When William Faulkner wrote these words in Requiem for a Nun, I’m pretty certain he didn’t have a formerly opera-singing African-American performer of Yiddish in mind. Nonetheless, for me Faulkner’s words still manage to apply.
I spend most of my time dealing with one past or another. There’s my ethnic past and present as an African-American. There’s my acquired past as a convert to Judaism and a Jewish educator. And finally, there’s the past in my work as artist: previously as an opera singer and presently as a performer of Yiddish. In my professional life, I’ve impersonated everything from an 18th-century Spanish peasant to a Union soldier to a shtetl shames calling Jews to prayer. My future seems firmly rooted in the past, and I thoroughly enjoy it.
Singing in Yiddish really brought this stuff we all so dismissively call “the past” sharply into focus. I didn’t have to imagine the lives and customs of the Hasidic world my repertoire often describes. I just took a train one Shushan Purim to Brooklyn and experienced it for myself. I didn’t have to pull out a library card to find artists and critics who worked in Yiddish. I just had to stop by a bar to hear Sarah Gordon perform and wait for Rokhl Kafrissen to accept my Facebook friend request. (She totally did, by the way).
Last Slichos, I picked up an old book from a used book sale at a synagogue I was performing at in Irvine, CA. When I first cracked it open, it struck me as a little odd. First the book was in Yiddish. Then it was in English. And then Yiddish again.
The title page read in Yiddish and English, “Key to the Exercises of Ollendorff’s Method by Alexander Harkavy.” The Yiddish inscription differed from the English by stating that it was Ollendorff’s Method “tsulernen english”—”to learn English.” The English stated that it was published in New York by the Hebrew Publishing Company in 1908. In 2014 I took it home and started using it to improve my reading in Yiddish.
I used the book backwards (undoubtedly to the horror of Ollendorff and Harkavy), the English giving way to English words and phrases transliterated into Hebrew letters and then, eventually, instructions on the rudimentary elements of the English language written in Yiddish. It was in this last (first if you read in the other direction) section that the past popped up to declare itself, well…not past. A brown, very fragile scrap of paper was between pages 88 and 89. It had been there so long that the acid from the paper had left dark impressions on the pages. In a beautiful cursive hand, it read: “Mrs. Silberstern 1018 E. 163 St Bronx.”
I instantly went to Google Maps street view in order to look up the address and there it was: an old, pre-war-looking building with three people—a young black boy, a young black girl down the block and, perhaps, their mother, caught in a blur of movement—exiting the building. This was the place where Mrs. Silberstern lived.
Was the book hers? Or somebody who knew her? Was the owner of the book teaching another Yiddish-speaker English, perhaps Mrs. Silberstern? Or maybe Mrs. Silberstern was teaching herself English? And how in the world did the book get from the Bronx to Irvine, CA? How did Mrs. Silberstern get to the Bronx?
I’ll probably never find the answers to these questions. Between this scrap of paper, this book and Faulkner’s statement, I just find more questions.
Is the past ever really past?
There is a myth that Jewish music is “always in a minor key,” and often echoes themes of pieces like “Hava Nagila” and “Kol Nidrei.” So last spring when I met with Judi Lamble, the coordinator and Michael Olsen, the conductor of the Twin Cities Jewish Choral, we knew that a global Jewish music concert was the best way to debunk the myth!
Because Jews have settled in countries around the world throughout history and have adopted the sounds, tastes and customs of their host countries, our music has often taken on the styles of the countries we have lived in. So it is not unusual to have a Jewish folk song that sounds like a Yugoslavian dance, a “L’cha Dodi” that rocks to an African beat, or a love song written in Ladino, which grew out of Medieval Spanish.
When I was in my first year of cantorial school in Jerusalem, Eli Schleiffer, the director of the cantorial program, took us to Shabbat evening services in different synagogues every few weeks. Afterwards, we would gather in someone’s home for Shabbat dinner, and Cantor Schleiffer would lead Kiddush in the musical style of the synagogue we’d just visited! I was astounded that the same text could be sung to so many different tunes, and thus was born my fascination with Jewish music from around the world. I loved that we had this treasure trove of wildly varied music that we could call ours.
This intrigue led me to write my senior cantorial thesis, accompanied by a recital of the same theme, about Sephardic wedding music. Under this one umbrella, I was able to write about and sing music from Greece, Morocco, Spain and Yugoslavia. I was even able to study directly with Flory Jagoda, a Bosnian Jewish living legend, who has perpetuated a centuries-old tradition by writing new Sephardic music including “Ocho Kandelikas,” a well-known Hanukkah song.
So when I had an opportunity to plan a concert with another choir, I mentioned the possibility of featuring Jewish music from around the world. The idea was met with great enthusiasm. Our children’s and teen choirs are deep into rehearsing a Yiddish song, a Sufi-tuned “Hinei Mah Tov,” a Ladino children’s song, and a psalm from Calcutta. I am proud to pass along the chain of Jewish tradition that has so many interesting links, and the kids love it. Our adult choir, along with the Twin Cities Jewish Chorale is learning a choral arrangement of “Ocho Kandelikas,” a Ugandan “Hinei Mah Tov,” and, of course, some Israeli music.
I look forward to presenting this concert in our sanctuary, designed by the German Jewish architect, Erich Mendelsohn for a then Classical Reform American synagogue that now features Jewish music from around the globe and throughout history. I know there will be much interest, many surprises and, hopefully, a lot of questions.
When I think of home, I imagine the physical space I return to at night, the one with the white-washed façade, the apple trees in the backyard, and of course my daughter’s contagious toothy grin waiting for me inside. But I also feel home, that indescribable sense of peace, safety and grounding.
I suspect that I am not the only one who has felt a little ungrounded lately. In a world that has been marked recently by so much violence and insecurity, and one in which so many people have been physically displaced, it is no wonder that many of us are feeling that lack of “home.”
The times in my life when I have most often struggled to retain that feeling of being grounded, I have turned to music. It is not coincidence that the first song I ever wrote is about a young girl trying to find her way home. The song, “Chika Morena” is about the iconic Sephardic girl who has been kicked out from her homeland, and has been searching the world over to return home. Along the way, she simply longs to be guided by her ancestors to return to the comfort of her roots.
Working in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), a language and discipline that is, sadly, disappearing, I have extra inspiration to grapple with my feelings of connectedness. I believe that in this globalized world today, in the end we are all just searching for our identities and to understand from where we come. “Chika Morena” is, for me, a way to express this deep desire to connect with the Sephardic heritage of my past.
I recently visited with my last remaining Ladino-speaking relative, and I discovered that she was in possession of the mezuzah to my family’s ancestral home in Macedonia. On the eve of WWII when my family had to make a quick escape, a friendly neighbor held on to the mezuzah (pictured here), and returned it to my cousin following the war. I never knew about it until now. I Google-mapped the address of the house, and what I saw was a modern café that lacked all traces of my family’s former life. It looked so foreign to me. But in the end, I know that home is not the physical space. It is the comfort attached to it.
In “Chika Morena,” the protagonist, with the help of memories and family mementos, does find her way back home. May we all as well.
I am the dark beauty
The one with the long hair
And the strong eyes
But with a happy heart.
I have lived more than 1000 years
I have crossed seas and borders
One day I will return to my land
Where the warmth of my mother awaits me.
They call me the dark beauty
But I was born quite fair
I have lost my color
I am the dark beauty
Who has abided by many kings
Climbed ladders of gold
Married into the world and lived.
I have kissed the feet of my children
And the hands of my brothers
I am following the voices of my ancestors
To return to the garden of my mother.
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A video circulating on the interwebs features Ms. Perry dressed up in a variety of intentionally ridiculous getups, from an aged Las Vegas showgirl to an animal farm operator, each character ranging from odd to creepy. This is fine for abstract characters, but her depiction of a Jewish Bar Mitzvah DJ willing to do anything for money among her cast of characters raises a host of questions, not just about the diva herself, but about prejudice and power in America today.
Katy is no Sacha. She displayed all of the base offensive aspects of risky humor without any of the brilliant subtext that can make racially, ethnically and religiously oriented humor funny and, at times, poignant. In fact, Perry’s Jewish stereotype was so devoid of any redeeming quality, it makes one question whether she even understands the difference between ridiculing a rodeo clown and a Jew. Maybe she doesn’t.
This is not Katy Perry’s first foray into racial politics. She was widely lambasted for a video that many argued used offensive stereotypes about Asians. One might have expected that the backlash would have made Katy and her handlers a tad more careful. The introduction of “Yosef Shulem,” (who doesn’t do funeral’s… but will for the right price) seems to indicate otherwise.
So what’s the deal? Is Katy Perry a bigot? Does she feel similarly free to caricature other races, ethnicities and religions? Or does she feel uniquely emboldened vis-à-vis Jews and Asians? The truth is that we don’t know for sure what Perry’s personal views are, there is something else going on here.
Jews and Asians share a precarious place in American society. They are the “model minorities,” still differentiated from general American society by their racial, ethnic and cultural attributes, but simultaneously regarded as having “made it.” The politics of prejudice in America are closely tied to perceptions of power and barriers against bigotry diminish for groups that are seen as privileged. In a sense, minority success brings with it a decreasing ability for the minority group in question to dictate what is or is not offensive.
No matter Perry’s true personal views of Jews or Asians, it is very unlikely that these two groups were selected by happenstance. Katy is cultivating, like her contemporaries, a risqué reputation. Instead of wagging her tongue and twerking like Miley Cyrus, she is playing with cultural taboos. Unfortunately for her, she does not have the cultural bandwidth to intelligently, and humorously, riff off of racial and ethnic stereotypes. We do not see her bravely representing anti-Black, anti-Latino, anti-Muslim or anti-LGBTQ characters for a reason. She can’t do it in a way that would not simply be offensive. Instead we see her picking the low hanging fruit, dabbling in anti-Semitism and Orientalism without much thought about what it means, either in the context of general society, or in her shows. But given her cultural influence, such disregard has broad implications. We have every right to expect better.
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