Last week YIVO sent out a very special e-mail. It contained a link to Theodore Bikel’s last public performance, at the organization’s 13th Annual Heritage Luncheon on June 18. Bikel was the principle honoree, recipient of YIVO’s lifetime achievement award, and in a video clip (which can be seen on YouTube) he sits very erect in his wheelchair, guitar on his lap, singing “Di zun vet aruntergeyn/The Sun Soon Will Be Setting.” The song is a collaboration between the great Yiddish poet Moishe Leib Halpern and composer Ben Yomen, but the English adaptation is by Bikel himself, who sings at one point, “we’ll fly/Leaving earth far below/To a land where all longing does go.”
In one-woman shows like “Fires in the Mirror,” about the Crown Heights riots, and “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” about the violence following the Rodney King affair, Anna Deavere Smith helped create a new kind of theater. Playing dozens of characters, all based on extensive interviews with real people, Smith provoked an unusual level of audience empathy, in part because she literally embodied those peoples’ stories. The violence she chronicled — which is at base a failure of empathy — was reversed in the telling of the story.
When I was a kid growing up in Poughkeepsie and the Five Towns, my father’s parents lived with us. Although they were both born in Manhattan, they spoke fluent Yiddish when they didn’t want me to know what the subject was, and my father, who spoke little Yiddish, understood enough to join the mysterious (to me) conversation. They’re all dead now, and I still haven’t learned much Yiddish
‘Hurry up!” The text message from my friend materialized on my phone. “Seats are going fast, and I just tripped over two walkers, a cane, and an old lady in a wheelchair.” I was en route to the Harrisburg JCC, where a showing of Ron Frank and Mevlut Akkaya’s 2013 film, “Where Comedy Went to School,” about Catskills comics, was about to begin. Perhaps not surprisingly, the audience members were almost entirely geriatric; they especially appreciated the live comedy act that followed the film, in which an aging female comic from New York cracked jokes about incontinence, sexual dysfunction, and difficulties in mastering new technology.
Although I have a beard, mustache and a Semitic cast to my face, only twice in my life have I been mistaken for a terrorist. The first time was on an Alitalia flight from JFK to Milan when I was 13, my very secular parents having decided that we would take a family vacation to Europe in lieu of a bar mitzvah. As we settled into our seats, a representative for the airline rushed onto the plane and approached my father. “Mr. Meerwin, your luggage is teeking,” he blurted out. My face fell; I had bought an alarm called a “panic button,” which you could hang on the back of your hotel door and it would go off if someone tried to open the door in the middle of the night. The man took us to a hangar filled with baggage, and, indeed, it was my suitcase that was, if not ticking, then certainly ringing with loud whoops. I disarmed the device, and we were on our way.
When I was first invited, along with 30 other Hillel directors (mostly from North America, but also from Germany, Russia and Israel) to travel around Israel this winter, I assumed that the trip’s purpose was to help us to deal with the mushrooming BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, and to empower us to advocate on campus for the Jewish state. But because many of my colleagues on the trip had visited Israel dozens of times, largely through staffing Birthright trips, the idea behind the trip was broader; it was to expose us to elements of Israeli society that we had not encountered before. Thus, the bulk of our time was spent learning not as much about Israeli politics as about Israeli culture. Yet by the end of the trip, I was to discover that Israeli politics and culture are so interwoven as to be almost impossible to separate.
The timing was pretty good, as the Sony hacking scandal continued to be front-page news; Britain and the U.S. had just announced new cyber war games; and The New York Times had just profiled a new website offering “hackers for hire,” available for everything from breaking into your ex-boyfriend’s Facebook page to changing the rent on your apartment’s website.
By the time young Jews from my hometown of Harrisburg, Pa., marry and have children, most have already relocated to larger urban areas and joined other Jewish communities. So it was with particular pride and pleasure that I recently attended the bris of the son of one of my former students who grew up in my neighborhood and has now settled just a few houses away from me. Representatives of all the local synagogues were there, the buffet tables groaned with food, and the mood was joyful and uplifting. There was only one thing missing; the mohel, who was imported from Baltimore for the occasion, missed almost every opportunity for humor.