The Lilting Melodies of Yiddish
Music by Nat Hentoff


During the folk-music renaissance of the 1950s, a number of young Jewish players — immersed in Bill Monroe-style bluegrass or blues originating in the Mississippi Delta that their grandmothers never sang to them — decided to plumb the colors and rhythms of their own musical heritage.

Pianist Marilyn Lerner (left) and singer David Wall (right) set works by 20th-century Yiddish poets to music on ‘Still Soft Voiced Heart.’

Some joined klezmer bands, but two Toronto-based musicians — singer David Wall and pianist Marilyn Lerner — have since found a distinctly singular way to revivify their roots. In "Still Soft Voiced Heart: New Jewish Lieder" (Traditional Crossroads, New York, www.traditionalcrossroads.com1), they have put to music works by 20th-century Yiddish poets in settings that are so luminously lyrical in their immediacy — and their range of Jewish sensibility — that, like bluegrass and the blues, they also speak to the human condition.

As one of the poets, Peretz Miransky, who came to Toronto after the Nazis took Vilna, wrote in one of these songs: "Every being has a melody of its own that can be heard" — and that can harmonize with the inner melodies of listeners from other cultures. And Zisha Landau, who was born in Poland and died in New York, is both contemporary and timeless in "Softly Let Us All Vanish":

Let us be free like the stars/ Then we will all swim away/ Softly, lest anyone hear — / children still die of fear.

And my own youth, in a Boston neighborhood where the conservatives were the voters for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, returns in "To a Woman Socialist" by Avrom Reisen, who came to the United States from Russia:

Your eyes sparkle and shine when you speak/ of the new times to come when all people will/ live equally and happily./ And I too believe in this vision yet still I cry,/ for even in this bright new future, you will/ never be mine.

I was so deeply drawn into this fusion of music, poetry and memory that I keep playing this cycle of lieder entirely new to me and yet quickly familiar. Curious as to how all this came together, I called the originators.

Mr. Wall, formerly lead vocalist for a Toronto rhythm-and-blues band, the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, needed a gig and joined the Flying Bulgar Klezmer band. But he had to learn Yiddish, and found an affinity for the language. "It’s a beautiful language," he told me, "full of poetry. Yiddish has a particular lilt. Certain melodies just flow out of it."

Mr. Wall was so taken with cantorial music — the roots of Yiddish blues — that he also studied cantorial singing. And he discovered Yiddish poetry that is "not all about the shtetl or the theater or comedy. For better or worse, it’s serious."

Ms. Lerner, a specialist in improvisation, both in jazz and avant-garde classical music, is also versed in musicology. But a time came when she began to think of exploring Jewish music too. "It’s in my blood," she told me. But like Mr. Wall, she had to study the language, because the only Yiddish she had heard as a child was when her parents didn’t want her to understand what they were saying.

Her piano accompaniments to Mr. Wall’s singing, and her interludes, are like a second compelling voice. As Lorin Sklamberg — a composer, vocalist and co-founder of the Klezmatics — says in the notes to this set, Ms. Lerner and Mr. Wall "have combined their musical personalities with the verbal voices of Reisen, Sutskever, Teitelboim, Molodowsky, Landau . . . and Peretz Miransky to create something which is distinctly theirs. Such authenticity continues to be an exception to the classical, pop, jazz and world-music landscapes (territorial distinctions which Marilyn and Dave blithely transcend)."

Ms. Lerner and Mr. Wall naturally interweave their multicultural personalities in these performances, but I’m certain my grandparents would recognize the songs and the poetry to be unmistakably rooted in Yiddishkeit, or the essence of being Jewish.

Most of the poets in "Still Soft Voiced Heart" can also be found in "A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry," edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg and translated by Stanley Kunitz, Cynthia Ozick and Adrienne Rich, among others (Schocken Books). This 378-page collection is out of print — and should not be. The enthusiastic audiences Mr. Wall and Ms. Lerner are attracting may indicate a revival of interest in Yiddish poetry, as there is already in the Yiddish language. Schocken Books could spur that revival by making "A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry" available again.

As Howe and Greenberg noted: "What makes Yiddish poets Yiddish is not that they happen to write in the language but even as they seek and receive the impress of surrounding cultures, they cannot break past the visible and invisible boundaries of Yiddish."

The booklet in "Still Soft Voiced Heart" includes both the Yiddish transliterations and the English translations of the songs, and reading them aloud, or at least the English version, may, along with the music, encourage learning more about this stubborn tradition.

The recording also made me curious about the company with the imagination to produce "Still Soft Voiced Heart." The catalog of Traditional Crossroads is an invitation to even more unexpected discoveries: music from Turkey, Iran, Senegal, Bulgaria. Gypsy music, wedding music, even the history of the cigar in Cuban folk music. (Traditional Crossroads is at P.O. Box 20320, Greeley Square Station, New York, N.Y. 10001-9992).

Peretz Miransky wrote:

As the night engulfs the sunset/ and the stars begin to hover/ few are privileged to hear/ the song belonging to another.

It is no longer only a few who are so privileged.

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