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
Wrapped around Rose Hall, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center, are the Shops at the Columbus Circle, a mall filled with Bose speakers, Cole Haan shoes, a “modern take on the classic steakhouse,” and other such mildly bland offerings. The Shops are the paragon of respectability. The Shops at Columbus Circle do not look forward. Rather people look to them, for their definitions of modern wealth as well as stability, because the type of wealth that migrates toward Columbus Circle never changes. Not gaudy, just aspirational. To dream a little dream, where HIAS is on every weekly Jewish newspaper’s front page and every donor’s Form 1080, Schedule A.
And who’s to say they’re wrong? The blue womb that is the inside of Rose Hall was filled with all sorts—there were a few couples in their thirties celebrating birthdays or anniversaries by attending A Fancy Evening With Regina. The men were wearing suits with an odd touch, like patches or skinny ties, and the women had colorful dresses. But generally there were HIAS employees, Youth Leaders, and the over-40 crowd, who are all dressed professionally. As I wandered the crowd, I heard more questions asked in Eastern European accents about who this Regina Spektor was. As an organization, HIAS was probably aiming for some sort of middle ground: HIAS wasn’t holding a benefit at Lincoln Center with one of the top pop artists in the country just to keep the same donors they had last year. The Regina Spektor Benefit Concert was aiming its coolness at the wealthy middle-aged donor, someone who maybe didn’t have any personal connection with the organization, but who would donate to HIAS if they only knew more. Step One—get them in the door: done. Now they just had to listen.
Before Spektor’s part in the show, there were HIAS trivia questions, video presentations, and an awkward introduction. Yet when Spektor walked on stage, that awkwardness left the theater: Here was a professional. We’d been told several times that she was sick, and she started off talking about old Russian remedies that had been failing her, and then she proceeded to give a performance that, for someone that sick, could only be described as “Jordan, Game 5, 1997.” The illness brought out the best of her, and the crowd continually roared its approval. She went on for over two hours without a break, through songs and albums from every stage of her career. Highlights included her standby crowd-stopper “Poor Little Rich Boy,” a theatrical piece where Spektor becomes a one-woman band, keeping rhythm on a stool while singing and playing piano. Even if you noted the irony of playing a song with that title to a crowd full of benefactors, it was still a remarkable effort.
Sitting in the audience, I was embarrassed that hardly any of these songs were familiar. I had listened to a few of her albums ahead of time as research, but not enough to call out lyrics Spektor forgot, which eager fans happily did more than once during the night’s performance.
The reason self-curation works is that it creates that thing we’re drawn to above all others: narrative. If point A leads to point B, then we can take comfort in reaching point C after that. These narratives lead to self-identity, which is what made the words “Jewish issues” synonymous with Israel. Yes, American Jews have come out en masse for other issues, but never as consistently as they do for Israel. Immigration, genocide, hunger, illiteracy, homelessness: These passions come and go, but Israel remains. American Jews have been fairly rigid since 1948, not unlike my musical tastes since 2004, assuredly something that has led to HIAS’s shrinking from the public eye. Making the desert bloom was deemed more noble then settling in Brooklyn, and how could it not be, to Americans? Just look at Exodus, the 1960 epic film about Israel’s founding. It’s trailer says it all: a larger-than-life epic, filled with people like Lee J. Cobb urging you to “Fight! Not beg, but fight!” and people who look like Paul Newman, sighing with determination. These are the things any ethnic group in America wants. How on Earth could this not become the main thing that gets Jewish-Americans to open up their pocketbooks?
Yet, HIAS persists. The Spektor concert was, it was made clear, a work of its Youth Leader program, the “young professionals and graduate students” noted above. Over the course of post-concert drinks, some of these young professionals were called up to receive prizes for their work on the Regina Spektor Steering Committee. That night, the joys and pains of philanthropy were clear on their faces. Months—years in some cases—of hard work were over, and all they could do was pray. For money, for relevancy. There was no way to determine if what had just been pulled off would lead to a long-term success, only chocolate mousse and free drinks. Spektor hadn’t mentioned HIAS once during the show; “a concert is a concert,” a Young Leader told me, sounding an awful lot like what a press agent for Spektor might have told her to say. But it didn’t matter: People showed up, people talked. Spektor’s fame and talent had proven large enough to rub up against, in a way that was pure and true.
CORRECTION, April 25: This article originally stated that Regina Spektor left the Soviet Union at age 4. In fact, she left at age 9. The error has been corrected.
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