Monday, August 19, 2013

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness directed by Joseph Dorman 2011 (Documentary)

"The movie’s old photographs conjure the look and vitality of shtetl life so vividly you can almost feel yourself jostled in the crowded and dusty streets, hear the cries of peddlers and smell the pungent aromas of the cooking. The gnarly faces and hunched bodies of Jewish peasants, many dressed in rags, attest to decades of pain, hardship and stubborn endurance." from a review in the New York Times by Stephen Holden 7/11/2011

This interesting film traces the life and work of the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem who was born Sholem Rabinowitz in 1859 in a shtetl in Ukraine and died in 1916 in New York City.

The strength of this film is its historical context. Sholem Aleichem lived at a time of much upheaval amongst Jewish communities throughout the Pale of Settlement. This upheaval affected his life and became the subject of  his fiction. The Jews of the nineteenth century were mostly poor, insular, and religious. Laws promulgated by the czar and his government become more and more restrictive, and Russian peasants and local populations of Ukrainians were given license to perpetrate violence against the Jews. Pogroms become a threat and an actuality.

Also creating upheaval was industrialization which drove many of the children who had grown up in shtetls with their agrarian ways (thing Tevye, the milkman) to the cities where they were exposed to modernity. Many facets of this new way of life challenged the tenets of their early years. Such was the life of Sholem Aleichem who grew up in a religious family in Voronko and moved to Kiev where he was a successful writer of Yiddish tales who lived the sophisticated life of an intellectual. Like many others of his fellow Jews, he fled to America after a pogrom in 1905 seriously threatened his life and that of his family.

The film has terrific photos of life in the shtetls and in the cities, scenes of Jewish life at home, in religious school, Jews busy at work and relaxing in cafes. These photos of the elderly, married couples, school children, and babies, all of them dressed in their daily or religious or celebratory garb, bring to vivid life the world of our ancestors, a world that has vanished. The movie also includes interesting footage from Yiddish movies that recreate life in Eastern Europe.

Scholars interviewed supply the historical context. They talk about the flowering of the Yiddish language and culture. But they also talk about its demise. Despite being widely considered the beloved Jewish Mark Twain, Sholem Aleichem never hit his stride in America. Jewish strivers in America were looking forward to succeeding in the new country; they were less interested in looking back at scenes from the old country.

It is particularly interesting to hear Sholem Aleichem’s granddaughter Bel Kaufman, who is interviewed in the documentary, talk about some of what she remembers about her grandfather.

To read a recent article in the New York Time about some of the politics surrounding Yiddish click here.
To read a history of the shtetl click here.

Sholem Rabinowitz – married to Olga Loev
     Bel Kaufman – granddaughter of Sholom Aleichem (exact connection not clear)

Scholars interviewed
Hillel Halkin
Aaron Lansky
Dan Miron
Avrom Nowerstern
David Roskeis
Ruth Wisse

Voronko, Ukraine
Kiev, Ukraine
New York City, NY

Monday, August 5, 2013

Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family by Patricia Volk 2001

“The mishpocheh that Volk celebrates here was connected to New York in all sorts of ways.” from a review by Daniel Mendelsohn in New York Magazine

The writer Patricia Volk has written an engaging memoir about her enterprising, sometimes eccentric, mostly endearing, large, extended immigrant family who lived and made their mark in New York City. The daughter of successful owners of a restaurant in New York City’s garment district, her parents “lived” at the restaurant, managing, hosting, keeping the books, and eating. She and her sister frequently joined them, and it is clear that the family business was a home-away-from-home.

Each chapter of the memoir, which is named after a particular food that has emotional resonance for the author, is a portrait of a relative who prepared or served it and who Volk recreates on the page in loving detail. These include great-grandparents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, all working to find their place in the New World as they continue to serve and enjoy foods of the Old Country, like chopped liver and sturgeon.

As a family they were amazingly successful. The author sketches in her early relatives’ savvy business moves. One restaurant spawned many others, each providing an opportunity for a family member to work hard and thrive. Jacob Volk, the author’s paternal grandfather, the family patriarch, became an entrepreneur and major presence in the commercial wrecking business. The author describes in vivid detail the homes in which these various relatives lived out their prosperous dreams. Many of them lived in large apartments on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (some in the same building) with maids who helped raise the children and helped cook and serve meals, often to four generations during holiday celebrations like Thanksgiving and Passover.

But despite their financial success, Volk describes how they followed a fairly typical immigrant pattern, complete with tension between the generations. Having arrived in this country as the children of religiously observant parents, they gradually assimilated. Some held on to the ways of the Old Country longer, but most abandoned strict religious observance and assumed the mantle of American culture. Like many others of their generation, the author’s family eventually moved to the suburbs and after giving up the restaurant, her parents  retired to Florida.

The author includes many family photos as well as a family tree. At the end of the memoir she also includes a list of extracts from New York City Directories and New York City telephone books of members of her family that gives us a window into their upward mobility. The first entry is from 1897 of her maternal great-grandfather, Louis Lieban, whose business is recorded as “furs” and whose home address is on Delancey Street. In the 1940's Louis Lieban's son is a dentist, and family addresses are on West End Avenue, Riverside Drive, and Central Park West. The last entry, dated 2001, has names of family members the author has assembled to demonstrate how far away from New York some members of this family are now: Aside from Florida, they live as far away as Canada, Arizona, and Hawaii.

To read the New York Times obituary for Sussman (Cecil) Volk, father of the author, click here.

Author’s mother’s family
Louis Leiban – married Jenny Geiger
     (Elias) Al Leiban – son of Louis and Jenny; married Lillian Berger
     Jerome Leiban – son of Louis and Jenny; married Helen
      Leopold Leiban – son of Louis and Jenny
     Gertrude Leiban – daughter of Louis and Jenny; married Dike Schultz
              Wally – son of Gertrude
     Ruth Leiban – daughter of Louis and Jenny; married Albert Wolko
     Polly Leiban – daughter of Louis and Jenny; married Herman Morgen (see below)
              Robert Morgen – son of Polly and Herman; married Barbara Krass
                      Joan Morgen – daughter of Robert and Barbara
                     Marcy Morgen Dulberg – daughter of Robert and Barbara
             Audrey Morgen – daughter of Polly and Herman; married Sussman (Cecil) Volk
                     Jo Ann Volk – daughter of Audrey and Cecil; marries Alan Lederman
                                Elizabeth Lederman – daughter of Jo Ann and Alan
                                        Daniel and Matthew Lederman – sons of Elizabeth
                                John Lederman – son of Jo Ann and Alan; married to Tonya
                               Michael Lederman – son of Jo Ann and Alan; married Kelly
                     Patricia Volk – daughter of Audrey and Cecil; author
                               Peter and Polly – children of Patricia
           Lou and Fay Krass – parents of Barbara (see above)

Mark Morgenbesser – married Gertrude
          Leopold Morgenbesser – son of Mark and Gertrude
          Herman Morgen(besser) – son of Mark and Gertrude; married Polly Leiban (see above)
          Julius Morgenbesser – son of Mark and Gertrude
          Broncha Morgenbesser – daughter of Mark and Gertrude
          Helen Morgenbesser – daughter of Mark and Gertrude
Leopold Morgenbesser – married Anna (a cousin - precise relationship to author’s immediate family not clear)
         Hank Morgen(besser) – son of Leopold and Anna; married Hedy
         Mundek Morgenbesser – son of Leopold and Anna
         Josef Morgenbesser – son of Leopold and Anna
         Brunek Morgenbesser – son of Leopold and Anna
         Nella Morgenbesser – daughter of Leopold and Anna

Author’s father’s family
maternal side
Max Shure – married Anna
         Frances Shure – daughter of Max and Anna
         Alice Shure – daughter of Max and Anna
         Lily Shure – daughter of Max and Anna
         Rose Shure – daughter of Max and Anna
         Eva Shure – daughter of Max and Anna
         Ethel Edythe Shure – daughter of Max and Anna; married Jacob Volk (see below); 2nd husband – Charles Wolf
               Helen Volk – daughter of Ethel and Jacob
               Sussman (Cecil) Volk – son of Ethel and Jacob (see above)
               Harriet Volk – daughter of Ethel and Jacob

paternal side
Albert Volk – brother of Sussman (see below)
Sussman Volk – brother of Albert; married to Sarah
       Jacob Volk- son of Sussman and Sarah; married Ethel Edythe Shure (see above)
       Ettie Volk – daughter of Sussman and Sarah, married to Nathan Stavin; 2nd husband ? Weiss
             Cecil (Sussman), Maurice, and Steven Stavin – sons of Ettie and Nathan
      Hannah Volk  Fleschner – daughter of Sussman and Sarah
             Cecil (Sussman) Fleschner – son of Hannah
      Anna Volk Joseph – daughter of Sussman and Sarah Volk
             Cecil (Sussman) Joseph – son of Anna
      Albert Volk – son of Sussman and Sarah
      Leonard Volk – son of Sussman and Sarah

Friends and Acquaintances
Robert Shapera (Evans) – Ali McGraw
Alice Shapera – sister of Robert

Nowy Targ, Poland
Vilnius, Lithuania
New York City, NY
Boca Raton, Florida
Kings Point, NY