A surprising number of people have a professional interest in something they call “kosher comedy.” Now, there’s something compelling about the idea of a God-fearing stand-up, even more so than a pious painter, novelist, filmmaker, or musician. Notwithstanding the plot of Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev, you can always paint mountains or abstractions and not encounter any serious second-commandment objections. You can narrate, on the page or on screen, the gender-segregated lives of good people and still pass religious muster. You can sing or even rap about your faith in Hashem, and it doesn’t sound absurd—or, at least, not inevitably so. But comedy is fundamentally irreverent, isn’t it? How can one square that with religion?
The answer, for the most effective of contemporary Orthodox comedians, is that you simply don’t. (more…)
Moshe Kasher introduces one bit on his 2009 debut comedy CD, Everyone You Know Is Going to Die, And Then You Are, by saying the words, “I went to college.” Which, given that Kasher is a 32-year-old American Jew, would seem a little like his saying that he breathes oxygen. (more…)
Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land
Edited by Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle
Abrams ComicArts, 240 pages, $29.95
People don’t admire paintings they haven’t seen, or dance to music they haven’t heard, but they do all sorts of crazy things with languages they don’t speak. This is what Rutgers University scholar Jeffrey Shandler described in his 2005 book, “Adventures in Yiddishland” (University of California Press), as “postvernacular culture”: Just because people don’t know a language doesn’t mean they won’t hold intense beliefs about it, long for it or revile it, and, in ways both brilliant and bizarre, put it to use.
“Yiddishkeit,” an anthology co-edited by comics great Harvey Pekar, who passed away last year, and leftist scholar and non-Jewish Yiddish-speaker Paul Buhle, does not attempt to teach its reader a selection of Yiddish words, unlike Michael Wex’s and Leo Rosten’s best-sellers. And it is not a history or an analysis of Yiddish culture, nor a collection of Yiddish literature translated into English. It’s weirder, more puzzling and more difficult to describe: We might call it a postvernacular tour de force. (more…)
From Continuity to Contiguity: Toward a New Jewish Literary Thinking
By Dan Miron
Stanford University Press, 560 pages, $65
Dan Miron’s “From Continuity to Contiguity” is a work of Jewish literary theory — an exceedingly erudite one, and in some ways the most important to appear in recent decades — that reads a little like a mystery novel. The book begins with the idea that “continuity” is dead as a model for studying Jewish literature, and Miron, the Leonard Kaye Chair of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, even tells us who killed it: “the so-called Tel Aviv structuralist school of poetics.” (more…)
Everyday Jews: Scenes from a Vanished Life
By Yehoshue Perle
Translated by Meier Deshell and Margaret Birstein
Yale University Press, $38.
One of the fascinating things about nostalgia is how well it ages. While science fiction can turn to kitsch in as little as a decade, personal histories often grow richer, and more valuable, with the passage of time.
Take, for example, Yehoshue Perle’s autobiographical Yiddish novel, Yidn fun a gants yor. When the book – which was recently translated into English as Everyday Jews – first appeared in Warsaw back in 1935, it already bore a subtitle reflecting its focus on the past, its more or less Proustian recherche du temps perdu. (more…)
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
By Michael Chabon
HarperCollins. 432 pages. $26.95.
There’s no better way to describe Michael Chabon – who’s most famous for his monumental, Pulitzer Prize-winning 2000 novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – than as a literary superhero. He may not have X-ray vision or the ability to bend iron bars with his hands, but his gifts as a wordsmith are no less extraordinary or exuberant. In a new book, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Chabon flexes his hypertrophied storytelling muscles once again, and puts on a dazzling show. (more…)
By Sholem Asch
444 pages. Kessinger. $36.95.
Every movement needs a slogan, and the Jewish Enlightenment—the idea, simply put, that Jewish traditions and modern western culture can coexist harmoniously—finds its tersest expression in Y. L. Gordon’s pithy 1863 advice: “Be a man on the street and a Jew in your tent.” The problem with this prescription, of course, is that while Jews are out there in the street being men, they tend to encounter women. One thing leads to another, a man invites a woman back to his tent for a nightcap, she agrees—and all of a sudden, Cinderella-like, the man transforms back into a Jew and the woman into a dreaded shiksa. Much hand-wringing, and occasional violence, ensues. (more…)
Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods
By Michael Wex
St. Martin’s. 304 pages. $24.95.
It’s been called folksy and quaint. It’s been labeled a dialect and dismissed as “jargon.” Even its defenders tend to admit that it died 50 years ago. Yiddish, nebekh, has suffered so much defamation of character that it could probably win a libel suit.
If Yiddish ever does sue, its first expert witness will be Michael Wex. (more…)