For Hanukkah: The Ballad of Clara Lemlich


Al Hanisim,
This is for the miracles,
for the redemption, for the mighty deeds,
for the saving acts and
for the resistance of our ancestors
in days of old, at this very time…

First night of Hanukkah 1909 and
the worst snowstorm in twenty years
was slowly gathering, the wind
ripping holes through the lines of strikers
huddling against the piercing cold.

Among them was young Clara Lemlich
the same one who just two weeks earlier
stood impatiently in Cooper Union
hour after hour
listening to the union men drone on
until fed up, she grabbed the podium and sent
Yiddish words flying, inciting
sparking, before finally igniting:

I am a working girl
one of those who are on strike
against intolerable conditions.
I am tired of listening to speakers
who talk in general terms.
What we are here for
is to decide whether we shall strike
or shall not strike.
I offer a resolution
that a general strike
be declared now.

Thus exploded the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand.

After the smoke had cleared
the ILGW won union contracts at every shop
save one: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory
who said no to new changes, no to fair wages
no to any union in our shop.

One year later the Triangle burst into flame,
sending working women plummeting to their deaths
like sparks flying, sputtering and disappearing
on a cold winter’s night.

That’s how it is with miracles:
we rededicate the Temple
but in due time it will fall.
The miracle isn’t the fire that lasts, no
the miracle is where we find the strength
to rise up and relight the fire
once again.

Post Script:

Clara Lemlich died at the age of 96
at the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aged,
after organizing their workers
and agitating their management
to honor the boycott of the United Farm Workers
(which they did).

Dybbuk Movies Then and Now

I recently came across the trailer for “The Possession,” (above) about a little girl who gets possessed by a dybbuk after opening a strange, Hebrew-engraved box she finds at a garage sale. The movie looks creepy enough – and I’ll admit I’m intrigued by the presence of Matisyahu, who seems to play some kind of young hasidic exorcist.  Hard to tell from the trailer if it’s going to be any good or if it will enter the ever-growing legions of campy, “so bad they’re good”  horror films. (The scene where the little girl ferociously leaps on top of Matisyahu indicates it may well be the latter…)

Watching this trailer brought to mind another recent dybbuk-themed horror movie: the truly awful “The Unborn,” which featured Gary Oldman, of all people, as an exorcist rabbi. (Check out the clip below and tell me that Oldman doesn’t seem totally embarrassed that he ever agreed to star in this stinker.)

The greatest of all dybbuk movies, of course is the transcendent “Der Dibuk,” the 1937 Polish film based on the classic Yiddish play by S. Ansky. Some background according to film historian Phil Hall:

“The Dybbuk” was shot in Poland, mostly in a Warsaw studio but also on locations in the countryside…The film records the life and culture of Polish Jewry in the years prior to the Nazi invasion, which took place two years after the movie was made…With its careful and rich presentation of religious ceremonies and social protocol, it offers what was literally the last look at a civilization which was nearly made extinct shortly after the production concluded…

(The) film has one truly stunning sequence which will hypnotize anyone who comes to it: during Leah’s wedding, a man in death’s make-up abruptly appears and engages her in a sensual dance. It is a brief but jolting moment in which the film’s theatrical roots grow strong: the sight of the nubile young bride swaying happily in the death-man’s grasp achieves a greater chill than any multi-million-dollar CGI effect. For that moment alone, “The Dybbuk” needs to be experienced.

You can check out the classic “dance of death” scene second from the bottom.

For my money, the best example of contemporary dybbuk-themed cinema is the fabulously ominous prologue to the Coen Brothers recent “A Serious Man” (featuring the great Fyfush Finkel). Click on the clip at the bottom and enjoy!

Reading “Trudel’s Truth”

For some time I’ve been wending my way through a very unique new blog entitled “Trudel’s Truth: A Young Woman Writes Home From a New Land.” Here’s a description from blog author Leonard Grossman:

In 1933, my mother, Gertrude “Trudel” Adler, who grew up in Frankfurt, Germany, wrote in her diary, “There is no future for Jewish youth in Germany. I think I shall go to Palestine.”

Her family and friends in Frankfurt asked. “Why would you leave Germany?” What did she see that they didn’t?

She didn’t get papers to go to Palestine, so when family in Chicago sent her papers, the 21 year old young woman came here.

Seventy-seven years ago, on May 8, 1934 she boarded a ship in Hamburg. Instead of keeping a diary, she wrote frequent letters home describing her adventure. On May 9, 1934 she wrote her first letter home. In her third letter she wrote “Please save my letters and if possible get them to me some day since I am to busy to keep a diary.”

More than 50 years later she translated the letters into English.  I have begun posting  excerpts from her letters. Hopefully, each  post will be posted exactly 77 years to the day from the date on which it was written. The letters will be accompanied by snapshots and memorabilia she kept in an album I have recently recovered and supplemented by contemporary materials.

I found the following note with the handwritten translations of Trudel’s letters:

Following is a translation of my letters to my dad and two sisters, not a diary. I figured they had enough worries without my adding to it. Father had lost his seat on the stock exchange, which he had held for fifty-three years. Mother died only months before, I, the youngest of three sisters, left home–maybe forever.

In her memory, I started this blog on May 8, 2011, Mother’s Day in the United States. May this blog be a tribute to all those who bravely set forth for a new world as skies darkened across Europe.

Leonard Grossman
One of Trudel’s sons

I have the pleasure of knowing Leonard personally  – as well as his brother/Trudel’s other son Ray (who is a member of my congregation.) Trust me, you will be as thoroughly moved as I was at discovering this blog. Truly a reclamation project of the most sacred kind.

To give you a sense of this lovely time capsule, here’s a taste from one of Trudel’s early letters – dated May 10, 1934, entitled “On Board the SS Manhattan.”

My very dear ones,

It is really too beautiful to be true. But it is true thank God and I am enjoying it as much as possible. We are now in the Channel and on my handwriting you can see our boat is shaking quite a bit.

After I closed my letter yesterday we had to change clothes and after supper we danced on a slippery dance floor. At midnight two girls and five males went to the cabin of two of the men and had a drink, cookies and chocolate. At 2:00 a.m. we all finally went into our own cabins.

At 8:15 a.m. this morning Eugene Hollander with whom I sit at the tables, picked me up for breakfast. At 9:30 a.m. twelve of us went like a little caravan through Le Havre. Since all twelve of us are non-Aryan I heard more Hebrew and Yiddish than I used to hear in a year. I mailed the letter to you there.

We all stopped for a cognac And were back on board at 12:30 for dinner. Ernst Calin, who used to work with Ernst Cahn who used to work with you, Doddo? He would like to join our group but we do not care for his company. Especially my table partner, who is very intelligent guy–that’s why we are friends, ha, ha, ha. He talks many languages and was all over the world in all big cities.

After dinner I rested and then I jumped into the very salty Channel pool and swam for about ½ hour, then a shower and now laying on deck to make my light rose cheeks darker.

By the way all immigrants were thoroughly searched for money etc. Not only I.

This morning before breakfast we ran around the deck about 15x to get a good appetite. We have to take advantage of this excellent food. I am too lazy to write others but you but received a few letters.

This afternoon in Le Havre about 100 more people came on board. I hope I do not get a roommate. It is so nice to be alone in my cabin.

Hopefully the weather stays as nice so I can come to the USA looking like a Negro.

Sorry I am writing so mixed up but I tell you things as they come in my mind. Last night I noticed that our ship can shake much more. The dance floor seemed to slip away under our feet but we all stayed upright. I hope we will dance again tonight, although I am now so tired that my eyes can hardly stay open. Greetings to everybody.

Loads of love and kisses your much to be envied,


P.S. We are all so happy and healthy together and feel so free!

Basya Schechter Sings Heschel!

Been listening nonstop lately to Basya Schechter’s new album, “Songs of Wonder.” I’ve long been a big fan of her and her band Pharaoh’s Daughter – I particularly love the way she effortlessly synthesizes so many different kinds of world musical influences to create Jewish music that is both original yet somehow utterly authentic in its energy.

In her new solo effort she has set the Yiddish poems of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to music. If you didn’t know the venerable Jewish theologian/civil rights activist had written poetry, you’re probably not alone. As it turns out, Heschel wrote them when he was just 26 years old and still a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Berlin. They were published in a wonderful bilingual edition in 2007 – according to the Amazon review:

(This) is the intimate spiritual diary of a devout European Jew, loyal to the revelation at Sinai and afflicted with reverence for all human beings. These poems sound themes that will resonate throughout Heschel’s later popular writings: human holiness, a passion for truth, awe and wonder before nature, God’s quest for righteousness, solidarity with the downtrodden, and unwavering commitment to tikkun olam. In these poems, we also discover a young man’s acute loneliness, dismay at God’s distance, and dreams of spiritual and sensual intimacy with a woman.

For her album, Schechter assembled a posse of the best of the best musicians from the downtown NYC Jewish music scene and recorded ten songs that melded the young Heschel’s spiritual yearnings to her trademark eclectic Jewish sound. It’s a fabulous, mesmerizing album.

If you’re like me and you live outside subway distance of the Upper West Side/Lower East Side, just click above to see her performing “My Song.” (The music starts at about 1:07). And you should check out this very thorough piece on her by the Forward’s Alexander Gelfand.