Radically Different: My First Time At a Yiddishist “Third Seder”

Tsuzamen, lomir ontsinden di likht fun farshtendlikhkayt un fun libe.

So began the Third Seder (Drider Seder) at the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture in Vancouver, BC, where I recently became a teacher, on April 8. All together, let us join in lighting the candles in honour of understanding and love.

This was my first time at a Third Seder, which usually takes place during the intermediate days of Passover, and was popularized in New York by the Workmen’s Circle (Der Arbeiter Ring). (The Workmen’s Circle’s Yiddish-language Hagodeh is still used and influenced Peretz’s version). I have attended seders without Haggadahs, Kabbalistic seders, Hasidic seders, Freedom seders, Interfaith seders and mainstream milquetoast progressive-light seders, but never a Yiddishist drider seder.

Lomir alle in eynem, in eynem, we sang, Come together as one.

Dem Peysakh m’kabel ponim zayn, lomir alle in eynem, trinken a glezeleh vayn. To welcome the presence of Passover, come together as one, drink a glass of wine.

The first cup of the seder was dedicated to Miriam, one of the increasingly common new symbols incorporated by many in the last few decades into their seders. The orange (affirming women’s rightful role as leaders in the community) and the fig (affirming Israeli-Palestinian solidarity) were both present, for instance.

I had experienced those things before, but what really struck me at this seder was the Jewish Socialist background and the emphasis on the one hand on remembering and celebrating Jewish resistance fighters, and on the other hand the focus on universalist visions of social justice which dominated the seder, taking a truly equal seat to the Judeocentric narrative.

When it came time to take a drop of wine for the ten plagues, the plague recited were modern and universal:

War … Pollution … Hunger … Exploitation … Bigotry … Injustice … Disease … Tyranny … Ignorance … Poverty

On the other hand, two of the most stirring moment of the Seder were very Jewish. The first was a Holocaust memorial ceremony, which I had never experienced in a seder and which, admittedly somewhat to my surprise, I found moving and appropriate. The second was a celebration of the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto, consisting of readings and a recital of the anthem of the Jewish resistance:  Zog Nit Keyn Mol, which I had, by chance, just read about in Paul Goldberg’s work of historical fiction The Yid:

Never say you’re on the last road,

though leaden skies hide days of blue—

Our longed-for hour will come;

our steps will be a drumbeat: WE ARE HERE!

The last verse was bit of a shock to my peaceful Jewish diasporic sensibilities:

This song is written with blood, not with lead;

it’s no little song of a bird on the wing.

This one a people between crumbling walls

sang with guns in their hands.

This was not my Baba’s seder, though maybe it was my Zaida’s (he abandoned his Orthodox faith to become a socialist as a teenager, later running away from home to join the Red Army).

Listening to the Yiddish songs and feeling the pulse of decades of Jewish social idealism and left-wing politics was very heimische for me, and felt like a different way to find myself in the stream of Jewish history then I’m used to.

I liked it.

For more on the Third Seder tradition, see here and here.

 

The Yid: A Book Review

He knocks three times with the knuckles of his clenched fist. There is movement behind the door, no more than what you’d expect. “Dos bist du?” asks a raspy voice in a language that isn’t Russian. “Poshel v pizdu,” answers one of the nineteen-year-olds in Russian. Sadykov and the boys don’t know the meaning of the question Dos bist du? Why would they know that these words mean, “Is this you?” But, of course, the Russian words “poshel v pizdu,” translated literally as “go in the cunt” or “fuck off,” rhyme with this enigmatic question. It’s a dialogue of sorts: “Dos bist du?” “Poshel v pizdu.” It’s more than a rhyme. It’s a question and an answer…. “Otkroyte!” Sadykov knocks again. Open the door! “Ikh farshtey. Nit dos bist du.” The meaning of this exchange escapes Sadykov, but it merits unpacking.

Had there been a Yiddish-speaking audience present, it would have surely rolled with laughter. Try to imagine the situation described above as a vaudeville skit: They come to arrest an old Yid. They knock on the door. “Is that you?” the old man asks in Yiddish. The goons answer in juicy Russian. (The rhyme: “Dos bist du?” / “Poshel v pizdu.”) “I see,” responds the old man. “It’s not you.”

In this scene, the audience never learns whom the old man refers to as “you,” but it’s a safe guess that he is not anticipating the arrival of Lieutenant Narsultan Sadykov and his boys. You can imagine what the audience would do. They would emit tears and saliva. They would slap their knees. They would turn beet red from elevation of blood pressure and constriction of air supply. Alas, at 2: 59 a.m. February 24, 1953, a Yiddish-speaking audience is not in attendance at 1/ 4 Chkalov Street, apartment forty.

Paul Goldberg’s debut novel of historical fiction, The Yid, is a critically acclaimed, daring, original, and eminently readable book which manages to weave together Soviet history, Yiddish culture, and Shakespeare into a heady and unique brew. Filled with black humour, wit and insight, The Yid traces what happens when three Soviet secret police come to arrest a washed up old Jewish theatre performer for imaginary crimes and meet unexpected resistance. Soon Levinson, the aforementioned actor, has gathered around himself a gang of unlikely heroes who, finding themselves in the untenable situation of being wanted by the USSR, decide to up the ante and assassinate Comrade Stalin himself.

The book is a trip inside the brutal, unjust world of Stalinist era USSR, and more deeply, inside the life-killing, dehumanizing machines of night that human beings have built again and again. Levinson and his merry crew slip through the cracks and try to resist, creating a story at once reminiscent of a Purim shpil and dark 20th century satires like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Despite the humour, the novel is also unflinchingly violent and bleak at times. The Chicago Tribune accurately noted that the novel is “as hilarious as it is appalling, and vice versa.” It offers a kind of curious comic relief in times like ours, at once reminding us how fortunate we are, even in the era of Trump, and how precious the freedoms we have gained, as well as acting therapeutically somewhere between a comedy number and a blues song.  

Paul Goldberg. The Yid: A Novel. Picador: NY. 2016.