91-Year-Old Yiddish Rock Star
A visit with Arkady Gendler, the last link to the living roots of Yiddish culture, on the eve of a new album
The primary or most salient fact about Arkady Gendler, the 91-year-old icon and paragon of the Yiddish revival movement, is that he is adorable. Wizened, handsome, humane, wise, mirthful, radiating warmth and understanding like the archetypical Yiddish-speaking Jewish grandfather, he is cherished by the specialists and oddballs who inhabit the musty, cultic, and tightly knit world of academic Yiddishkeit and Klezmer revival festivals and beloved by everyone around him. When I wrote to the Canadian rapper, DJ, and producer Joshua “Socalled” Dolgin about my upcoming pilgrimage to visit Gendler in Zaporozhye, he wrote back: “God I love Arkady Gendler! He made me cry when he first sang his song about the swing of life for me in a hallway in St. Petersburg. … He sings for the right reasons, to make song happen, to share with people, to tell stories, to bear witness, to break hearts, make smiles. … He has no ego, was never a professional singer, never recorded, never did huge concerts, he just sang for family and friends. He’s a living link to the vanished Yiddish world that some of us are so obsessed with, he’s the real real deal, he’s the source, the UR text in a world of imitators, fakers, and poseurs.”
Traveling to Zaporozhye, situated deep within the industrial heartland of Ukraine, is by no means simple. Setting out by plane from Paris, my fiancée and I arrived in her hometown of Odessa where, fortified by a night of sleep and some of her mother’s cooking, we then embarked on one of those spectacularly adventurous and uncomfortable night-long train journeys by a sleeper car full of Cameroonian medical students. (“There is no work in France now,” they told us to justify their choice to study medicine in Odessa.) Arriving in the industrial behemoth of Dnepropetrovsk in the morning, we missed the day’s last electrichka—one of the slow-moving regional trains that make all the local stops, that would have taken us a full five hours to traverse the last hundred miles to Zaporozhye. Knowing that the Jews of Dnepropetrovsk had recently finished construction of the world’s largest Jewish community center, we thought we should see it and have some breakfast while we mulled the problem over. We flagged down a taxi and instructed the driver to take us to Sholem Aleichem Street.
The gargantuan seven-story complex of the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish Center occupies an entire city block and is capped off with seven gaudy office towers of ascending height that are meant to resemble a menorah. A kitsch Greco-Deco imperial shopping mall carved out of white marble, it contains a synagogue, libraries, restaurants, a 3-star hotel, entertainment venues, shops, and an impressive Holocaust Museum—everything one could possibly need to live a Jewish life, or wall oneself off from the outside world (with the exception of a moat). The majority of the commercial spaces were empty; the one non-Jewish-themed store was selling vyshyvankas, Ukrainian national costumes and embroidered shirts often favored by the sort of Ukrainian who does not much care for Jews. Local businessmen and Israeli-Russians in ill-fitting pinstripe suits scurried through the corridors chattering in Hebrew into their cell phones.
Following her intuition, my fiancée approached for directions a pair of perfectly coiffed, aloof, and fierce-looking middle-aged women dressed in high heels and luxurious furs and festooned with expensive jewelry. Taking in my similarly garmented fiancée (minus the fur) from head to toe and appraising her as a future member of their clan, one of them demanded briskly, “What do you need exactly?” It turned out that the two women were the heads of the Joint Distribution Committee for western and southern Ukraine. When they found out that we were on our way to meet with Gendler, even they relaxed and broke into a mood of jovial admiration. “Are you the journalist coming to write about him from France?” one asked me, to my astonishment. The other took out her cell phone and called her personal driver to take us to Zaporozhye.
An hour later the chauffeured car arrived, along with Gendler’s good friend Anatoly Shveld. A bushy-browed and imposing man in his early fifties who was by turns gruff and sentimental, he is an engineer who happened to be unlucky enough to have been a 20-year-old conscript when the Chernobyl disaster struck. He then spent months on top of the remnants building the concrete sarcophagus over the third reactor. “We worked two week shifts for five months’ pay,” he told us with a combination of wistfulness, horror, and pride. “But you can’t buy health.” Only seven men out of his platoon of 30 were still alive, and for his heroic service the government pays him a pension of about $40 a month. As we drove he spoke about how much the community treasures Gendler (“my drozhim nad nim,” he said; “we quiver over him”), the desolate state of the city’s finances, and the bloody war for control over its Jewish soul between representatives of Progressive Judaism and Chabad.
The drive was smooth, since the road into Zaporozhye had just been paved in preparation for an official visit by Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych. As Yanukovych was scheduled to fly out of the city on his way back to Kiev, the local authorities did not bother to make a show of fixing the outbound lane of the highway, meaning that the ride back would be considerably bumpier.
Zaporozhye turns out to be a grayish and sleepy industrial town caught in the death grip of a downward spiral of de-industrialization. Its claim to fame was its having housed the Soviet Union’s first and grandest hydroelectric dam, which was built by German engineers in the 1920s. The subway system, which the Soviets had begun work on, remains a dug-up construction site two or three decades later. The financial crisis of the last five years had hit the city particularly hard with most factories closing; only a third of the skyline’s smokestacks were belching smoke, and something like one third of the city’s population has fled. Still, the length of the Lenin Prospect—at either 14, 16.5, 20, or 22 kilometers depending on who one asks—is allegedly the longest such avenue in all of Europe.
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