dancing in the fields, which is what a lot of Americans have images of today. Every 10 years it’s a different country.”

Between changes in the role of the Israeli army, exports focusing on high-tech products rather than agriculture and the influx of Russian immigrants, keeping one’s finger on the pulse of the ever-changing country can seem like a full-time job.

In addition, many American Jews are baffled by the idea of some Israelis’ secular, national Jewish identities. Others don’t comprehend Israel’s parliamentary government compared to the presidential government in the United States.

Pat Glascom, a workshop participant and an Israel studies teacher at Congregation Keneseth Israel in Allentown, Penn., was relieved to get some clarity on the differences between American and Israeli democracies.

“With the American presidential election approaching, I plan to have my students make a comparative study of the two democracies,” said the religious-school teacher.

For educators who are up to date on Israel, many still struggle with the task of trying to instill within students a connection to the Jewish state.

Rebecca Zimmerman, the educational director of Contra Midrasha in Walnut Creek, was baffled when two of her teenage students failed to understand her desire to visit Israel.

“I tried every angle I could think of,” said Zimmerman, of her struggle to explain possible motivations. “An emotional connection to the state of Israel, a political fascination, historical importance, religious, a spiritual homeland or even a simple cultural connection to other Jews. No matter what I said, they would not sway from their thought that Israel was not important.”

The UJ workshop focused on how to overcome such obstacles.

While some Jewish teachers struggle with student apathy, others must tactfully facilitate in-class political debates involving Israel.

Matan Agam, a senior at Milken Community High School, said that political discussions occasionally arise in his history, Hebrew and Jewish law classes.

“If there’s a bombing or something drastic, teachers open it up to discussion among students and they’ll moderate,” Agam said. “The opinions vary greatly among students and we usually get good points from both sides.”

In light of last summer’s front-page Los Angeles Times story about a former Shalhevet faulty member exposing his seventh-grade class to Palestinian points of view, some students feel their Jewish school are too rigid when it comes to Israeli politics.

“The school claims to be really open-minded, but when it comes to Israel, they’re not,” Shalhevet senior Becky Dab said. “They try to make it seem like everyone else is wrong and what the Israelis are doing is right.”

Her father, Jon Dab, is satisfied with the school’s position.

“We’re extremely supportive of Israel, so we don’t perceive anything [at Shalhevet] as being untoward as far as viewpoints being expressed.”

As the topic of Israel in the Jewish community seems to trigger black-and-white thinking, another obstacle is American Jews’ tendency to view Israel in an idealistic light.

“A lot of American Jews put Israel on a pedestal,” said Nadav, emphasizing the need for American to think of the country as “a normal society. If they build Israel up as an example of perfection, they’ll be disappointed when they find out it’s not perfect.”

For more information on the institute, visit www.emory.edu/COLLEGE/JewishStudies/ismi.html .

Shalom Y’All


"Shalom Y’all" sounds suspiciously like a slogan designed to sell souvenirs to Jewish visitors in the American South, and indeed the phrase adorns T-shirts, mugs and other paraphernalia in the gift shop of Charleston’s Beth Elohim Synagogue.

But the drawled greeting is also common parlance amongst the Jews of South Carolina, who have enjoyed 300 years of virtually uninterrupted prominence and prosperity in this unexpectedly rich corner of the Diaspora.

Unexpected indeed is what the community of refugees preoccupied itself with after flocking to these shores in the 17th century. It was not only non-Jews who profited from rice and cotton plantations, kept slaves, presided over grand antebellum mansions, dueled with pearl-handled swords and engaged in a futile fight to defend the Confederate flag. Ex-Londoner Francis Salvador, elected to the South Carolina Congress in 1774, became not only America’s first Jew elected to high office but the first to die liberating his colony from British rule.

What brought the first, mainly Sephardic, Jews to Charleston was its remarkable religious tolerance, not to mention the economic prospects elevating them to a new aristocracy to which their Ashkenazi kinsmen who followed greedily aspired. Thus the shameful lust for slaves, the choice accessory of the period even for Jews paying annual lip service to their own release from slavery in Egypt. However, it was a high-principled Jewish grocer who redeemed the community by refusing to segregate his black customers in the dark days before civil rights prevailed.

As well as the exhibits celebrating Jewish life at the excellent Gibbes Museum of Art, there is much to delight the visitor to Charleston, whose beautiful and historic homes, churches and public buildings have been preserved in aspic by poverty. For more than a century after the Civil War, there was no money for urban renewal, though now the city is enjoying a boom, new buildings are creeping in and the slow pace of life associated with the South is confined in this city to Battery Park, where magnificent colonnaded mansions line streets lined with cobblestones brought from England. A plethora of horse-drawn carriages and trolleys tour the streets of the historic district, but the only way to get into the side streets and alleys, where so much of Charleston’s elegant residential life is played out, is to take a walking tour.

Ruth Miller covers Jewish history as well as all the general sights in her Charleston strolls, including handsome Beth Elohim, built in Greek-revival style in 1840 to serve a congregation already a century old. Against the trend of European synagogues designed for Ashkenazim but now used by larger, younger Sephardic congregations, this one has evolved in the opposite direction. It comes as a shock to find that while there is no separation of worshippers at Beth Elohim, where America’s Reform movement was founded in 1824, there is a gallery in place down the road at St. Michel’s Church, designed to separate not men and women but whites from blacks "and other strangers" in the bad old days.

You don’t need a tour guide to get into the handsome church or many of the town’s historic homes and gardens, since local groups — from august preservation societies to the flamboyant Hat Ladies of Charleston — are falling over themselves to open their doors to visitors. Away from the "Gone With the Wind" opulence of the townhouses — notably the 1818 Aiken-Rhett House, where antebellum urban life is faithfully showcased, Drayton Hall documents plantation life warts and all, and the Charleston Museum’s Heyward-Washington house offers a glimpse of the neighborhood that inspired the setting for "Porgy and Bess." When it comes to accommodations, there is an embarrassment of choices in Charleston, choc-a-bloc with historic inns. Opting for a modern red-brick hotel seems on the face of it bizarre, but Orient Express endowed its award-winning Charleston Place property with the kind of luxurious and festive atmosphere that must have prevailed in the heady, prosperous years of the Confederacy. Rooms are large and opulent, and the hotel’s grill room, presided over by double-Michelin-starred Bob Waggoner, offers a sumptuous dining experience.

But perhaps the finest food in the state is to be found at the Beaufort Inn, a favorite haunt of Tom Hanks, who filmed "Forrest Gump" in this delightful little seaside town, an hour’s drive south of Charleston. Like Charleston, Beaufort boasts a plethora of historic mansions but is a lot sleepier. One of its greatest charms is access to the marshy sea islands where the world’s finest cotton was once grown. Since the abolition of slavery the area has become a hotbed of African American culture; check out the acres of colorful and highly collectible folk art on view at the Red Piano Too gallery on St. Helena Island before continuing to Hunting Island State Park with its primeval jungle, wild beach and lighthouse. Lazybones might never get beyond the verandah of the beautifully appointed Beaufort Inn or the delightfully indolent urban pursuits — browsing excellent bookshops, fressing sundaes in the old-fashioned ice cream parlor or taking a slow Carolina horse-drawn buggy ride round town.

Golfers and serious shoppers are lavishly catered to nearby on swanky Hilton Head Island, with its pricey top-end resorts, championship courses and designer malls, but there is less specialized and more affordable seaside entertainment on offer a couple of hours’ drive north at Myrtle Beach, which must be America’s largest and most economically democratic resort. The Grand Strand, a fabulous stretch of wild, wide white beach stretches 60 miles from Shag, where the young and funky crowd hang out, all the way down to much posher Pawley’s Island. This may be the pleasantest place to stay, thanks to the Litchfield Plantation Inn, which offers period rooms, contemporary cottage and haute cuisine. Many guests never get beyond their private deck beside a creek lined with live oaks dripping Spanish moss, the state’s most evocative attribute. But it’s worth a 35-minute drive to seek out the high-quality live entertainment for which Myrtle Beach is famous, including top-class variety with a country twist at the Carolina Opry, Dolly Parton’s hokey North-vs.-South Dixie Stampede, tribute bands at Legends, and top rock and R&B acts at the House of Blues, where live music is served up free to outdoor diners and the folk art collection alone demands a trip. Culture vultures will enjoy the sculpture trail at nearby Brookgreen Gardens, where some magnificent 19th and 20th century pieces are displayed in a verdant setting.

Note that travel into the Carolinas is painless now with the opening of Charlotte as a gateway, its airport compact, efficient and a fine introduction to southern friendliness.

Courtesy of featurewell.com.