“What’s in a letter? It depends on how you read it. What’s in a melody? It depends on how you sing it.”
I.L. Peretz’s short story “Transmigration of a Melody” (“Gilgul fun a nign”) makes an unusual request of the modern reader. Leaning, as he does, against the weight of Western culture and its deep veneration of artistic originality, Peretz asks us to consider the ephemeral act of interpretation as a holy one. As someone steeped in the cult of the artist, re-reading “Transmigration” is something of a revelation, a short-story-sized exhale.
The story opens with Chaiml, a musician who “excelled in execution and interpretation” rather than original composition. As these stories so often go, Chaiml is desperately poor and, at his most dire moment, salvation hangs on his greatest weakness. He must deliver an original tune for a rich man’s daughter’s wedding. Rather than compose it himself, he goes to Berdichev to get a new El Moleh Rachamim from the great Podhutzer himself.
Within a few pages, Chaiml’s tune is played at the wedding, then turns up at a theater in Warsaw and finally, after more twists and turns, finds its way to a Hasidic court in Radziwill, where the tune, and the (nonsinger) scholar who brought it to the court, ascend toward sanctification.
Outside the Hasidic world, the rabbis generally had an uneasy relationship with folk religion concepts like resurrection, reincarnation, and transmigration of souls from one body to another (gilgul hanefesh). You have to feel bad for Maimonides, threading the metaphysical needle as he did. In his codification of Jewish principles of faith, he included belief in the resurrection of the body and then spent the rest of his life defending charges that he didn’t even believe it himself!
By the time S. Ansky’s play The Dybbuk premiered at the end of 1920 in Warsaw, modern audiences understood its subtitle, “Between Two Worlds,” to be a metaphor for their own lives, rather than a depiction of their belief in the power of a wandering soul to actually possess a living body. Jewish Warsaw’s theater-goers were themselves living precariously, between traditional Jewish life and acculturated, urban, Polish citizenship.
The Dybbuk was performed by (and for) people for whom its Hasidic context was so removed that the company had to hire a director from a Hasidic background to ensure its authenticity. The Vilne Troupe transformed Ansky’s somewhat wooden ethnographic literalism into something altogether different, a romantic expression of a radically new Jewish modernism; a landmark event in Yiddish theater.
It was Noyekh Nachbush, the originator of the role of the otherworldly Messenger in The Dybbuk, who uttered what has become perhaps the most famous line in Yiddish theater (and cinema): in der kale iz arayn a dibuk! (a dybbuk has entered the bride!). Unfortunately, Nachbush ended his career as an ensemble theater player only a few years later, in the Bronx of all places, when the Vilne Troupe briefly, and disastrously, operated its own theater on 149th Street. Apparently Nachbush was so traumatized by the Bronx [highly relatable—ed.] that he spent the next few decades getting by as a solo artist, performing his Vilne Troupe monologues and building his own repertoire of Yiddish songs.
“I, gentlemen, believe that that which gives joy to life must itself be possessed of life. A melody lives, and a melody can also die, and be forgotten, just as a man may go down to the grave and be forgotten. … But a melody may also experience a resurrection! … This is what I call the transmigration of a melody.”
Though The Dybbuk, like its subject matter, has never quite rested in peace, lodging itself into the psyche of generation after generation, the name of Noyekh Nachbush is not so well known today. You can blame the fact that he didn’t make the stage-to-film leap in the role he originated. I mean, he probably does. But in a twist fit for a Peretz short story, his name and repertoire have once more ascended into pop culture and the age of iTunes and Yiddish power fusion. The new CD by Montreal’s klezmer hip-hop genius Socalled (Joshua Dolgin) takes its title from a song from the repertoire of Noyekh Nachbush, Di Frosh (The Frog). And though Di Frosh is a sweet kid’s animal tune, the between worlds-ness of Nachbush’s Messenger hovers nearby, making it one of the most delicious, most aesthetically pleasing Yiddish projects of 2018.
For those who have been following Socalled for a while (and I’ve known Josh for probably 15 years, since he started coming to Klezkanada) Di Frosh isn’t a total surprise. Out of his many artistic obsessions, close harmony vocal quartets and larger choral projects have been a recurring theme of his for years, alongside his hip-hop career, alongside his puppetry, alongside his musical theater career, etc. You get the idea. I’d hate Josh if he weren’t so damn earnest, funny, and good at what he does.
All the settings on di Frosh are for string quartet and voice, with arrangements by Michael Winograd, Michael Dubue, Christian Dawid, and Dolgin himself. As Josh told me this summer, his interest in string quartets actually came from having some playtime with strings when they were rehearsing a musical he had written. Just for kicks he handed them a classic Yiddish theater arrangement. Hearing the way the strings instantly locked onto the harmonic potential of the song was a lightbulb moment. When his hometown synagogue, Temple Israel in Ottawa, commissioned him to create something for their 50th anniversary a few years ago, he brought them the song cycle that would end up becoming Di Frosh.
“The notes themselves can no more make a melody than a heap of stones can of themselves make a house. These are but the body of the melody; the melody must have a soul.”
One of the pleasures of Di Frosh is the precise interplay between Josh’s voice and the impeccable work of his collaborators, the Kaiser Quartett. Even more pleasurable is how natural Dolgin’s Yiddish sounds, especially for a non-Yiddish speaker. But this is part of his process. For each song he chooses he will listen to it repeatedly, breaking it down, learning its nuances, its phrasing and ornaments, copying it out as a way of integrating its essence. “I do magic tricks and the magic is all about the work happening when you’re not looking.”
Exact transcription of an old recording isn’t just a step for him, it’s key to his process. “If you understand the mechanics and infrastructure of the melody and what’s important and what’s not important and what’s emphasized and what’s not emphasized … when you really understand that, then you’re free to come out as yourself.” Very few performers today can approach the technical skill and style of vocal superstars like Moishe Oysher and Aaron Lebedeff (whose songs Dolgin features on Di Frosh.) But because he’s gotten inside the tunes, Josh has managed to create his own Yiddish vocal style that is totally him, and totally within the tradition.
And that’s not a small thing for Dolgin. One of the themes that came up a lot in our conversation was his frustration at the gap between notes on paper and a living performance tradition. It’s a tension that’s ever present at a place like Klezkanada, where Dolgin went from student to faculty, and where he formed friendships (and collaborations) with many of the older generation of klezmer greats.
A musical tradition can be mass transmitted via song collections and fake books (among other things). Unfortunately, accessibility can mean hundreds of key songs reduced to a melody line and arbitrary chord choices. On the other hand, a tradition can be passed on from teacher to student, a process which is, to say the least, expensive, time intensive, and inherently elitist at some level.
The work that Josh does is as a mediator between those two modes of learning and performance. He brings an awareness of the interpretive gaps in between, and his willingness to dig in, to immerse himself, and then remix with glee, that elevates everything he does. Including, yes, even, porn.
Picture this. It’s late summer and I’m in Montreal to do some reporting. Generally, I’ve gone to the theater where Josh is going to premiere his directorial debut as part of the Montreal Pop Festival. Specifically, I’m at Cinema L’Amour, Montreal’s last brick-and-mortar adult theater, and the movie is an hour-long gay porno titled The Housesitter. Josh shot it at his parents’ house one snowy weekend last winter, while they were away, and managed to not exactly tell them what the movie was about until he started doing publicity for it. I can’t make the premiere, so I’ve come to check out the joint in advance.
Look at the stretch. Look at the quality of the printing! From across the candy counter at Cinema L’Amour owner Steve Koltai is giving me the hard sell on a branded T-shirt. Shrieks of female ecstasy waft from under the theater doors. Slut Auditions is playing for a handful of customers. Koltai pulls out box after box of knitwear; hoodies, tanks, T-shirts. Koltai is sizing me up. The hoodies run big, the tanks are small. I nod along. I avoid eye contact with the men who walk in. Yes, I buy a damn T-shirt.
Located just a few doors down from the former offices of Canada’s most important Yiddish newspaper, the Keneder Odler, Cinema L’Amour isn’t just a quaint holdout against the digital media revolution (if a porn theater can be described as quaint). It’s also a link to old Montreal and the Jewish history of Saint Laurent Boulevard, aka The Main.
The Main was once something like the Montreal equivalent of the Lower East Side. Yiddish was the common language and poetry, radical politics, and the garment trade, all flourished. A few remnants of that era still remain, places like smoked meat temples Schwartz’s and Moishes. The office of the Keneder Odler closed in 1969, the same year Koltai’s (Jewish) family bought the theater and started showing adult films. At its prime “two-thirds of the clothing manufactured in Canada came from Montréal, primarily from the factories on Boulevard Saint-Laurent.”
Koltai’s obsession with quality and fit reminds me of another son of Montreal, the now disgraced Dov Charney, who started his career importing boxy Hanes T-shirts into Canada. Charney went on to revolutionize the T-shirt game, using stretchy ribbed knits and cutting them to cling to a woman’s curves. Today, the factories of Saint Laurent have relocated, but the soul of the old Jewish Montreal garment trade still exerts itself in unexpected places, like the slightly funky lobby of Cinema L’Amour. A gilgul fun a garmento.
Before it was an adult cinema, the space was home to (among other things) a Yiddish vaudeville house called The Globe. This is really what I’m after. Koltai plays on his phone for a while and finds me some pictures of old Yiddish theater posters. It’s far from the secret cache of Yiddish theater memorabilia I was hoping to find, but it’s something.
Because Josh has exquisite taste in music, the soundtrack to The Housesitter is unusually good. And because he’s just famous enough that he can do what he wants, he’s made the first gay porno (as far as I know) to feature Yiddish and klezmer on its soundtrack. Indeed, the repertoire of pioneering Yiddish soprano Isa Kremer shows up on both The Housesitter soundtrack and Di Frosh. And because I’m me, I’ve come to Cinema L’Amour looking for a little yikhes.
But the truth is, The Housesitter doesn’t need yikhes. With its arty dream sequences, beautiful lighting, and stellar soundtrack, the sweet romance of The Housesitter feels light years from the shund that would’ve played at a second-string theater like The Globe, plentiful sex scenes notwithstanding. Because I had to miss the premiere of The Housesitter I ended up watching it weeks after the fact, on an iPad with a friend in Wales, the most un-Yiddish place I could get to with my small horde of Delta SkyMiles. When it was over, my friend turned to me and said, “It’s a bit Derek Jarman, isn’t it?”
After I went and watched Jarman’s Caravaggio on YouTube I had to agree. I’m not necessarily (at all) the audience for gay porn. But with an artist like Josh Dolgin, sometimes the interpretive journey alone is worth your time.
Read: I drew on Debra Caplan’s brilliant new book Yiddish Empire: The Vilna Troupe, Jewish Theater, and the Art of Itinerancy for much of the background information on the troupe and The Dybbuk. All quotes from “Transmigration of a Melody” are from Maurice Samuel’s book of Peretz translations, Prince of the Ghetto.
Listen: The first time I ever even saw the word gilgul was when I was a baby Yiddishist and got Wolf Krakowski’s CD Transmigrations. If a person could wear out a CD, I would’ve worn out my copy of Transmigrations. Funky, modern interpretations of classic Yiddish song like you’ve never heard before. … The story of prewar Berlin’s Semer record label for Jewish music, and its miraculous recovery decades after the war, is itself a kind of gigul. Listen here. … Josh Dolgin is hardly the first artist to be doing magical things at the intersection of strings and Yiddish song. The virtuosos of Veretski Pass recently created a song cycle inspired by Peretz’s “Gilgul fun a nign.” Operatic bass Anthony Russell teamed up with Veretski Pass for his own brilliant leap of interpretation (more on this soon) called Convergence.
ALSO: I’ve raved enough about Tsibele and Daniel Kahn that they probably don’t need any more introduction. So I’ll just say that this is a don’t-miss Brooklyn double bill, Wednesday, Nov. 14, at Littlefield. Daniel is on tour for a few more weeks so if you can’t be in New York, check out the rest of his tour dates here. … Submission deadline for the Yiddish New York art show has been extended to Nov. 17. Theme: Eros and Spirituality. … This weekend is the opening of Yiddish Cosmos: Himl un Erd, the newest conceptual art event from the magnificent brain of Yevgeniy Fiks. What does the Soviet space program have to do with Yiddish-speaking Jews? I promise, a lot more than you might think. Sunday, Nov. 18, at 6 p.m. at Stanton Street Shul, with music by Miryem-Khaye Seigel and Ilya Shneyveys. … Saturday, Nov. 24, the New Yiddish Rep is hosting another Motsei Shabes kabaret at their pocket theater in midtown. … Do you want an immersive Yiddish learning experience on a gorgeous New York farm? Sure you do. Sign up for a Yiddish Farm winter session now. … The NY Klezmer Series finally has a new home starting in 2019. Aaron Alexander has done heroic work making the NYKS the first call klezmer hang in New York City. Please go and like them on Facebook and stay up to date on upcoming events.
Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.