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In Tune

A glimpse into the small but resilient world of Hebrew and Yiddish choirs

Alexander Gelfand
April 30, 2010
The Jewish People's Philharmonic Chorus.(Courtesy Binyumen Shaecter)
The Jewish People's Philharmonic Chorus.(Courtesy Binyumen Shaecter)

“We have no animosity toward Hebrew, but you have to pick your battles,” Binyumen Schaechter told me.

This was not what I was hoping to hear.

I’d just seen Schaechter and his Yiddish choir, the Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus, perform at a “Choral Blast” at Manhattan’s Sixth Street Community Synagogue along with Polyhymnia, a group dedicated to Renaissance vocal music, and the Zamir Chorale, which bills itself as “the first Hebrew-singing choir in North America.” Given the historical antagonism between Hebrew-speaking Zionists and Yiddish-speaking members of the Jewish Labor Bund, I’d been hoping for a bit of a grudge match—a Yiddish-versus-Hebrew smackdown, as it were.

And I figured that Schaechter, a native Yiddish speaker from a family of noted Yiddishists (his father Mordkhe was a distinguished Yiddish linguist; his aunt, Bayle Schaechter-Gottesman, is a well-known Yiddish poet), might be good for some trash talk. This is, after all, a man who attended Camp Hemshekh, a Yiddish summer camp run by anti-Zionist Bund members; a man who speaks only Yiddish to his three children. (Schaechter’s comment about picking one’s battles came in response to my asking whether he spoke Hebrew to his kids, as well.)

But no. As it turns out, Schaechter had sung in Zamir as a teenager, and he spoke of Matthew Lazar, the choir’s director, in disappointingly warm and admiring terms. The most damning thing he could find to say—and believe me, I helped him look—was that the group doesn’t sing much in Yiddish; which, considering the whole first-Hebrew-chorus thing, seems less a scathing indictment than a statement of fact.

“In the years I was involved with Zamir, they had one token song in Yiddish,” he said. “If it was a Holocaust performance, maybe two or three.” Ah, yes: the requisite Yiddish tearjerker. Well, if I couldn’t have my grudge match, I suppose some mild cynicism would have to do.

Though the JPPC today is pretty much a 100 percent Yiddish-fueled enterprise, this was not always the case. Founded in 1922 as the Freiheit Gezang Farein (“Freedom Singing Society”) and associated with the Morgen Freiheit, a Communist Yiddish newspaper, the choir trafficked in Yiddish not as a matter of principle, but because it was the language most of its members actually spoke. It wasn’t the only one they spoke, however, and so the choir also performed songs in Russian and Polish and various other Eastern European tongues. Following the foundation of the state of Israel, the group even sang some Hebrew material.

It was only after Schaechter came on board as director in 1995 that the JPPC began to narrow its linguistic focus. “I grew up in a home where my parents spoke only Yiddish to me and my sisters,” he says. “They instilled in me a love of Yiddish language and songs, and so I took the chorus more in that direction.”

It wasn’t the only course correction Schaechter made. By the 1990s, the chorus was not exactly a well-oiled musical machine. As Schaechter rather diplomatically puts it, many of the ensemble’s elderly singers were limited to “one-part harmony.”

Schaechter began recruiting stronger vocalists and introducing more complex arrangements. Before long, the ensemble was dealing in five- and six-part harmonies and tackling extended works like oratorios. Some of the old-timers left, but in Schaechter’s opinion, “it was for the best.”

I find it difficult to argue that point. As constituted today, the JPPC could probably handle just about anything, regardless of its language of origin. Due to time constraints, the Choral Blast program was limited to shorter works, but the choir covered a lot of ground. I was surprised to learn that the first Yiddish choruses dated only to the early 1900s, though it’s not hard to understand why; up until that time, most Jewish choral music was liturgical, and therefore in Hebrew. Choral composers were able to draw on the enormous range of secular material available to Yiddish speakers, however—and on poetry and songs translated into Yiddish from many other languages. They soon had a large market to fill, as well: Yiddish choruses proliferated rapidly across North America, and by 1923, the United Jewish Choral Societies were able to fill New York’s Hippodrome with more than 600 singers from nine different organizations.

New York in particular became a breeding ground for Yiddish choruses, with the 92nd Street Y Choral Society, the Workmen’s Circle Choir, the Jewish Philharmonic Chorus, and several different neighborhood choirs affiliated with the International Workers Order all making themselves heard. The Jewish Workers Music Alliance, which was established to help fund such outfits, eventually published no fewer than eight collections of Yiddish choral works. And though the same factors that led to the decline of Yiddish in America also led to the disappearance of most Yiddish singing groups, the repertoire has survived.

So, we were treated to Yiddish renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful”—both reminders of just how integral Yiddish once was to American Jewish life—along with a stately reading of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nightingale,” with words by the Polish poet Shimshen Kahn. (Like his better-known colleague Avraham Sutzkever , Kahn belonged to the Modernist Yiddish writer’s group Yung Vilne .) There was a piece with a Romani melody (“Shprayz ikh mir mit gikhe trit); an energetic version of the “dreydel song,” cast as a bilingual canon in English and Yiddish; and one Schaecter arrangement, “Boruckh ate,” whose modern harmonies the chorus delivered with perfect intonation and admirable dynamic control.

Despite my inclination to root for the underdog, I have to admit that Zamir sounded pretty good, too. And the latter does have one clear advantage: Jewish listeners, myself included, are far more likely to understand at least some of the Hebrew lyrics. When Lazar led the chorus through his own deft arrangement of “Ani MaAmin” using a tune that Elie Wiesel had learned during the war, Maimonides’s words (“I believe with perfect faith”), which so many Jews recited on their way into the gas chambers, conjured a mixture of sorrow, loss, and perplexity that would be difficult to evoke with sound alone.

Still, hearing it issue from the mouths of the JPPC singers, you’d never guess that Yiddish might be in trouble—even if you can’t understand a word of it. For that alone, we can be grateful.

Alexander Gelfand is a recovering ethnomusicologist, a sometime jazz pianist, and a former West African drummer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Forward, and elsewhere.

Alexander Gelfand is a recovering ethnomusicologist, a sometime jazz pianist, and a former West African drummer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Forward, and elsewhere.