Monthly Archives: August 2009

Plant Names in Yiddish

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

One of the most encyclopedic Web collections I’ve seen recently was created, ironically, to put to rest a supposition that I’ve never heard of. Plant Names in Yiddish is the Web adaptation of Di Geviksan-Velt In Idish, a 2005 publication by Yiddish linguist Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter — who, according to the site, “confronts the stereotype that ‘there aren’t any plant names in Yiddish’.”

plant names in yiddishI can see where the stereotype would come from — since, you know, Yiddish was developed primarily in climates where the ground was encrusted with snow for 90% of the time. However, I can honestly say that, in all the conversations I’ve had about Yiddish {and I’ve had a bunch, at least, compared to the average American} the issue of plant names has never come up.

Which isn’t to say that it isn’t interesting. As notes, “The somewhat-uninspiring English title belies the amazing nature of the work.” He proceeds to kvell:

As a reference work it’s indispensable. But as a simple joy—as an impossibly rich and dense body to dive into at immediately satisying random—it is even dearer. At a random page turn I can tell you that the Yiddish name for Artillery Clearweed, Pilea microphylla, is הארמאטניק.. Harmatnik, that is, ‘cannoneer’—I have never heard of Artillery Clearweed but apparently its offensive associations are not unique to English. Sweetflag, the genus Acorus, goes by the name שאװער, or shaver….[F]ar from being some wasteland of natural terminology, where the urban, mercantile Yid is happy to lump all ferns with ferns, trees with trees, birds with birds, and so on, stemming from a general lack of engagement with nature, Yiddish natural terminology is a happy and well-churned melange of influences, Polish, Hebrew, German, Russian, French, Ukrainian and original coinages, where the language’s syncretic, cosmopolitan nature joyously shines through.

plant names in yiddish

My own Yiddish, and my own understanding of the book, is not nearly as poetic. I struggled through a few lines in the first chapter before turning ahead to the shorter and more digestible later chapters. But I’m bowled over by the potential for this knowledge to exist. That, say, one day, when I finally settle down and learn Yiddish — or, if we stay in Brooklyn, when my kid speaks fluent Yiddish — that, if she ever wants to describe the most perfect seeded dandelion in the world, or a beautiful ghost orchid, she’ll have a way to do just that.

Posted on August 26, 2009

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This entry was posted in Israel on by .

My morning routine is about the same every weekday: Drag my lazy butt out of bed. Feed the dog. Get to the bus stop. Read Twitter.

This morning, after being saddened by the death of the esteemed Senator Ted Kennedy, I noticed that Gilad Shalit had made it to number 3 in the top Twitter trends. (You can always check them out at

I had read a few places that there was a campaign to tweet today for Shalit’s 23rd birthday, to raise awareness about him. Redeeming Jewish captives (pidyon shvuyim) is an incredibly important mitzvah in Judaism, but Jews make up a such a small percentage of the population–world and social media. I really wasn’t expecting to see Shalit break the top ten, particulary on a day with other big news.

So while it’s laudable that the Jewish community can mobilize social media on a massive level for an important cause, I hope soon we won’t have to tweet to release Shalit.

Posted on August 26, 2009

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The Oldest Jews in Brazil

This entry was posted in Culture, History on by .

In his last blog, Benjamin Moser wrote about chasing Clarice Lispector around the world.

In the oldest synagogue in the New World, Kahal zur Israel in Recife, I met a friendly grandmother named Berta Schvartz.

jewish author blogUnlike so many other tourists, I had not arrived in search of the Jewish community of the seventeenth century, when northeastern Brazil had been ruled by the Dutch. Instead, I was there to see the second Jewish Recife, the world of the Eastern European immigrants who came to the beautiful island city at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Among them was a little girl born in 1920 in the Ukraine. Brazil’s greatest modern writer, Clarice Lispector, spent her childhood in the working-class neighborhood of Boa Vista, just a few bridges away from the ancient synagogue.

This was where Berta had grown up, a generation after Clarice. I asked her to take me around Boa Vista to help me imagine Clarice’s girlhood universe for my biography, Why This World.

“Every house has memories for me!” Berta exclaimed. “I knew every family here. And look, they’re all gone now.” The sacrifices of the immigrants had allowed their children to move on to reliable plumbing, round-the-clock doormen, and ocean views.

But for Berta, as for Clarice, Boa Vista was world enough. She shows me the center of this community, the Praa Maciel Pinheiro, known in Yiddish as the pletzele, or little square. Here, at number 367, Clarice Lispector spent her childhood.

“The house was so old that the floorboards bounced when we walked,” Tania, Clarice’s sister, told me. “It had colonial windows, a balcony, colonial roof tiles, it really was very old. … We lived on the second floor. We eventually moved because we were afraid that the house would fall over.”

But there it is, still looking creaky. And from its window Mania Lispector, Clarice Lispector’s paralyzed mother, raped in a pogrom in the Ukraine, sat staring, waiting for her disease to run its inevitable course. “She was like a statue in the house,” Clarice’s cousin Anita Rabin remembered.

why this worldClarice was still a girl when the family moved to the Rua da Imperatriz, a street that leads from the pletzele down to the river. Berta shows me the house, and on the way she points out the location of the Casas Feld, an upscale clothing shop presided over by Luiz Feldmus and his wife, a glamorous figure known in Recife as Madame Clara; and Jacob Berenstein’s Livraria Imperatriz, long the best bookshop in Recife and a gathering-place of the city’s intelligentsia.

Clarice’s older sister Elisa wrote that “every afternoon, [their mother] sat on the balcony of the old house on the Rua da Imperatriz, dressed in stiff linen, her smooth black hair combed back, her useless arms crossed on her chest … her head dropped to the side, her eyes staring off, like slightly deadened blue beads.”

Despite the family’s poverty and her mother’s disease, Clarice remembered a magical childhood. “I was so happy that I hid from myself the pain of seeing my mother like that,” Clarice said. “I felt so guilty, because I thought my birth had caused it.”

Her mother died when she was nine. Soon afterward, her father moved the family to Rio de Janeiro, where he hoped to find Jewish husbands for his daughters and where Clarice, already renowned for her beauty, would begin one of the most extraordinary careers in modern literature.

But she never forgot her hometown. Months before her death in 1977, Clarice Lispector made her final trip to Recife. She insisted on staying at a hotel on the pletzele, spending hours gazing out the window at the little square where she grew up. Only the color of her childhood house had changed.

“I remember looking out from the balcony on the Praa Maciel Pinheiro, in Recife, and being afraid of falling: I thought everything was so tall. … It was painted pink. Does a color end? It vanishes into the air, my God.”

Benjamin Moser is the author of Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector. He is guest-blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

Posted on August 26, 2009

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The Book of Job: The Williamsburg Version

This entry was posted in Texts on by .

One of my favorite things about being a full-time professional Jew is that you, our clientele, kind of view Judaism as a public service. Rather than thinking, “What does this millenia-old tradition have to do with me?”, every day we get letters from people who ask, “What can this millenia-old tradition do for me?”

Or, in a really roundabout way, it’s like made-to-order Judaism. Taking people, taking Judaism, and seeing where the two intertwine.

That’s one of the reasons I’m so fond of my extra-curricular activity, G-dcast, where we record rock stars and TV producers and furniture designers telling what they learn from the weekly Torah portion. And why I love things like the mash-up 10 Things I Hate about Commandments, which recontextualizes the Exodus story as a high-school rivalry.

Okay, so making a hipster version of the Book of Job is a bit more adult than casting Moses as the new kid in town. And practically all the jokes are inside jokes. But it’s a pretty big “inside,” and Job seems natural to be adapted by the Williamsburg generation: its moral ambiguity, its depression, its positivity in the face of depression, and — perhaps most importantly for this target audience — its meta-textuality.

This video kind of embraces the story on every level. Of course, the final scene — that big party where everyone is invited — doesn’t exactly happen in the story of Job, but is nonetheless requisite for the genre. And then Abraham Lincoln keeps showing up. This doesn’t make sense either, but it does seem to fit thematically.

Posted on August 25, 2009

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Gospel Music at Shul: Yay or Nay?

This entry was posted in Practices, Texts on by .

There’s this weird trend going on at my shul recently. Hadar has always been big on people bringing in new tunes to use for kedusha and other parts of the service. It’s always beautiful, and I like that moment where you’re singing along and trying to figure out how you know the melody. Recently I had one of those ‘wait–how do I know this tune?’ moments, and realized a few minutes later that we were singing Sim Shalom to the tune of Amazing Grace.

This is the kind of thing that I would expect to hate. I’m very careful not to mix Christianity with my Judaism partially because I don’t want anyone thinking I subscribe to anything Jesus-related, and partially because I feel like Christianity is too often shoved down the throats of unsuspecting American Jews and I don’t want to be a party to that. So though I find gospel music attractive in some ways, I don’t approve of it in shul.

Except–I think Amazing Grace is the perfect tune for Sim Shalom. It’s really beautiful, and conveys a message of grace, which is inherent in the Sim Shalom blessing. It worked for me, but I was very conscious of how much I should have hated it.

Not surprisingly, there are a number of responsa on this subject, and when I consulted with a rabbi I was told that it’s technically allowed, but if the people singing along in shul will be thinking of the Christian lyrics in their heads then it’s not okay. I only know the first few lines of Amazing Grace, but I definitely was thinking about them at shul while we sang Sim Shalom, which makes me think it should be avoided.

I’m ambivalent on this. Seems like I shouoldn’t like it, but I do, and it seems like it shouldn’t be allowed, but it might be halakhically fine.

Now, let’s watch some Sister Act.

Posted on August 24, 2009

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Hey, G*d! Where You At?

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

One of my rabbis used to tell me that everything we say can be a prayer — and, more than that, everything we do is a prayer, too. And for that reason, all words are words of Torah — and, before you start to make a snarky joke, that means that we should try and make everything we say as brilliant and perceptive and worthy of Torah as it can possibly be.

And from that, it’s just one step (pardon the pun) until we make everything we wear part of Torah, too.

god's shoes

Rebecca Guber, director of the Six Points Fellowship, made these shoes (with the able assistance of O Captain My Captain here at MJL, Daniel Septimus). They originally appeared on Jewschool a few years ago. But it’s always good to keep in mind where we came from.

There’s no telling whose idea the shoes were originally. But imagine, every time you take three steps back or three steps forward, your shoes come together, and it’s like your very own Voltron experience. Maybe the Beatles song “Come Together” will be playing.

The only question is, if you wear these sneakers on Shabbat, does putting your heels together count as writing?

Posted on August 24, 2009

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Chasing Clarice Lispector

This entry was posted in History on by .

Benjamin Moser, author of Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, is guest-blogging for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

At many points in my life, I have been glad to know Yiddish. But as I darted through the darkened lobby of the Hotel National in Chisinau at one in the morning, trying desperately to reach the elevator bank before I was spied by a man with a stained beard and rancid breath, I reflected that this was not one of those points.

jewish authors blogI had come to Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, once more widely known as Kishinev, to follow the path that took the family of the great writer and mystic Clarice Lispector, then an infant called Chaya, from their Ukrainian homeland to Brazil.

Despite the bad roads and the chaotic border crossing, it was a short trip from Chechelnik, the tiny town where she was born, to Kishinev. Although, it would not have been a short trip in the early 1920’s, when the Lispector family was trying desperately to flee the pogroms, famine, and civil war that, in the wake of World War I and the Russian Revolution, were ravaging their homeland.

The numbers will never be known, but hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed in those years, the worst episode of anti-Semitic violence in centuries. The events that followed World War I were the Holocaust’s opening act, though they are today almost completely forgotten, even by Ukrainians and Jews, for whom even worse was shortly to come.

The victims included Clarice’s beloved mother Mania, who was raped by a gang of Russian soldiers in 1919 and contracted an untreatable venereal disease that would kill her when Clarice was nine. Yet the Lispectors were luckier than many: Mania’s husband and daughters survived, and she herself lived long enough to see her family safely established abroad.

Clarice Lispector, the tiny infant her heroic parents carried through this wasteland of rape, necrophagy, and racial warfare, grew up to become Brazil’s greatest modern writer, a legendary beauty once called “that rare woman who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.”

Yet despite her passionate attachment to Brazil, I suspected, when I started doing research into her unbelievably dramatic life, that her Jewish background, and what happened to her family during those terrible years in Ukraine, was in many ways the key to that life.

clarice lispector, benjamin moserOne afternoon in Rio de Janeiro, Clarice’s elderly cousin entrusted me with a precious document: the Yiddish memoir her father, Clarice’s uncle, had written about his own escape and immigration. I had to read it: one of the only known eyewitness accounts of those events. And so I sat, relying on my knowledge of German, my extremely rustic Hebrew, and an old Yiddish dictionary, going through that precious document one word at a time. As I went along, I grew more confident, and by the time I finished it I could read Yiddish more or less comfortably.

But while I loved reading it, I’d never had a chance to speak it until the fateful day I reached Chisinau. The city, while pleasant, is not overburdened with tourist attractions, and so it wasn’t long before I wandered onto Habad Liubovici Street, where the city’s only remaining synagogue operates. Out front, as bored, underemployed, and friendly as everyone else in Moldova, a few Jewish men were standing. One asked me, in Russian, if I spoke Yiddish, and my visible excitement was my first big mistake. I was so delighted to be yabbering away in Yiddish that I let myself be adopted by the merry band, even putting on tefillin and posing, hand on the Torah, for a particularly horrible picture.

I revealed that I was staying at the Hotel National (second mistake) and then, my fatal final mistake, disclosed that, following the route of the Lispector family, I would be traveling to Bucharest the next morning. An older man perked up, and volunteered his nephew, a truck driver, to escort me. This gentleman clearly had a drinking problem, and I immediately realized that quick action would be required to escape his invitation. I made up an excuse, headed back to the hotel, walked around, went to dinner (Chisinau has surprisingly good restaurants), and returned to the immense Soviet pile of the Hotel National.

As it happens, the hotel had already prepared me for the experience of being spied upon. Each floor had a female attendant planted in the hallway to clean the rooms, change the sheets, and, more to the point, serve as a bribeable, beturbanned Rosa Klebb, keeping a glazed eye on the goings-on inside. In Europe’s poorest country, these jobs were not to be despised. Even in the National, once a showplace, the dreadful economic situation was never far from one’s mind: after a certain hour, the lights were dimmed to save electricity, and I returned to a Hotel National bathed in evening gloom.

To my alarm, my Yiddish-speaking friend from that afternoon was sitting in the giant lobby, lying in wait, between the doorway and the elevator. I was sure that the money I could pay his nephew would be important to him, and I did not want to feel like one of those Parisian or Viennese grandees of yesteryear, peering down through his lorgnettes at the unwashed Ostjuden.

On the other hand, I really did not want to sit for twelve hours in a Moldovan truck with a possibly alcoholic stranger, and so I decided to make a run for it, whooshing up the stairs to the first floor, boarding the elevator, and all but collapsing into the arms of my astonished hall monitor.

“I am not here,” I said to her emphatically, slipping her a few leis.

She nodded gravely.

The next morning, with her help, I went out a side entrance, got in a cab, and reached the train station.

Benjamin Moser’s first book, Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, is now available. Visit his official website, and come back right here, where he’ll be blogging all week.

Posted on August 24, 2009

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The Holocaust–LOL or FML?

This entry was posted in History on by .

I’ve blogged about it more than any other movie that’s come out this year. Hell, I don’t even really love movies that much! But last night, putting my money where my mouth is, I saw Inglorious Basterds.

By the way, while I’m not going to spoil the ending, or divulge too much plot, if you haven’t seen the movie yet, and plan to, you may or may not want to continue reading. So, Spolier-ish Alert, at your own risk.

basterds.jpg The movie was good. Don’t get me wrong. It was a complete and utter fantasy, but still good. Watching Jews kill and torture Nazis at every turn, in some respects, can feel redeeming. To use on old cliche, if you could go back in time, would you go and kill Hitler? Kind of the same feelings I got in the movie.

But here is my critique. Even though the movie has barely any Holocaust imagery, with no concentration camps, death marches, etc., this is still a Holocaust film. While the movie focuses on the war effort, namely Americans vs. Germans, it is actually a movie about Jews vs. Nazi oppressors. The only reason the “Basterds” are so cruel in their warfare is to exact revenge on the Germans who tried (and were still trying) to wipe out the Jewish population of Europe.

Which brings me to what I actually want to talk about. There were some witty, even a couple laugh out loud lines in the movie. And the crowd in the theatre was just eating it all up.

Now I’m not necessarily against laughing during a Holocaust movie. Take Life Is Beautiful, for example. What makes that movie all the more powerful as a Holocaust film is that it’s funny. That even a funny man could not escape the horrors of the Holocaust.

But the humor in Basterds is different. The humor is in the film for the sake of being witty and Hollywood. The movie probably would have been just as good if I didn’t laugh once. As for my fellow movie-goers, I’m scared they got lost in the humor. Basterds is already a fantasy film. It isn’t based on real events and is highly implausible.

With all the blood, guts, and jokes, I’m worried that people will walk away from the film comparing it more to Lethal Weapon than The Pianist.

Posted on August 24, 2009

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And That Was The Week

This entry was posted in General on by .

Here we go again…

Enrique Krauze says its hard to be a Jew. Gil Troy says it aint so tough. All in a cage match. $50 on PPV. Saturday Night.

If I were to be a poet. It would go something like this. I am good. Or bad. You decide.

Shabbat starts at 7:29 tonight in New York City. It starts at 8:09 in Hamler, Ohio (sucks to be you Hamler). I know this because of our new page featuring Candle Lighting Times. Hoorah!

Best. Blog Post. Ever.

And that’s all!

Shabbat Shalom.

Posted on August 21, 2009

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Hardcore Jews Everywhere

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

It’s everywhere. You can’t miss it. Your whole life has been taken over by it. Everywhere you turn, it’s there.

That’s right. Inglorious Basterds is out in theatres. And do you know what that means? I mean, beyond giving up $10.50? Articles and more articles about the movies. Including this one!

I don’t know about you though, but I don’t really like reading. So when there is a multmedia article about Basterds, I’m all for it.

Like this one: Newsweek’s “Kish-Kish, Bang Bang. A Cinematic History of Jews Kicking Ass.” Five videos to occupy your time. My personal favorite: The Hebrew Hammer.


Posted on August 21, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy