The first time I heard a live rendition of “Go Down, Moses” was at the first Passover Seder I ever attended. Somewhere around the third cup of wine, a room full of Jews sang the classic negro spiritual in lively fashion, followed almost immediately by “O Freedom,” another classic negro spiritual.
A feeling of bewilderment and paranoia began to steal over me: Why are they singing these songs? Are they looking at me? Do they expect me to know these songs?
That was six years ago, before I converted. Now that I’ve formally been a Jew for a couple of years, being the only black man in Jewish spaces has lost some of its initial awkwardness. Still, when a black man decides that he is going to attend shul regularly, he doesn’t have to look for awkwardness—it will find him. There was the time I unwittingly stood on the wrong side of the mechitzah while visiting the Carlebach Shul; it was the only section with any room, so I thoughtlessly went there. Oftentimes other Jews, well-meaning and otherwise, are the source of awkwardness, like the time a synagogue greeter stopped me to request that I wear a kippah before entering the sanctuary with a stern statement: “This is the custom of our people.” I was somewhat embarrassed to have to show the greeter that I already had a kippah on my head—my own kippah, in fact.
At that first Seder, I was my own source of awkwardness. I wouldn’t say I’d been actively running away from negro spirituals, but I’d spent 15 years as an African-American classical singer scrupulously avoiding singing them. That Seder was indeed a “night of questions,” implicated as I was by the question of the Wicked Child: What does all this mean to you?
I struggled to retain my cool. This is Passover, I told myself. A time to sing songs about Moses. A time to sing songs about freedom. This, for once, is really not about you.
Or was it? That question would be eventually answered by another question—in Yiddish.
Despite the fact that my family’s roots in the Church of Christ lie geographically close to the sources of the negro spiritual, I grew up in the Bay Area, where religious music—Christian and Jewish, I can now confidently say—is influenced as much by modern rock, folk, and world music as it is by its own traditions. Church might have been one of the last places I would have heard a spiritual as a child.
My first encounters with negro spirituals came instead when I began training as a classical singer in the late ’90s, when I was 17. Spirituals are a defining feature of black classical singers, from Paul Robeson to Jessye Norman. It is something of an unspoken rule that singers of color should devote at least part of their recital and recording repertoire to spirituals—at the very least, choosing a spiritual as an encore after having sung over an hour’s worth of high-toned European music.
When I began my training, I knew immediately that I didn’t want be so easily defined by something as obvious as my race. I wanted to be defined by my something else I didn’t choose—my low bass voice—and something I could choose: a repertoire of mostly Mozart, some Handel, a little Verdi, and a little Brahms.
I sang a diverse variety of roles; playing a Spanish gardener in an Italian opera by an Austrian composer based on a French play was just the tip of the iceberg. After concert performances, however, oftentimes audience members would express their disappointment that I had failed to burst into the rendition of “Ol’ Man River” they felt I had owed them as an African-American bass. I would occasionally meet audiences halfway by singing “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’” from Porgy and Bess, but that was mostly because it was the truth. Being a classical singer was ruinously expensive, and that was even before I studied to get my degree in music in 2005 from Holy Names University in Oakland, Calif.
I went on in the fall of 2007 to make my professional opera debut in the world premiere of Philip Glass’ Civil War-era Appomattox with the San Francisco Opera Company. It was in the role of a freed slave, so obviously my attempts to transcend race hadn’t worked very well, but this role was different. In the opera I ran out to meet Abraham Lincoln and, to the strains of Glass’ glorious music, I sang him Psalm 47—not a spiritual, exactly, but decidedly not “Ol’ Man River.”
Listening in the audience was my boyfriend of barely two months, Michael Rothbaum, a rabbi I had met that summer in New York. Almost as soon as the curtain dropped on Appomattox, I moved across the country to be to be with him, formally converting to Judaism three years later at Congregation Sons of Israel, a Conservative shul in Nyack, N.Y.
Even before I’d formally converted, I knew I wanted to contribute my particular set of skills to my new religious designation, to find “my branch on the etz chayim,” as I put it to myself. I had volunteered to cover for a sick soloist during the Rosh Hashanah service my partner was leading for the Hillels of Westchester in 2009. This was followed two years later by an Unetaneh Tokef for a thousand people under a large tent during High Holiday services for a congregation in upstate New York. Both experiences were profound. They were also profoundly unusual, as I was not used to the intensity of communal intention that is projected onto a person who is davening before a congregation (and God, of course) during the High Holidays. It was oddly grounding and otherworldly at the same time.
Becoming a Jew meant being defined by choice: the deliberate acceptance of texts, narratives, tropes, and experiences that would now inform my view of the world. Becoming a classical singer had also involved the acceptance of texts and experiences—from learning how to watch a conductor out of the corner of my eye to memorizing late-19th-century German poetry—though to completely different ends. After 15 years, I grew weary of the competition, rejection, technical difficulties, great expense, and casual racism I found in the world of classical singing. I had wanted classical music to be a simultaneous vehicle for the composer’s view of the world and my own views as well. What I experienced was a number of hard proofs that perhaps opera was not an ideal medium for self-expression. I left the stage in October 2011.
Having just fled the stage, I tried to find a new direction in the texts, narratives, and experiences I had chosen to accept as a Jew. These, in turn, led me to those sounds I had carefully tried to avoid. They led me to myself.
In dem land fun piramidn
Geven a kenig, beyz un shlekht
Zenen dort geven di yidn
Zayne diner, zayne knekht …
In the land of the pyramids
There was a king, angry and evil
There, the Jews were
His servants, his slaves …
Thus ran “Piramidn,” the first song I ever learned in Yiddish, just a month after leaving the stage. Coming from a classical background, I was not particularly impressed with it. The melody was simple and the words by anarchist poet David Edelstadt seemed too didactic for any kind of effective “artistic” interpretation. I found the piece lacking—though it was I who was lacking in any kind of context for “Piramidn.”
The first time I heard a live rendition of “Piramidn” was also at a Seder, two years ago, where it suddenly made profound sense. The song not only told the narrative of Passover but moved its message into the present: “Folk, ver vet dikh haynt bafrayen?”—“People, who will free you today?”
It may come as surprise that I—a young-ish African-African gay convert—have any affinities with the world of Yiddish song. But right there, at the beginning of my Yiddish journey, was a story I could credibly portray. I knew the discontents of a history that included “di viste shklafnvelt,” “the bleak slavery-world” described in “Piramidn.”
I began to take on the repertoire of Sidor Belarsky, a rich-toned bass from Russia and one of the 20th century’s most prolific performers of cantorial music, Hasidic nigunim, and Yiddish art song. Gaining an entirely new repertoire, I tried it out for the first time performing a short concert in Yiddish one afternoon in January 2012 at the Sholem Aleichem Kultur Tsenter in the Bronx.
That was only the beginning of a journey. In Yiddish, I began to find texts with arresting parallels to my own dim recollections of the spirituals I had so cavalierly rejected at the beginning of my career. Spirituals suddenly became something different; I could allow myself to hear them with different ears from the ones that heard “Go Down, Moses” four years earlier at my first Seder. I could now hear my own history along with striking projections, elaborations, and celebrations of the foundational texts I had accepted as a part of myself as a Jew.
I found that yidishe lider (songs) and spirituals had much in common: folk-derived evocations of culture and spirituality expressed against a backdrop of systematic marginalization and oppression. In both kinds of music I found resignation and despair and impatience. I found hopes for redemption invoked, sometimes cynically and sometimes with great, heartbreaking earnestness. I found voices reproving those earnest hopers-for-redemption, calling them to action, change, and revolution. Out of the smoking crucible of the 19th century, on the eve of more horrors to come, I experienced texts in dialogue with each other. I recalled this confession—
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
A long ways from home…
Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone
A long ways from home…
—while learning this empathetic question from Belarsky’s setting of “Der Gemore Nign” by Abraham Reisen:
…Tsi du benkst aheym nokh dayne
Tate, mame, shvester, bruder,
Vos on zey, bistu geblibn
Vi a shifl on a ruder?
Are you homesick for your
father, mother, sister, brother,
and without them,
you are like a ship without a rudder?
I was young enough—and ignorant enough and excited enough—to think I had invented the wheel, but it wasn’t very long before I encountered this quote from Ethel Waters, explaining why the song Yiddish song “Eli, Eli” was one of the most-requested pieces in her repertoire: “It tells the tragic history of the Jews as much as one song can, and that history of their age-old grief and despair is similar to that of my own people that I felt I was telling the story of my own race, too.”
Even more surprising was to read these words from Paul Robeson in Jeffrey Melnick’s superlative A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song, which Robeson gave in an interview with the Yiddish-language paper Morgen Journal-Tageblatt, about how he “did not like to sing in French, German, or Italian. … I do not understand the psychology of these people, their history has no parallels with the history of my forebearers, who were slaves. The Jewish sigh and tear are close to me.”
When I made the choice to become Jewish, I wasn’t expecting to find my own experiences, personal and inherited, to be trebled so closely by aspects of Jewish culture. I eventually remembered what partially led me to Judaism in the first place: my deep love for the narratives, phrases, and images of the Jewish scriptures, disseminated to me as an African-American child of religious upbringing.
I have become fascinated with the appropriation of foundational images and texts from Judaism that have become integral to African-American religious expression. How can I begin to convey the resonance of phrases like “My Rock, in whom there is no flaw” (Psalm 92) when that euphonious phrase falls upon the African-American religious heart and mind, held there as surely as “light is stored up for the righteous”? The cultural or artistic use of music that is tied to a particular historical moment can be moving in its ability to transcend space and time.
Of course, a reverse appropriation—Jews comprehensively adopting African-American texts—is more difficult, because it does not take very long for most African-American religious texts to run in a decidedly Christian direction. There’s definitely a reason why “Go Down, Moses” made inroads into Jewish ears and hearts while many of its musical brethren—“Ride on, King Jesus,” for instance—were left behind. The unedited content of most negro spirituals, with their exultant depictions of protagonists from both the Jewish and Christian religious canon, is alarming and provocative when placed beside the established tenets of normative Judaism. The meaning of these traditional African-American texts to me as a Jew has become intensely personal, nuanced, and idiosyncratic.
Let me clarify: The meaning of these traditional African-American texts to me as a Jew—to me, and not necessarily to you, to paraphrase the Haggadah. I haven’t necessarily lost all of the bewilderment I felt hearing “Go Down, Moses” at my first Seder. Some additional questions I might add to a Seder would be: Is it strange that some Jews have decided to use African-American religious expression in the privacy of their own domestic rituals to tell their own story? Why is it that “Are you Jewish?” and “How are you Jewish?” have oftentimes been the first things that I hear from Jews I meet for the first time? If I walk into a Seder and find Jews singing negro spirituals, may I ask, “Are you black?” and “How are you black?”
My work with Jewish music and texts encouraged me to engage with the music and texts of my own heritage—not out of an obligation to assumed tradition, but as a catalyst for creative departure. My ongoing musical project, Convergence, combines African-American roots music (work songs, early blues, and spirituals) with Jewish liturgical, folk, and art music from the late 19th and early 20th century to create narratives of spirituality, redemption, and hope. Convergence resides in an unusual place in my repertoire—when I perform pieces from it, I feel as if I am davening more than anything else.
On the cusp of Passover, I can’t help wondering if I will throw my voice full-heartedly behind any spirituals I may happen to hear over the Seder table this year. Most likely I will. If you should happen to hear my voice, know that it will be for reasons that are specific instead of general, acquired instead of assumed: I am remembering my own past as I perform the mitzvot of the Seder in the present. I am present at the Seder table as I enrich the meaning of these mitzvot in my future.
For me, in the negro spiritual is written the nascent name and acts of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As a respectful Jew, I cannot simply throw these texts away. I can only place them, along with their occasional messianic heresies, in the genizah of my soul.
Anthony (Mordechai-Tzvi) Russell is a classical performer of Yiddish (and Hebrew, and Aramaic) living in Oakland, California, with his partner, Rabbi Michael Rothbaum.