January 22, 2021 A cursory overview of Hasidic Yiddish entertainment
This post is adapted from a PowerPoint presentation I prepared a few years ago for Yiddish week. At the time, I had the help of some people (thank you!) and I worked quite hard at putting the material together. I recently wanted to reference some of this material and realized that it was not available online. So this is an attempt to put it on the web. It is by no means comprehensive, and it is a few years out of date, plus it needs more work in order for it to be user-friendly, but I think there is a great deal of useful information here nonetheless.
As always, you are welcome to use any of the material I put together on my site, just make sure to include the source and proper attribution. A comment on my site with a link to any inspired work would be extra appreciated.
This section is a review of adult reading/novels for Hasidic Yiddish readers. The classic secular Yiddish novels of Scholem Aleichem et al (and the material of Yiddishists like Harry Potter in Yiddish) are not kosher. I think there are three main categories of kosher Yiddish novels: the classics, the newer books and the translations from English or Hebrew.
This is an example of a book by Menachem Mendel. I don’t know who Menachem Mendel is, I don’t know if his identity was known. But his novels were THE novels of my childhood. They were trite and tired and filled with fantastical miracle stories, but we read anything that we were allowed to.
This book, Three Brothers, is part of a series that is probably the strangest, most absurd, most nonsensical yet memorable literature of my childhood. I bet anyone born from the 70s to the 90s would have a good laugh at remembering this series. The stories made no sense and included tiny people on strange islands — in our world, where this type of trope was completely absent, the ridiculous nonsense of the Three Brothers provided endless amusement. I heard rumors about the authorship which I would love to verify and spill, but as I have not been able to, let’s just say this whole series is notable for how completely irregular it is.
This is a newer novel. It is titled Torn Feelings I think.
The very first word of the back blurb is “suddenly.” This is very on the nose. All dramatic Hasidic tales must include a “suddenly….!” And the whole blurb is essentially a dramatic scene where a woman SUDDENLY comes up on a paper that is torn while all the other papers were not. A lot of drama is milked of just this moment. Hasidic literature really lays it on thick.
This page contains the rabbinic approvals for the book. It’s what’s called “haskuma” — something like a kosher symbol.
On this page, the author writes a bit of a foreword. He clarifies that the events in this story never happened, and that thankfully, the protagonist Ben Heller found his way back into the fold, but that sadly many people who run after their egos and money never do. He also says that when the story ran in serialized form readers begged him to give the story a happily ever after by marrying Ben off, but that Ben’s actions have consequences so alas, the happily ever after could not be offered to the audience. I guess it’s the clash of morals versus crowd-pleasing.
This book, out in 2019, is clearly a science fiction book. By the ad’s own admission, it’s a “brand new concept.” The blurb says it’s about robot overlords and an evil mastermind. This is so very telling of how much Hasidim hunger for the sweet pleasure of pop-culture and the efforts they are making to find ways to adopt it.
I would say that children’s books are the most important industry, the fastest growing, and the fastest evolving, in my view anyway. I think this has a lot to do with TV being banned and the need to entertain the kids. News, for instance, an adult entertainment, is partially satisfied by noshing from the web and from texts and phones. Since kids don’t have these mediums, children’s books and toys are a huge industry. Every time I go to Williamsburg I see new things.
A Classic: THE TALES OF THE SAGES
I think this collection, which many of us spent hundreds of bored hours pouring over, would make a great thesis topic, or some kind of analytic essay. Someone should dive into it. This is filled with tropes and storylines and values which are so ever-present that it’s hard to see that they’re even a trope. I did write a bit about this series for the Jewish Daily Forward on the Hasidic persecution complex:
many stories of my childhood focused on the persecution of Jews: Egyptian slavery, the Spanish Inquisition, the expulsion of Jews from nations, pogroms and anti-Jewish decrees, the blood libels and the kidnapping of Jewish children by Christian neighbors to forcefully convert them, Czarist Russia’s many edicts, and of course, the Holocaust. The most popular children’s books were the series “Der Tzeylung fin Tzadikim,” Stories of the Sages, which recounted life in the shtetl and its travails. There were a hundred or so of these thin books with short, illustrated stories on the theme, always with the sage or the poor Jewish innkeeper achieving a happy ending through religious triumph.
On Passover nights, my Holocaust-survivor grandfather used to gather the little ones among the white pillows of his big Passover chair and describe how the Egyptians buried babies in bricks in lieu of cement, among other Egyptian atrocities. And the following day, during the long, sticky hours when we ate lemons dunked in heaps of sugar, he sat on the porch shmoozed with the adults about what we called “the milchoma,” — the war. Stories of hunger, fear, lost loved ones, miracles, times that he and a friend had come within a hair’s width from death.
I was a child and didn’t pay much attention to adult affairs, but I have snippets of memories that are imprinted in my mind as if I had seen these scenes: Here Zeidy is running, here he has frost-bite, here he is carrying a friend, here a Nazi is shooting, here the neighbor fell and is gone, here Zeidy is alive, thank God.
Hasidim love to tell stories, and the drama inherent in the Holocaust made for many great ones. The stories weren’t even necessarily depressing because, like all good Hasidic tales, they had a happy ending where Jewish religious life prevailed, despite — despite! — risk to life and limb. The Jews in the ghetto clung to their Torah scrolls, their menorahs, their kosher, their Yom Kippur. And like all good stories, they were tales of overcoming the most extreme adversity — in this case, the persecution of Jews because they were Jews.
The sense of persecution is what drives the Hasidic stubbornness to hold on to its identity. Hasidim define the survival of the Jewish people as one and the same as the survival of its religious identity. This is what drives the community’s extraordinary efforts to resist assimilation in the 21st-century New York City.
Another classic: A GUIDE FOR THE CHILD
These are Bible stories. We loved these illustrations. They evoke such fond memories in me. There were other illustrators, but no one quite came close to the work of Mrs. Acker.
I wrote an analysis of the incoherent history of this genre of books in my post “Hasidic kids learn an incoherent education.”
I remember when this new genre emerged: the scientific, worldly stuff. This material was neither stories about sages from Eastern Europe nor stories from the Bible. They were not even stories at all. They were encyclopedic! The very first one I remember was called The World and All in It. Each book focused on something else; animals, planets, climates. A kind of National Geographic with an underlying moral: the world is a miracle creation of god. This underlying moral makes it kosher, and gives permission to feed the curiosity for new genres.
The hunger with which people devour this little morsel of fascinating information is part of what leaves people so hungry for more, and so in awe of secular “academics.”
The series pictured here is an updated, fancier version, and I’ve seen other approaches to the subject. Naturally, everything is carefully curated to avoid the heretical.
One book pictured is on the wonder of nature and the other is on large animals.
This is the new. Makes me feel like a complete foreigner. I didn’t grow up with this genre, but this new method of storytelling is booming. Lots of humorous stories and dramatic fiction are now depicted in this format.
The most important category is the Midos genre, or what I call “social-emotional learning.”
I love to show these books to my tourists. I think they are very interesting because these books are focused on social-emotional learning. If you juxtapose them with modern kids’ books, most kids’ books are very focused on advancing children in academics. Alphabets and numbers, counting and words. There is some focus on learning tolerance and such, and a lot of fantastic fantastical children’s books, but nothing like what Hasidim have: outright lessons on interpersonal skills.
A sampling of titles:
- Shmilly is Everyone’s Friend
- Velvel is Jealous
- Not Later, but Now
- The New Chaim’l
- Zanvill tells the truth
- Sarah’la finds her joy
There are now a lot of electronic books. There is a hunger for technology’s dazzling entertainment abilities, and whatever can be produced within these limitations is produced. My mother has given me some of these over the years. They usually have Hasidic music next to the pages.
Adaptations from English
As always, there are adaptations from English. Sometimes they are legitimate translations, often they are plain ripoffs.
This one is interesting because both of these were produced by the same team of activists for children’s safety. But the Yiddish version is very different from the English version. Play spot the differences and see what you can find!
Translations from translations from translations
People Speak and the kids’ version of it, Children Speak, were hugely popular contraband books when I was a kid. They were not yet available in English. They’re essentially Chicken Soup for the Soul adapted for People Speak which is adapted as “Children Tell their Experiences.” I think this is the first trickling of first person introspective writing styles, the first of the modern memoir genre, becoming part of the culture.
You can see that the translator’s job is to clean up the story for the Yiddish reader. In the English story the father is a garbage collector (we say sanitation worker now?) and in the Yiddish the father is a bus driver. I don’t really think it’s censorship. I just think Yiddish readers would find garbage collector so hard to fathom because it’s so out there.
Som of the values that run through it all:
- Respect for elders [Kibud Av Aa’aym]
- Interpersonal relationships [Va’uhavta]
- Overcoming negative emotions
- Sibling harmony
Some of the beliefs imparted:
- Miracles of sages and holy individuals
- Stories in Eastern Europe of persecution by gentiles
- Value of prayer
- Surviving being tested in faith and returning to faith
Hasidic publishing is a busy industry. I think it has to do with: the internet being forbidden (ehh, sort of) and that everyone has to be offline for 26 hours once a week — on shabbes.
LEAFLETS: busy business
If you go to this website you’ll by able to sort by language. There are some 30 weekly leaflets. Many contain little bits of religious thought, little bits of news, announcements and some classifieds. The ads pay for them. Many leaflets are free.
THE BUSINESS OF THE NEWS
Hasidic newspapers are partisan operations and have no resemblance to western journalism. Newspapers cover US politics, Israeli news with an anti-Zionist approach, news of the Hasidic world, and religious sections with parsha, hashkufeh, chinuch and Jewish hagiography. I once put together a whole post on how the newspaper works and whenever I finish it I’ll link it here.
- There’s a lot of emphasis on the Hasidic Rabbis’ comings and goings and a lot of inter-politic partisan coverage which is more male-oriented.
- With few exceptions, individuals aren’t covered. Tragic news (fire, accident) would not be covered as a personal event with a first person narrative and quotes. Only the general details of the event are recounted. Molestation and other such news is not mentioned.
- There’s almost no original journalism of non-Hasidic news, and journalism is not generally an esteemed field. Most journalists don’t even write under their own name or will write under multiple pen names.
- Stylistically, there is a lot more text than any other newspaper. That has to do with the iffy-territory of showing pictures with women or indecently appearing people.
There are three main newspapers:
There are a few basic themes in magazines: covering the rabbinic-dramas, special women’s issues, and secular stuff similar to the sciency kids’ books but more focused on history. The secular group is more adult than the books however, because it involves people, not just trees and animals.
Here are some magazines:
Magazines for all
Magazines for women
Magazines for children
The magazines support themselves with sale prices and advertisements.
Sometimes the more secular-focused magazines cover something that lands them in hot water. Here are two instances of magazines that caused a backlash and got the busy-bodies to send letters and cause a bit of trouble.
PUSHING THE ENVELOPE
Der Veker is a Yiddish magazine that carefully pushes the envelope and is subversive without being provocative, or that’s their aim anyway. I never know if they get into trouble. But in 2020 they ran an interview with me, and I see that in 2018 they ran an interview with the creators of One of Us, the documentary on ex-Hasidim.
Here’s their interview with me:
My working theory right now is that the future of the Yiddish internet is huge. Hasidim have this unique ability to co-exist side-by-side with the most intense elements of western culture and to still self-segregate. This self-segregation happens online through the power of Yiddish. Because Yiddish uses Hebrew and is online much less often than Hebrew, it makes their writing fairly ungoogle-able to the public. They have a lot of online conversations in Yiddish fairly unbothered by the English speaking public. There’s also been a tremendous uptick in English language Hasidic activity on social media and chat apps, but even those will lapse into Yiddish when insider stuff, wink-winks, are to be shared.
These are two very important Yiddish forums which are ostensibly only male forums. Women usually write in English, and their most important forum (besides Instagram et al) is imamother.com
“Vosiznaias?” means “what’s new?” And this site is one of many that now cover the news online. There are also many online dailies. I get Der Yid’s daily on Telegram.
And of course, businesses have websites, many, many of them. Even the internet-restriction companies have websites.
Here’s one company that sells Jewish children’s entertainment. You can browse and see that the collections are huge.
While the visual (images) are approached with deep apprehension, audio is embraced much more eagerly. This has given birth to a whole industry of: music, hotlines, storytelling.
This is Yomtov Ehrlich, a very important post-holocaust musician. I wrote about his song ‘Villiamsburg’ here.
This is Kol Mevaser, which is, according to Wikipedia, Yiddish broadcasting.
You can call the phone number and hear the news interspersed with ads. They are now a big business with lectures and speakers and new ways to keep people calling being devised all the time.
Here’s a page out of the phone book that lists numbers you can call for hotlines and lecture tapes (cassettes/prerecording). There’s also a section for reading material. Might list Yiddish libraries and Yiddish publications.
You can tell that there’s a whole growing industry of entertainment by the number of microphones sold in Hasidic stores.
Men and women never perform together. Men are allowed to record performances for a female audience, but it doesn’t go both ways.
The performance industry is clearly starry-eyed for secular entertainment and seeks to imitate it and to legitimize itself by looking “professional.” To me, a lot of the entertainment feels like it’s trying hard to prove itself and be taken seriously. I think the uncritical exposure to western pop culture, which no doubt these creators and even the audience has some exposure to, often makes them imagine themselves as successful when the Yiddish language work at best imitates pop culture.
A group of actors in a shoot that again, seems eager to look like a legitimate Hollywood production. I see in it a lot of ambition, creative energy, that seeks to compensate for an inferiority complex.
Women’s entertainment is a fairly different endeavor. There is less of the “Hollywood ambition” evident because, first of all, women can’t reach the same audience. Men are not allowed to see them perform or hear them sing. Second of all, many of the women’s plays are put on by girls’ schools, so it’s more of a school project than an industry. Additionally, women’s performances are generally in English, which means they are typically created by a more “modern” team. The modern Orthodox arts crowd is a bit more experienced, exposed, connected. They are not as awe-struck by the trappings of the Hollywood-esque, and they focus more on storytelling and production and less with the behind the scenes work up and all.
Here’s an interesting New York Times piece on Ultra-orthodox filmmakers. In my days, these films were called “slides,” so as to make sure no one thought they were films. Now they call them “production.”
Here’s a poster for a Dina Perlstein production. You’ll see there are public viewing dates. These dates are huge events and the crowd eats it up.
There is a great deal to cover on games, and this is only the tip of the iceberg. This is a collection of games that are adapted and edited from English language games. The following is a bit of a fun game I myself like to play, where people need to guess what the Yiddish game is based on. Here is a blog post in which I discuss the adaptations of two games in more detail.
I’m very interested in children’s collectors cards. I always look at the ones sold at Target. They’re very different from the Hasidic cards.
Here are some cards in the series that in English means “Wise-Guy”
I also own a card collection (ulp, adult me!) of Hasidic kids’ anti-smartphone cards. There are some 400 or 500 of these. I translated some and wrote about it in a post – “A kids’ card collection; anti-smartphone edition”