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.
Passing by a statue of Lenin, we arrived at an early 1950s Khruchevka, a dilapidated mass-housing unit built during the Khrushchev period, and climbed the stairs of a dimly lit corridor slathered with peeling blue paint. Shveld knocked on the door and bellowed, “Open up it’s the KGB!”
“Who is it?” came a soft response from behind the door, followed by the click of six or seven locks, and Arkady Gendler welcomed us into his apartment with a paternal display of worry and care: “I was worried sick! This is a criminal city in a criminal country! Why didn’t you call!?”
The apartment, which he had inhabited since 1952 with his wife until her death some years ago, was a jumble of books, papers, records, small objects d’art, and meticulously organized boxes of medicine stacked in symmetrical pyramids. Gendler apologized for its messiness (“I am an old bachelor, you see”), which is in direct contrivance to his own fastidious and gallant appearance. His wide and noble forehead is topped with a perfectly frosted crown of white hair. He prefers shirtsleeves at home and wears the dapper retro checkered suits of the Soviet retiree outdoors, though unlike the typical Soviet retiree, his French suits are perfectly cut. On his breast pocket, over his heart and to the left of his marbled tie clip, he wears the medals and colored bars of a veteran of World War II and campaign Barbarossa.
What is most seductive about Gendler, though, is his voice: Gentle and firm, velvety cadenced and silky, it is the voice of a natural crooner. His intonation is a pitch higher than ordinary, and his syntax is on occasion reminiscent of the protagonist in a Saul Bellow novel. The well-known German clarinetist Christian Dawid, who dedicated two years of his life to Gendler—he produced and arranged the compositions on Gendler’s new CD, Yidishe Lider, his third, and the first containing his own original compositions—told me that Gendler’s voice is “a natural lyrical tenor, though now deepening into a baritone. He is not schooled in the classical sense, but informed by the cantors, theater artists, and operatic tenors of his youth.”
Gendler was born in the town of Soroke in Bessarabian Romania on Nov. 29, 1921. Its population having only doubled over the course of a century, the leafy town of 30,000 now sits along the Dniester river between the Ukrainian and Moldovan borders and boasts a sturdy 16th-century stone fortress. Curiously enough Soroke has produced another giant of underground world and post-Soviet culture in subversive Ukrainian filmmaker and actress Kira Muratova, though Gendler informed me that the families were not acquainted.
He immortalized the town in his song “Mayn shtetele Soroke” (My hometown Soroke) set to a melody he once heard being played by a Romanian military brass band as a boy:
Vu es flist der alter Nester
Tsvishn berg un tsvishn tol
Shteyt farkholemt mayn Soroke
Mit a festung fun amol
Where flows the ancient Dniester
Through the valleys and the hills
Wrapped in dreams stands my Soroke
Its fortress walls built long ago.
His parents Rokhl and Elkhonen and the entire family were tailors—“dames’ tailors,” he told me using old-fashioned shtetl phrasing in place of “women’s.” The youngest of 10 children, two of whom died in childhood, he was doted on by his six older sisters. The family was learned and traditional, yet impious and progressive. “Ironically enough”—he employed the word often—“we were Romanian Communists!” Yiddish was spoken at home and Romanian outside of it. Despite crippling poverty, family life as he remembers it was idyllic, happy, and full of song. The Gendler children were all talented singers and constituted the core of the town’s Yiddish theater troupe, though formal education in a Romanian school had to be abandoned for lack of money when he was 11. His youth came to an end in the summer of 1940 when the Romanian army decamped and Soviet troops marched into and annexed Bessarabia under a secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbintrop pact. Gendler was 19 years old and did not yet know a single word of Russian.
In the summer of 1941, he and his brother were called up to the front along with a sister who was a nurse. Assigned to a brigade of shock troop infantry on the Ukranian front, they were sent to the front lines, where Gendler walked the length of Ukraine by foot over six months as the Red Army retreated, sustaining loss after colossal loss at the hands of the invading Nazi armies. In the autumn of ’41 he was wounded in the lungs by shrapnel from a bursting shell in fighting along the Russian border and was transferred to a supply unit in the rear. “This was the only thing that saved my life,” he told me, and he is undoubtedly correct: Life expectancy for a Russian man on the western front was about eight days.
Returning to Soroke he found that the Nazis had murdered his entire extended family including his mother, father, and five siblings. “The ironic part,” he said with a bitter smile, “was that those of us who went up to the front all survived.”
Demobilized in Moscow at the end of the war and lacking almost any formal education, he threw every ounce of his energy into the work at a night trade-school and completed the five years of course work he needed to get his high-school diploma within a single year. Afterward, he studied chemistry at university in Moscow and went to work as a trainee chemist in plastic polymers, then a cutting-edge field. During his first weeks at work a demonstration of a mixture of dangerous and costly materials by one of his superiors went haywire. From the back of the class, the novice Gendler gently hinted to the head scientist to add more silver, advice she ignored because of arrogance and potential expense. After the inevitable explosion, the head of the plant heard about what had happened—that a trainee had correctly instructed his foolish instructor—and called Gendler into his office for a chat. Would the young man like a temporary position without housing at the plant in Moscow, the chief inquired, or a full-time post at a plant in the provinces where he would be provided with housing? Then living unhappily on a couch in the Moscow University dorms, Gendler chose the apartment in Zaporozhe, a decision he still regrets to this day. Zaporozhye became his home, and he learned “to love it by necessity.”
With the outbreak of Perestroika, which foreshadowed the swift collapse of communism of and Soviet empire, Gendler left the field of industrial chemistry and went to work in a Jewish school as a teacher of his beloved Yiddish. He was also able to sing Yiddish songs more openly. As the legend of the amateur Yiddish singer began to spread, he was invited to participate in Klezmer festivals and workshops in San Francisco and Copenhagen and Paris and Moscow. After the parting of the iron curtain, he emerged as the authentic missing archeological link to the living roots of Yiddish culture. Utterly bereft of ambition, he never recorded a CD until after his 80th birthday and did not begin composing his own material until a few years afterward. (The problem with many of the festivals, he told me, was that they were playing the same music over and over, so he began to write his own.)
Gendler is a living Alexandrine Library of Yiddish folklore, tradition, and song, much of it uniquely held by him. He was friends with the Yiddish poet Itzik Manger and his family and was thus in the room when the bard’s songs were first sung. The greatest of his many Last-of-the-Mohicans moments came when he revealed a hereto-unknown stanza of the Russian-Yiddish classic “Tumbalalaika”—the Yiddish revival equivalent of discovering an unknown 38th Shakespeare play in the attic. His memory and mental faculties are remarkable; when I told him I had seen him sing at the Krakow Jewish festival four years ago, he remembered his repertoire exactly, as well as the name of every musician he jammed with that night. He still sends occasional learned letters to the Yiddish Forward (he holds the only subscription in the province and worries about what to do with his back issues after he is gone) to authenticate some previously unknown melody or piece, invariably unearthing lyrics or factoids unknown to anyone else. He is also a fountain of anecdotes and jokes. “What else do you want to know?” he asked. “Have you sat in a banya with Khrushchev?” I inquired. “No, I have not,” was the riposte. “But I do have a banya anecdote for you, if your lady pardons my taking the liberty of assuming that she knows that babies are not delivered by storks?” Cleared to proceed by her amused smile, he told the one dealing with a Russian Jew’s inglorious quest for integration in a preternaturally anti-Semitic society: “Rabinovich is hanging out in the banya with the other Jewish guys. One of them says to him, ‘Rabinovich! Who do you think you are fooling? Either put on some underwear or take off the cross!’ ”
His humor and charm are also the source of his sexiness: Despite the fact that he is a chaste and courteous 91-year-old man, attractive young women perpetually shower him with attention. Typologically he is a cavalier rather than a seducer, and his courtly gallantries are absolutely authentic. His nurse drapes herself over his arm, and waitresses in restaurants fuss over him. At a Purimshpiel in Paris that I attended a week before embarking on the pilgrimage to Gendler’s home in Ukraine, I met a beauteous dark haired Ukrainian-Israeli studying in a cantorial program in Berlin. When she found out that I was to be traveling shortly to meet Gendler, she informed me with a panoramic smile that he was her great unrequited love and excitedly scribbled out a love letter for me to deliver in both Russian and Hebrew on the back of an envelope. Another comely friend, a Czech art historian in her early thirties to whom I showed Gendler’s picture, cooed that he was “aesthetically perfect.” Dolgin referred to him as a “lady killer.”
“Everyone tells me to write a memoir,” Gendler told me. “I keep telling them I don’t need to because I have no guilt and nothing to qualify to my descendants.” He does have plans, however, to write his magnum opus on the history of Yiddish sometime in the future, when it is “ripe.” His son, also a chemist, now living in Moscow, implores him continuously to move there to be closer to him. The son called him twice during the evening in a display of filial piety. Throughout the evening, in fact, Gendler was barraged by phone calls from his numerous friends. After every conversation he would put down the receiver to tell us the improbable story of one of his colorful friends. “That was Idea Markovna. We co-teach the Yiddish club together. She and her husband were bomber pilots during the war when the high command offered to put them into the same cockpit so that they could serve together. ‘Under no circumstances,’ she responded—in case they were shot down the children would be orphans!” At about 10 p.m. we left him with a promise to call from the hotel room to confirm our safety.
The next morning Shveld, Gendler’s driver, and Gendler arrived to pick us up at our hotel at 9:30 and take us to the Hessed. Gendler has given up full-time teaching but still leads the Hessed club here a few times a week. After Shveld showed us around the building, Gendler gave an impromptu concert for the old pensioners hanging around. He does not like to feel dependent and frowned when offered a hand out of the car or when I insisted on paying for our lunch.
Why is he still living in such a place? He can’t rule out moving to Moscow to be closer to his son. There is still time, he is not yet ripe. With one grandfather living to the age of 108, one suspects that in his body as well his indomitable spirit Gendler is still young. I asked him that, too. “Why didn’t you ever emigrate to Germany or maybe Israel?” He fixed me with his clever eyes for a moment. “Who needs Yiddish in Israel?” he asked me, which is of course true.
Master etymologist Gerald Cohen knows how jazz got its name, why they’re called hot dogs, and much more