By Harriet P. Gross
In a recent TJP, Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt lamented the turn that Jewish singer Matisyahu has taken: No longer bearded and kippah-ed, he has shed Orthodoxy in favor of a bare, dyed-blond head and is “walking a new path,” as he recently tweeted to followers (or former such, like our local rabbi).
In a way, this re-asks an old, old question: Just what is “Jewish music” anyway? The more we delve into this admittedly minor mystery, the more additional, and fascinating, questions it provokes:
1. Is Jewish music anything written by any Jewish composer? For instance: Do Leonard Bernstein’s Latino-based songs from “West Side Story” qualify? How about Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade”? And does anything performed by a Jewish musician qualify as Jewish music?
2. Is Jewish music anything that draws from Judaism, regardless of the composer’s own religion? An example: Do the recognizable, poignant themes in non-Jewish Dimitri Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 and String Quartet No. 8 in C minor — the latter dedicated to “victims of fascism and war” — qualify? Does any Jewish-themed music performed by non-Jews qualify as Jewish music?
On the local scene, we’ve had the opportunity to hear Joshua Nelson, a convert to Judaism (and now a Hebrew teacher) singing all kinds of songs. Are they Jewish music or not? How about the Gospel choir “Level Ground” that recently joined Congregation Anshai Torah’s Kol Rina to sing together, Hebrew prayers as well as African American spirituals: Was this Jewish music or not?
And now comes Anthony Russell, also a Jew-by-choice, with his own musical story to tell — a story I recently read in the Jewish World Review, written by Richard Chesnoff, who calls the 32-year-old operatic bass “the new voice of Yiddish song.”
Nelson and Russell are both African American, a race closely associated with gospel music, as opposed to Yiddish music, closely identified with Jewish people.
Chesnoff starts off with a story about himself: “Back in 1949, when I was barely 12 years old, I heard a 78 rpm recording of the great black American operatic star, Paul Robeson, singing ‘Zog Nisht Kein Mol — Never Say You’ve Reached the Final Road’ — the stirring Yiddish hymn of the wartime Jewish partisans … It was that same sense of deep emotion that overwhelmed me recently when I heard the voice of Anthony Russell. And he too was singing ‘Zog Nisht Kein Mol.’”
Russell had already become a Jew before singing the partisan song, and also before he heard the Yiddish song “The Miller’s Tears,” a recording used by the Coen brothers on their soundtrack for “A Serious Man.” Another Robeson connection: Russell first thought that’s whose voice he was hearing in the film. But the deep bass actually belonged to the late and lately little-remembered Sidor Belarsky, a Ukranian Jewish singer popular many decades ago.
Chesnoff quotes Russell: “I decided I wanted to revive Belarsky’s works, and I wanted to sing them first for Jewish audiences.” He has since located old records and sheet music to develop his “Sidor Belarsky Songbook,” which he’s already presented in New York and Toronto venues, and will soon be taking further on the road.
Russell singing Yiddish seems to me a sort of reverse of Matisyahu going punk, providing interesting listening while somehow reprising that serious old question for Rabbi Rosenblatt and the rest of us: Just what is Jewish music, really, anyway?
“Inspired” to dig some more, I found some amazing facts about the history of “Hatikvah,” arguably the most Jewish of all our Jewish songs. Its melody that we find so hauntingly “Jewish” actually appeared first in 17th century Italy in a song with lyrics urging its listeners to “run away from the harsh sky.”
The words were soon forgotten, but the music itself was adopted and adapted, with many different words and titles, in the common people’s repertoires of Poland, Ukraine, and other European countries. Most famously, we’ve all recognized the tune in Czech composer Bedrich Smetana’s immensely popular movement about a river, “The Moldau,” in his symphony entitled “My Country.”
Here’s the payoff: Samuel Cohen, who adapted the music for the original poem “Hatikvah” back in 1888, admitted much later that he had a fondness for the melody he chose because he’d loved it when he was a boy in Romania. There, it was a folk song with a very un-Jewish title, “The Ox-Driven Cart.”
I write all this on the same day we learned from news reports out of Budapest that the country’s far-right, anti-Semitic politician Csanad Szegedi actually has Jewish roots. So what else is new? He probably grew up somewhere in Hungary, humming “Hatikvah” and not even knowing it.