The Soul Connection
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The Soul Connection

Is there a connection between African-American culture and Yiddish?

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my job as the executive director of Beth Am Synagogue, an inner-city Conservative congregation in Baltimore, is the opportunity to foster collaboration and mutual respect between the members of the congregation and our African-American neighbors. It was thus with great excitement that I took 30 Beth Am-ers to “Soul to Soul,” a terrific concert of black-Jewish music at the Owings Mills JCC on the Sunday afternoon of Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend.

Produced by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, under the direction of Zalmen Mlotek, the mostly Yiddish-language concert, which was presented again the following afternoon at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, featured two female Jewish singers, Lisa Fishman and Magda Fishman, along with two male African-American ones, Elmore James and Tony Perry. The quartet performed songs from both Jewish-American and African-American culture — and, in many cases, songs that linked the two, such as George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” from “Porgy and Bess,” and a culminating medley of songs from the civil rights era.

Is there a connection between blacks and Yiddish?

Gen. Colin Powell famously picked up a smattering of the mameloshen by working at a furniture store in Harlem that was owned by a Jewish family. In 1993, during a visit to Jerusalem, he greeted Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir with the words “Men kent reden Yiddish” (We can speak Yiddish).

Nate Duncan, a black counterman at Lyon’s Deli on Maxwell Street in Chicago, ended up taking over the store when the owner, Ben Lyon retired, as the neighborhood was transitioning from a Jewish one to an African-American one. By listening to the conversation of his elderly Jewish customers, Duncan absorbed some of their Yiddish lingo. Similarly, “Dunkin’ Bagels” and “Matzo Balls,” songs recorded in 1945 by black singer-songwriter Slim Gaillard, include references to ethnic Jewish foods that had not yet become familiar to non-Jewish Americans.

Paul Robeson, whose recordings of “Zog Nit Keyn Mol” (The Partisan Song) — which he performed in Russia in the late 1940s during his campaign for Russian Jews — along with the comical “Vi Azoy Lebt Der Czar” (How the Czar Lives) and the lullaby “Shlof, Mayn Kind” (Sleep, My Child) inspired the creation of the Folksbiene’s “Soul to Soul” concert. When Elmore James went to a Jewish bookstore to learn the Yiddish songs that Robeson had sung, the owner referred him to Theodore Bikel, who sent him to Zalmen Mlotek. Tony Perry had been cast in “74 Georgia Avenue,” a 2009 one-act play by Murray Schisgal, about a Jewish man who returns to his boyhood apartment in East New York to find it inhabited by a black man who mysteriously speaks Hebrew, Aramaic and Yiddish. Mlotek got the idea of developing a concert to explore the intersections between black and Yiddish music.

Joshua Nelson, the self-styled Prince of Kosher Gospel who grew up in a black Jewish family in East Orange, N.J., performs mostly in Hebrew. But he joined The Klezmatics for their seventh album, “Brother Moses Smote the Water,” released in 2005, which is a compilation of recordings from a series of open-air concerts the year before at Berlin’s Heimatklänge (Echoes of Home) Festival; a stand-out is “Shnirele, Perele” (Little String, Little Pearl), the Yiddish song about the coming of the messiah.

Nowadays, Anthony (Mordechai Tzvi) Russell, a 6-foot-tall gay black opera singer who grew up in a Baptist family in Texas (and ultimately married a rabbi and converted to Judaism), is a major exponent of Yiddish song, especially the works of Ukrainian-American singer Sidor Belarsky. Russell discovered Yiddish at the age of 30 after going to see the 2009 Coen Brothers film, “A Serious Man,” which uses a haunting recording by Belarsky of Mark Warshawsky’s “Dem Milner’s Trern” (The Miller’s Tears), about the expulsion of Jews from Czarist Russia.

Russell’s ongoing project is called Convergence, which is an effort to combine Negro spirituals, Yiddish labor union songs, anthems from the civil rights movement, Israeli folk songs and Ashkenazi liturgical music. As Jeffrey Melnick, an expert on black-Jewish relations who teaches at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, told The Washington Post last year, Russell “embodies a really important possibility for black people and Jewish people to be in shared spaces again.” 

Ted Merwin is the executive director of Beth Am Synagogue in Baltimore. He writes about theater for the paper.

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