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Regina Spektor’s Howl

At a recent concert in Los Angeles, Spektor’s Soviet Jewishness took center stage

Jake Marmer
March 15, 2023
Original photo:  Lloyd Bishop/NBC via Getty Images
‘She’s the leader of my people,’ Fran Drescher once quipped about Barbra Streisand. I feel that way about Regina Spektor.Original photo: Lloyd Bishop/NBC via Getty Images
Original photo:  Lloyd Bishop/NBC via Getty Images
‘She’s the leader of my people,’ Fran Drescher once quipped about Barbra Streisand. I feel that way about Regina Spektor.Original photo: Lloyd Bishop/NBC via Getty Images

“This is a nice way to be … surrounded,” quipped Regina Spektor as she walked out on stage of the Walt Disney auditorium in Los Angeles last week. The auditorium’s stage is ensconced inside a large oval, with seating on all sides, and Spektor’s trademark bit of dark humor—a mixture of claustrophobia and warmth turned into a joke—was the perfect opening for this concert, which, as it unraveled, felt increasingly cathartic and ritualistic.

The concert took place on the evening after Purim, with the holiday’s afterglow and daze still in the air, and it was the holiday’s carnivalesque fusion of trauma and merriment that provided Spektor with an opportunity to communicate, with deep artistry and clarity, the quintessence of the Russian-speaking Jewish experience—her own heritage, which is also the heritage of some 500,000 others living in the U.S. today—myself included.

“If you think about it, Purim is a lot like Halloween,” she said at some point midconcert, and after a beat added: “That is, if Halloween involved the attempted genocide of Jewish people.” And again, there was that dark humor, the kind that both makes you laugh and sends shivers down your spine.

Spektor went on to recount a morning from long ago, when she was living in her “rent-controlled New York apartment,” and was listening to an NPR program, in which she first learned the concept of Holocaust denial. She recounted being shocked: “I knew so many survivors growing up,” she said, with wistfulness, and went on to perform her song “Ink Stains.” This song was never formally released on any album, and she does not perform it often. Its refrain is plaintive: “I wish they’d cure the friendly neighbors / Of the disease which makes them haters,” but on the whole, it is a harsh and angry song with a narrative that reveals her wish for the Holocaust deniers in clear terms: “All the Holocaust deniers / To a bathhouse warm and quiet / Complimentary soap, complimentary haircut / And gas ’em up until they know that / All the ink stains on their wrists mean business / And God is the almighty witness.” The anger she unleashes is undisguised, as ugly as it is relatable. The song culminates in a final stretch of wordless, singing-shouting across the melody, with emotion laid bare in all of its unspeakable pain.

It makes sense that “Ink Stains” was never formally recorded. It is the kind of song one would not want to commit to the stasis of a record: In order to be understood, it is meant to be experienced wholly, live, in the moment, and with others. Such is its power. What made this performance unique was that the wordless segment contained a direct reference to the “Jewish” musical scale—the melodic riff in a minor key that is found in cantorial music. It was as if Spektor felt compelled to draw an explicit connection between Jewish liturgy and her own art.

When the song was over, Spektor herself seemed shaken: “I would like to sing a few more songs, but I don’t know how to just do it after a song like that.” After a moment’s contemplation she pointed out that it was a full moon night. “So how about we just howl?” she offered. This was not a joke: She started counting off, then interrupted herself: “Seems wrong to count off the howl.” Just then, someone in the audience went for it, and then others joined, and more yet, and before long, the whole of Walt Disney Hall was merged into a single, polyvocal, incredibly loud howl. It felt both ridiculous and profound, whimsical and utterly necessary, primal and of the moment. And, reader, I, too howled: at the moon, at her song, at the holiday, at the fancy Disney Hall, at the ancestral trauma, at the still lingering pandemic, and the unending war.

Russia’s brutal invasion into Ukraine received a grim acknowledgment from Spektor, along with the invitation to donate to a cause that supports Ukrainian refugees. I’ve heard endless variations on this invitation over the past year, but what made Spektor’s appeal different was the tone of lucid, personal urgency. This war has been the center in the life of many, many Russian-speaking Jews, no matter how long ago they’ve left the old country, and whether they were born in Russia, like Spektor, or in Ukraine, as I was. Immigrants tend to either assimilate or resist assimilation by reembracing the culture of their origin. I know I belong to the former group, but in the weeks and months of the war, I’ve felt increasingly isolated from my American peers and friends. There is a sense that those around me cannot understand what I am going through, every day, worrying about my family, mourning the destruction of the world where I grew up. In such moments, years of assimilation seem to fall apart.

The song Spektor chose to sing after this invocation, “Apres Moi,” was not randomly chosen. While normally, the French phrase apres moi l’deluge, implies a cavalier, careless attitude toward the future, in the context of Spektor’s refrain the line takes on a sense of existential threat: the sense that deluge—of troubles and threats—is literally after you. When she chants “I (uh) must go on standing / I’m not my own, it’s not my choice,” it seems to be, on the one hand, a universal gesture of resilience. On the other, though, there is something very specific to the Soviet and post-Soviet kind of Jewishness here. Spektor turns the volume up on Russian-sounding intonations within the song that resolve in the verse, borrowed from a poem by Boris Pasternak, which Spektor sings in Russian. In this performance, in the context of invocation of the war in Ukraine, Pasternak’s verse became the emotional center of this song, and perhaps, of the whole concert.

Pasternak’s original poem relies heavily on word music, and it is this music that permeates his lines, creating a more visceral meaning than the actual semantic signification of the words ever could. It is February, and the poet is moved to grab the ink and cry, via the poem, mourning February itself for a reason that is never explicitly stated. There is a dread of something coming to an end, some “thundering muddle” that ominously “burns with a dark spring.” The word Pasternak uses to describe the crying, navzryd, is the sort of uncontrollable, loud, all-consuming bawling punctuated with a deep sob and violence and gasping for air. It is the sort of a word the mere invocation of which brings tears to your eyes because it can remind you of the times you have experienced that sort of crying.

But what does Pasternak’s weeping February have to do with the rest of Spektor’s lyrics—or with this war at hand? One cannot overstate the gravitas of Boris Pasternak in the minds and souls of many generations of people from the vast Soviet expanse. His words were treated with the reverence pious people reserve for their sacred texts. I still feel sacrilegious for even wanting to translate him. At the same time, there was also the unspoken matter of Pasternak’s Jewishness, of which he was deeply self-conscious, having ultimately chosen to convert because that was the only way to be accepted, to be seen as a poet with a right to express himself in Russian. Knowing that, Spektor’s lines, “I’m not my own, it’s not my choice” begin to cohere.

In Walt Disney Hall, this song and Pasternak’s lines within it, felt prophetic, and she sang them as if channeling a message she received rather than composed. Such is the power of great poetry: For whatever Pasternak may have had in mind describing the February he beheld, for so many of us, this February was the time when we marked the first anniversary of the war. February came and went, and the war continues, and it is impossible to not see this spring as tainted, or cursed with the war’s weight. 

Between Spektor’s post-Purim howl and Pasternak’s bawling, the moment’s heaviness was front and center in this concert. And so was Spektor’s attempt to summon this heaviness, to extract it and in that way, to gain some sort of a release. In that way, Spektor’s performance was a reminder of the shared identity as a source of strength, and felt life-giving.

The concert, organized in support of Spektor’s new album, Home, Before and After, featured many new songs, as well as a selection of her hits, and many moments of interaction with the audience. At one point, someone shouted out: “I love your shoes,” to which she immediately responded: “I was kind of expecting this from LA.” Turning around toward the section of the audience that were facing her back, she said: “I always play with my eyes closed, so you’re not missing anything. This is what it looks like,” she said, closing her eyes and stretching her hands over imaginary piano, wobbling from side to side. It was a kind of an effortless vaudevillesque moment, and it occurred to me that the whole Russian-speaking Jewish experience revolves around three poles: our poetry, the war, and the jokes. Everything else, from eros to ethics, revolves around these and is suffused by them.

The concert hall was completely full—I did not see a single empty seat. Who were all these people who seemed as deeply moved by her music as I was? It was a multigenerational, hip, nerdy, colorful crowd that howled and clapped and begged for an encore. “She’s the leader of my people,” Fran Drescher once quipped about Barbra Streisand. I feel that way about Regina Spektor, even if I am quite uncertain as to who these people of ours are.

Jake Marmer is Tablet’s poetry critic. He is the author of Cosmic Diaspora (2020), The Neighbor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Talmud (2012). He has also released two jazz-klezmer-poetry records: Purple Tentacles of Thought and Desire (2020, with Cosmic Diaspora Trio), and Hermeneutic Stomp (2013).