Imagine yourself onstage with a hard-rocking, all-star klezmer ensemble. You’re singing Yiddish classics with great voices like Adrienne Cooper, Basya Schechter and Debbie Friedman, and 500 people are cheering.
Sounds exhilarating, nu? Or maybe a little scary?
Would it help if the 500 people were singing along with you?
“Well, a conservative estimate would say that between 60 and 70 percent of the people were singing,” says Zalmen Mlotek.
That was last year, when Mlotek, one of the most prominent performers in Yiddish music in America, conducted and arranged the First Annual Yiddish Sing-Along as part of the 2006 Oyhoo Festival. It’s a job that he is happily repeating on Thursday, Oct. 25 at the second incarnation of the event.
The talent pool that Mlotek can draw upon is vast, to say the least. After all, to the extent that there still is a Yiddish language and music community, it is largely here in New York. But Mlotek says that he has a secret weapon for attracting the cream.
“People want to be on this program,” he says. “There’s something about the singing of Yiddish song, whether you understand it or not, whether you’ve ever done it before, something about being in the midst of a group of people singing Yiddish songs that is unique.”
The original idea for the sing-along came from Moishe Rosenfeld, who is president of Golden Land Concerts, one of the top booking agencies for Israeli and Jewish music, dance, entertainment and performing arts.
“We were doing so many concerts that touched on the wonderfulness of the Yiddish heritage,” Rosenfeld explains. “But the highlight of any of the events was when the audience got a chance to be part. Those are the moments that made the audience happiest.”
Making audiences happy is a big part of Rosenfeld’s business and it’s something all musicians like to do. As a result, Rosenfeld confesses not without a bit of pride, last year’s event ran a little longer than planned, even though it was held on a weeknight.
“Everybody stayed,” he recalls. “Debbie Friedman was supposed to leave early for an appointment, but she ended up staying; she told me that couldn’t leave, it was such a beautiful experience.”
Perhaps the best endorsement of last year’s sing-along, though, was the woman Rosenfeld saw holding her cell phone for the entire three hours of the event. She was relaying the music to her mother in Chicago.
The format of the sing-along is fairly straightforward, as Mlotek explains.
“The choice of material is governed by what we think people know or can pick up easily or what they might have heard somewhere,” he says. “We speak with the singers beforehand, determining the material. We choose material that a singer has an affinity to, everyone makes their choices and we consult with them. We make sure that the chestnuts are there, but that there may be something of a newer nature that was recently discovered by somebody and if it’s a sing-able tune, we’ll put that in.
“Then we create a book. And we say [to the audience], ‘Go to that page.’ I break the ice by getting everybody to sing together a niggun at the top, so that language is not a barrier. Then we take it from there and we go through the book”
For Mlotek, who grew up as the son of two prominent Yiddish scholars, these songs are like the air he breathes.
“I grew up in a home where singing Yiddish songs was something in my earliest memories,” he says. “I’ve taught singing and led singing in camps. So I have a good sense of what a group of 200 or 300 or 400 people can get their voices around.”
And lo and behold, many people sing.
“We created a community of people who just wanted to sing together,” Mlotek says. “[Last year’s audiences] was a great cross-section in terms of demographics. There are people who come with a lot of knowledge of Yiddish song and people who come with very little and just want to hear.”
Unlike the scenario we opened with, there is no pressure on ticket holders to sing. Perhaps that’s why it is so easy to get people to participate.
“It’s really about the joy of it,” Mlotek says. “There’s nothing like singing with a group, whether its around the Shabbos table or in camp or in shul. Wherever it is, there is something unifying about singing together. When you give people permission and say, ‘We’re not auditioning you, we don’t care if you can carry a tune, we care that you open your mouth and participate,’ then you will get participation on some level.”
He waxes rhapsodic in defining the participatory ethic.
“Let it bring a memory, let it conjure up a scene,” Mlotek says. “Let it bring you closer to what all this is about. That’s the power of this music, from the basic simple folk song to the Klezmatics and Golem and beyond.”
The second annual Yiddish Sing-Along will take place at Congregation Rodeph Sholom (7 W. 83rd St. on Oct. 25 at 7:30 p.m. For information, call (212) 608-6655.
Putting Heschel To Music
Songwriter Basya Schechter draws inspiration from the legendary rabbi’s early writings.
It was an unusual request.
A woman she knew shoved an advance copy of a book of poetry into Basya Schechter’s hands and said, “See what you can do with this.”
Schechter, the gifted singer-songwriter who is best known as the leader of the klezmer group Pharoah’s Daughter, looked at the book that Jane Queller of Continuum Publishing had handed her and was immediately intrigued. This wasn’t the work of any ordinary poet. The book, published by Continuum in 2004, was “The Ineffable Name of God: Man,” a spiritual diary in verse written by a young Abraham Joshua Heschel when he was in his 20s. And when Rabbi Rolando Matalon of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun contacted Schechter a month later to ask her to contribute a Yiddish-language song for a Shavuot event, she knew what to “do with” the Heschel poems.
But if the decision was easy, the composing was not.
“I started reading the poetry, it took me a long time to get the words into my mouth, to get the feeling for them,” Schechter says now. “It’s a funny process, you know you have these poems — there are 66 in the book — and eventually some of them start to pop out at you. Suddenly it starts to lift off the page, and then you’re not creating music for it, you’re finding it like something in the air.”
Three years later, Schechter has set nine of the 66 poems in the Heschel volume and will be performing them as a song cycle in the Oyhoo Festival.
Needless to say, connecting with a writer whose mind is as complex as Heschel’s presents its own unique set of problems.
“I connect with the complexity in his writing of the relationship between God and man; that’s part of what I live,” the composer says. “Heschel’s desire to be a good person, all the things that became his philosophy of life, it’s here in a raw, young genius, a mixture of clarity and confusion. And you see direct links to work he did later on and you can see the process by which he became the person he was, spiritually and philosophically.”
The poetry presented another, more technical challenge for Schechter as well.
“Even though I have a little Yiddish, it’s not really strong,” she confesses. “It was around me and I learned songs and a little translating of Torah at school, but it wasn’t a conversational language.”
But her affinity with Heschel’s own struggles to reconcile the many parts of his world guided Schechter through the composing.
“His struggle connects to my struggle,” she explains. “It’s a struggle between the old chasidic world and the intellectual secular world. It taps into that part of me. Sometimes I find myself crying when I’m singing these pieces in private.”
When she premieres the piece next week, Schechter will be paired with another group performing a song cycle based on diaries, albeit of a very different kind.
Oy Vey is an Italian arts troupe that combines music and theater for its programs. Recently troupe members have been working on a piece inspired by the rediscovered diaries of a Resistance member from the Vilna Ghetto, and they will be premiering the piece, “Diary of a Partisan: Resistance Songs from the Ghetto of Vilna/Vilnius” on the program with Schechter. Drawing not only on the anonymous diarist’s words but also on a wealth of images from the period, Oy Vey reconstructs the experiences of a single Jew, armed and ready to fight the Nazis in the ghetto streets or the forests of Lithuania.
“Ghetto Cabaret Diaries,” featuring world premieres by Basya Schechter and Oy Vey, will take place on Thursday, Oct. 23 at 8 p.m., at the New York Society for Ethical Culture (West 64th Street and Central Park West). For information, call (212) 277-7179 or go to www.oyhoo.com.
The Oyhoo Festival At A Glance
The Oyhoo Festival is one of the busiest weeks of the year for Jewish music and performance art. To help you sort through the events, here are some recommendations of programs of note (in addition to the ones discussed elsewhere on this page). For more information on the festival, go to www.oyhoo.com.
Saturday, Oct. 20: Fiddlin’ with the Roof.
Opening night festivities will focus on huge roster of stars, including the Klezmatics, Theodore Bikel, Blue Fringe, Jill Sobule and Neshama Carlebach, in performances of songs from the classic Bock-Harnick score for “Fiddler on the Roof.” Kaufmann Concert Hall, 92nd Street Y (92nd Street and Lexington Avenue) at 8 p.m. For information: (212) 415-5500.
Sunday, Oct. 21: Bagels and Bongos
A live recreation of the wildly popular Latin-Jewish jazz fusion of the ‘50s with Irving Fields, creator of the original album, and Roberto Rodriguez, his contemporary equivalent. Highline Ballroom (431 W. 16th St.) at 11 a.m. For information: (212) 414-5994.
Monday, Oct. 22: Rick Recht
One of the top creators of new liturgical music, singer-songwriter Recht makes a rare New York appearance. Central Synagogue (55th Street and Lexington Avenue) at 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday, Oct. 24: Mima’akim
An innovative Jewish arts journal presents the hard-rocking music of Rashanim, led by guitar virtuoso Jon Madof and a long list of Jewish poets and performance artists. Bowery Poetry Café (Bowery and Bleecker Street) at 7:30 p.m. For information: (212) 614-0505.
Thursday, Oct. 25: Shemspeed Blowout
A party to celebrate the release of Modular Moods’ latest project, with a huge all-star roster of musical acts that include Pharoah’s Daughter unplugged, The Sway Machinery joined by Brian Chase of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Blue Fringe, Rav Shmuel, Rachel Sage and more DJs than you can shake a gragger at. Knitting Factory (74 Leonard St.) at 7 p.m. For information: (212) 219-3132.