Thursday, April 28, 2011

Who Knows One?

In case you still have a craving for matse, this week's post, brought to you by IU's Paul Artist-in-Residence and world-renowned Yiddish singer, pioneering figure in the Klezmer revival, and trailblazing Yiddish ethnographer Michael Alpert, offers one more look at Peysekh in Eastern Europe -- Naftule Shor in Bershad, Ukraine, chants hymns from the Passover hagode.

The markers of Ashkenazic Jewishness in the USSR and Former Soviet Union have differed greatly from those in North America or other parts of the world where religious and institutional life play a leading role. Since the late 1940s, Soviet Ashkenazic life and self-identity were almost entirely unofficial, often illicit, and manifested most vitally in family and small community contexts through grass-roots forms of expressive culture like language and verbal art, music – especially song – and  traditional foodways. 

Thus, the ability of persons of Naftule Shor’s generation to remember and especially to read portions of Jewish liturgy or paraliturgical text is usually a distinctive mark of religious or traditional upbringing transmitted and not forgotten through the Soviet Period, the Second World War, and the dissolution of community life that has often accompanied the emigratsiia: the large-scale emigration of Jews since the 1970s from the USSR and its successor states. New forms of Jewish life are again taking root in larger cities in the Former Soviet Union, but the continued dwindling and disappearance of smaller communities are not only a factor of the inexorable march of time and old age, but a consequence of an emigratsiia that continues to this day.

Many – though by no means all – Soviet Ashkenazim born before 1930 and still deeply familiar with traditional Jewish liturgy are zapadniki, (Russian: “Westerners,”), who grew up in areas of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and the Baltic countries that were not part of the USSR until the years surrounding World War II. Naftule Shor’s Hagode reading transports us to an earlier era in East European and Soviet Jewish life and reminds us that religious Jewish life and tradition did not simply vanish with the establishment of the USSR or its annexations of neighboring areas.

This is particularly true of Peysekh, with its message of freedom and its function as a participatory celebration for which many older individuals recall ritual or textual specifics. In this clip, Shor chants portions of the four concluding hymns of the Passover seyder (lit. order: religious ritual accompanied by a meal and four glasses of wine). Asked by AHEYM interviewers what he recalls in connection with Peysekh, in particular the final hymnKhad gadyo (The One Kid), Shor begins to chant the latter from memory. Interrupted and asked if he knows the rest, he picks up a Hagode and begins to read and chant its four concluding hymns in order.

Shor begins with verses 1 and 3 of Ki loy noe, ki loy yoe (It Befits Him, it is Due Him), the final hymn of Halel(Praise), the penultimate Hagode section.  He moves directly into the Hagode’s concluding section Nirtso(Acceptance) with the first two verses of the hymn Adir hu (He is Mighty), before chanting all thirteen verses of the counting hymn Ekhod mi yoydeyo (Who Knows What “One” Means?). He often punctuates his chanting of the latter by translating the Hebrew original of each number into Yiddish for the interviewers, who he’s not sure understand (they do!).

Musically, Shor’s renditions are typical of an older, pre-modern and pre-American Ashkenazic style of reading theHagode, in particular its hymns. They are chanted (gezogt, lit. “said”) rather than sung (gezungen). Though they have pulse and melody, or more accurately mode, in the traditional Yiddish worldview they are not “songs”. This approach continues to distinguish the older Orthodox Ashkenazic style of synagogue and home liturgy from more modern, often West European-influenced styles employed by Conservative, Reform and Modern Orthodox traditions throughout the world. 

Additionally, Shor’s versions of the concluding hymns (chanted after the Seyder meal) are upbeat and mainly employ “major” modalities. This is also typical of older East European Jewish practice. While we don’t have an example here of Shor chanting the first portion/s of the Hagode, particularly Magid -- the narration of the Passover story itself -- it is characteristic to chant those portions in a more somber manner, utilizing musical modes that convey the suffering, power and drama of slavery, redemption from it, and the Exodus itself.

An intriguing modal and rhythmic moment in this clip is Shor’s brief rendition of Adir hu We don’t hear much of it, but it appears to be distinctive in its use of a “minor” mode (or one cadencing on the 2nd degree of the mode) and especially in the pulse of the chant, which seems to imply an asymmetrical “7/8” rhythm in the repeated cadences. If the latter is true, we are witness to a moment of great exceptionality. Ashkenazic musical practice in general avoids or “straightens out” the asymmetrical rhythms of Ottoman or Balkan musics. Shor’s rendition raises the question as to whether Jews in southern, former Ottoman and certainly Ottoman-influenced locales like Bershad’ preserved features in liturgy or paraliturgical music that are otherwise absent from secular genres like the instrumental klezmer tradition as we know it.

The texts for Ekhod mi yoydeyo and Khad gadyo are likely of non-Jewish origin, given their parallels in many European cultures. Khad gadyo is unique among the concluding hymns of the Hagode by virtue of being in Aramaic, not Hebrew. Some see this as proof of its antiquity, but given its multitude of variants in non-Jewish European folk traditions, it is more likely a borrowed theme deliberately penned in Aramaic to give it the patina of age and Jewish specificity.

At the end of the clip, Shor refers to the custom of finishing the Seyder on the second night of Peysekh by reciting the blessing that begins the ritual period of Sfires ho-oymer (The Counting of the Omer).

-- Michael Alpert
(with concurring opinions provided by Sruli Dresdner)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Letters from Berdichev

In June 1941, Bella Reinsdorf had just completed the eighth grade with honors in Berdichev, Ukraine. She asked for her parents’ permission to celebrate by going on a trip with her cousin to visit her maternal grandparents in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkov. This cousin, Zonya, was a law student and needed to go on the trip to take his final exams in order to graduate.  They left on June 20th, two days before Germany invaded the Soviet Union.  Her cousin was able to make another trip back to Berdichev to bring his wife, child, and blind mother to Kharkov, but Bella’s immediate family was left behind. Her parents, two sisters, and paternal grandmother were murdered by the Nazis less than six months later. Zina, the youngest girl, was four years old.

In 2009, AHEYM visited Bella and her husband, Isaak, in Berdichev. During the visit, Bella showed the interviewers the many letters, telegrams and photographs from her family that her grandfather kept and passed on to her to keep the memory of loved ones alive. These letters were sent in June and July of 1941 from Bella's father, mother, and paternal grandmother in Berdichev to Bella and her family members in Kharkov. Remarkably, even in wartime conditions, the postal and telegram services were operational. This is especially significant as the Nazis set up a ghetto in Berdichev on July 15th, 1941. Through the letters, Bella's parents were able to convince her to stay in Kharkov, a decision that saved her from her family's fate in Berdichev.

To find out more, read the letters from Bella's family.

--Asya Vaisman

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Peysekh in Shpikov

We return this week to Evgeniia Krasner from Shpikov, Ukraine, as she describes Peysekh (Passover) preparations and practices. For Evgeniia, as for many other Jews from the region, Peysekh was a particularly important holiday. In Soviet times, while public displays of Jewish observance were heavily discouraged by state authorities, many Jews held on to the traditions of Passover, such as clandestinely baking and eating matzah. More than most other Jewish practices, Peysekh customs persisted among Soviet Jews, in part because of the symbolic content of the holiday's message of national liberation, and because of the memory of participation in the Seyder as children.

Evgeniia mentions how her father would read the Agude (Haggadah), and she would ask the Four Questions -- in the clip, she begins reciting the first one, about the difference between eating khomets (chametz) and matzah. Going in reverse chronological order, Evgeniia then describes the preparations that went on before the holiday, first bedikes khomets and biur khomets (searching for remaining crumbs of bread and then burning them), and then the kashering (making kosher) of pots for Peysekh using a hot stone.

More clips about Peysekh in the Soviet Union

A koshern Peysekh aykh!

--Asya Vaisman and Seb Schulman

Note: Next week's post will appear one day late, on Thursday, to accommodate the Passover holiday.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Gefilte Fish

With Peysekh (Passover) just around the corner, AHEYM begins regular Wednesday postings with some very timely content: heymishe (homey) recipes for gefilte fish. While Manischewitz may have you believe that gefilte fish consists of the bland gray ovals in their gleaming glass jars, Evgeniia Krasner from Shpikov, Ukraine, will tell you how it's really done. Yes, for that tam gan-eydn (heavenly taste) you do need to gut the fish yourself and, as Evegniia so poetically puts it, "creep your hand under the skin to take out the meat."

Est gezunterheyt! (Eat in good health!)

At the end of the clip, Evgeniia states in no uncertain terms that she prefers her gefilte fish savory, but she also knows of people who make theirs sweet. This distinction goes deeper than simply being a matter of personal preference -- scholars have discovered that there are discrete geographical areas in which each type of fish is prepared.

The "gefilte fish line" that divides the sweet from the savory regions of Europe happens to trace almost precisely the line that divides the Central Yiddish dialect (spoken primarily in the region corresponding to present-day Poland) from the Southeastern and Northeastern dialects (spoken primarily in the regions corresponding to present-day Ukraine and Lithuania/Belarus, respectively). As the Yiddish linguist Marvin Herzog, among others, has noted, "sweetened fish, also called pojliše fiš 'Polish fish', is generally unpalatable to those east of the indicated [dialect] border, who prefer their fish seasoned only with pepper" (The Yiddish Language in Northern Poland: Its Geography and History, 1965).

Gefilte fish recipes from other towns

--Asya Vaisman