Re: Marchin' to A Different Drummer

Martin Cohen (mcohen@UCLA.EDU)
Thu, 15 Feb 1996 09:38:51 -0700

I should support Mike Salovesh's argument for insiders studying their own
group. After all, that is what I am currently doing. And his post, like
so many of his, was so well thought out that I really am reluctant to
disagree. Actually, I stand as both outsider and insider in my own work.
I am studying secular Jewish identity, or rather, the identity of Secular
Jews. That is, I am not studying non-religious Jews per se, but Jews who
are affiliated with a secular Jewish organization and/or identity with one
of the secular movements whose roots are in the Pale of Russian Settlement
in the last century. I will spare you the historical detail. I
participate in one such organization, the organization runs a Sunday school
that my daughters attend. But I am also an outsider. My own background as
a Jew is different than this one, although there is some overlap as well as
a completely shared Jewish culture. My emotional attachment to my own
culture can get in the way. I try to keep this in mind. The political
in-fighting within the organization is never just a wonderful chance to
observe conflict and resolution, but a fray that I am sometimes compelled
to enter. Even when I simply observe, I experience strong feelings. My
people are literate, and will no doubt read whatever I write about them.
They are also my friends, and I have no desire to offend them. I must even
re-adjust my professional language. Many families among Secular Jews were
directly hurt by the MaCarthy era "witchhunts". So I must not refer to
primary sources of information as "informants", the turn conjures up too
many negative connotations. So, why do I disagree with Mike?

Well, outsiders do bring a different kind of understanding. If insiders
can convey "inside" understanding by writing about there people, so can
insiders who are studied and interviewed by an outsider, who can then
convey that same understanding. If the latter can't, then the former can't
either, and no anthropology is possible. Second, while no one can
communicate every nuance and subtle aspect of experience (try telling
someone who has never tasted chocolate exactly what it tastes like), this
is equally true within groups as between groups. Finally, and here I will
turn to Salovesh's Robeson example, common human experience and emotions
can help to transcend this.

In addition to Chassidic and Yiddish folksongs, Paul Robeson also sang and
recorded "Zog Nit Kaynmol" also know as "The Partisan's Hymn". It was
written by the Yiddish Poet Hirsh Glick in the Vilna Ghetto, 1943, to
commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Glick fell to the Nazis at the age
of 21. Robeson's rendition of the song, sung as a march, is a great
performance that captures the essence of the words. Some versions, sung in
synagogue observances of Yom HaShoa, are flaccid and void of emotion; even
the translations into English (there is no standard) are weak. Here is an
example of a few verses, not completely literal in translation, but close,
given the use of poetic style (not my translation, it is the one used by
the community I study and participate in):

Never say that now the end has come for you,
When leaden skies may be concealing days of blue;
Because the time for which we've yearned will yet appear
And our marching step shall thunder: We Are Here!

This song was written with our blood and not with lead;
It's not the carolling that birds sing overhead.
It was our people, midst the crashing walls of hell
That sang this song and fought with courage til they fell.

We'll have the morning sun to set our days aglow
And all our yesterdays shall vanish with the foe;
And if the time is long before the sun appears,
Then let this song go like a signal through the years.

Robeson sang it like the march it was clearly meant to be, while some
others, Jewish and even fluent in Yiddish, have sang it as a dirge. It is
clear to me that Robeson had a greater understanding than some insiders.

Mike Salovesh wrote:

>Here's another way to put that last: Paul Robeson was one of the great
>performers of this century. I still shiver every time I hear a recording
>of his way of singing "black music". Quintessential soul, if you ask me.
>His recorded work also includes several chassidic songs, mostly in
>Yiddish. His pronunciation is impeccable in these recordings, and his
>voice, as usual, is magnificent. My Russian Jewish grandfather, whose
>singing voice was not very good by anybody's standards and whose Yiddish
>was marked by a strong non-standard accent, used to sing a couple of
>those songs. He sang rings around Paul Robeson. You see, he had Jewish
>soul. His off-glides were within the cultural tradition; his turns to
>nasalism at just the right places, and his insertions of ad-lib figures,
>made his singing into the essence of expressing his culture. Robeson
>just sang the notes, not my grandfather's melodies.