‘Just a Jew with an opinion’

‘Just a Jew with an opinion’

Musician, writer, poet Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell will be in North Jersey next Sunday

Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell sings Yiddish art songs from the depths of his soul.
Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell sings Yiddish art songs from the depths of his soul.

To those of us who don’t know much about the genre, the words “Yiddish” and “art song” seem oxymoronic.

They’re not.

Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell, who might on the surface seem to be an unlikely historian, practitioner, and embodier of Yiddish art songs — he’s Black, a Jew by choice, and classically trained; he’s also an essayist, poet, and thinker — says that “you can learn as much about Ashkenazi Jewish life from an art song as from any of the more popular or more well-known art forms.”

Mr. Russell will both talk about his art and sing pieces from his repertoire at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston on March 19. (See below.)

He’s not sure exactly what he’ll talk about or what he’ll sing; he is both passionate and learned about many subjects, and his repertoire can explain and support them. So it depends on what questions his audience asks him.

He might talk about the Yiddish art songs that are the backbone of his music book.

“I sing a genre of music about which not much is known,” Mr. Russell said. “It combines Ashkenazi Jewish folk and religious music with the art song. The thing about it that’s of most interest to me is that it raises the lives of Ashkenazi Jews over the course of the very difficult  19th and early  20th centuries to their heights in Western art music.

“Western art music has been in many ways an exclusive and not very accessible form of culture; you could talk as much about what it excludes as what it includes. The Yiddish art song makes the case that the Ashkenazi Jew’s experiences, hopes, dreams, disappointments, and desire for transcendence can be expressed in music.

“As far as I can tell, all Ashkenazi Jewish forms of expression are in some way related to each other, which means that the Yiddish art song is related to other Yiddish songs” — both real and faux folk songs, the ones with actual known composers and lyricists but still have the we’ve-known-this-song-forever feel  that bubble up spontaneously and anonymously.

And this genre also is “related to klezmer, and those things are related to Yiddish musical comedy and the written word, and all those things course in and out of each other,” Mr. Russell continued. “And that means that you don’t really get ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ without having a number of forms of similar but slightly different material.

“It’s the specificity of this culture that’s interesting to me.”

Mr. Russell has delved deeply into Ashkenazi culture, and he’s learned Yiddish. “My experience, having familiarized myself with the culture, has allowed me to connect with the experiences of the audience,” he said. “If there are various ways of being Jewish in the world that are germane to Ashkenazi Jewishness, to Yiddishkeit, my having become a performer of Yiddish songs, of having it be part of my own experience, has given me a platform to reach Jews who also are connected to this way of being in this part of the world.

“I think that as somebody who didn’t grow up with this as part of my yerusha” — his inheritance — “it has created the ability for me to connect on a very deep level, which wouldn’t be accessible if I didn’t have Yiddish language and music as a cultural resource.”

And the more deeply immersed in that world  Mr. Russell becomes, the more he learns, he said. “A lot about Jewish life and existence is hard to convey to the prospective convert. You can meet with the rabbi for a year, and you’d think that you might be able to get a tam” – a taste — “of it, but I think that it might take 120 years, to use a nice round Jewish number, to get a real taste of what it means to be an Ashkenazi Jew. Being a performer of Yiddish music allows me access to it in a way that would not be possible otherwise.”

That accessibility brings a connection — and a responsibility — to the audience that he cherishes as a performer — and as a Jew. “I have a responsibility to the lives and the memories of the people depicted in these songs,” he said. “I must inhabit them with kavannah” — with mindfulness — “and authenticity, and emotional reality.

“Because this music allows me that, it informs my Judaism.

“I’ve said this in interviews many times — this probably is the eight-hundredth time — that as an opera singer, you play different roles. You can be God, you can be the villain, you can be the father of the soprano. The thing that you have to be, the character you have to inhabit, in order to be an effective singer of Yiddish art songs is a Jew. So it is up to me to figure out if that is a role that I feel fit to play.”

Mr. Russell talked a bit about the history of the Yiddish art song. “The songs intersect with world history,” he said. “We had Yiddish folks songs performed by ordinary people about numerous things — we have biblical narratives and murder ballads and lost loves; about men getting conscripted into the czar’s army and the women who are saying goodbye to the men they love who are getting conscripted into the czar’s army. We have songs by men who are going off to World War I, asking the women they love not to forget them.”

Because Yiddish is a thousand-year-old language, most likely its music goes back that long. And Yiddish has gotten around — “do you know that there are nearly 1,000-year-old letters written in Yiddish in the Cairo genizah?” Mr. Russell asked — so there is a long, rich history of Yiddish song. He’s most interested in — and most knowledgeable about — the music dating back no later than the 19th century, he said.

“The 19th century gave us nationalism in various forms, for better or worse — arguably for the Jews, for the worst,” he said. “There also is music informed by various identities. The Germans and French and Poles and Hungarians and Czechs, among others, were creating their national music, and Jews began to do this too, even though Jews did not necessarily have a nation. But eastern and central European Jews in many ways had a shared culture, so classically oriented musicians and composers coming out of the conservatory in Saint Peterburg began writing instrumental and vocal Jewish music in the classical style. Once that was established, all different kinds of music began being folded into Yiddish art songs.”

Most of that music “was performed mostly in culturally sophisticated cities, in Yiddish-speaking urban spaces where there was an interest in the flourishing of Yiddish culture,” Mr. Russell said. “This is where we get some of the most dynamic Yiddish culture of the 20th century. And this music, this culture, moves from inspirational roots in the shtetl to the international stage. That’s how we get a Gershwin, a Chagall, a Bellow.”

Both men and women sang Yiddish art songs, which flourished before World War II. “In the first half of the 20th century, there were concert performers who performed this music for Jewish audiences all over the world,” Mr. Russell said. “They did it for a number of reasons — to materially support Yiddish culture, because those performers were very good, international-grade singers, and because the repertoire allowed Jewish audiences to retain, remember, and reflect on aspects of Jewish life that were beginning to disappear.

One of the ways in which that call to authentic memory “is most vibrantly experienced are songs about yeshiva buchers, young men in yeshivas,” Mr. Russell said. “Young, miserable men.” Those performances were not all conventionally nostalgic; instead, they also were realistic, reminding audiences not only what they missed, but also what they did not miss. “They depicted aspects of the realities of living in the shtetl,” Mr. Russell said. For every ‘Romania, Romania,’” about the glories of the life and the nonstop wonders of the food there, “there was a song about famine, the last song a mother sings to her child before they both die of starvation.”

The Jewish concert hall, Mr. Russell continued, “is a quasi-religious space, where Jews sit in seats facing the stage — the bimah — and look for someone to create an experience of memory for that. It might be remembering God or one’s ancestors or a covenant. It’s very intense.

“That’s why performers of these Yiddish songs who were able to perform that function for their audiences” — the function of memory — “were internationally famous and had those careers until the 1950s and ’60s.”

The Yiddish art song continued after the Holocaust, Mr. Russell said; once the war ended, music from the Holocaust became part of the repertoire.

“Zog Nit Keyn Mol” — also known as the Partisan Song or the Partisaner Lieder — “was one of the first Yiddish songs that entered my repertoire,” Mr. Russell said. “It’s an important song of the resistance.

“What does it mean to sing it in a concert hall? Every time I sing that song, people join in. They rise out of their seats, out of koved for the people who died.” They’d stand to honor the victims of the Vilna Ghetto in particular, and of the Holocaust in general.

“It is overwhelming for me to sing that song,” Mr. Russell said. “I keep in mind the responsibility I have to inhabit that song, in all of its realness and its complications and its pain and its glory. I am responsible to the audience, and to the people who wrote it.”

When he sings it, he feels the presence of two giants who sang it before he did — the classically trained Sidor Belarsky, who like Mr. Russell specialized in Yiddish art songs, and the great American singer, actor, and social activist Paul Robeson, “who once sang that song in Russia,” Mr. Russell said. “What does it mean to get on a stage and feel the ghost of Sidor Belarsky on one side and the ghost of Paul Robeson on the other?

“When you know that and sing that song, it is overwhelming, and it is a great privilege.”

Another possible subject for the discussion in Livingston, because “it is interesting to me, is that like those 19th-century Europeans who were creating national styles of music and culture, Black people are beginning to take our folk culture and craft it into high art.

“There are a number of precedents for this. Queen Victoria goes to a concert of the Fisk Jubilee Singers” — from Fisk University, the historically Black college in Nashville — “shortly after Prince Albert dies, and she writes in her diary about how much of a comfort it is to hear their voices.

“There is Queen Victoria, sitting in this concert, experiencing this concertized version of Black culture being created within the living memory of the enslaved, and she is emotionally moved by hearing it.

“I think that Black culture and Jewish culture have radically changed the world,” he continued. “The 20th-century world, or at least the American world, would not look the way it does without those ethnic interventions.

“I think that having a shared rhetorical basis in the Hebrew Bible is no small thing. Creating work that is in conversation with those narratives is not a small thing. And I also think that creating work that is expressive of the distance between the Hebrew Bible’s grand prophetic narratives and the reality of life today is no small thing.”

American Blacks and American Jews both have “cultures of questioning, of feeling outrage that the world doesn’t do better by the oppressed,” Mr. Russell said. “Even people who no longer have religious beliefs, when they come out of a tradition in which you draw meaning from biblical texts to inform your moral compass, even if it is for something as broad as the equality of man — I think that’s profound.” And it’s true for both Jewish and Black American culture, he added.

Mr. Russell talked about his husband, Rabbi Michael Rothbaum, with great pride and love. Rabbi Rothbaum heads Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta, and “he’s very politically engaged and active,” Mr. Russell said; both of those things, the pulpit and the activism, are inherent and necessary components of his husband’s rabbinate.

“We have conversations about things that seem weighty, but that come to us naturally,” Mr. Russell said. “I will have the ikar of it — its essence — in my music or writing, and he will have it in his d’var Torah. We talk about a lot of things — about Blackness, about Jewishness, about our place in the world. I am very lucky to have found a partner who  thinks and cares about these things as much as I do.

“I am not speaking for The Blacks or The Jews,” he added. “This is a journey of self-expression for me. If people find anything in that journey that applies to them or works for them, if they can find affinity with it, that is to the benefit of my work.

“All of this is very personal. I don’t think that I could do it if it wasn’t.”

Mr. Russell’s website, www.anthonyrussellbass.com, lists his writings, as well as his recordings. He’s a complicated and multifaceted man, singer, Jewish American, African American, husband, speaker, and writer, among many other things. But, as he sums it up, in the end, “I am just a Jew with an opinion.”

Who: Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell

What: Will present “A World Within Worlds: Words and Music” for the Sunday Afternoon With…The Bloom Family lecture series

When: On Sunday, March 19, at 3:30 p.m.

Where: At Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston

How much: It’s free; no reservations are needed

For more information: Email tbainfo@tbanj.org


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