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The Summer of Yiddish Songs

From opera to cabaret to electronic music and, yes, klezmer

Rokhl Kafrissen
June 08, 2023
Inset image: YouTube
Maria KaInset image: YouTube
Inset image: YouTube
Maria KaInset image: YouTube

Every so often I see a story about a new artist here to “save Yiddish song” or “make Yiddish sexy again.” I love new Yiddish song, but I’m not so crazy about the framing of these stories. Is Yiddish song really in trouble? Is it really not so sexy? Seems like a lot of pressure to put on any one song, especially when that song usually turns out to be just another (perfectly pleasant!) version of “Tumbalalaika.”

Lurking beneath these stories is the assumption that Yiddish is dead or at least lingering on the threshold between this world and the next. It’s the elephant in the room whenever anyone wants to talk about Yiddish in a serious way. So, I was particularly intrigued by a new chamber opera premiering this month at YIVO, directly addressing this particular elephant. The opera is called A Dying Person (A Goyses) with music by Evan Rapport and libretto by Daniel London. According to the artists, “in traditional Ashkenazic Jewish culture, the person on their deathbed, between two worlds, has a distinct status (a goyses). A Dying Person (A Goyses) wrestles with the idea that Jewish culture may itself be in a perpetual sort of goyses state, always seemingly on the verge of loss and annihilation, but never crossing over to the other side.”

A Dying Person (A Goyses) is a work in progress and wasn’t available for preview, but the concept is compelling enough to ensure that I will be in the audience for this premiere outing. The creators used material from the Ansky ethnographic expedition, as well as interviews with a family member born in the Pale of Settlement, around the time of the expedition. As for the sound, composer Evan Rapport told me recently, “I wanted to create a contemporary sound that was evocative of the past without being imitative or too referential (e.g., it probably won’t remind anyone of klezmer music, although the instrumentation is meant to connect to those types of ensembles) …”

Of course, everyone knows that if you want to hear new klezmer music, you go to Bonnaroo. Oh, you didn’t know that? I didn’t either, until a few days ago. I had called my friend Josh Dolgin (aka Socalled) to talk about his upcoming cabaret evening, “The World of Kurt Weill in Song.” But first we had to talk about the wild (by klezmer world measures) success of his new klezmer power trio. That trio is Yiddishe Pirat (Yiddish Pirate), made up of him, Michael Winograd, and Vulfpeck founder Jack Stratton. (Jack is, of course, better known to me as the son of Bert Stratton, leader of Cleveland’s Yiddishe Cup klezmer band.) Yiddishe Pirat’s debut album, Klezmer Klezmer Klezmer, was issued on vinyl and quickly sold thousands of copies, something absolutely unheard of in the klezmer world.

Having already sold out Madison Square Garden, Vulfpeck will be appearing this month at the four-day Bonnaroo music festival in Manchester, Tennessee, alongside some of the most famous musical acts in the world. And smuggled inside the Vulfpeck show will be a 15-minute set by Yiddishe Pirat. In the off chance you can’t make it to Bonnaroo, though, you can still check ’em out.

A world away, Josh Dolgin will be appearing solo on Sunday, June 11, at one of New York City’s coolest nightspots to spring up in the last few years, the actor Alan Cumming’s Club Cumming, on East 6th Street. As Dolgin told me recently, he’s been collecting the work of Kurt Weill for years, obsessively listening, and learning, the German-born composer’s songs, especially those he wrote after he arrived in the United States in 1935. For his solo evening, Dolgin promises an exploration of Weill’s Broadway collaborations, as well as some Yiddish tunes, too.

I was originally going to make a joke about how you wouldn’t hail the 300th cover of “Tumbalaika” as the savior of Yiddish song any more than you would proclaim the 300th cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as the return of the singer-songwriter. And then I remembered that I had exactly that on my list of important new Yiddish songs of 2023. OK, not quite exactly, but still, it was a little too close for comfort.

Daniel Kahn’s Yiddish cover of “Hallelujah” came out in 2016 and has been viewed over 2 million times on YouTube. It was one of those rare times when I actually agreed with millions of people; Kahn’s translation-interpretation was absolutely brilliant. It said something about a song that had long ago become a cover song cliché. With that in mind, I’ve been waiting years for Kahn to release Der Binyen: The Building and Other Songs, in which he sings more of his own translations of Leonard Cohen, as well as Lou Reed, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Waits. The title track, “Der Binyen” (The Building), is his gorgeous bilingual adaptation of a song by beloved Yiddish poet Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman.

Klezmer fidl star Jake Shulman-Ment is featured throughout Der Binyen. You think you know the Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties”? Have you considered it with shredding klezmer violin? (Catch Daniel Kahn and Jake Shulman-Ment at New York’s Drom, June 15.)

Olke is the stage name of Katje Bulthuis, a self-produced singer-songwriter and 18-year old (!!) newcomer to the Yiddish world. For her debut EP, Bulthuis took verses of Kadye Molodovsky’s proto-feminist Froyen Lider (1927) and set them with her own guitar and electronic beats, producing a distinctly Taylor Swift-ian, 2023 sound. In the poem, Molodovsky imagines herself in dialogue with past generations of the women of her family. Here, Bulthuis continues that imaginary dialogue between past and present. She is a fluent German speaker and you can hear traces of it in her Yiddish singing, lending yet another layer of identities in dialogue.

On the other end of the musical dial, Polish singer-songwriter Maria Ka just released her new album, Der Hemshekh (The Continuation.) You can read my article about her from last summer, in which we talked about her musical inspirations, her turn to Yiddish, and the intimate connection between her feminist activism and music.

In her words, Der Hemshekh is “an album fully inspired by and dedicated to invisible women’s biographies, stories and female sagas.” Ka’s lyrics are far from didactic, at times veering into the cosmic, as in “Mayn simen iz scorpion” (My Sign is Scorpio.) The first single off the album was “Gikhe trit” (Fast Steps) and the vibe is Yiddish-futurist, a genre I didn’t even know I was waiting for.

From the cosmic to the COVID; from the near future to the near past … Jordan Wax is a Yiddishist and musician in New Mexico. His song “Di Velt iz Avek un Mir Zaynen Geblibn” (The World Went Away and Left Us Here) is an advance single from an album he’ll be releasing in 2024. As Wax told me recently, the song is “a reflection on mental and immunological health during the pandemic from a Yiddishist perspective. It’s a lament for the isolation engendered by the media we consume when it’s all we have to connect by.”

As much as I am hesitant when it comes to new art about the pandemic, (too soon!) “Di Velt iz Avek” grabbed me with its devastatingly relatable details. Wax’s lyrics capture those most prosaic moments of loneliness and not-quite connection, and compel us to confront a slow-moving crisis that is still very much not over.

Vider shpatsirn in kikh
Time for another stroll in the kitchen
In di shoyn opgetrogene shikh
In shoes that are worn from the walking
Un di dilbreter oykh vern gut opgeribn
Over floorboards that are starting to wear thin
Di velt iz avek un mir zaynen geblibn
The world went away and left us here

Klezmer entrepreneur Aaron Bendich has been incredibly busy this year. His Borscht Beat record label has already released a number of classics in a very short amount of time. The latest from the label is Levyosn’s Lullaby, from the band Levyosn. (A levyosn, or leviathan, is a biblical sea creature.) Out of all the new releases I’m covering here, Levyosn’s Lullaby hews closest to the sound of traditional Yiddish folk singing, combined with similarly trad-inspired klezmer. Singer Adah Hetko has spent the last few years immersed in the tradition, both writing her master’s thesis about it, as well as studying with Judy Bressler, vocalist for the groundbreaking klezmer revivalists, the Klezmer Conservatory Band.

Levyosn’s Lullaby is awash in warm harmonies, as heard on their gorgeous version of A Gute Vokh, which provides a perfectly apt lullaby for the departing shabes. This is the album you want if you’re looking for something to wrap you in a warm Yiddish blanket and calm your frayed nerves. I know I am.

LISTEN: Maria Ka, Der Hemshekh; Der Binyen: The Building and Other Songs from Daniel Kahn and Jake Shulmen-Ment; Levyson, Levyosn’s Lullaby; Yiddishe Pirat, Klezmer Klezmer Klezmer

ALSO: The Imported Bridegroom is a musical comedy based on a story by Ab. Cahan, with music by Hankus Netsky. It will receive a minirevival at the 14th Street Y, June 8-18. Tickets and info here … Boston Workers Circle Besere Velt Chorus celebrates its 25th anniversary concert on June 10 with special guest (and friend of the column) Daniel Kahn. Streaming and in person, at the Kresge Auditorium at MIT. More info and tickets here … The biggest names in Yiddish and klezmer music will lead New York Sings Yiddish! in Central Park. This massive singalong will feature “songs from, home of The Yosl and Chana Mlotek Yiddish Song Collection at the Workers Circle.” Wanna sing along but don’t know the words? Lyrics will be projected on screen, as well as available via QR code for your phone. (Innovative!) June 14, Summer Stage in Central Park. More info here … The Eggrolls, Egg Creams, and Empanadas Street Festival returns for its 22nd year as the ultimate celebration of the historic Lower East Side. Sunday, June 18, starting at noon. Eldridge Street between Division and Canal … You have another chance to check out the new electro-klez of Kleztronica at an upcoming dance party in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Also featuring cumbia, Hindustani-songwriting, electronic jazz, and more. At Honey’s, 93 Scott Ave., Williamsburg, June 22, 6:30-10:30 p.m. Tickets here … YIVO’s Yiddish Civilization Lecture Series will cover “topics ranging from history and historiography to literature, poetry, folklore, and theater” and feature “some of the field’s leading scholars.” Streaming and free to all. Tuesday lectures will be in English and Thursdays will be in Yiddish. June 22-July 25. More information here … In a delightful turn of events, I am going to be teaching my first university-level course this fall, for San Jose State University. The class is Special Topics in Jewish History: Yiddish History and Culture. It’s an overview of Yiddish history and culture, with special emphasis on short stories, drama and songs. Enrollment is open not just to students at SJSU, but any student in the California State University system. If you’re a Cal State student, or know one, read more about the course at the department website, here, and then make sure to enroll! Hope to see some of you this fall!

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

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