Monday, February 19, 2007

Heavy Rotation

It's high season for Mamapalooza preparation. So I'm in Toronto now. It's 24 hours after I set out on this journey, which will be the last for my truck.

When you are traveling 520 miles through lake effect, black ice and snow squalls, over mountains and through valleys, there's only one thing you can do: Play it loud and wail on your 78 RPMs at 85 MPH, as much as you can, when you can. Bust a tonsil if you must. And keep the selections at a good adrenal clip when you are behind the salt and sand truck. That is enough to keep the windows steamy all day into the night. Over the hours we witnessed four vehicles that had skidded into the highway median, but our little truck was flying.

Yona says, "Damn, we listened to a lot." First we went through some 200 songs from Yona's Creative Zen, including:

The All-American Rejects
The Fray
Beyonce (To the go, Girl)
Plain White T's
Snow Patrol
Gwen Stefani (Halla Back Girl at brain-melting decibel)
Fergie (Fergalicious)
Bowling For Soup (they're all great)
Bobby McFerron
Bryan Adams (Summer of 69 -- repeat if necessary: repeat)
Yellow Card
Blue October
and many, many more.

At Corning, for the first refueling, we switched mp3 players.

From my iPod we harmonized with:

Lucinda Williams (Car Wheels on a Gravel Road)
Laura Nyro (The Loom's Desire)
2 hours' worth of Italian classics, with a focus on Louis Prima and Connie Francis
Yiddish radio classics (Yiddish in swing, too dayum good for English words! Sultry Barry Sisters...Moishe Oysher with that wholly erotic voice...even 50 years after his death -- OMG!)
Rosanne Cash (you are very much on my mind, darling!)
Rodney Crowell
Emmylou Harris
AC/DC (Back in Black!)
Shel Silverstein (Freakin' and other ditties of debauchery...let my kid learn it from the Light in the Attic Guy, and not in the street!)
Gram Parsons Tribute CD (Elvis Costello's Sleepless Nights makes me cry every time)
Yiddish/Hebrew/Russian by Netanya Davrath (by the hour, repeating Es Brent and Eitz Ha'Rimon)
Marty Stuart (Hillbilly Rock)
Brian Setzer (a double shot of adrenalin personal favourite...testosterone, all served up on a '57 Gretsch. How much do I love that guy?!)
"Swing!" - Manhattan Transfer with Asleep at the Wheel
and Heaven Knows what else.

Here we are in TO. Gotta put a set list together for our gig on Thursday now. So many to choose from. One hour to knock 'em out before hitting the road again Thursday afternoon.


Flashback to the eve of the Big Winter Road Trip of '07. The love of my life had just returned from a very exhausting trip to Southern Florida, San Francisco, Orange County and Los Angeles for a week. Miriam was en route to Paris with her school. Yona was going to be up in TO with me, so we were mellow and giving each other lots of space. Not to mention the Hellhound on my trail.

The week had sucked real bad. As lousy as I am to be around, I am no f*cking good at all when I'm alone, and everyone who knows me knows this. So our house became a frat house in which no one had a real meal or slept very much. We ordered in veggie Chinese one night. It lasted three days because we were all glued to the computer, obsessing on music, Scrabble, or whatever. Stuff was strewn everywhere. The mail was stacked up, unopened. No wash got done. People traipsed in and out. Big shout out to Miriam who actually made her bed and did the mountain of dishes. I think I made a batch of rice crispie treats. Or maybe I just meant to. We grawed on wilted carrots and rice crackers. The only order was disorder.

But there was at least one thing I got right: I dusted off my double set of Robert Johnson and blew the cobwebs off my 1952 National Resophonic. I pulled out my slide, which had been a gift from Johnny Winter who-knows-how-many years ago, and I played along to Mr. Johnson, in a trancelike state. I never forgot how good that stuff sounded. It's always like the first time, especially when you drop the tuning down and do it like Robert did it. Yona took the picture, which is below.

I am offering you the lyric to Come On In My Kitchen. Best version I will ever remember was by David Rea (where are you now, Davy, California I hear?). His big claim to fame was writing Mississippi Queen, which Mountain made famous. I met David Rea at either Mariposa or Owen Sound sometime during the Jurassic era. I loaned him my Yamaha FG-180, when I learned from his manager, Gene Mascardelli, that David's Martin was stolen. He spent a year banging out his legendary, amazing Robert Johnson show on that battle-scarred guitar, which I still have and treasure. When I got it back, it looked like hell, but it sure sounded like David had sold its soul to the devil. I am positive that's how it went down.

So, here it is, with a special personal dedication from me to Jeff Healey.

Come On In My Kitchen

By Robert Johnson
Recorded in San Antonio, Texas, on Monday, November 23, 1936.

Mmm... you better come on in my kitchen babe, it’s goin’ to be rainin’ outdoors
The woman I love, took from my best friend
Some joker got lucky, stole her back again
You better come on in my kitchen babe, it's goin' to be rainin' outdoors

Oh, she's gone, I know she won't come back
I've taken the last nickel out of her nation sack
You better come on in my kitchen, baby, it's goin' to be rainin' outdoors

(Spoken: Oh, can't you hear that wind howl?)
Can't you hear that wind howl?
You better come on in my kitchen, baby, it's goin' to be rainin' outdoors

When a woman gets in trouble, everybody throws her down
Lookin' for her good friend, none can't be found
You better come on in my kitchen, baby, it's goin' to be rainin' outdoors

Winter time's comin', it's goin' to be slow
You can make the winter, babe, that's dry long so
You better come on in my kitchen, 'cause it's goin' to be rainin' outdoors

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Tide Comes In And The Tide Goes Out

I have come to realize that the world is not such that people seem to be dying all the time. There is a tide. It comes in and sweeps up what looks to us as a random collection of souls. The tide goes back out again and the earthly voice of those souls is silenced forever from our ears. But in our hearts the light of our dear departed ones still radiates warmth and provides comfort in our dream world.

Last night I learned that the father of my friends Gitl and Binyumen (and their two siblings) had passed away after a lengthy decline. All told, there were sixteen grandchildren, most of whom are well on their way to adulthood. But still, at 79 years old in our modern world, Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter was still a kid.

I took the ride over to the Upper West Side for the funeral. The casket, draped in a stark black cloth with a large Jewish star, was at the front of the modest chapel. There was an aura of peace and tranquility that was not a good match for the lively character of the Departed.

I saw a throng of diverse kinds of people, from all walks of life and persuasions. There were intellectuals, musicians, academics, scholars and theatre people. There was even a newspaper publisher. As I looked around and listened to fragments of conversation, I had to remind myself that I was in New York City: Most of the people there were speaking Yiddish. Even the grandchildren were speaking Yiddish.

There were speakers who praised Dr. Schaechter. His grandson even read a poem he had written about him in fourth grade. By any standard, it was an amazing poem and there was not a dry eye.

But the highlight was Binyumen's hesped -- eulogy.

We were a bit surprised to hear my choir director deliver the speech in English, especially when I had anticipated the sweet chicken soup comfort of Yiddish. He described what life was like for the children of this towering giant. He recounted family ancedotes, he read clips from articles, and he recalled a certain nameless joke that his father loved.

He also sang a song, "Chupchik." And it was in that moment that I realized what this was all about. When Mordkhe Schaechter was a boy, his father went to Siberia, never to return. Mordkhe would spend his entire life devoted to his father's memory. Just as my mother, who was 79 when she died, searched the world over for her mother, whom Mum left behind in Poland once she went to Siberia. We had "Chupchik" on the turntable in our house, too.

For his whole life Mordkhe would walk along the shore of his childhood, dredging for what perhaps the tide had left behind. A memento. A hint. Some memory of his father.

With every verse of "Chupchik" Binyumen's gentle voice faltered a little bit. It was the most beautiful and perfect version -- a prayer: that his own children one day might give him an equally fitting hesped; that his children would not have to grow up devoid of a father; that he will have the strength of character to one day live up to his father's good name and leave a legacy that could "fill a stadium," as one friend put it.

For now Binyumen and his siblings must truly assume the yoke of their father: standing on the shore with shoeboxes that are filled with their father's index cards, each containing a hand-written word in Yiddish with meticulously codified pronunciations -- scrawlings of a man driven to preserve a fragile language; yearning for the voice to breathe life into those papers; and watching the tide.


Mordkhe Schaechter, 79, Leading Yiddish Linguist, Dies

The New York Times

February 16, 2007

Mordkhe Schaechter, a leading Yiddish linguist who spent a lifetime studying, standardizing and teaching the language, died yesterday in the Bronx. He was 79 and lived in Yonkers.
His death, at Montefiore Medical Center, followed a long illness, his daughter Rukhl Schaechter said.

Dr. Schaechter, whose passion for Yiddish dated to his boyhood in Romania, dedicated his life to reclaiming Yiddish as a living language for the descendants of its first speakers, the Ashkenazic Jewry of central and eastern Europe. Written in the Hebrew alphabet and containing Semitic, Germanic and other components, it is one of the three major literary languages in Jewish history, the others being Hebrew and Aramaic.

In addition to being a teacher, Dr. Schaechter was an author and promoter, founding organizations devoted to furthering the use of Yiddish. He wrote dictionaries intending to standardize it.

Dr. Schaechter was a senior lecturer in Yiddish studies at Columbia from 1981 to 1993. He also taught in the Weinreich Program in Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture from its beginning in 1968 until 2004; the program is a joint project of Columbia and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, which is prominent in the study of Ashkenazic Jewry.

Dr. Schaechter started contributing to YIVO — then based in Poland — as an archival collector in Austria in 1947, four years before he came to the United States. Over the years he also gave Yiddish courses at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the Jewish Teachers Seminary-Herzliah and Yeshiva University, all in New York.

In the 1980s, he was associate editor of The Great Dictionary of the Yiddish Language and, from 1961 to 1972, he was associate editor of The Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry. From the 1970s until 1986 he was a bibliographer, proofreader and finally editor of YIVO’s Yiddishe Shprakh, a journal devoted to the pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary of standard Yiddish.

Itsye Mordkhe Schaechter was born on Dec. 1, 1927, in what was then the Romanian town of Cernauti but is now Chernivtsi in Ukraine, or Czernowitz to its Yiddish speakers. He became fascinated with Yiddish as a pupil and later studied linguistics at the University of Bucharest. He received his doctorate at the University of Vienna in 1951 with a dissertation in Yiddish.
Dr. Schaechter arrived in New York that year. After serving in military intelligence in the United States Army during the Korean War, he resumed his association with YIVO and began teaching and writing.

He founded the Committee for the Implementation of the Standardized Yiddish Orthography in 1958.

Six years later, with two students, he founded Yugntruf (“Call to Youth”), a worldwide organization devoted to teaching Yiddish to new generations. (It has a Web site at

Dr. Schaechter founded the Task Force for Yiddish Terminology in 1970 and the League for Yiddish, based in New York, in 1979. He served as its executive director until 2004.
In 1994, Dr. Schaechter received the Itzik Manger Prize, the most prestigious Yiddish literary award. His books, all in Yiddish, include “Authentic Yiddish” (1986), “Pregnancy, Childbirth and Early Childhood: An English-Yiddish Dictionary” (1991), “The History of the Standardized Yiddish Spelling” (1999), “Yiddish II: An Intermediate and Advanced Textbook” (2004), and “Plant Names in Yiddish: A Handbook of Botanical Terminology” (2005).

Dr. Schaechter is survived by his wife of 50 years, Charne Schaechter; three daughters, Rukhl Schaechter of Yonkers, Gitl Viswanath of Teaneck, N.J., and Eydl Reznik of Safed, or Tsfat, Israel; a son, Binyumen of Manhattan; a sister, Bella Schaechter-Gottesman of the Bronx; and 16 grandchildren, with whom he spoke only in Yiddish, his son said.