Regina Spektor’s Immigrant Aid
The Russian-Jewish indie star headlines a benefit for HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an aging philanthropy seeking new attention
“For the most part,” Regina Spektor told me after a recent concert at Lincoln Center in New York, “I’ve been making music in the time of the Internet. Anything I make, even if there’s not a specific place in society for it, I try to just put it online. Let it find its own way.” It may have, but not to me. All it took for me to ignore Spektor’s entire musical career was my decision—made, let’s say, in 2004—to be into “independent music.” I would listen to lo-fi rockers Guided by Voices, and a program’s algorithm would recommend Sebadoh, for example, but nary a cute Russian. Yet Spektor’s music, in a different era, could be universal.
Before I attended Spektor’s benefit concert for HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, at Lincoln Center a few weeks ago, only one song of hers had broken into my self-curated indie/punk/metal/rap bubble, a song I quickly started referring to as the “it breaks my heart” song. Perhaps you know it by its actual name, “Fidelity.” On display in “Fidelity” is what I would later discover is her trademark: a delightful playfulness with the words of the English language, stretching and bending their sounds to her will, perhaps in a way only an immigrant can, as in “breaks my hea-a-a-a-a-a-rt.” Spektor is Russian-American and Jewish—and a benefit for HIAS was explicitly one of personal passion.
So, how did a Russian immigrant emerge as a lasting force in indie music, one so powerful she could force her voice onto ears that hadn’t even been searching for it in the first place? That’s the big question here, and one I intend to answer. There’s a secondary question that might sound a little self-indulgent at first, but it’s related, I promise. I’m supposed to be aware of new musicians and important political movements like Regina Spektor and HIAS, for personal and professional reasons. How had I completely missed them both?
Let’s start with HIAS, the more forgivable of the two. HIAS’s age shows in its name—it is 130 years old—an acronym from the same era as the NAACP. But unlike the NAACP, HIAS’s mission has broadened and diluted over the years, expanding from Jewish immigrants to people all over the world. Many of these causes still have a Jewish touch, though: like trauma counseling in Chad for victims of violence in the Darfur region of Sudan, a popular cause among Jewish clergy nationwide. HIAS runs a Resettlement Support Center in Vienna for those fleeing religious tyranny in Iran, another locale on Jewish minds. But, and perhaps this is because of Judaism’s lack of proselytizing, international volunteerism of this sort has never taken hold the way it has in, say, Evangelical communities. Spektor’s concert, an excited young HIAS volunteer told me, was an attempt to make Americans more aware of an organization that might have brought their great-grandparents food when they could not speak the language. She was wearing a large red “Ask Me About HIAS” button and spoke in hushed tones about the years it had taken for this concert to see itself to fruition. The concert had been promoted by many, including the president of HIAS, Gideon Aronoff, as a showcase of the capabilities of its Young Leaders, its “national community of young professionals and graduate students,” as the HIAS website has it. As I walked around the lush Rose Hall and saw the mix of young professionals and moneyed donors (more on the audience later), with “130th Anniversary” signs written in script all around, it felt like the concert might be the beginning of a new story rather than a tribute to the organization’s past.
There couldn’t possibly be a better person for this task then Spektor. Born in Moscow 11 years before Perestroika, Spektor got out of the Soviet Union with her family when she was 9 years old. She has recorded a video for HIAS telling her family’s story, and it is not a grandiose, exciting tale, full of smuggling and the adventures we have come to associate with immigration. Rather, it’s a story of smaller details—imagining the Viennese refugee camp would be full of talking animals, of not being able to afford to buy gelato in Rome, of eventually finding that perfect home in Kingsbridge two doors down from her cousin. It’s the type of small, quiet success that doesn’t get a lot of headlines but feels tremendously important when you hear it. Spektor considers New York to be her home but clearly values the work HIAS does.
Since she began her career as a recording artist and performer, Spektor has navigated her way to one of the higher planes of musical success available, pop celebrity (an announcement about her upcoming album’s artwork earned a story in Rolling Stone), and as a pianist to boot. Her last studio album, 2009’s Far, sold 50,000 copies, entering the Billboard 200 chart at #3 and hanging around for 19 weeks. This year she is releasing What We Saw From the Cheap Seats. Based on the surprisingly tense first single, “All the Rowboats,” there’s no reason to think that those numbers will fall off. It’s a smart song, lamenting art that rusts away in a museum. It is the type of package that made artists ranging from Joni Mitchell and Elliott Smith so popular—biting sarcasm and earnest emotion, playing out over a usually very pretty melody. Something for everyone, including a 130-year-old organization looking for a reboot.
Hebrew University professor Bernard Avishai’s playful new critical look at Philip Roth’s 1969 classic digs deep into the novel’s neurotic passion