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Theo Bikel: In his own (Yiddish words)

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The great actor, singer, and humanitarian Theo Bikel was a foremost champion for Yiddish and in particular for the California Institute for Yiddish Culture and Language (CIYCL) from its inception.  He generously lent his talents for ciycl’s benefit whenever he was asked and his presence lent a special gravitas to the many ciycl events that he attended.  He also remembered ciycl with a generous bequest, the only Yiddish organization in America to be so acknowledged.
Aside from this tribute page, we are honored to remember theo through one of his many skills, beautifully translating Yiddish poetry and song:  The newly named Theo Bikel Annual International Yiddish-Into-English Poetry Translation Contest.
There are films with and about Theo Bikel, books about him, and numerous recordings of his songs. However, available for the first time here (below) is an excerpted interview with Theo Bikel, entirely in Yiddish (subtitled in English). Take a brief (20-minute) journey with Theo through his life with Yiddish and its music. Listen as he discusses what the Yiddish language means to him and what he sees as its prospects for the future.
The entire (non-subtitled) interview is approximately 2 hours long and will be posted soon.

דער באַרימטער אַקטיאָר, זינגער, און הומאַניטאַריער טעאָ ביקל איז געװען אַ הויפּט טשעמפּיאָן פֿאַר ייִדיש און בפֿרט פֿאַר דעם קאַליפֿאָרניער אינסטיטוט פֿאַר ייִדישער קולטור און שפּראַך (ציקל) זינט דער גרינדונג. ער האָט ברייטהאַרציק געשאָנקען זײַנע טאַלענטן לטובֿת “ציקל” װען מ’האָט אים נאָר געבעטן און זײַן בײַזײַן האָט צוגעגעבן אַ ספּעציעלן ייִחוס צו די פֿאַרשיידענע “ציקל” אונטערנעמונגען צו װאָס ער איז געקומען אַלס גאַסט. ער האָט “ציקל” אויך געדענקט מיט אַן אָפֿענער האַנט בײַ דער צװאה, די איינציקע ייִדישע אינסטיטוציע אין אַמעריקע אַזוי אַנערקענט.

חוץ דעם כּבֿוד־װעב־זײַטל זײַנען מיר זוכה צו געדענקען טעאָן דורך איינע פֿון זײַנע פֿיל פֿעיִקייטן, דעם פּרעכטיקן איבערזעצן ייִדישע פּאָעזיע און לידער׃  דער נײַ-באַנאָמענטער
טעאָ ביקל יערלעכער אינטערנאַציאָנאַלער ייִדיש־אויף־ענגליש איבערזעצונגס קאָנקורס.

עס זײַנען דאָ פֿילמען מיט און װעגן טעאָ ביקלען, ביכער װעגן אים, און אַ היפּשע צאָל רעקאָרדירונגען פֿון זײַן געזאַנג. פֿונדעסטװעגן, דאָ צום ערשטן מאָל איז אַן עקסצערפּירטער אינטערװיו מיט טעאָ ביקלען, אין גאַנצן אויף ייִדיש (מיט ענגלישע אונטערטיטלען).  איר מעגט גיין אויף אַ קורצער (20-מינוט) נסיעה מיט טעאָן דורך זײַן לעבן מיט ייִדיש און איר מוזיק.  הערט זיך צו בשעת ער דערציילט װאָס די ייִדישע שפּראַך באַדײַט פֿאַר אים און װאָס ער זעט פֿאָראויס אַלס איר צוקונפֿט.

דער גאַנצער אינטערװיו פֿון 2 שעה װעט מען ארויפֿגעבן בקיצור.

This interview is one of many in the Yiddish Institute’s series:
Last Golden Links – Yiddish Treasures
For more about Last Golden Links Click Here.

Yiddish Song Translated by Theo Bikel

ZOL ZAYN (Could Be)
By I. Papernikov

Could be that my whole world is only confusion
Could be what I thought was God’s word isn’t true
Yet my dream is as bright as the brightest illusion
and the sky in my dreams is much bluer than blue.

Could be, that I’ll not see the fruit of my yearning
Could be that I’ll never be rid of my load,
What matters is not the end of the journey
It’s the journey itself on a bright sunlit road.

זאָל זײַן, אַז איך בױ אין דער לופֿט מײַנע שלעסער
זאָל זײַן, אַז מײַן גאָט איז אין גאַנצן ניטאָ
אין טרױם איז מיר העלער, אין טרױם איז מיר בעסער
אין חלום דער הימל איז בלױער פֿון בלאָ.

זאָל זײַן, אַז כ’װעל קײן מאָל צום ציל ניט דערלאַנגען
זאָל זײַן, אַז מײַן שיף װעט ניט קומען צום ברעג
מיר גײט ניט אין דעם, איך זאָל האָבן דערגאַנגען
מיר גײט נאָר אין גאַנג אױף אַ זוניקן װעג.

In Theo’s Words:  Theodore Bikel’s Address to the St. Louis Jewish Book Fair, October 2014  (Excerpt) 

Leon Wieseltier speech honoring Theo Bikel in receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from YIVO.
(A Universal Jewishness,  Reprinted in Tablet Magazine, June 18, 2015) .


David Bowie’s Favorite Jewish Authors — From Bellow to Weschler

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While fans are marking David Bowie’s death by revisiting the decades of art he created in his life, we thought it’d be interesting to take a look Bowie’s list of his 100 favorite books, released as part of a 2013 exhibit on the artist’s career at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Bowie’s literary interests, like his art, were broad and there were a fair amount of Jewish writers on the list — among them, Muriel Spark, Saul Bellow, Eugenia Ginzburg, Michael Chabon, Fran Lebowitz, Howard Zinn, Susan Jacoby, Howard Norman, David Sylvester, Greil Marcus, George Steiner, and Nik Cohn. However, these were the three that caught our eye.

Tom Stoppard, “The Coast of Utopia”

Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” is a trilogy of plays – “Voyage,” “Shipwreck,” and “Salvage” – that, performed together, form a mammoth nine-hour production. First premiering at London’s National Theatre in 2002, the plays, which center on the lives and interactions of pre-revolutionary Russian intellectuals, have been produced across the world. Combining demands for a grueling physical spectacle with an ambitious exploration of the life of the mind, the boundary-breaking “The Coast of Utopia” probably appealed to Bowie’s constant hunger for art that took genres in unexpected, challenging directions.

Lawrence Weschler, “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder”

Weschler, who spent over twenty years as a staff writer at the New Yorker, wrote “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder” as part of his “Passions and Wonders” series. The “Passions and Wonders” books, all nonfiction, examine people whose passions blur the lines of reality; “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder” concerns an eccentric museum owner and curator whose collection may not be entirely what he claims it is. A New York Times review of “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder” remarked that Weschler’s exploration David Wilson and his Museum of Jurassic Techology “induces in its readers a deliciously vertiginous inability to be certain about anything.” Sounds a lot like Bowie to us.

Arthur Koestler, “Darkness at Noon”

Koestler, Hungarian-born and educated in Austria, wrote “Darkness at Noon” soon after leaving his native Eastern Europe for Paris and London. The novel, set in 1938, tells the story of an Old Bolshevik charged with treason by the government he helped create. Not coincidentally, 1938 was the year of Moscow’s Show Trials, which attacked and led to the execution of a cadre Old Bolsheviks. Koestler spent several years as a communist in Germany before Stalin’s rise prompted his departure from the party; he possessed great sympathy for the first guard of communists and their bemusement at the brutality of their successors. Bowie, whose public persona was frequently glamorous and extravagant, persistently explored – in the words of the New York Times’s January 11th obituary of him – “angst and apocalypse, media and paranoia, distance and yearning” –in his work. “Darkness at Noon” considered one of the great novels of the twentieth century, might have informed Bowie’s thoughts on those often dark, unsettling themes.

Talya Zax is the Forward’s culture intern.

Read more:

Why 2015 Was the Most Yiddish Year of All

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For a supposedly dead or dying language, Yiddish is not going down without a fight. In fact, we’re in the midst of a rich and creative revival such that the language and its culture hasn’t seen in decades. Yiddish Studies programs are cropping up at the unlikeliest of colleges and universities across the United States. The Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, which has rescued more than a million Yiddish books, is now focusing on digitizing them to make them available to anyone with an Internet connection; translating them for non-Yiddish readers; and educating a whole new generation of Yiddish speakers and scholars through its educational and fellowship programs.

Looking back over the past year alone, Yiddish made an impressive comeback. Some of the advances were academic and scholarly, others were innovative cultural efforts, and there were even some unexpected achievements in mainstream pop culture. Here’s a quick rundown of the Top 10 Yiddish moments of 2015:

  1. This past year saw the launch of “In geveb,” an online journal of Yiddish studies ( With contents mostly in English, the journal features news and reviews of current Yiddish events, plus translations, and takes a multidisciplinary approach, including work by language scholars as well as submissions by those working in closely related fields including historians, sociologists, art historians and literary scholars. David Roskies of the Jewish Theological Seminary is senior adviser to the publication, whose title means “in web” and was inspired by a collection of poetry by Yehoyesh.
  2. In one of the most unlikely turns of events, black nationalist hip-hop group Public Enemy, which has been stained throughout its career by accusations of anti-Semitism thanks to Professor Griff, its so-called Minister of Information, released the album “Man Plans God Laughs,” recognizable to all in the know as a rendering of the popular Yiddish proverb Der mentsh trakht un got lakht.
  3. It’s hard to believe that until this year, New York City, with its high concentration of creative musicians, artists, filmmakers, scholars, theater folk and Yiddish-speaking audiences, lacked the sort of annual or biannual Yiddish cultural festival that are present in other major international cities such as Toronto and Krakow. This past June, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, in collaboration with UJA-Federation of New York, presented the first KulturfestNYC, a week-long festival of concerts, plays, films, talks, tours, symposia, etc., spread out around the city — even at Central Park Summerstage — that spoke loudly and clearly to the vitality of contemporary Yiddish culture. Look forward to the second annual KulturfestNYC next June.
  4. Similarly, the core faculty of KlezKamp, which helped foster the klezmer and Yiddish revival for three decades and said its final farewell to the Catskills last December, wasn’t about to let a good thing die. Under the umbrella of the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, most of KlezKamp’s music, Yiddish and art teachers have picked up right where they left off with the new Yiddish New York festival that debuted December 24 with the 14th St. Y and the Town and Village Synagogue serving as the center of activities.
  5. The New Yiddish Rep staged a Yiddish representation of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” In the tradition of the company’s critically acclaimed Yiddish version of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” from a few years back, the production of Miller’s had many theatergoers wondering if the play was unconsciously or otherwise written in secret code meant to be unlocked by translating it into the mameloshn (mother tongue).
  6. In another unlikely scenario, an elite squad of the Israeli Civilian K9 Unit’s security dogs has been taught to respond to Yiddish commands. The 60 dogs, mostly Belgian and Dutch shepherds imported from Europe for up to $10,000 each, were trained to be useful in search-and-rescue missions involving Yiddish-speaking religious Jews. The dogs are also less likely to be diverted by Arab terrorists, who are more likely to speak some Hebrew than any Yiddish.
  7. In October, the Forward reported on one of the most unusual fusion efforts in contemporary Yiddish culture — the first-ever Chinese-Yiddish song, written by a Shanghai Ph.D. student studying Jewish exile in Shanghai resulting from the Shoah.
  8. In another probable first, a president of the United States spoke Yiddish at a public event. While awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Barbra Streisand, Barack Obama noted her “chutzpah” and said he was “getting all verklempt just thinking about it.” Get ahold of yourself, Mr. President. It’s just Babs.
  9. The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene staged “Di Goldene Kale” (“The Golden Bride”) as its first production in the company’s new home at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The 1923 Joseph Rumshinsky operetta, last performed in 1948, offers a hint of the revival of New York’s famed Second Avenue, what many consider to be the precursor to the Broadway musical
  10. Finally, the biggest Yiddish story of the year can be summarized in two words: Bernie Sanders.

Author: Seth Rogovoy frequently writes about contemporary culture for the Forward.


Listeners Uncover Details About Mysterious Muse Behind ‘The Brothers Nazaroff’

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Listeners Uncover Details About Mysterious Muse Behind ‘The Brothers Nazaroff’

As a result of Jon Kalish’s piece last Saturday on the obscure Yiddish musician known as Prince Nazaroff, a relative and a genealogist have stepped forward to provide more details about the man.



Last Saturday, we heard a story about the band The Brothers Nazaroff and their namesake, an early 20th century musician who was known as Prince Nazaroff, of whom little was known, except maybe that he probably wasn’t the member of any royal family. Our story ended this way.


DANIEL KAHN: He was buried in countless bargain record crates at the back room of many used record stores. That’s the only grave of his that we know of.

SIMON: Well, thanks to that story, we now know that Prince Nazaroff is buried in New Jersey, and we learned more about his life, too. Listeners got in touch with reporter Jon Kalish.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: Eric Adler is an amateur genealogist in Washington, D.C. After hearing the story, he did some digging and learned that the man who performed as Prince Nazaroff was born Abraham Agronowitz.

ERIC ADLER: The very first record that appears is his immigration record in 1913. And he appears on that as Agronowitz. He also appears in 1917 on the World Ward I draft registration as Abraham Agronowitz.

KALISH: He actually came to America earlier than 1913, says one of three grandchildren who are still alive. Eric Kaufman says that his grandfather was jailed as a teenager in Russia and released after her agreed to serve in the czar’s army.

ERIC KAUFMAN: He joined the army, and like a Max Sennett comedy, got on one side of the train, got off the other side of the train and kept on running. He eventually tied up with this dance troupe.

KALISH: Then it was on to a traveling theater troupe where he met his wife. Again, genealogist Eric Adler.

ADLER: They married over there and he came to the U.S. first, about a year later. And then she and their daughter came a year after that.

KALISH: The wife was listed as Malka Agronovitch, as the family pronounces it, on her naturalization application. The daughter she brought with her eventually had three children – Eric Kaufman, another son named Adam and a daughter named Andrea, who was close to her grandfather.

ANDREA KAUFMAN: I remember him as a sweetheart.


KALISH: She called him poppy, and she says his hands were always calloused from playing guitars and mandolins.


NATHAN NAZAROFF: (Singing in Yiddish).

KALISH: But Prince Nazaroff’s career faltered, and he worked odd jobs, one of them at the Bronx Zoo, which was across the street from the family’s apartment building.

ANDREA KAUFMAN: I got to see the elephants, and it was fun.

KALISH: The grandchildren all remember Prince Nazaroff as a great whistler, and Eric Kaufman can still imitate him.

ERIC KAUFMAN: (Whistling). He would signal. When he was in the neighborhood, you could hear him a half a block away. That was his particular signature tune.

KALISH: Kaufman’s granddaughter was dancing along to Prince Nazaroff’s music on the radio last weekend and her mom perked up. When she realized what the story was about, she alerted the family.

ANDREA KAUFMAN: I am grateful for the spirit of the music being transmitted.

KALISH: Nazaroff’s granddaughter, Andrea Kaufman.

ANDREA KAUFMAN: He was an embodiment of the music that he made and his community, and to know that others are picking up his spirit and the energy of joy that came through makes me very happy.

KALISH: And there may be more to come. Smithsonian Folkways has an album’s worth of unreleased material the prince recorded in 1961.

For NPR News, I’m Jon Kalish in New York.


NAZAROFF: (Singing in Yiddish).



60 Years Later, A Wild, Baffling Recording Finds A Modern Spark

The Amazing History of Klezmer Music

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This is a brief clip which describes the origins and development of this unique music genre.

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