December 11, 2003
Where It’s Hip to Be Yiddish
Hip-Hop music might be cool, funky and ghetto, but DJ Socalled thinks that an infusion of an Yiddish could make it even better.
"Hip-hop is all based on breaks, and the Yiddish theater records have amazing breaks in them, and they are original breaks," said Montreal-based Socalled, who is known as Josh Dolgen when he isn't working the sound sampler. "You never hear anyone do them -- everyone has sampled James Brown breaks, but nobody has sampled these records."
Socalled is going to be bringing his Yiddish-hip-hop-funk-jazz-dance music collage to Los Angeles on Dec. 18, where he will sample the night away at an early Khanike (Yiddish for Chanukah) concert for a new group called Avada.
Avada is the young and hip offshoot of the Yiddish language and culture promoting organization Yiddishkayt Los Angeles. It aims to make the Eastern European shtetl language chic with the 35-and-under crowd. Tali Pressman, 23, who started Avada with the help of a grant from the Righteous Person's Foundation, launched it with a spooky splash in August. The first event was a screening of the 1937 Yiddish film, "The Dybbuk," in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. More than 700 people attended the screening, and Avada, which comes from the Yiddish word avade, meaning of course, was in business.
"It was actually a revolutionary idea, programming Yiddish events in non-Jewish venues," Pressman said. "And it's appealing to me and my generation on their own terms -- you can connect with your Jewish identity and that fringe identity in a room with people your age and in a way that speaks to you. There are a lot of young Jews who don't feel comfortable in the institutional Jewish world, and that are reaching out but ... don't know where to reach out to. We are trying to create that kind of alternative space."
Pressman became interested in Yiddish culture after studying Jewish and Holocaust studies in college and interning at Yiddishkayt Los Angeles, but she noticed that she was the youngest person by about 30 years at all the Yiddish events she went to.
"That was a little bit discouraging," she said. "I was going to these events and listening to the music realizing that there is a [Yiddish] contemporary art scene, right now mostly in New York and Montreal, and it just has to be presented to young people in a way that they can appreciate it and in a way that it can be relevant to their lives."
Pressman is planning four major Avada events every year, including an alternative Passover seder with a Yiddish-saturated haggadah that will take place in a space like the Knitting Factory, featuring celebrity play readings and film screenings. She hopes these events will not only support and nurture the local Yiddish art scene, but that young people will be able to connect to a Yiddish identity and preserve the Yiddish language, which, with the advent of modern Hebrew, many Jews see as largely irrelevant.
"We are constantly trying to reinvent people's concept of what Yiddish is," said Aaron Paley, who is the founder and board chair of Yiddishkayt Los Angeles. "I'd say, 'I'm doing a Yiddish festival,' and people would say, 'Great -- I'm going to bring my grandmother,' and I'd say, 'No -- bring your kids.' I think that Yiddish doesn't belong solely to the generation of our grandparents, but it belongs to all of us."
Convincing Generation X and beyond that Yiddish is more than just a shtetl language spoken by grandparents and frockcoat-wearing Jews with long beards and payes is a task that requires originality, artistic credibility and great graphics, which is why the promotional materials that Avada creates could be used to advertise any nightclub or dance venue in the city, and the events themselves have the maximum cool quotient possible.
At the Dec. 18 event, for example, Socalled plans on showing the crowd that you can dance to Yiddish, and you don't have to put the language in "a museum."
"The sounds that I use in the beats are often sampled from old Yiddish recordings, cantorial records, Yiddish art songs -- which are a genre of Yiddish songs that are more for concert halls, klezmer, basically whatever little isolated funky sounds I could find in Jewish music," Socalled said. "The root of the music is dance music, so this is new dance music based on old dance music."
Socalled thinks that Jews need to stand up and reclaim their culture.
"Black music is ubiquitous in America -- you hear jazz and blues and you see photographs of great jazz musicians, but because of assimilation and the Holocaust ... Jews didn't want to be Jewish, or be seen as Jewish. They wanted to disappear into America," he said. "But they had such an incredibly rich culture. I want people to hear how funky we are, and we have to rediscover how funky we were, because we forgot. It's complicated."
DJ Socalled will be performing at the Extreme Khanike Party at The Echo, 1822 Sunset Blvd., Echo Park, on Dec. 18 at 8 p.m. For more information, call (323) 692-8151, or visit www.avadaproject.org .