Pepi Litman Pandemic Project

Leksikon title page

Zylbercweig’s Lexicon of Yiddish Theatre Volume 1, 1931

When the pandemic hit, we all found new tools, new games, new ways to work & play. I found the Yiddish Klal Keyboard and started typing up the entry on Broderzingers in the Leksikon fun Yidishn Teater. In the lower right, it says this volume was published in Nyu-York. That’s where I first saw it, in the YIVO reading room. (You can now read it for free online at the Yiddish Book Center.)

Just before we all started sheltering in place, The Arbeter Ring (Workers’ Circle) of Northern California gave me a grant to make a series of Broderzinger portraits, with bios in Yiddish & English. Translating the Leksikon, I learned that many a Broder started as a badkhn. So I translated that section as well.

Pepi Litman, a srtocky woman with a mischievous expression, dressed as a male dandy.

Pepi Litman, last of the Broderzingers.

When that was done, we were still in a pandemic. Next on my list was  translating songs by Pepi Litman & other Broders. I knew this would cost me —one pro Yiddishist gave me a quote of $300 per hour!—but what else was there to spend on, anyway? No travel, no concerts, no touring—& what kind of future to save for?

KlezCalifornia helped me start the Pepi Litman Project with non-profit sponsorship, in case anybody else got inspired to donate. Itzik Gottesman, from Yiddish Song of the Week, suggested getting in touch with the professional Yiddishist Eliezer Niborski.

Eliezer proved to have an amazing ear, as sensitive to tone & articulation as any jazz player’s. I sent him the hardest song I could think of —”Di Apikorsim,” that is, “Freethinkers” —& he immediately started filling in blanks in Pepi Litman’s version.

The only catch was that Eliezer wanted to correspond in Yiddish. Also, he was in Jerusalem, 10 hours ahead of me in California. I started getting up early, staying up late, riffling through Yiddish dictionaries, preparing Google documents, listening over & over & over again to these scratchy old 78s that I’d already uploaded to the Internet Archive for safekeeping.

And nu…now…2022…yep, still a pandemic, last I checked. But now I’m in touch with at least five different creative projects, based in five different countries, sharing Pepi Litman’s work. There’s the Forgotten Galicia blog I linked to above. There’s a play! There’s a movie! There’s a Jewish chorus that wants to sing her songs! And Mai Li Pittard just taught about Pepi at Queer Yiddish Camp this week!

Meanwhile, in three years, our band has played two gigs. I’ve made two videos (more about those later). I applied for, & won, financial aid to YIVO’s Zumerprogram, where I get to take Eliezer Niborski & Miriam Trinh’s advanced class! (On condition that I pass the six-week intermediate class, heaven help me.) Some deep friendships have started, & stopped, & started again. Two people I love have died. “And I’m not feeling too good myself”…do you know that joke?