Yiddish Folksong Tradition In The Spotlight
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Yiddish Folksong Tradition In The Spotlight

Folklorist Ruth Rubin and song collector Ben Stonehill figure prominently in this year’s Yiddish New York festival.

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

Yiddish singer and multi-instrumentalist Michael Alpert and Ethel Raim, who was named an NEA National Heritage Fellow for "major contributions" to "folk and traditional arts."
Courtesy of Janina Wurbs
Yiddish singer and multi-instrumentalist Michael Alpert and Ethel Raim, who was named an NEA National Heritage Fellow for "major contributions" to "folk and traditional arts." Courtesy of Janina Wurbs

Folk cultures are the product of many thousands of people making small gestures that accumulate over generations. But the preservation and transmission of such material is frequently the work of a few isolated individuals, often in the midst of those generations.

This year’s edition of the weeklong Yiddish New York, which opens on Saturday, Dec. 22, offers a vivid testimony to that reality, as embodied in the work of the great Yiddish folklorist Ruth Rubin and song collector Ben Stonehill, among others. Of course, the history of Yiddish culture has always been bound up in the gallant efforts of such preservation-minded people, but this year’s festival will draw particularly heavily on their work as it celebrates the revitalization of the Yiddish folksong tradition.

That tradition, based around oral transmission of songs by non-professionals in a cappella settings, has long been overlooked in the Jewish world. As Pete Rushefsky, the executive director of the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, one of the prime movers of YNY, noted in a recent e-mail, “For years the only recordings of Yiddish folksong available were commercial recordings were recordings of singers with Western training (operatic, theater) or cantorial. And the repertoire available was very limited to just a few chestnuts that were recorded over and over again, or else newly composed theater/comedic pieces.”

But there was an almost inconceivably rich vein of true folk songs in Yiddish, not written down either in musical notation or words, much of it known by handfuls of Jewish women from the shtetls.

Ethel Raim, a co-founder of CTMD who was named an NEA National Heritage Fellow this year for “major contributions to the excellence, vitality, and public appreciation of folk and traditional arts,” was one such woman, albeit one who grew up in the Bronx rather than Eastern Europe.

“These songs were passed on predominantly by women,” she said in a telephone interview last week. “Young girls would learn from older sisters who would sing on Shabbes. All the women I’ve ever heard talk about this say they learned the songs when they were 13 or 14, learning about life. Those are the songs that I particularly respond to, lyrical love songs, unhappy for the most part, usually unrequited love and loss. They really reflect the life of women in the community 100 years ago or so.”

The work of the great Yiddish folklorist Ruth Rubin will be a focus of this year’s Yiddish New York festival. YIVO

Raim will be teaching songs like these and performing them during Yiddish New York, particularly as part of a concert tribute to Rubin.

Ironically, the spur to the new interest in such songs is the gentle collision of a new technology with the oldest and most natural one imaginable: the recent addition to the internet of several websites that preserve and present field recordings of those a cappella voices offering their musical memoirs of an all-but-vanished Yiddish culture.

In April, YIVO launched its website “The Ruth Rubin Legacy,” which began with over 1,500 Yiddish songs from Rubin’s now-digitized recordings made between 1946 and the 1970s. CTMD, which is a sponsor of the Rubin website, offers a slightly smaller but significant collection on-line as well, the Ben Stonehill Archive, which includes about 1,000 recordings of songs and chats with Holocaust survivors who were living in post-WWII New York City in the Hotel Marseilles. Finally, CTMD and the Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center’s An-sky Jewish Folklore Research Project are responsible for the blog “Yiddish Song of the Week,” which includes not only recordings but also capsule histories and translations of materials drawn from across the globe.

Mark Slobin, an ethnomusicologist who is probably best known for his work on klezmer, has been heavily involved in the folksong revival as well and will be featured prominently on several programs at YNY. He says that the new Web presence of such material is definitely driving interest.

“I’ve been noticing at Yiddish New York and last year at KlezKanada that there are a large group of young people in their 20s and 30s who want to know about this part of the culture of the Ashkenazi Jews,” he said last week. “And now that the Ruth Rubin collection and the Stonehill collection and Yiddish Song of the Week are out there, people are actually finding folksongs that they can work with.”

“These songs were passed on predominantly by women,” Ethel Raim says.
“Young girls would learn from older sisters who would sing them on Shabbes.” Center for Traditional Music and Dance

Slobin, whose newest book, “Motor City Music: A Detroiter Looks Back” is a music-driven memoir of growing up in melody-rich Detroit with its remarkable mix of Jewish music, jazz, R&B and other ethnic music, is working on another, more analytically slanted website, tentatively called “Inside the Yiddish Folk Song,” a project on which he will be Raim, Zev Feldman, Josh Waletzky and Michael Alpert. Taken along with the three sites already active, he hopes it will spur even greater interest in this neglected repertoire.

“The klezmer revival was instrumental [in focus], and the Yiddish folksong just fell by the wayside,” he said. “People need this right now. The Yiddish folksong is having its moment, [thanks in large part to] people who have been working with this music for years.

With multiple events honoring and showcasing this repertoire as part of this year’s event, Yiddish New York may well add fuel to the warm, hearth-like flames of a folksong revival to match the renewed interest in other stars in the constellation of Yiddish culture.

Yiddish New York, now in its fourth year, will run from Dec. 22-27 at venues all over Lower Manhattan. In addition to numerous concerts in the evenings, art exhibits and walking tours, the festival includes a huge roster of daytime programs, running the gamut from film screenings to lectures on Jewish humor, from programs for kids to the Great Bagel Showdown: NYC vs. Montreal. For information, go to www.yiddishnewyork.com/.

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