Dispatches from Brooklyn: Rokhl Kafrissen’s Yiddish Utopia

9 min read
Conversations: Words and Music from the American Jewish Experience
Art by Jacob Lockwood

Kum tsu mir: Rokhl Kafrissen’s Yiddish Utopia

by Jeremiah Lockwood, Research Fellow
Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience

In a surprising new reworking of a pop song in Yiddish, Rokhl Kafrissen illuminates the losses of memory implicated in Jewish American life and showcases her practices of reclamation centered on the sounds and stories of Yiddish culture.

On August 20, 2021, playwright and critic Rokhl Kafrissen ventured into new territory by releasing a video of a song she wrote. Unlike most first-time musical efforts, Kafrissen’s effort was born fully formed, performed by some of the best-known players in the klezmer music scene, including Grammy-winning Klezmatics co-founder Lorin Sklamberg, joined by vocalist Sasha Lurje and violinist Craig Judelman. The song, Kum tsu mir (Come to Me) is a Yiddish language translation of Jimmy Buffet’s 1973 novelty song “Why Don’t We Get Drunk (and Screw),” produced by the Congress for Jewish Culture. This witty and intentionally scandalizing juxtaposition of Yiddish and low-brow American pop culture contributes to a growing body of recent Yiddish translations of American popular song. Unlike some of the more somber and self-serious contributions to this genre, Kum tsu mir sits in the parody song tradition of Mickey Katz (1909-1985), the Yiddish American musical humorist par excellence. As with many of Katz’s parody records of the 1950s that yoked pop hits to bilingual Yiddish humor, Kafrissen’s song choice is intentionally absurd, poking a finger in its source material rather than exalting it. The lightweight nature of the original is part of what gave Kafrissen license to completely dismantle it. Rather than a traditional translation adhering to normative conceptions of fidelity to the source, Kafrissen’s song is a complete revision of the intent and meaning of the Buffet track. Kafrissen abandons the retrograde gender narrative of the original in which a drunken man propositions a woman in a bar. She rewrites the song as a story about a Jewish woman initiating a sexual encounter with her husband on the eve of the Sabbath. Kum tsu mir, while intentionally lighthearted, manages to invoke multiple worlds, bending nostalgic images of traditionalism to make room for female desires and agency. The song advances Kafrissen’s larger project of finding ways to celebrate Yiddish modernist culture through new creative productivity and undermining what she perceives as the flattening effect of monolingualism and assimilation on Jewish culture and life in America. [1]

Jimmy Buffett in Yiddish – “Kum tsu mir” (adaptation of “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw”)]

Kafrissen has a long-standing association with the klezmer scene in New York. She has played a role in the institutions that support the music, working as an educator and administrator for KlezKanada and lecturer at Yiddish New York, two of the key festivals that provide opportunities for education and performance that cultivate new audiences for the music. Educational camps and festivals that promote klezmer are now in their third or even fourth decades of existence. A generation has been born for whom klezmer is no longer a “revival,” despite the ubiquity of this description of the heritage music scene, but rather a new form of American Jewish culture in which they were raised. [2] Kafrissen has played an active role as an intellectual supporting new Jewish cultural productivity, especially in the last four years as a columnist for Tablet, the popular (and at times politically controversial) Jewish online magazine. “Rokhl’s Golden City,” her bi-monthly column, offers unique coverage of the Yiddish and klezmer worlds of New York and features a breadth of analysis and historical context that is rare in journalism about Jewish music. While Kafrissen is entwined with the music scene through friendships and professional associations with musicians, Kum tsu mir is her first stab at creating her own song. In a conversation about the project, Kafrissen in part deflected the ambitious nature of her project through humor. She suggested the song would be a kind of Yiddish “hot vax summer” offering. Joking aside, the song intimates a desire to voice the erotically charged longings people were projecting onto the summer of 2021, after the long and painful period of separations, quarantine and social distancing. These expectations were largely disappointed by the Delta variant coronavirus surge, but songs of expectation like Kum tsu mir document the historical moment with a poignant clarity.

In the publicity campaign Kafrissen constructed around the release of the song, she tells a story about being inspired after hearing that Jimmy Buffet’s new Margaritaville restaurant was being forced by zoning laws to share its location with an old synagogue in midtown Manhattan. This charming (true) anecdote was, however, a coincidence. Kafrissen had been working on the song for some months before reading the oddball news about Margaritaville. Kafrissen told me she intentionally chose the song because of its “retrograde heteronormative” narrative, ripe for subversion. According to Kafrissen, “As soon as you take a cultural product and shift it to a woman’s perspective…as soon as you ask how does the woman feel about it, that is subversive.”

The theme of subversion runs deep in Kafrissen’s writing. Her social criticism over the course of the last two decades has offered a steady questioning of the status quo of American Jewish life and institutions. She advocates for a vision of Jewishness that is rooted in the experimentation and expansiveness of Yiddish modernist literature that sought to maintain Jewish particularism in a secular context of questioning and creativity. In a 2008 think piece for Contact, Kafrissen wrote, “rather than shrinking Jewishness down to fit into synagogue time and synagogue space, modern Yiddish culture expanded to fill the lives of modern Jews streaming into urban centers. Whether or not they ever stepped foot in a shul, the lives of the Yiddish modernists were suffused with Jewishness — in their books, their songs, their cabarets and even their political movements…Yiddish modernists (as well as plain old modern Yiddish speakers) were on their way to creating a truly liberating, modern Jewish culture, one in which different kinds of Jewish lives, secular and observant, enriched each other and moved each other forward.” [3] Kafrissen’s work as a political commentator at times approaches polemic and presents a consistent theme of anti-normativity. Her writings are particularly animated in critiquing the preoccupation of Jewish institutions with combatting intermarriage which she views as a ruse to foreground an illusion of interethnic conflict in a setting where Jews are for the most part comfortably assimilated. [4] According to Kafrissen, the institutional focus on synagogue attendance and in-marriage takes a punitive approach to the lived experience of Jews and detracts from the vitality of Jewish culture, especially the flourishing klezmer music world, an area that she celebrates as a successful and sustainable example of creativity in Jewish American life. The klezmer and Yiddishist scenes, in Kafrissen’s view, are a grass-roots alternative track to synagogues and federations, offering an experience that is deeply rooted in the heterogeneity and plurivocal history of Eastern European Jewish life. Growing up on Long Island, Kafrissen experienced American Judaism as culturally contracted and divorced from a Yiddish culture that was removed chronologically by less than a generation. Her discovery of klezmer, through records of the Klezmatics, had a revelatory impact, inciting her towards a sense of herself as a child of Yiddish heritage and planting the seeds of an obsession with Eastern European Jewish and Yiddish-speaking immigrant history, literature and music.

Kafrissen looks to the satirical records of Mickey Katz as an affirmative example of Jewish subversion of what she refers to as “Christian American hegemony.” She admires Katz’s appropriation of American pop culture and his gleeful repurposing of songs that present American archetypes such as the western explorer, with his values of individualism and machismo, as the basis for wacky songs about Jewish food and the foibles of the Yiddish-speaking immigrant community. A characteristic example is Katz’s “Geshray of DeVilde Kotchke” (1950), a parodic rewrite of “Cry of the Wild Goose,” Frankie Laine’s hit song that celebrates a cowboy-inspired vision of masculine restlessness, stoicism and self-reliance, encapsulated in lyrics like, “Spring is comin’ and the ice will break, I can’t linger for a woman’s sake.” [5] Katz repurposes the song to present an outlandishly absurd story about a Yiddish-speaking duck trembling before the butcher and imploring the listener to say kadish (the mourner’s memorial prayer) for him. In his book Audiotopia, cultural critic Josh Kun portrays Katz as a goad in the side of the American Jewish project of assimilation and as a stubborn purveyor of continuity with the noisy and inassimilable aspects of Yiddish culture. Kun notes that for American Jews seeking to “melt” into the American mainstream, “Yiddish belongs to the private Jew, not the public American. Instead of making music out of Yiddish in ‘intimate’ spaces, Katz loudly inserted Yiddish into the public sphere. Instead of leaving Yiddish as a site of nostalgia and pastness, Katz made it current and thrust into the center of contemporary postwar life. Clearly not everyone in the 1950s felt the same way.” [6] Kafrissen shares Kun’s vision of Katz as a musical utopianist who refused to abide by the Jewish mainstream’s movement away from public displays of ethnic self-identification. Katz’s work, full of irony and roving irreverence, offers a fecund counterpoint to the conservative identity-building projects purveyed by Jewish communal institutions in the 20th century that were focused on institution building and achieving a middle-class identity for the community.

Mickey Katz’s 1950 parody record Geshray of DeVilde Kotchke]

When approaching the collaborating musicians who worked on her song, Kafrissen described the piece as an homage to Katz. The execution of the song employs a fairly traditional country approach, down to its acoustic guitar and fiddle instrumentation, except in the instrumental break. Katz’s records typically reproduce the sound of the original fairly faithfully, but all holds are barred for the instrumental breaks which typically feature a sudden jagged shift to an up-tempo freilech (“happy” dance) rhythm and the song’s melody modally transposed to fit stereotypically Jewish patterns, often conforming to the modes referred to as volkhl or freygish in Yiddish and cantorial terminology. [7] The “break” in Kum tsu mir, played as a fiddle solo by Craig Judelman, switches to the parallel minor, a frequent strategy for indicating “Jewishness” in music. Like Katz’s original studio musicians, Judelman possesses a striking bi-musicality and is able to code switch between klezmer and Americana idioms at the turn of the dime, creating a seamless transition between worlds of sonic signifiers. But unlike Katz’s records, which featured sudden shifts in rhythmic feel, the musicians maintain a country two-step rhythm through the entirety of Kum tsu mir. The tempo is steady, perhaps in deference to the song’s orientation towards pleasure and romance, rather than the manic herky-jerky juxtaposition of sonic worlds favored by Katz.

The playful eros of the song hinges on the confidence of its female narrative voice and her claiming of power. The song offers a feminist revision of male-female relations in which the male figure takes on a silent, objectified role. The reversal in the power play of the romance is paralleled by Kafrissen’s use of Yiddish as a form of Jewish agency and self-knowledge. Yiddish, a language that has stereotypically been viewed as “feminized” or “domestic,” [8] is reconfigured in Rokhl’s world view as a dominant force that has the power to reshape the world along pleasure-yielding and politically transformative lines. Kafrissen has been pursuing an agenda of Yiddish cultural productivity for years, especially in her recent bi-lingual plays. But for Kafrissen, music is the most desired and powerful form of cultural product, the key to her own unlocking of the world of Yiddish culture. Taking the leap from critic to song writer and collaborator with the cream of the crop of klezmer musicians is a form of evolution and boundary-crossing within her own creative trajectory. This foray into music extends her critique of American Jewish life but is part of a larger turn in her creative process towards the reparative work of creating something new out of the old, rather than focusing on castigating the forces that make such work difficult to pursue.

Kafrissen’s oeuvre, consisting of countless articles, two bi-lingual plays and now songwriting, articulates a purposefully complex vision of Yiddish as a creative language. In Kum tsu mir, Kafrissen is by turns nostalgic for an imagined Jewish heritage, savagely satirical of the insipid oppressiveness of American cultural norms, centering of women’s romantic and erotic experience, and committed to Jewish heritage languages and musics as a means of generating new expressive culture. In an interview, she told me, “American Jews are trying to grapple with what is often a very traumatic history. What I want people to know is, we are not alone. One hundred years ago people were making art [in Yiddish] that addressed the discontinuities of modernity. It makes me sad when people dismiss this ocean of experience.” Through creativity in Yiddish and playful reworking of the tools of American pop culture, Kum tsu mir contributes to Kafrissen’s ongoing struggle against the losses of memory implicated in Jewish American life and showcases her practices of reclamation centered on the sounds and stories of Yiddish culture.


NOTES

1. See Rokhl Kafrissen, “Make Bilingualism Great,” The Conversationalist, May 24, 2019.

2. See Rokhl Kafrissen, “The ‘Revival is Over, Let’s Talk Continuity,” Forward, January 16, 2010.

3. Rokhl Kafrissen, “Yiddish: The Living Language of the Jewish People,” Contact: The Journal of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. Jan 1 2008, 12. 

4. See Rokhl Kafrissen. “How the Jewish-American Elite Has Manufactured the Intermarriage ‘Crisis,’Haaretz, October 27, 2018.

5. See “The Cry of the Wild Goose,” National Museum of American History Behring Center.

6. Josh Kun, Audiotopia: Music, Race and America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 72-3. Volokhl and and freygish are Yiddish terms used to describe scales or modal concepts.

7. Volokhl is also referred to as Ukrainian Dorian or Mishebeirach, after a Hebrew prayer for healing that in some contexts is sung using phrases that conform to this scalar set. Freygish, also referred to Ahava Rabah in association with a prayer text, has become a synecdoche for Jewishness in music through its association with popular melodies such as Avinu Malkeinu or Hava Nagilah. For a discussion of modes in klezmer, see Josh Horowitz, “The Main Klezmer Modes,Klezmer Shack. N.D. ; Walter Zev Feldman, Klezmer: Music, History and Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 375-385.

8. For a discussion of the gendered language politics of Yiddish, see Naomi Seidman, A Marriage Made in Heaven: The Sexual Politics of Hebrew and Yiddish (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

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