One of my favorite things about my new role as a full-time historian at the ISJL is getting to meet great people with fascinating stories. The latest example? I recently had the privilege of speaking with Scott Davis, an Emmy award-winning Jewish television producer from Raleigh, North Carolina.
Scott Davis has told stories for a living for most of his life, and he became interested in the traditions of Jewish storytelling toward the end of his career. He began writing plays based on nineteenth century Yiddish culture. While doing research for a play based on the Jewish short stories of I. L. Peretz and Sholom Aleichem, two very famous classical nineteenth century Yiddish writers, Scott discovered another important literary figure, Jacob Dinezon.
It turns out Jacob Dinezon was a bestseller in his time (one of his very first novels sold more than 200,000 copies—a massive number in that era!), and he served as a mentor and benevolent uncle of sorts to several writers, but he never became as widely known as his contemporaries like Peretz and Aleichem. Why? Because his works were never translated into English.
Davis feels very passionately about sharing Dinezon’s amazing stories with the rest of the world. In 2007, he founded Jewish Storyteller Press to publish the work of Yiddish authors who deserve more recognition. Initially, he worked with existing English translations of old Yiddish tales. Davis himself doesn’t read Yiddish, so he hired professional scholars to translate directly from the original books. Davis also works with the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of books in the Yiddish language.
Davis just published the first English translation of Dinezon’s book, Memories and Scenes, a collection of 11 autobiographical short stories. In this collection, Dinezon recalls his childhood years in the shtetl and the events that led to his passion for becoming a writer. His simple tales provide a firsthand look into 19th-century shtetl life and a treasure trove of Yiddish history, culture and values. What Davis truly admires is the philosophy behind Dinezon’s tales. Hearing him talk about it so passionately, I can see why: Dinezon’s values reflected those of Davis’s father, a man Davis describes as generous and kind, always going out of his way to help other people.
One of the stories, entitled “Borekh,” tells the tale of a young orphan boy living in the yeshiva. Borekh was not very good at studying Talmud; but he was a generous soul, doing things for people and asking nothing in return. As he grew into manhood, he began to explore the question of who he would grow to be as an adult and what his contribution would be to his community. He asked God for help and soon realizes his special ability, woodworking. He make dreidels, Purim groggers, and toy animals for the children of the town. People in the town still looked down on him for not studying like his peers—until he ultimately carves a holy ark for the Torah, making his own significant and lasting contribution to his community.
Davis strongly identified with Borekh and his struggle to find his true calling. An avid clarinet player, he tried to learn to play Klezmer music. He knew he had an interest in promoting Jewish culture, whether in music or literature. After a few sessions, he realized that it wasn’t very good at it, but was he could do was he tell a good story. That love of storytelling has allowed Davis to engage so many individuals in history that could have easily been forgotten.
Like Davis, I see myself as a storyteller and feel fortunate that I get to tell the stories of Southern Jewry. Each of us offers a unique contribution in preserving Jewish heritage and ultimately, making a positive difference in our communities. Taking a cue from Scott Davis, we can all work together to make sure the story of our Jewish legacy continues.
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The month of May, known as “Liberation Month,” contains Cinco de Mayo (celebrating Mexico’s liberating victory over the French in 1862), America’s Memorial Day (recognizing all those who died in defense of our freedoms), Mother’s Day (marking a mother’s independence from pregnancy – all right, so that one might be a stretch!), and also usually contains one of two Jewish freedom festivals: either Yom Ha-atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day) or – today, in fact! – Shavuot (marking our freedom from Egypt with the gift of Torah).
But there’s also another, perhaps lesser known holiday this month: May The 4th, marking the glorious defeat of the evil Empire by the Jedi and their allies.
Okay, okay, it’s a cinematic feat and not a real one (even I know Star Wars is a work of fiction!) But this day has become known as Star Wars Day, and on May 4th, it’s a blast (pun intended) to dress up as our favorite characters and relive the unforgettable scenes from the films. Before departing from like-minded, Jedi-inclined souls, we say to them: “May the 4th be with you!”
After this year’s celebration of May the 4th, I found myself looking at the little guy I share my office with, Yoda. (That’s us in the picture above.) Inspired by him, and in the spirit of the recent Star Wars holiday and this entire month of liberation, I now offer you three simple proofs to Yoda’s Yiddishkeit, or Yoda’s Jewish soul.
First, his name. Yoda, it can be argued, is an abbreviated form of the Hebrew yo-dei-ah, meaning “knowledgeable/wise.” Surely, a fitting title for this man renowned for his intelligence in the ways of the Force (that Essence which pervades all life)!
Second, his speech. Yoda speaks the way Hebrew would sound if translated word for word. For Hebrew, particularly in the Bible, is often written verb first, then either the direct object followed by the subject, or vice versa. Case in point, in Luke’s Jedi training, Yoda says to him: “Judge (verb) me (object) by my size, do you (subject)? Hmmm?”
Third… well …. And in case points one and two don’t persuade you that Yoda is indeed Jewish, then allow me to articulate my third and final point. Yoda is an old… short… bald man… who kicks major tuchus (booty)! Could there be anything more Jewish than that?
So, here’s to having another member of the Jewish Jedi tribe! May the force be with y’all!
The Workmen’s Circle—Arbeter Ring in Yiddish—is a Jewish fraternal organization devoted to progressive politics, the labor movement, and Yiddish language and culture. In its heyday, there were Workmen’s Circle chapters all across the United States, including here in the South. While most people would associate the group’s secular Yiddishkayt and left-wing politics with the more urbanized North, there were chapters in 15 Southern cities, and also chapters to be found in Florida’s urban hubs of Miami and Miami Beach.
The picture above comes from In Southern States, a Yiddish-language journal published in 1949 for the thirtieth conference of the Workmen’s Circle Southern District. In it, the leaders of Birmingham‘s Branch 303 stand on the front steps of their “lyceum” building, where the group ran a Yiddish lending library, hosted lectures and discussions, and, from 1924 to 1927, operated a Yiddish school in the afternoons.
In Birmingham, like in other cities, the founders and leaders of the Workmen’s Circle Chapter were primarily immigrants who arrived in America in the early years of the twentieth century. Most of them had belonged to the Bund in Europe, and brought their socialist beliefs with them to America. Based on this picture, it seems that Birmingham’s Branch 303 was dominated by the Sokol family, who make up more than a third of the members pictured.
If you are familiar with the Sokol family, or if you know of anyone who might have information on the Workmen’s Circle (Arbeter Ring) in Birmingham or other Southern cities, please be in touch! This is a fascinating aspect of Jewish life in the South, but it has been largely forgotten.