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Willamsburg’s Poet Laureate: Yom Tov Ehrlich

Oh! Williamsburg!
She has no equal,
She is water of life, Jerusalem
For the exiled Jew.
A mezuzah on the door,
She is full of song, full of awe—
Good health to her.

            —from Yom Tov Ehrlich’s poem, “Williamsburg”

Photo from the book <i>Oitseres Hanigunim</i> courtesy of Michael Casper.
Photo from the book Oitseres Hanigunim courtesy of Michael Casper.

In the November 6 issue of the New York Review of Books, Harold Bloom pessimistically projected that “the vibrant Yiddish language, fused and open, questioning and celebrating, someday will be no more.” He might be right about that. But his suggestion that Yiddish is “either the resource of Hasidic sectaries in the Americas and in Israel, or is cultivated by antiquarian revivalists in universities” does not account well for the work of Yom Tov Ehrlich, Brooklyn’s beloved Hasidic poet laureate who passed away in 1990. Ehrlich’s poetry, which is well known in the Hasidic enclave of Williamsburg where he made his home, is neither stodgy rabbinic handbook nor secularist literary exercise. Experimenting with form and rhyme, Ehrlich variously praised Jewish pietism, derided our country’s culture of capital, and smartly plied American English to comment on New York’s broader economic and ethnic divisions.

Born in the Belarusian village of Kazhan Horidok in 1914, while his father was away doing compulsory service in the Russian army, Ehrlich was raised by his maternal grandfather, a ritual slaughterer. Later they moved to the town of David Horidok. When his father returned to the family he gave young Yom Tov (pronounced YON-tef) a fiddle as a birthday present and the boy began to make up his own songs and melodies.

Ehrlich spent the war years in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, where a sizable Jewish community had formed far away from the front. There his father died and he became the caretaker of his own mother and two sisters. In Samarkand he also met a young Bukhari Jew named Yakob, to whom he would later dedicate one of his most famous pieces. After the war Ehrlich went to Paris where, while studying at the Novordik Yeshiva, his reputation as a composer spread to the rabbinical authorities, who would regularly request that he perform.

When he moved to Ross Street in Williamsburg, Ehrlich began working as professional badkhn, a traditional jester who emcees wedding celebrations. (He recounts this harsh experience with the American business practice in the poem “A Thousand Dollars in One Night.”) Distinguished from other entertainers by his original compositions and incisive lyrics, Ehrlich was advised by rabbis in the Hasidic establishment to record his work. The resulting cassettes, which sometimes feature the poet reciting over a bizarrely thundering 2/2 drumbeat, have remained extremely popular since their production and are considered classics in Williamsburg’s religious community.

Yom Tov Ehrlich produced “the first real kosher Jewish tapes,” explained Benjamin Friedman, an insurance salesman who was recently patronizing the Beis Hasefer bookshop in Williamsburg. Prior to that, said Friedman, the only Yiddish-language music available to Hasidic immigrants was sung by so-called “Yiddishists”—Bloom’s “antiquarian revivalists”—who had no interest in religious subjects. “They used to mock Judaism,” he said. “They thought their problem was being Jewish.”

The Hasidic section of Williamsburg forms a triangle south of Broadway from the East River to the northern border of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Synagogues, religious day schools, and rabbinic academies dot the main shopping boulevards where women can often be seen demurely pushing strollers. Visually, the area, which spans a depressed stretch of the B.Q.E., is notable for the popular use of barred windows well above the first and second stories of buildings, and for the clusters of Yiddish-language posters—known locally as poshkeviln—that announce events and Rabbinic decrees on street corners. Aurally, Hasidic Williamsburg marks its territory with the whine of an air raid siren at the beginning and end of the weekly Sabbath.

Much of Willamsburg’s Hasidic population is descended from followers of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the late leader of a dynasty called Satmar. Like several other Williamsburg-based Hasidic groups, Satmar traces its roots to the Carpathian foothills of Hungary and Romania. Teitelbaum was a fervent anti-Zionist, believing that Jews should settle in the Holy Land only when the Messiah comes, and it was with this in mind that he and his followers came to America as displaced persons after World War II.

In Brooklyn, Ehrlich was separated from his Hasidic neighbors by his northerly Hasidic heritage (from the Karlin-Stolin group) and by his unusual trajectory to the United States. People also had a hard time understanding his different Yiddish dialect, which led to the first publications of his work: Pamphlets printed so that audiences—often children—could follow along to his cassettes. In a further act of cultural clarification, editors of the Ehrlich collection that is currently in print (a bulky hardcover called Oitseres HaNigunim, or Treasury of Melodies) have glossed hundreds, if not thousands, of English words into Yiddish to raise the comprehension level of the poet’s readership in Israel. Ehrlich comes as close as any poet to speaking his own language.

Ehrlich wrote elegies, occasional poems for holidays, and skillful didactic stanzas on religious themes, but nowhere does his intuition for language bear out more than in his intricate satires of America. His books entitled Luksus (Luxury) and Ameritchke (a scornful diminutive of America) are veritable anthologies of poetic forms in which Ehrlich seems to find every way possible to warn his audience against the evils of capitalism. In an abecedarian section of Luksus, the poet lists English words and dismisses them with similar-sounding Yiddish phrases. It begins:

            An operator—well, don’t work

            Belts—well, bitter

            Gold—well, nothing

            Diamonds—well, worries

            A hat maker—well, have none

Ehrlich turns English words on their heads with pithy Yiddish alternatives just as he overturns distinctive American cultural traits, such as shopping and business, with encomia to his preferred, humbler religious lifestyle. By versifying the anxieties of modernization for a pious audience, Ehrlich forges his own intermediary genre. In a way, it gives his readers a chance to laugh at how their insular community inevitably assimilates the trappings of American society.

The poet also frequently plays on his first and last names: Yom Tov which means “holiday” and Ehrlich which means ”true” or ”honest” in Yiddish. An adage commonly related about Ehrlich puns with the same words. It was supposedly the revered Satmar Rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum, who first said, “Everywhere he goes it’s a Yom Tov and everything he does is Ehrlich.” The poet was an annual guest at the Rebbe’s Purim celebration, where he would play accordion and declaim verses on the table—a testament to his honored status in Williamsburg.

Shopkeepers in Williamsburg still stock their shelves with Ehrlich’s work. An employee at a music store, where a complete set of Ehrlich’s recitations on CD sells for about $150, said earlier this month that there are a couple badkhns (or badkhonim, in the Yiddish plural) working in Brooklyn today but that they aren’t as good as Ehrlich and they don’t compose their own songs. Many, in fact, sing Ehrlich’s famous tunes by popular request.

Yehuda Leib Weiss, the owner of Oitzer Judaica bookstore on Lee Avenue in Williamsburg, said recently that although Ehrlich is best known for his recorded performances, he is thought of primarily as a poet. According to Weiss, Ehrlich’s work is “becoming more popular every day” and he smiled when remembering the accordion-playing poet’s small stature. “When you look at him you start to laugh,” he said.

Another Williamsburg bookseller had a bleaker view of Ehrlich’s legacy. Noting the decline in diversity among Hasidic groups in their part of Brooklyn (Ehrlich’s own sons moved to Israel, like many from Karlin-Stolin), the homogenization of speech and dress among the Orthodox, and the tentative, utilitarian embrace of modern luxuries even among the borough’s most sanctimonious, the bookseller came to a frank conclusion that eerily echoed Harold Bloom’s: “His world no longer exists.”


Michael Casper

Michael Casper is a writer living in Clinton Hill.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 08-JAN 09

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