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 c-nt” or “f-ck 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.

Anger, Part 2

לאז נישט דעם רוגז אבערנאכטיקן ביי דיר
Loz nisht dem rogez ibernechtiken bei dir
Don’t let your anger stay overnight with you.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, this saying reflects an old teaching in Judaism. In Tehillim/Psalms and Mishle/Proverbs there are many sayings warning against the dangers of anger. Rabbinic teachings follow suit: One must not persist in a quarrel (Sanhedrin 110a). The traditional Siddur (prayerbook) lists “making peace between one person and another” as a mitzvah (good deed) whose fruit one enjoys both in this world and the next (Hasidic prayerbooks add, “and between a man and his wife!”).

All of this teachings concern what you could call personal anger. This is anger that arises from an affronted ego, or from frustrated desire. There is no question, in my opinion, that the vast majority of our anger is of this type. What, however, should we say about impersonal anger? Moral outrage? Just indignation?

The Jewish tradition seems to make more room for this. The prophets certainly seem very angry at times, and not because someone made them a crappy espresso.

So says the LORD, roars Amos, I will bring a fire on Judah and devour the palaces of Jerusalem…I will not reverse it, for they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes!

Stephen Lewis, the npoliticaltical activist, recently told CBC that all of his work fighting poverty, AIDS, and injustice was fueled by “pure rage”.

On the other hand, we live in what many have called “days of rage”. We suffer from a plague of anger, frustration, irritability, cruelty, bullying, and judgementalism on all sides. This cannot be healthy- it blinds our understanding, details our communities and our communication, and increases our stress, all the while decreasing our joy and power.

If there is a difference between personal anger and impersonal anger, there is surely a difference between impersonal anger that motivates action and the kind that sinners and rages without being productive. The latter kind just weakens us.

My Four Favorite Yiddish Proverbs This Week


I haven’t had as much time for this blog this week, so in lieu of my usual proverb with commentary, here are the four best Yiddish proverbs I discovered this week (from Fred Kogos’ “Dictionary of Popular Yiddish Words, Phrases and Proverbs”):


Hob mich vainik lib nor hob mich lang lib.


Better love me little, but love me long.


Hob nit kain moireh ven du host nit kain ander braireh.


Don’t be scared when you have no other choice.


In a shainem epel gefint men a mol a vorem.


In a good apple, you sometimes find a worm.


Kain braireh iz oich a braireh.


No choice is also a choice.


Nor ein mol iz di zun shtein geblibben.



“Only once did the sun stand still”.


This saying references the story in the book of Joshua where a miracle stops the sun in the sky until ancient Israel can win a battle against their enemies (Joshua 10:13). The point is obvious: don’t rely on a miracle to make what you want happen.


All of us have a lot of things we wish would happen, both on a personal and a global level. We hope we will be healthy, happy and safe. We hope that climate change will be stopped and the ecosystems and creatures of the earth will survive, peace will prevail over war, and justice over injustice.


The question is, what are we doing about it? We can’t take on all of these causes (unless we can, and if you’re in that position, good for you!) but the pertinent question to ask ourselves is, is there anything in our lives we long for but are not actually taking practical steps to make happen? I can think of a damning list of things I wish for and maybe even pride myself on wishing for, but am not doing anything, or in any case could be doing more about. The message of this yiddishe vort:  The sun will not stand still for me or for you.


Gelt iz blotte (Money is mud).



This Yiddish saying sounds like it means “money is blood”, which too often is true when blood is shed for money,but it actually translates as “money is mud”. Several associations present themselves when one hears this saying:


Money is quicksand. The more money one has, the more one sinks in it, is consumed with protecting it and defending it, or making it grow. The sinking trap of money is not limited to those who have it, though. In an unequal society where whether or not one has money is conditional on many factors, only some of which are in one’s control and only some of the time, those who do not have money can also end up sunk in obsession about how to get more, how to pay next month’s rent, how to afford better food for one’s children.


Money sticks to everything it touches. Mud sticks to hands, shoes, clothing. It has a way of finding itself in your house, in the cracks of your shoes, smeared on your pants. Money also has a way of sticking to you, of walking alongside you, of insinuating itself into everything.


 Money leaves a trail. As the saying goes, “follow the money”. Why did Christie Clark approve Kinder Morgan’s pipeline? Does it have anything to do with the more than $700,000 that Kinder Morgan donated to the BC liberals? Why was Drumpf elected president?

Gelt iz blotte.


What difference does it make to the turkey whether it’s slaughtered for the Purim feast or the Passover seder? Vos iz dem indik far a khilek tsi men koylet im af purim tsu der sude oder af peysekh tsum seyder?

turkeyואָס איז דעם אינדיק פֿאַר אַ חילוק צי מען קוילעט אים אויף פּורים צו דער סעודה אָדער אויף פּסח צום סדר?

Vos iz dem indik far a khilek tsi men koylet im af purim tsu der sude oder af peysekh tsum seyder?

What difference does it make to the turkey whether it’s slaughtered for the Purim feast or the Passover seder?


We live in a world of spin. Battles are fought with storms of words and rationalizations and counter-narratives abound, but in the end what are the real results of a given action? To a turkey, whether it’s slaughtered for Pesach or Purim is irrelevant. In the end it’s a dead bird.


It’s important to focus on the real world results of lifestyle choices, ideologies, policies and procedures. A good shpil is a good shpil, but what is the human cost, what the real result in the end? Prime Minister Trudeau may sport a Haida raven tattoo, but how does he treat real Indigenous people? He may do a mean “peacock” yoga pose, but does he support Hydro projects that will destroy the habitats of real animals?  Another way of paraphrasing this proverb: keep your eye on the ball.

Az a nar varft arein a shtein in vasser, kennen im tzen klugge nisht aroisnemmen. When a fool throws a stone into the water, ten wise men can’t get it out again.



“Ten wise men were needed to save Sodom from being destroyed”, said the Kotzker Rebbe, “but it takes only one fool to destroy the world.” Or in the words of the Beastie Boys, it takes time to build, it takes a second to wreck it. With Drumpf’s inauguration on the horizon, coming relentlessly like the heat burst from the death star in Rogue One, the above statement seems all too true. How much work will it take to undo what one fool has done? An impossible equation to figure.

“This world is the world of work”, wrote the famous French born Jewish Torah commentator Rashi in the 11th century, “And here there is no rest.” Jewish tradition conveys a timeless urgency about moral action and the search for truth, and a relentless focus on details. Though in the peak days of the comfort bubble of mid-20th century capitalism it may have seemed to us like such stringent effort was misplaced and we should all learn to relax, accept a multiplicity of views, chill out and follow our bliss, the dark ride of the 21st century now underway suggests that such luxury is a perilous illusion.

How does this relate to our proverb? It takes a strong community to withstand the mischief of fools. The American lesson is that a community riven with weakness, self-interest, and moral compromise will collapse when one strong man with a sling-shot, swaggering in like a bizarro version of King David, animated not by faith but by lack of self-doubt, let’s his projectile fly. All of us have woken up to see that we are not able to sit back and enjoy the deteriorating pleasures of late modernity as it yeilds to something new and only partially imaginable, but must sober ourselves and put our hands to the plough. “You are not obligated to finish the work, but nor are you free to desist.” (Pirke Avot).

אויף אַ גנבֿ אין אַ צילינדער ברענט ניט דאָס היטל. Af a ganef in a tsilinder, brent nit dos hitl: For a thief in a top hat, the hat doesn’t burn.


This curious saying can only be understood if you know another Yiddish saying: אויפֿן גנבֿ ברענט דאָס היטל. Afn ganef brent dos hitl:  On the thief, the hat burns, or in other words, a stolen hat burns on your head.  The saying above plays on that well known Yiddish proverb by qualifying it: the hat burns unless it’s a top hat, or as another Yiddish saying has it: קליינע גנבֿים הענגט מען‫,‬ גרויסע שענקט מען. Kleyne ganovim hengt men, groyse shenkt men: Petty thieves are hanged; big time thieves are pardoned.


I can’t think of a more apropos saying to reflect on and remember as the Drumpf presidency unfolds down south. Drumpf is guilty of dozens of crimes and misdemeanours that would sink an average person. The only reason they haven’t sunk him is his wealth. Over the course of the 20th century democracies have tried to create systems to protect us from individuals or groups using wealth or force in order to dominate and damage our societies. The big question which remains unanswered as we go into 2017 is whether or not civil society and the laws of the land will protect us all from the consequences of the most powerful country on earth being ruled by a narcissistic conman with less moral sense than the average toddler, or whether he and his cronies will be able to bend the structures we thought would protect us to their will.

יעדער מענטש האָט זיך זײַן פּעקל Everyone Has His Own Burden.

יעדער מענטש האָט זיך זײַן פּעקל

Yeder mentsh hot zikh zayn pekl.

Everyone has his own burden.



Another way you could translate this is “everyone has his own baggage”. Either way, the point is the same: everyone suffers, everyone has a history, and much or all of it is invisible to us. As Kurt Vonnegut, Jr once wrote: “Look, I didn’t ask to be born.” All of us are born into situations we didn’t choose, needing to learn to operate and then care for bodies and minds we didn’t choose to be in, often with minimal instructions given the daunting complexity of the task. Parents, class, race, even religion, are largely chosen for us and we must learn to play the hand we’re dealt. To quote another Yiddish proverb:


ווען אַלע זאָלן ברענגען זייערע פּעקלעך צרות אין מאַרק פֿאַרקויפֿן

.וואָלט יעדערער גיך זײַן פּעקל צוריקגעכאַפּט

Ven ale zoln brengen zeyere peklekh tsores in mark farkoyfn, volt yederer gikh zayn pekl tsurikgekhapt.

If everyone brought their bundle of troubles to sell in the market,

each person would quickly take back his own.


Let’s try to be gentle and understanding with each other.