When my brother and I were tiny our family would come to Cape Town some December holidays to stay with my paternal grandparents who lived in the last house in the road in Oranjezicht. Across the road was a rugby field and then the mountain. We would wake up in the morning and head across the road to play in the stream that came off the mountain, catching tadpoles and wetting our feet, until the rest of the household woke up.
My grandfather had a giant Valiant; the worst size of a car for his tiny height. Driving with him was hilarious for us kids and terrifying for my parents because my zaida Israel would let go of the steering wheel and tap on it as he sang Yiddish songs. “Yum Tsiki dai dai” he would sing, or “Chiri Bim, Chiri Bom”.
Last night I snuck into The Labia to see the second screening of Philip Todres’ documentary Leah, Teddy and The Mandolin – Cape Town Embraces Yiddish Song. The movie house was filled to the brim with white haired Jewish moaners; I overheard how this lady had all her jewellery stolen by that maid and all she got from insurance was R21000, not enough for a single choker. I heard snippets of the ‘Jewish report’ of how many Jewish Capetonians had been forced to leave the country – things are so bad. I had to cough and splutter to get the woman next to me (who had come late) to shut up and stop using her cellphone. The usual. The kind of audience I had grown used to with From Koe’siestes To Kneidlach.
So imagine my surprise when I found myself utterly moved and connected to this little piece of history, celebrating Philip Todres’ 10 years of The Cape Town Yiddish Song Festival. This tiny movie, with interviews and recordings of songs from the concerts, tells the story of the rebirth of interest in Yiddish, and through it all I felt the longing and nostalgia for my grandparents’ home, up the hill from The Labia, and my zaida killing himself laughing at that “knakker on a nun”, and my granny Sophie (born in SA and less fluent in Yiddish) telling him to shush; he was letting the world know how unsophisticated he was.
I was taken back to my late father’s record collection and I remember those deadly boring Sundays of my youth when the Nationalist government wouldn’t allow anything to happen on the day of rest. We would lie on the carpet and listen to Connie Francis and Eartha Kitt, and even Harry Belafonte, singing Yiddish songs and my father would join in. Sometimes my maternal zaida Louis would come by, and a game of Klaberjas would happen and my zaida would curse in Yiddish (a chaleria zols du chappen) if he lost, tease and boast if he won, call my father a ganef, and he would tell us again about how strong uncle Izzy’s Yiddish accent was when he complained about the dog showing ‘vite tiet’.
I lost my critical voice and professional opinion last night. This is very unusual. I put it down to what Klezmer musician band leader Matthew Reid said about all the Yiddish songs being in a minor key, so even if they are happy and jolly songs they are still sad. Those minor keys got me, and even though I would never in a million years go for the terrible shtetl stereotypical scarf and suitcase Fiddler styling and direction, I found myself humming along and tapping, with the rest of the audience in the movie house.
Well done, Philip Todres. I don’t know how you have managed to make Cape Town’s Yiddish Song Festival a thing, and now even a little movie, but you have, and it is its own special kind of wonderful.