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Yiddish Musical Theater

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Yiddish Sheet Music

Oral tradition dies never: Yiddish musical theater, from Eastern Europe to the Lower East Side

Like any folk or traditional music, Yiddish music came into being as a record and reflection of a common lived experience. The music developed through oral tradition, as Ashkenazi Jews converted poetic texts of into secular music to mark Jewish life cycle events. As an oral practice, the musical tradition thrived through adaptation, with Jews and non-Jews mingling, each borrowing from one another. Yiddish musical theater arose from Jewish minstrelsy and the Purimshpil (Purim-play) – religious-inspired performances included as part of Purim celebrations that included short plays, music, costuming, and pageantry – and reaching the height of its popularity in eastern Europe by the nineteenth century. This minstrelsy usually borrowed from liturgy, folk tradition, secular Jewish songs, or non-Jewish musical sources. The minstrel tradition was often presented through satire, “historic or timely ballads,” commentaries, or adapted folk stories, and often appealed to less educated, less affluent audiences, dealing with political, social, or economic themes, or the “always timely themes of life, faith, and hope” (Heskes, 75). Yiddish theater’s success in eastern Europe ended when Russian authorities banned Jewish theatricals in 1883. At this point Jews, including many Jewish minstrels, began to emigrate, many crossing the Atlantic and entering the U.S. through New York, finally settling on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and spawning a fresh Yiddish musical theater scene within the working class immigrant community. Irene Heskes describes, “This musical theater and its popular songs were a chronicle of the times, infusing essences of the Old World into the new American scene. Theatrical stars served as surrogate family, and their presentations helped explain and interpret, entertain and guide, thereby easing difficulties in the period of change” (76). The “big three” houses appeared in the late nineteenth century –The People’s Theater, the Windsor, and the Thalia. In 1902 journalist Hutchins Hapgood wrote that these theaters represented “…the world of the Ghetto – that New York City of Russian Jews, large, complex, with a full life and civilization…[and] alone present the serious as well as the trivial interests of an entire community” (Heskes, 77).
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What’s in a name?

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Sandra Aboulafia, interviewed May 30, 2012, Brooklyn Borough Hall: My family is both Sephardic and Ashkenazi. Aboulafia is a very, very old name. It can be traced back to the year 800. Rabbi Aboulafia came from Toledo, Spain and the El Greco museum used to be the home of Samuel Aboulafia, and my brother is Samuel Aboulafia, so the name has carried through all this history. During the Spanish Inquisition, the… Read More »What’s in a name?

Remembering Maurice Sendak

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Brooklyn-born, Maurice Sendak, widely considered the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century, who wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery and plunged it into the dark, terrifying and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche, died on Tuesday in Danbury, Conn. He was 83. The cause was complications of a recent stroke, said Michael di Capua, his longtime editor. Mr. Sendak,… Read More »Remembering Maurice Sendak

Moshiach Oi! Merges Orthodox Judaism and Punk Rock

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By  , New York Times Published: March 9, 2013 

Moshiach Oi!

Elizabeth D. Herman for The New York Times

At age 6, he was a budding yeshiva student, in white shirt and black hat, with little contact outside the Orthodox Jewish world. At 16, he discovered some things he liked better, punk rock and drugs: marijuana, LSD, eventually crack and heroin. At 26, on the Thursday before the holiday of Purim last month, he was back among the faithful, sort of: side curls flailing, knees jackknifing up around his torso, leaping, crouching, shouting a Scriptural message from the Book of Ramones: “Avraham was a punk rocker.”

It was a little after midnight at the Ocean Parkway Jewish Center in Kensington, Brooklyn, and the crowd in a narrow, fluorescent-lighted side room watched Yishai Romanoff, now the singer for the band, Moshiach Oi!, in varying states of catharsis and confusion. As always at this weekly gathering, it was a mixed lot, at odd angles to Orthodox Judaism. Some in the audience were refugees, or “X-O’s”; others were formerly secular Jews wanting in.

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Chagal Bistro

Kosher French Fare Comes to Brooklyn’s Park Slope

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By Malya Levin, The Jewish Daily Forward, March 12, 2013

Owners of Chagall Bistro, Kosher French Fare in Park Slope.“How could a kosher restaurant have opened in Park Slope without my knowing about it?” I unceremoniously asked of the first person to greet me as I walked into Chagall Bistro, who happened to be Dan Gicquel, the restaurant’s owner. Ten minutes before, I was settling in for a Sunday night dinner of hard-boiled eggs when a scan of my Facebook newsfeed turned up a friend’s posting: “New kosher restaurant on 5th Avenue and 5th Street!” I shared the news with my husband, who joined in my incredulity that this critical information had slipped past the vigilant watch we keep over all of brownstone Brooklyn’s Jewish news. A moment later, our phone rang. It was a foodie friend of ours who happened to be driving through the neighborhood. We shared the news, called the Facebook friend who had started it all, and a few minutes later, the four of us were scrutinizing the meat menu posted outside of the restaurant’s doors, its kosher certification prominently displayed, and I was demanding answers.

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Jewish Population Is Up in the New York Region

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By Published: NYTimes January 17, 2013

Borough ParkBorough Park in Brooklyn, with its preponderance of Orthodox synagogues and kosher restaurants, is the most Jewish area in the New York City region, with 78 percent of households there identifying as Jewish. Close behind is Great Neck, Long Island, with its thriving enclave of Persian Jews, and then the Five Towns, also on Long Island, where a higher percentage of Jews identify as modern Orthodox than anywhere else in the region, according to a Jewish demographic study released Tuesday.

The Jewish population in the New York area grew by 9 percent over the last decade, reversing a longstanding trend of decline, the study found. But the growth did not affect all Jewish neighborhoods equally. Two-thirds of the rise was propelled by two deeply Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn with high birthrates — Williamsburg and Borough Park. Some of the city’s more affluent areas, like Brownstone Brooklyn and the Upper East Side, saw declines in their Jewish population, according to the study.

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Eternal Echoes: Songs and Dances for the Soul

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Itzhak Perlman and Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot Play Barclays Legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman will bring his soulful sound to Brooklyn with a major performance at Cushman & Wakefield Theater at Barclays Center on Thursday, February 28 at 7:30 p.m. Perlman will be joined on stage by Brooklyn-based Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot, a world-renowned tenor who has led the revival of Jewish liturgical music. Perlman and Helfgot recently collaborated on the… Read More »Eternal Echoes: Songs and Dances for the Soul

A Brooklyn-Based Prayer Leader Heralds a Revolution in Jewish Music

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Joey Weisenberg’s music workshops—blending a democratic approach with a range of traditions—aim to boost engagement

By Leonard Felson published in Tablet Magazine – june 4,2013
 
Joey Weisenberg, center, leads singing at a wedding on April 28, 2013.

Joey Weisenberg, center, leads singing at a wedding on April 28, 2013. (Marta Fodor)

On a recent Saturday evening, as Shabbat began to fade, two dozen men and women, most in their 20s and early 30s, were slowly belting out a long niggun, a wordless melody, sitting in a close circle in the chapel of a Brooklyn synagogue. When their eyes weren’t closed in this meditative chant, they were watching Joey Weisenberg. He was leading a discussion on effective prayer leadership skills, but for the moment, Weisenberg wanted them simply to feel the mystical power of singing together. One melody, over and over and over. “Instead of changing melodies,” he said, “let it change our selves.”

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Brooklyn’s Jews have a Love Affair with Mah Jongg

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Mah jongg! That’s the call of a winning hand! Since the 1920s, the game of mah jongg has ignited the popular imagination with its beautiful tiles, mythical origins, and communal spirit. Come learn the history and meaning of the beloved game that became a Jewish-American tradition.

Mah jongg is much more than a game: it is a carrier of fantasy, identity, memory, and meaning. Three bam, two dot, flower, five crack, dragons, winds! The tiles, lined up against racks as four players sit around card tables concentrating heavily on making a viable hand and winning the game.

From early 20th century Shanghai, where Jewish men and women first began playing to Brooklyn, mah jongg is a popular game played in senior citizen centers, community centers and in private homes, mah jongg.  The game spread to the United States., becoming extremely popular among Jews from New York to California. The American version is slightly different than the Chinese. American sets have 152 tiles in four suits. In the early days, tiles were made of ivory, then bakelight and today different plastics and materials are used. The rules of the game are determined by the National Mah Jongg Association.

Jewish actors like Eddie Cantor and Woody Allen refer to their mothers playing mah jongg.

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