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My Jewish Journey Runs Straight Through Yiddish Song
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The View From Campus

My Jewish Journey Runs Straight Through Yiddish Song

A college student finds community when she explores her passion for music.

A scene from the 2019 production of "Indecent" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. (Jenny Graham)
A scene from the 2019 production of "Indecent" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. (Jenny Graham)

One morning in Sunday School at church, when I was five years old, I decided to question the other five-year-olds about their Jewish identities. Upon hearing their answers, I proclaimed loudly, “I’m the only Jewish one here!” The irony of my expectation to find other Jewish kids at church was totally lost on me.

Religion is important to both sides of my interfaith family. My Ashkenazi Jewish father and my Christian mother believed that I should learn about my heritage and celebrate Jewish holidays, resulting in an unconventional Jewish education. When I started college, however, this education felt insufficient. Anxiety about not being Jewish enough prevented me from engaging in campus Jewish life.

If I had not mustered up the courage to attend a Passover seder at Claremont Colleges Hillel my freshman year, I might have continued to avoid Judaism. But right away, members welcomed me and encouraged me to return, beginning a journey that has allowed me to find community and learn more about my identity. My time as a member in Claremont Hillel has inspired me to not only forge a deeper connection with Judaism, but connect my identity to other passions.

Lucy Geller

As a theater major and music minor at Pomona College, I have been able to connect my Jewish identity to my passion for performance. I began to first make these connections when reading the plays ​”God of Vengeance” and “​Indecent”​ in a theater course my sophomore year.

Yiddish playwright Sholem Asch wrote ​”God of Vengeance” ​in the early 20th century in Warsaw. “Indecent,” a​ 2015 play by Paula Vogel, follows the performance history of ​”God of Vengeance” from Warsaw to Broadway, where the controversial content resulted in the arrest of the cast on charges of obscenity. A fews months later after reading the plays, I was transfixed when I saw a production of ​”Indecent” a​t the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

My favorite moment of the play was the controversial “rain scene” from ​”God of Vengeance,” ​in which female lovers Rifkele and Manke express their love for each other outside in the rain. Sholem Asch’s daring decision to write a play centered on the love of two women sparked a curiosity in me about Yiddish theater and performance relating to Jewish identity.

This past summer, I began preparing my senior vocal recital as the culmination of my minor in music. My recital songs would require research and substantial hours of practice, so I wanted to select songs that truly piqued my interest. Recognizing my continued interest in exploring my identity through performance, I began to research songs in Yiddish and Hebrew. Soon, I was enchanted by songs from Yiddish musicals, many written and produced in New York City in the early 20th century.

Selection of pieces from Yiddish musical theater canon proved to be more difficult than I anticipated. I began by perusing the Milken Archive’s recorded collection of “Great Songs of the American Yiddish Stage.” I made note of practically every other song as I listened, but Google searches and even some deep internet dives turned up no sheet music. I decided to reverse the order of my search and first find sheet music. After a few searches, I ordered a copy of a 1975 New York Times anthology titled ​”Great Songs of the Yiddish Theater.”

About a week later, my Yiddish theater songbook arrived in the mail. Many of the songs lacked available recordings online, so I played through the book on the piano. I loved the harmonic structures and melodic lines of many songs. Although the book only provided a summary of each song’s lyrics, the construction of the music practically shouted the essential meaning as I played.

I have been able to connect my Jewish identity to my passion for performance.

As excellent as the music may be, I still needed to know the meaning of the songs that I’ll sing when I take the stage for my senior recital. At first, I was unsure of how to address the fact that my Yiddish only consists of everyday slang sprinkled throughout my vocabulary, such as “oy vey” (how I feel about the pandemic), “kvetch (I do this often), “kibitzer” (sometimes my mom is prone to behave like one)… you get the picture.

Luckily, I had a huge Hillel community available at my fingertips online. I decided to post in the “Zoom University Hillel” Facebook group asking for help with translation and pronunciation. A reminder of the warmth I felt at my first Hillel seder, multiple strangers responded and offered to help. Now, I have all the help I need to present a successful Yiddish song set in the spring. In the future, I plan to sing more songs from ​”Great Songs of the Yiddish Theater,” ​and I know that I can turn to my Hillel community should I ever need more guidance on my Jewish journey.

Lucy Geller is a senior at Pomona College studying theater and music.

Debates over Israel, mental health challenges, anti-Semitism, creating a strong Jewish life — young Jews experience a lot in college. The View From Campus is a column for them to tell The Jewish Week, and you, all about it. Want to write for us? Send a draft or pitch to Lev Gringauz at lev@jewishweek.org.

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