Yiddish then, Yiddish now
When the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival’s four concerts of 2010 hit the city next week, they’ll sound, for many Jews, like familiarity mixed with newness. That’s because this year’s festival theme, Yiddish Songfest, revisits the music of a long-fading culture through a modern lens.
But don’t expect “Fiddler on the Roof Part 2.” For Yiddish music — the Old World sound of the shtetl — to survive, say musicians and scholars, it’s got to adapt and change, much like the people who spawned it.
With concerts “Hidden Yiddish Treasures,” “100 Years of Jewish Theater” and “Yiddish Meets Klezmer,” this year’s PJMF will tackle the old and new of this ever-changing genre.
“Like the Jews, Yiddish music began to change as soon as it got off the boat 100 years ago,” said James Loeffler, a Yiddish scholar and an assistant professor of history and Jewish studies at the University of Virginia.
As more Jews emigrated to American shores from Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century, the music that had once soundtracked shtetl life absorbed the linguistics, musical style and even the pace of American cities, where Jews so often settled.
“Suddenly music was no longer just for weddings or communal celebrations,” said Loeffler. “It was being recorded, performed in Vaudeville, in the theater. It entered into the world of American pop culture. All these things made the music quicker.”
Yiddish music expanded sonically as well. Where the violin, clarinet and sometimes accordion were standard instruments in any shtetl band of the late 19th century, according to Loeffler, the music began “absorbing American pop and jazz … and you started to hear piano.”
To vocalist Adrienne Cooper, the “enormous mash-up” of Yiddish music is what gives it such richness.
“People were carrying a shtetl experience to an absolutely different place,” she said, “and the music reflects dirt roads and ramshackle houses, and also tall buildings with courtyards and skyscrapers.”
Cooper’s performance in the PJMF, “Yiddish Meets Klezmer,” performed with pianist Marilyn Lerner and violinist Alicia Svigals June 13 and 14, brings that diversity to the fore with “a huge range of styles,” she said.
But the changes in Yiddish music were not all incidental.
“It was a fierce attempt on immigrants’ part to assimilate,” said Zalmen Mlotek, the artistic director of America’s only Yiddish theater, The National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene.
“By using American phrases and English words, not only did the pieces have more resonance for Americans at the time,” said Mlotek, “but they also give us today a real sense of how history and how language and culture affected the lives of immigrants.”
Mlotek’s program at the PJMF, “100 Years of Jewish Theater,” which he will perform with vocalist Susan Leviton June 10, “puts everything into context, so you don’t need any understanding of Yiddish itself,” he said. “It’s an introduction for anyone who has interest in that phenomenon.”
Even as Yiddish music was changing in America, said Cooper, it maintained distinctly Yiddish characteristics, as “a truth-telling music from a truth-telling culture.”
“It’s everything from blunt and rude to ironic and lyrical,” Cooper said, “everything from a highly-intellectualized beauty to a very simple comprehension of the world, of nature, of relationships, food, war and government.”
Decades after the progression of Yiddish music was largely “cut off due to the Holocaust and other things in the middle of the 20th century,” said Loeffler, it first saw resurgence in the late 70s and early 80s. Today, though, Yiddish music is experiencing a wholly new rebirth, with young fans and musicians adopting and changing traditional music.
“We’re seeing it in younger audiences all the time,” said Mlotek.
Part of that growth is simply the expansion of what it means to be a Jew in the landscape of Jewish America today. For PJMF Director and Founder Aron Zelkowicz, this re-engagement of Jewish youth makes Yiddish music the perfect theme for this year’s festival.
“It’s not just about ‘Bay Mir Bist Du Shayn’ and ‘Oyfn Pripetchik,’” said Zelkowicz, citing two traditional Yiddish songs. “The fact that some of our performers are in their 20s and 30s is another reminder that a select minority of the younger generation is keeping their grandparents’ language alive, even if it’s through the performing arts.”
The PJMF represents just a sliver of the newest Yiddish generation of music. In 2002, Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov’s klezmer-inspired “Yiddishbbuk” was nominated for a Grammy. Student groups devoted to klezmer and Yiddish music have popped up in schools like Miami University in Ohio and Northwestern University. This year in Germany, the Yiddish Summer Weimar, a Yiddish music and culture festival, will celebrate its 10th year.
The resurgence of Yiddish music “is not all about schmaltz or nostalgia,” said Mlotek. “It’s about new music, new sounds.”
Or modernizing old sounds.
“There is constant interpreting and examining in the Jewish legal process. Music is like that,” said Cooper. “As a text, it is to be re-explored, imaginatively and intelligently. You educate yourself and you’re free to explore.”
Loeffler believes the cause of the return to Yiddish lies deep in these young musicians.
“In America, the first generation here took for granted who they were. The second just wanted to be American and the third wanted to recover what they’d lost,” he said. “But we’re already into the fourth generation. For a lot of people, it’s not about guilt or rebellion — it’s just curiosity. What is it culturally and ethnically that makes Jews Jewish?”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com.)