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Wiesel Sings at 92Y

Old School in the New World

Morton Landowne
December 20, 2010
(Tablet Magazine)

Becoming a grandfather has put Elie Wiesel in an elegiac mood. Last year he dedicated his Nextbook Press book, Rashi, to Elijah and Shira Wiesel, and, last Saturday night, at New York’s 92nd Street Y, he sang “Memories and Melodies of My Childhood,” as he explained, “to give these songs as a gift to my two grandchildren.”

Wiesel’s concert, staged by 14-time Grammy award winning producer Phil Ramone, was performed with a 15 voice choir and nine musicians in the Y’s Kaufmann Concert Hall. It consisted of 17 songs, in Yiddish, Hebrew, Hungarian and French, that transported Wiesel, and the audience, back to his childhood in pre-war Romania. He drew a laugh from the sold-out-crowd when he stated: “I hope you don’t expect a late-life career change; I’m doing this only once.” (He may only perform this concert once, but it was filmed for a DVD that will be released next April 1st, and can be pre-ordered). At another point, when a technician came on stage and fussily adjusted his body mike, Wiesel quipped: “Lecturing is much easier.”

Wearing a small, black kipa, tapping his toes, and gesturing with his arms like the choir director he was, for a short time, after his liberation from Auschwitz, Wiesel, in a sweet but shaky voice, channeled the Hasidic niggunim he learned at the court of the Vizhnitz Rebbe. What he lacked in vocal chops, he made up for in enthusiasm: standing, swaying, and rarely consulting lyrics, during the hour-long performance, Wiesel can krechtz, with the best of them. The evening was highly personal and deeply felt, as the Nobel peace prize winner also revisited the songs he ingested in his home and cheder, in Sighet, Romania: “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen,” (“my first lullaby”), “Fun Kosev biz Kitev,” “Oyfn Pripetshik,” (“the first song I heard in cheder”), and a song he reprised throughout the hour-long performance: “V’taher Libenu.” Tying together many of the songs he performed, Wiesel said: “After Shabbat ended we tried to do whatever we could to keep its spirit alive as long as possible and these songs were the way we did it. What was so special about Shabbat? The poor didn’t feel their poverty and the sick didn’t feel their sickness.”

Perhaps the most moving moment of the evening, which was conducted by Zamir Chorale director Matthew Lazar, was the singing of the Holocaust commemorative anthem, “Es Brent!” (It’s Burning), written, by Mordkhe Gebirtig in 1938. Its refrain pleads:

Don’t just stand there, brothers,
with your arms folded.
Don’t just stand there, brothers,
Put out the fire, because our town is burning.

When the song ended, Wiesel said: “Everything came to an end…each time I hear this song it breaks my heart, and I think of the world, today, in danger, and what are we doing about it?”

The concert concluded with a rendition of “Ani Maamin.” Wiesel told of the time, in 1943, when his mother took him to spend a Shabbat with the Vizhnitzer Rebbe. The Rebbe’s nephew, who had just escaped from Poland, was also a visitor, and “everyone pleaded with him to tell us what was going on in Poland.” Wiesel stated: “Romanian Jews knew nothing about Auschwitz until we got there.” The Rebbe’s nephew, he added, answered the questions by singing “Ani Maamin,” (“I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah…”), and that was the note upon which Wiesel ended the concert, slowly walking off the stage and resisting the standing and applauding audience’s plea for more.

Related: Rashi [Nextbook Press]

Morton Landowne is the executive director of Nextbook Inc.