Navigate to Community section

The ‘Joy’ of Summer

The season’s Yiddish music roundup

Rokhl Kafrissen
June 13, 2022
Inset photo: U.S. National Archives/Flickr
Inset photo: U.S. National Archives/Flickr
Inset photo: U.S. National Archives/Flickr
Inset photo: U.S. National Archives/Flickr
Nor vu iz dayn tish gegreyt?
Nor vu iz dayn yomtev-kleyd?
Nor vu iz dayn sharfe shverd?
Velkhes glik iz dir bashert?

So where is your table set?
And where is your best outfit?
And where is your sharpened sword?
Bashert! What joy is yours?
—“Un du akerst

What Joy Is Yours is the newest release from Seattle’s Brivele. (A brivele is the Yiddish diminutive for letter.) The EP, released at the end of May, takes its name from a line in Chaim Zhitlovsky’s anthem “Un du akerst” (And You Plow), which Brivele has reworked with a new English translation by band member Stefanie Brendler.

What Joy Is Yours has more of the “rad-trad” blend I loved on their 2021 CD, Cradle Songs, Grave Songs. “Un du akerst” has been recorded many times, but Brivele breathes new life into an old labor song, weaving bright vocal harmonies around the old time sounds of banjo and ukulele.

I love the choice of playful glockenspiel to represent the percussive “kling-klang” of the song’s hammers. Contrast that with what is probably the most famous version of “Un du akerst,” that of Theo Bikel and his choir of deep-voiced labor warriors. In this version, realistic sounding hammer blows keep time:

Yiddish purists may be a little confused by Brivele’s choice to sing the “kling-klang” chorus in a way that its vowel sounds come out more like “bing-bang” instead of “king-kong.” That choice leads to the pronunciation of other words in the Yiddish lyrics, like “gezang,” with an incorrect vowel sound.

I’m a little torn, since I am one of those (irritating) Yiddish purists, but I also adore Brivele’s take on the song, and I have no doubt about their love and respect for the material. Rather than seeing it as a contradiction, I refer to the band’s manifesto, where they explain that they choose to sing in Yiddish:

because sometimes Yiddish says it best, and because we are the grandchildren or great-grandchildren, or great-great-grandchildren of Yiddish, so it tastes familiar and unfamiliar at once. We sing it like the mixed-up, impure Yids we are and strive to be.

The sonic mimesis of Theo Bikel’s anvil chorus was appropriate to his particular time and place. Bikel himself spoke Yiddish (and German, and about a dozen other languages). Brivele’s choice of delicate glockenspiel, and imperfect Yiddish, is as much an “authentic” expression of modern Jewish identity as Bikel’s Yiddish machismo was. As they remind us in their manifesto, letters:

… pick up dirt, and aromas, and fingerprints. They get stolen and censored, burned and salvaged, sewn into our clothes. Our songs are palimpsest in that way too, they travel long-ways in bits and pieces, through us, to you!

Indeed, a new letter from Brivele is always welcome to my inbox …

In February 2022, a Russian warship attacked Ukraine’s Snake Island. The Russian demand for surrender prompted a Ukrainian border guard to answer with a succinct “Russian warship, go f**k yourself.” The incident, as they say, went viral. A few weeks later, Ukraine actually issued a commemorative postage stamp bearing the phrase. “Russian warship, go f**k yourself” quickly became a global rallying cry of resistance to Putin’s obscene war.

Rather than stand by and watch helplessly, supporters of Ukraine have been organizing fundraisers and educational events. Those in the Ukrainian diaspora have been especially busy, coordinating relief efforts from afar, including Berlin-based musician Yuriy Gurzhy, originally from Kharkiv, Ukraine. In Berlin he leads the ska-dub-punk dance party collective, Rotfront. His extensive network of musical collaborators, and work spanning just as many genres, laid the ground for a notable Ukraine relief project, inspired by the February Snake Island incident. He’s curated a compilation of 29 songs by Jewish artists from around the world, Rusishe krigshif, shif zikh in dr’erd—Jewish Voices Condemn Russia’s War Against Ukraine. The title is a fairly literal Yiddish translation of “Russian warship, go f**k yourself.” Turns out, it’s cathartic to say in any language.

Gurzhy worked with musical co-curators Ivan Moskalenko, aka Dj Derbastler, and Dmytro Korovin, and the album was released through Artdopomoga, a Kyiv-based art-and-artist-centered project raising money for relief efforts. If $30 strikes you as a high price for a CD, keep in mind that all money raised is going to “Hospitallers,” a nonprofit organization directly supporting paramedics in Ukraine. And aside from the, you know, lifesaving work you’ll be funding, Rusishe krigshif, shif zikh in dr’erd brings together an insanely good mix of contemporary Jewish artists and songs. The roster includes artists like Frank London, Gogol Bordello, Golem, Zisl Slepovitch, Ilya Shneyveys, Hazmat Modine, Anthony Coleman and Forshpil. Some of the selections were already familiar, but quite a few have been exciting finds, even for me, and I spend a lot of time listening to new Jewish music.

Somehow, I hadn’t yet heard Geoff Berner’s devastating adaptation-translation of the Yiddish partisan hymn "Zog nit keynmol.”

And I probably never would have come across Boris Malkovsky’s gorgeous setting of Psalm 126, "They That Sow in Tears Shall Reap in Joy.”

Those and more can be found on the Rusishe krigshif, shif zikh in dr’erd – Jewish Voices Condemn Russia’s War Against Ukraine compilation, with all proceeds going to support paramedics saving lives in Ukraine.

Isabel Frey and Esther Wratschko are two young vocalists claiming Yiddish as part of their Jewish, artistic, and political lives. Frey and Wratschko both live in Vienna, and have come together to form a new duo called Soveles (Little Owls). Soveles takes inspiration from the tradition of Yiddish women’s unaccompanied folk singing. Their approach is something much more composed, much more precise, than it is folky, but hauntingly beautiful nonetheless.

Frey and Wratschko are now fundraising to record their first album as Soveles, and you can find more information, and support the album, here

Back in North America, there are two notable new releases from my friends along the Klezkanada-Klezkamp axis.

Brooklyn’s Michael Winograd (one-time student turned one-time artistic director of Klezkanada) appears to have spent the entire pandemic writing and recording new music. Annoyingly, all of it is outrageously good.

His latest project is Early Bird Special, on which he seems to have finally convinced the dybbuk of Dave Tarras to actually inhabit his body (and recording studio).

I could probably write a couple thousand words about Tarras, Winograd, and Early Bird Special, but it’s far less tedious for you if I just let the music speak for itself. With virtuosic support from his band, the Honorable Mentshn, and special guest appearance by the best Yiddish emcee in the biz, Shane Baker.

Finally, Winograd pops up again (the man does not sleep) on Fray, the fabulous new album from the jazz-rock-klez+ fusion project Queen Kong.

Queen Kong (a non-klezmer pun band name, we love to see it) is led by Toronto-based drummer-composer-bandleader (and Klezkanada alum) Lorie Wolf. The sound is miles away from the Catskills revival hot swing of Early Bird Special, but it cooks all the same.

You can catch Queen Kong at the Toronto Jazz Fest on July 3.

ALSO: United Jewish People’s Order and Independent Jewish Voices-Canada extend Pride month into July with “Queer Yiddish Politics and Poetry: A Pride Celebration with Irena Klepfisz and Zohar Weiman-Kelman.” Sunday, July 10, at noon. Register here … YIVO and the Center for Jewish History will present a book talk for Fear and Other Stories, the new volume of Chana Blankshteyn’s Yiddish short stories in translation. Fear and Other Stories was originally published in July 1939, just two weeks before Blankshteyn’s death, and not long before the German invasion of Poland. Translator Anita Norich will be joined by literary scholar Chana Kronfeld. July 6, register here …. Di Hoykhe-Klezmer Upstairs is a new klezmer series from my favorite klezmer trombonist, Dan Blacksberg. You can find him every third Thursday of the month at Philadelphia’s Abyssinia, 229 South 45 St. … Registration is now open for the Workers Circle full slate of summer session Yiddish classes, from beginner to advanced. More information here.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.