Yiddish Lives on — With Music and Drink

Susan Watts plays instruments with Dan Blacksberg and Rob Curto
From left: Susan Watts plays alongside Dan Blacksberg and Rob Curto (Photo by Alan Lankin)

If there’s one thing Susan Watts can’t stand, it’s the idea that Yiddish, a language estimated to have been spoken by well over 10 million Jewish people, is “dead.” Yiddish, a dead language?

“It’s not dying! There are thousands of people speaking Yiddish. It’s just that we don’t know about them,” Watts said with a laugh. “But they’re there!”

For what it’s worth, Yiddish was alive and well on Dec. 1, when a crowd of about 80 packed the Philadelphia Folksong Society building on Ridge Avenue for “Yiddish Cocktails,” an evening of klezmer music, Yiddish language practice and some decidedly un-Yiddish cocktails. For Watts, a noted fourth- generation klezmer musician and founder of the Community Klezmer Initiative, it was a perfect expression of her mission.

“What I’m about is trying to build a community where Yiddish culture is something that we pay attention to, and is something that we carry on,” said Watts.

The evening began in the Jewish tradition — about 20 minutes later than the listed starting time. Not that anyone seemed to mind; the attendees, mostly older, were schmoozing from the moment they walked in the door, whether announcements were being made or not. After all, it was supposed to be a night of conversation, wasn’t it?

Though many came on their own or in small groups, there was also a large showing of those who had heard about the event from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Boomer Engagement Network.

After an introduction from Watts, she joined klezmer musicians Dan Blacksberg (trumpet) and Rob Curto (accordion) for a few songs, alternately joyous and mournful. Some were standards, and others were compositions by Blacksberg or Watts; on the piccolo, Marion Concus played a composition by Watt’s great-grandfather, Joseph Hoffman, who was a noted klezmer musician and poet. Though an unattended phone alarm went off for nearly two full songs, its volume didn’t impact the clear sound of the performances, and the performers rolled with it.

“This has all been a klezmer dream,” Blacksberg joked.

Toward the end of the performance, a few women joined together in the sliver of floor space left over for some spirited dancing, along with the self-proclaimed “Yiddish Dance Master,” Steve Lee Weintraub. Shortly after the dancing concluded, it was Weintraub who led a small group in disbursing Manhattans, gin martinis and fruity nonalcoholic drinks to grease the wheels for the next portion of the evening.

Introducing Rokhl Kafrissen, Watts explained her true desire for “Yiddish Cocktails”: a chance to taste a little bit of the Yiddish language in its fullness. The sentences, she said, have so much more to give than a single word that happens to have snuck its way into the modern vernacular. “I wanted you to hear more than schmuck, putz and schnook,” she told the crowd.

Kafrissen, a writer, attorney and self-described “Jewish world gadfly,” writes a regular column for Tablet on Yiddish language and culture, one of the many venues where she regularly provides scholarly perspective on both. Kafrissen directed the crowd to the worksheets on their chairs, which gave simple Yiddish questions in Yiddish, English and transliterated English.

She read aloud with the crowd, building the sentence fragment by fragment, filling the room with guttural “ch’s” and other vocal foundations of the language. Soon, a crowd not prone to shyness began to call out to Kafrissen mid-lecture, directing her talk with their own questions. On a crowd request, Kafrissen explained the long history behind the word “klezmer” itself, correcting modern myths about its source.

Kafrissen is based in New York, and was invited to the event by Watts, who she has known for many years. Though Yiddish culture events with a mix of klezmer, Yiddish language practice and dancing are common in New York, she said, places with the unique layout of the Philadelphia Folk Song Society are not.

“I don’t think in New York, there’s a space like this,” Kafrissen said.

Following Kafrissen’s talk, Watts directed every odd-numbered row to run their chairs around and form small groups. Then they were to practice asking the packet of Yiddish questions to one another, and answer in English. All questions were intended to spark discussion — one inquired as to which of the interlocutor’s family members had spoken Yiddish, and another asked how klezmer music might be kept alive. After a half-hour, the discussion groups broke for sandwiches and dessert.

Watts was pleased with the event. Though she’d run Yiddish cultural celebrations at Main Line Reform Temple for years, she’d never combined all of the elements like at this event. But she hopes to do it again soon.

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