Jan 07 2014

Yiddishland in Switzerland

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It’s been awhile! Hi!

A friend of mine wrote an article for the Forward on his trip around Swiss Yiddishland. Take a look at it here (if you read Yiddish).

Leyzer writes that Jews came to Switzerland in the 17th century and spoke Western Yiddish. The particularly settled in 2 towns, not far from Zurich, Endingen and Legnoy. In the mid-1800s, Jews started leaving for the big cities (Zurich and Geneva). There isn’t much left of those communities now. No Western Yiddish speakers–but there is a project to document it.

He visited the towns and remarked that they did not have the typical church at the center of town. They each had restored synagogues, however–which are still in use, on occasion. The Jewish houses are distinguished by two entry doors. In between the towns there is a Jewish cemetery. He doesn’t see much of a Jewish future in the towns, but points out the history of these places has been mostly friendly, reminding readers that Jews lived peacefully with their Christian neighbors and left for economic opportunities.

I heard of these towns while living in Switzerland–they were depicted in paintings at an art museum I visited and I have wondered about them since. I’m hoping to be back in Switzerland this May or June for a short visit. Maybe I will get Sore to take me to Yiddishland while I’m there. In the meantime, I am writing my dissertation. Wish me luck.

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Nov 22 2009

Jews in the Modern World and on your iPod

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Lately, I’ve happened upon some interesting radio programs and podcasts on Yiddish and modern Jewish life in Europe (Australia?) that I thought I’d share:

  • “Heart And Soul: New Jewish life in Berlin” on BBC World Service 18/11/2009
  • PRI’s Selected Shorts: Rebel Yiddish Writers: Moishe Nadir’s “My First Love” and Sholem Asch’s “A Quiet Garden Spot.”
  • Yiddish Radio Program (in Yiddish) from Australia including a recent show about Jews in Switzerland. The interviewer admonishes the Swiss Jewish author interviewed, Roger Reiss, for having a very Germanified Yiddish. Also there’s a funny moment when Reiss calls Switzerland די מדינה (“di medine“)—the country, using the Yiddish word of Hebrew origin, which often specifically means the State of Israel, rather than the word לאַנד (“land“). (At least, that’s my definitely non-expert take…)
  • Klezmer Attitude: klezmer podcast in French. The host plays a lot of music, so don’t worry if you don’t speak French, it’s very good. The show from September 9, 2009 is from the the Festival International des Musiques Juives (International Festival of Jewish music) in Lyon, which we didn’t know about and totally missed!

(The title is a reference to a class Jackie and I took at Harvard.)

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Jul 21 2009

More like Yiddishland than Paris

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I have walked into several boulangeries, cafes, supermarkets, and asked the rude-ish person attending in rather broken Yiddish for something or other several times this last week.  What can I say, when I am in Yiddish immersion most of the day, and everyone around me speaks Yiddish, I forget that in Paris, people speak French.  Also, I forget how to speak French.  Hmm.  I wish I could learn one language without erasing parts of another.

So Seth and I (or should I say Shmul un Blime?) have plopped into Yiddishland, located in the Yiddish center in Paris.  This means 4 hours of Yiddish classes per day, another 4-6 hours of lectures, films, workshops, extra help sessions, museum visits, etc, as one desires to attend, and then a few hours worth of  homework.  It is a bit odd because everyone has such different backgrounds and there are so many people in each of the classes that despite immersion and fast-pacedness, I still feel like I am learning at a slower rate than I might be.  In particular, I am between levels 2 and 3, 2 being boring and 3 being too hard, so I, along with 2 other students, are going to 2 hours of each level every day.  Which thus makes it less coherent, but better paced.  Ah well.  And the advantage of their being too many other students is that there are actually OTHER people with whom to speak Yiddish, who have different accents, different dialects, different abilities, etc.

While we’ve been mostly Yiddishing, we did get to Harry Potter yesterday (with French subtitles, not dubbed), and we’ve been able to meet up with 2 different Harvard friends, one of whom we just ran into on the street and is visiting Paris during her half year in Barcelona, and the other of whom is working for Let’s Go.  Turns out there are far more people we know who pass through Paris than who pass through Lausanne or Geneva.  We also went to one of few hills in Paris on Bastille Day to picnic and watch the fireworks shooting off the Eiffel Tower with one of Seth’s freshman roommates and a bunch Harvard people we did not know.  We have been enjoying the cheap fruit available at open markets (apricots, cherries, peaches, plums!!!), and the not-so-cheap-but-at-least-good food we can find in restaurants.  At some point, hopefully soon, I will be reuniting with my exchange friend from high school; we’ve kept in touch for 8 years now, and we’ve seen each other every few.  Then again, I find myself with another cold, so maybe not so soon.

So, we’ve been busy.  In a good way, but let’s just say Seth and I have not been working as much on our research projects as we’d hoped to do.  And in less than two weeks, we will be in the states!  Please check your calendars and write us in; more detailed information for your city to come by email (if you don’t get said email, send us an email…we can’t remember where all of our friends are currently living.  And if you live in Philly, can you come meet us in another city?).  Our current plan, susceptible to slight modifications in the northeast corridor:

  • 1-4: Seth in Evanston/Chicago, Jackie in NJ/NYC
  • 5-11: Evanston/Chicago (both of us)
  • 12-15: Seattle
  • 16-19: Hilton Head, South Carolina
  • 20-21: Washington, DC
  • 22-26: NJ/NYC
  • 27-28: Boston/Cambridge (if you’re lucky…we may not make this one)
  • 29-30: attending a family friend’s wedding in upstate NY
  • 31: Back to Geneva!

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Jul 13 2009

FrenchWatching in Yiddish

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SwissWatching has temporarily become FrenchWatching, although the pun does not work nearly as well here.

Jackie and I have been in Paris for just over a week now. While she was being a tourist with her visiting family, I spent the last week at Klezmer Paris, which is a week-long program for klezmorim (klezmer musicians), dancers, and singers of all ages, from adorable seven year olds who don’t quite know what to do with their violins on up. Notably, there was a pretty large contingent of people my age and of accordion players and cellists.

I forgot all of my reeds in Switzerland, so on day one, I looked up instrument shops on the Internet and successfully located two closed shops before classes started.  At lunch, I took the metro across Paris to locate a woodwind shop recommended by a Parisian clarinetist.  Success; I had my own reeds!

Klezmer Paris, I was suprised to learn, was in French.  Well, sort of.  Some of the teachers did not speak French, so master classes were given in English with ad hoc, sometimes incorrect translations into French done by participants.  All administrative announcements, on the other hand, were given in French.  All socializing took place in French, too.  I wasn’t left out!  Every day at lunchtime, I went with other participants to find and eat lunch.  Topics of conversation in French included: what Jackie and I are doing in Switzerland, Jackie’s thesis topic, and making fun of Belgium.

Each day was divided into slots for ensemble playing, master classes, and instrument-specific instruction.  The ensemble class reminded me how good RecKlez’s coaches were, as I had heard most of the good advice already, even if I still needed to hear it again.  The master classes and clarinent classes all led me to the same conclusions that I get a lot better when I practice and that the sound of klezmer clarinet is really vital to the music and something I really need to work on.  In helping us work on that sound, New York-based musician Michael Winograd, who ran the clarinet workshops, taught us a number of different klezmer ornaments, which basically means squawks, chirps, or trills meant to imitate the human voice.  At least once per session, he would have us all try one of these ornaments at once, invariably in a high register, which is rather an indescribable sound; let’s just say it hurt my ears.

Klezmer legend David Krakauer came for the last two days of the week to give master classes.  He again demonstrated his French knowledge, as he had at his concert in Switzerland.  He played with the kids class at the final performance, filled out a postcard in French for someone’s friend who is a big fan of his, and came to a park after midnight to hear his students in an impromptu jam session the night it was all over.   Said final performance, incidentally, was on Shabbat and featured vodka shots at intermission (not that those two things are necessarily related).

Miniature Klezmer Madness

Jackie and I are doing a Yiddish program, which started today, for the rest of July.  So far, I’ve learned the alef-beys, and I can say “My name is…”  The only problem is I haven’t decided if my name should be Shes (shin-sof, rhymes with “mess”) or Shmul (“u” sound as in “fool”).  Thoughts?

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May 17 2009

“Prochain arrêt: Avenir” (next stop: Future)

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For months, Jackie’s been reminding me that there’s a very important blog post that I need to write. It all started in February, during our trip to Italy with Michelle, when I found out through e-mail on a serendipitously-open WiFi link in Rome that the computer science PhD program at EPFL (the school I’ve been working at) accepted me with a very generous fellowship to support me for my first year. I’d be unattached to a lab so I can explore what areas of comp sci interest me (something I didn’t do too much of as an undergrad), which is pretty exciting. On the other hand, 4+ more years in Switzerland? Jackie only has one more year left for her program. Uh oh. Decisions, decisions…

Celebrating in Rome

Then in the month of March as I thought about the decision and waited for the visit day at EPFL (it took place 3 flights up from my office with some people I knew, but still, I got to meet the other students and hear the pitch). The visit came at the end of March, I got a sweet t-shirt from EPFL, met the incredibly diverse group of accepted students (Serbian, Greek, Turkish, American, Iranian, French, Czech, Chinese, and more…) and then it was up to me to make the decision. But I didn’t feel like blogging the visit and my indecision.

The first week in April was really crazy and then we were off to Israel for Passover. I e-mailed my decision to EPFL at almost the last minute using another serendipitously-open WiFi connection in Israel and then we flew off to Turkey. By the time I got back to Switzerland I was up to my ears in finishing up beta launch of the website/research project I’ve been working on practically all year: CityRank.ch.


I was spending really long hours working out all the bugs, going back and forth with our designers and then finally, on May 7th, we beta launched! Here’s a picture from a conference at the University of Lausanne called Forum des 100 (forum of the one hundred—important, influential people in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, that is), where they announced our launch:

Please visit, play with, find bugs on and share CityRank.ch. The basic idea of the website is that it’s a tool for exploring indicators of world cities. You can use it to build your own ranking of cities and find out how cities compare to each other.

I wanted to put up a post about it at the time, but then I got really sick. Nothing too out of the ordinary (and I hope, not at all porcine); probably just the result of me staying up too late. It wouldn’t go away even though I just slept or watched movies most of the day, every day—for the last week! Meanwhile, Jackie’s in the midst of finals now, so she didn’t exactly have time to play nurse this past week. But I think, maybe, fingers crossed, I’m finally almost better. Which is great because I just lost a week of work on what was going to be a short amount of time in any case to create a presentation. I get to present our research at a conference in Paris in June. A month or two ago they asked us to send them a portrait of ourselves. Here’s what I sent:

Portrait of Seth

Little did I know they’d be turning it into this:

Line-drawn portrait of Seth

Hah. But where’s my beard? And why’s my chin squiggly?

Some announcements you don’t want to miss:

  • July: we’re spending it in Paris. Jackie’s parents are visiting while I’m doing Klezmer Paris 2009 for a week (and David Krakauer is apparently coming for some workshops!) Then for the rest of the month we’re both taking Yiddish classes at the Summer University in Yiddish Language and Literature. Come visit us!
  • August: we’re spending it in the USA. This poses a problem as there are many of you family and friends to see and the U.S. is much bigger than Switzerland. Chicago and New Jersey (NYC of course) are certainly on the agenda. Seattle? Boston? D.C.? Philly? Make your case in the comments, let us know when you’ll be where, and help us figure out how this is possible.
  • September: class starts September 14th for me and Jackie so we’re hoping to travel in Europe the first two weeks of September. Have you traveled anywhere lovely this time of year in Europe? Seems like a great season for decent weather and fewer tourists.

Oh yes, I did in fact take the offer from EPFL. Wheee!

David Krakauer at a concert we went to in Nyon last March

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Jul 10 2008

A bi gezunt!

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In recognition of our one and only commenter (so far), here’s an excerpt I enjoyed from Culture Smart! Switzerland: A Quick Guide to Customs & Etiquette:

Somewhat like the noisy Irish family in London who gave English the term “Hooligan,” the family name Bünzli provides the Swiss with a name that epitomizes “Swissness.” “Bünzli” can be summed up in the word conformist, even boring; someone who always does the correct thing and never rebels. Hardly a hooligan, but you get the point.

And in honor of that commenter, here’s the Wikipedia entry for “Hooliganism.” And here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the American version, “Joe Schmoe” (or is it “John Doe?”):

Joe Shmoe (also spelled Joe Schmoe or Joe Schmo) is one of the most commonly used fictional names in American English. It is used to identify the typical, everyday person who does not have any special status, frequently in contrast to some group. Adding a “Shm” to the beginning of a word is meant to diminish, negate, or dismiss an argument (for instance, “rain, shmain, we’ve got a game to play”). This process was adapted in English from the use of the “Shm” prefix, in Yiddish to dismiss something; as in fancy “shmancy”.

The Yiddish etymology (questionable, in my opinion—should I update the Wikipedia article to say that it’s not citing its sources?) reminds me of my favorite Yiddish joke:

Cancer? Cancer shmancer. A bi gezunt!

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