Hungry for Yiddish: An interview with Anthony (Mordechai Tzvi) Russell


The first time I played  a recording of Anthony Russell singing a Yiddish song, it was as if thunder rolled through the house. His rich bass voice wraps itself around a song and makes it rattle the windows. I’m very pleased to be involved in the Hungry for Yiddish: a Mitzvah Project with him, and I’m looking forward to hearing him sing in person.

1. How do you know Heather? How did you get involved in this project?

I actually met Heather earlier this year at her “Yiddishe Meydlekh” concert for YIVO in New York. We both attended KlezKanada in Quebec this past summer, and by chance, my partner got a job in the SF Bay Area, where I’m originally from and where Heather lives. So, as soon as I got back from Canada and somewhat settled in California, I met with Heather to figure out what the Bay Area had to offer a Yiddish singer. She said, “Well, I have this program I did last year called ‘Hungry for Yiddish‘,” and the rest, soon, will be history…

2. Tell me a little bit about the songs you’ll be singing at the Hungry for Yiddish event. What are they about?

Yiddish songs are always so complicated, which is why I love them! So I’ll make an attempt. In “Akhris Hayomim“, a young boy describes to his grandfather the wonders of the world to come; in “Der Gemore Nign“, a student in kheder (a traditional elementary school teaching the basics of Judaism and Hebrew) misses his family; in “Lekoved dem Heylikn Shabbes“, a Chasid literally asks his rebbe, “Where’s the beef?”, and in “O Ir Kleyne Likhtelekh“, the lights of a menorah stir memories of the Jewish past and questions about the future.

3. Sometimes language can really influence a piece of music. How do you feel Yiddish shapes a song or a tune?

Having sung in English, Spanish, Italian, French, German, Hungarian, Japanese and Hebrew over the past fifteen years or so, I have  found Yiddish to be an unparalleled language for expression. It strikes me as a language that lands softly on the ears (thanks to its vowels and certain “closed” consonants), yet is well-accented with consonant combinations full of descriptive character. Songs in a Yiddish are much the same, possessing a plaintive quality accented with wit, pain, humor and character.

3. You say on your Facebook page that not only were you able to understand a Yiddish speaker, but he could understand you. Impressive! How long have you been studying Yiddish? What kind of personal meaning does Yiddish have for you?

I’ve only been singing in Yiddish for a little less than a year, and my study of the language has been solely for the purpose of improving my understanding and interpretation of my repertoire. For the past few months I’ve been hobbling along by myself through Sheva Zucker’s Yiddish textbook for beginners, but I can tell you upfront I’m a much, much better listener in Yiddish than a speaker.

What I told the Yiddish speaker was my own original well-rehearsed joke about my lack of ability: “Ikh keyn nit redn gantz gut Yiddish; aber, ikh red a besser Yiddish vi alle mentshn in der khumesh,” or “I don’t speak Yiddish very well, but I speak it better than anyone in the Bible.” He laughed for a good long time, and what’s language if you can’t do that?

In contrast to the monumental advent of Hebrew as a language in recent history, Yiddish—for me—is a language that best describes the Jewish experience in the world, in all of its unusual beauty, longing, ambiguity, mystery and quiet, subtle triumph.

4. What is your favorite Yiddish word or phrase?

In the song “Lekoved dem Heylikn Shabbes“, a worried Chasid during Shabbes dinner tells his rebbe, “Rebbe! There’s no challah! There’s no fish! There’s no meat!”, to which the rebbe answers, “‘S’vet zayn!“—”There will be!” Let me tell you, on many levels, I’m saying ” ‘S’vet zayn!” all the time.