The Crime Lady, v2, #2: Dreaming in Yiddish, Fake Nun Scams, and More

Dear TCL Readers,

We’re seven (!) weeks out from the publication date of The Real Lolita and…a lot continues to happen. Which means there will also be a lot to discuss very soon, but not quite yet. However, I do have an essay in the August issue of Vanity Fair (print-only for now, online link TK, I hope) that is about how Sally Horner’s life and story was appropriated by Nabokov, and also about the deeply strange, cognitively dissonant experience of reading a novel (Rust and Stardust by T. Greenwood) that would not exist if not for your reporting. I don’t have much to add about the book beyond what I wrote in the essay, which is image-captured below: The New York Times Book Review asked a number of writers, including me, to choose the scariest book they’ve ever read. I went with Sara Gran’s 2001 novel Come Closer because my memory of reading it is so vivid and visceral that it helped the book stay with me in the intervening years.

I’m hoping to announce my full tour schedule soon — perhaps even in the next newsletter? — but I will definitely be at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg, Florida a few days before pub date. The convention runs from September 6 through 9 and it’s particularly high in author star wattage. My panel is on Saturday, September 8 at 11 AM, sharing the stage with Gilbert King, Mick West, and Martin Edwards as we all chat about writing crime nonfiction.

And my latest “Crime Lady” column for CrimeReads, published this morning, is on the dark, troubled history of a particular Brooklyn brownstone located only a couple of miles from where I live. It’s a story of missing and murdered girls and women, a charismatic preacher, fake nuns, subway scams, and for good measure, quotes from Chester Himes novels. For those of you who attended the DrunkEducate true crime night back in May (where I shared the bill with Leah Carroll, Chelsea G. Summers, and Gabriella Paiella) it’s the expanded, written-out version of the talk I gave that evening. Also look at this amazing original art by Joe Gough! I’ve wanted to write about DeVernon LeGrand and his “church” for about as long as I’ve lived in Brooklyn. I think I first learned of the Brooklyn Avenue townhouse’s dark secrets around 2011 or 2012, and was amazed how little-known the case was. Perhaps because it’s almost too outlandish? Or that (several) relatives still inhabit the townhouse? And once I found that Chester Himes quote in A Rage in Harlem, I knew how the story would fit together. Thanks, as always, for reading.


Earlier this month I saw Fiddler Afn Dakh, or Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish. Most of you may not know that Yiddish is, technically, my first language — my mother spoke it to me when I was an infant, I understand better than I speak or read — and for a period of a couple of years, from the summer of 1999 through the end of 2001, I hung out pretty regularly in Jewish music circles, and forged several close friendships within that world that remain today (put another way, before I was a Crime Lady, I was a Klezmer Girl.)

I’ve been feeling the gravitational pull of that scene a lot this year. I don’t think it’s an accident, in this year of prepublication surreality. Music, especially singing, was my first creative access point to myself. Music is how I fumble my way from and towards religion, a private communication in a semi-public sphere. Music links the sacred and the profane, knits the disparate strands of identities I’ve tried to discard and those I’ve yet to adopt. Writing is what I do; music is my mameloshn, my Mother Tongue.

And Fiddler in particular has special meaning for me. My late father saw it during its initial Broadway run (though he just missed Zero Mostel, who had just been replaced by Herschel Bernardi, a fine Tevye in his own right) and naturally the original cast album was a staple on the family LP player. So, too, was the Yiddish production, mounted in Israel in 1966, with Joseph Stein’s book and Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics translated by Shraga Friedman. “Tradition” became “Die Torah” and the first time I heard the translation it was like getting blasted with highly oxygenated fresh air. Torah is tradition. Tradition is Torah.

In this new production, directed by Joel Grey for the Folksbiene Theater, the opening number is back to being “Traditsiya”, because Harnick — still alive, in his mid-90s — preferred it. And I thought I would be bothered by the modification, but bother disappeared as soon as the (female) fiddler began her plaintive rooftop lament, when Steven Skybell, a Tevye equally capable of ferocity and tenderness, entered the stage, and the opening number went into full swing.

From there it was magic. Jackie Hoffman with impeccable timing (and very good Yiddish) as Yente. A truly nightmarish dream sequence, Frume Sore terrifying cast and audience alike. Dan Kahn as a Perchik who wouldn’t be out of place among the DSA (but would he listen to Chapo Trap House, or think it too prost?) Top-notch dancing, especially the bottle sequence at the wedding closing out the first act. And when it was time for all to pack up and vacate Anatevka, with all that’s been happening in the news, and the Museum of Jewish Heritage overlooking the harbor, and the Statue of Liberty, the musical was newly invigorated, and everyone, the actors, dancers, musicians, audience members, felt that current.

Fiddler Afn Dakh is running through September 2. Whether your Yiddish is perfect or rusty, if you glance at the subtitles or are glued to them, the production is so, so worth seeing. (The reviews, so far, have been great to stellar.)


While I was watching Fiddler in Yiddish, I thought of a long-ago Yiddish theater production called Der Drey Matones (or Three Gifts.) As the Yiddish Art Theater billboard in the photograph says, the play, which opened on October 1, 1945, was based on a story by the noted Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz. Maurice Schwartz, who garnered some film acclaim starring in The Dybbuk but was a serious force on Second Avenue, was producer, co-librettist (with Melach Ravitch) and star. Joseph Rumshinsky was the Yiddish music man, while the choreographer, Lillian Shapero, had toured with the Martha Graham dance company.

That play had a more otherworldly, melodramatic story arc, though it also featured a fiddler, a man named Joel whose musical genius was tempered by earthly weakness towards women (never mind that he had a wife and eight children.) When Joel, played by Schwartz, collapses and dies at a wedding, he goes to Heaven and there his sins and good deeds match so evenly that he must wander the earth until, according to the show’s playbill, “he gathers in three Gifts of Pure Virtue to tip the heavenly scales in his favor.” Oh, and he has to do it as his long-lost identical twin brother, because why not. Of course Joel, in Labors of Hercules fashion, completes his quest, goes back to Heaven, reunites with his wife, and plays violin so that everyone, in heaven and on earth, can hear him.

No doubt Three Gifts pleased the opening night crowd and those in subsequent performances. But it’s remembered by anyone save dedicated Yiddishists, it’s for the photographs taken of the production, on opening night and in the dress rehearsal the prior day, by Weegee, the iconic 20th century New York City photojournalist. Weegee’s stayed on my mind for the last few weeks after reading Chris Bonanos’ terrific biography, as much a chronicle of a vanished city as it is of a deeply complicated human — let’s just say that I’ll admire Weegee’s work forever, but he’s not someone I would have cared to know. But that underworld ugliness is why the photographs of his heyday are so good. He didn’t just capture the crimes, the grime, and the nightlife, he breathed it so that they suffused every molecule. And so we breathe it too, a little.

Through Weegee’s lens we can drink at Sammy’s, hang around Second Avenue before and after a show, shoot the breeze at Cafe Royal, catch people reacting to car crashes that killed their loved ones or being defiant after an arrest for murder. It’s the antithesis of glamour, and yet it is there nonetheless. Weegee’s bright flash means to strip away sentiment, and yet it also brings it back anew.

Here are a few of my favorites from the dress rehearsal of The Three Gifts:

“Invitation to a Dance” (the woman is probably Berta Gerstein, who played Mirel, Joel’s wife)

The musicians playing without instruments, nbd (see also this clowning clarinetist)

Maurice Schwartz readying himself for opening night

And I’ll let this caption speak for itself: "The Foreman Of The Devils Was Peeved... because the assistant devils were not in costume." (That’s because they were in their “beards and undershirts”)

And as for the rest of Weegee’s photos of The Three Gifts, this ICP link should get you there.


Finally, a handful of crime-y & bookish links:

Until next time, I remain,

The Crime Lady