Scenes from an art show

As the visual artist part of a collaboration for Hungry for Yiddish; a Mitzvah Project (organized by fabulous singer Heather Klein), I was honored to be included with musical artists Heather,  Anthony Russell, and the Saul Goodman’s Klezmer Orkestar.

It was so wonderful to see 13 of my paintings hung on the gallery walls of the Subterranean Arthouse in Berkeley.

Three paintings

My fiddler said, “I live with these images while you’re painting them, and they’re alive, but I’ve never seen them have so much presence as they had when they were all on the gallery walls.”

Two paintings

Normally I paint, finish, and file my paintings in the flat file. If they get framed, they are briefly displayed on a dining room chair, then they’re off to their new home. It was amazing to see that on the gallery walls the portraits came to life in a way they never do in my dining room.


The painting above at left is, yes, a bowl of potatoes. Since this show was about feeding people (a benefit for the Berkeley Food Pantry) I thought a few paintings of potatoes would be appropriate. After all, potatoes have fed the world for over 500 centuries, haven’t they?


Many thanks to Nicole Rodriguez and Katherine MacElhiney of the Subterranean Arthouse for helping hang the show, and especially to Katherine, who, despite a dreadful cold, stayed around after we hung the show so that a friend of mine could come in the afternoon and view the paintings.


And this is me with the painting Desert Rat. I am not normally a smiley kind of person, but on seeing all my paintings looking back at me, I couldn’t stop beaming.

But it wasn’t all paintings and portraits. We heard Heather and Anthony (both magnificent performers) sing, and then we danced to joyous Klezmer music.


The dancing was led by dance teacher Bruce Bierman.


The band was terrific! In the photo below, blazing through a tune, are Jim Rebhan on keyboard accordion, Illana Sherer on violin, and Dave Rosenfeld on mandolin. Also in the band was Gerry Tenney on guitar and voice, Stu Brotman on poyk (a bass drum), and Aharon Bolsta on snare drum.


And show curator and clarinet player, Mike Perlmutter.


Thanks to Heather (on left, below) for organizing this wonderful evening!


A sheynem dank!

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.

Hungry for Yiddish: An interview with Heather Klein

I met Heather Klein in our Yiddish class, where we learned the bulbes (potato) song, and she told of teaching it to a group of friends. She sang a few bars of a Yiddish song, and I soon became the owner of her latest CD, Shifreles Portret: A Yiddish Art Song Project. It’s been in heavy rotation on the cd player ever since.

Heather, who is classically trained, brings a richness of voice and emotional connection to stories of loved ones lost to war; of a fiddle player greeted in heaven by his friends; dancing women; and praying bubbes (grandmothers). Heather is the third leg of the Inextinguishable Trio (special guest Ilana Sherer on violin and Alla Gladysheva on piano), a group devoted to performing lesser-known to newly composed pieces in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Ladino. In keeping with the Yiddish tradition, they also perform musical theatre as well.

When she asked me to display my paintings at her annual Hungry for Yiddish; a Mitzvah Project, I was honored, and of course said yes! She graciously agreed to talk a bit about the project, her music, and her love of Yiddish.

1. How did Hungry for Yiddish; a Mitzvah Project get started?

Five years ago I lost a special person in my life to suicide. He was a chef in San Francisco, and did not make a lot of money, but he loved to feed people. Wherever we went he would give whatever he had to people on the streets that were hungry or even just asking for money, and I admired him for being selfless. When I lost him to suicide, I realized that I wanted to give something back in whatever way I could. So I decided to give through music. I started a concert benefit during the colder months when it is harder to find food or warmth. It’s called Hungry for Yiddish; A Mitzvah Project. The proceeds from admission are given to the local food bank, and my friend’s spirit of giving is remembered.

2. Tell me little bit about the songs you’ll be singing at the event.

I pick songs based on the visual artwork on display at the concert. The art this year consists of portraits of people. Every portrait has a story to tell, so I’m performing songs that let you get a glimpse at the persons character. Those include songs about a Gypsy, a grandfather, a street kid and a young woman looking for love.

3. The material you choose is haunting and yet so joyous.
Most Yiddish music sounds sad because it’s played in darker keys and the lyrics are not always uplifting. You’ve got to remember that many of these songs were written by people who lived in oppressed, violently anti-Semitic places. But they stayed hopeful that things would get better, and the songs reflect that.

4. What is your favorite Yiddish word or phrase?
“Mit rekhtn fus.” Another way of saying good luck. Literally meaning “with the right foot.” It was the first Yiddish phrase I was taught before I performed with other Yiddish singers.

Hungry for Yiddish; a Mitzvah Project

My work will be gracing the walls of the Subterranean Arthouse in Berkeley on December 13. I hope it will provide inspiration for these wonderful musicians, and joy to all the folks in attendance. For the next couple posts, I’ll be interviewing two of the singers in the show, founder Heather Klein and  Anthony Russell. So come back to learn more about the project!

Click on the poster to order tickets.

First show!

Landscape Study of Nevada desert
© Margaret Sloan 2012
Watercolor on paper

If I’ve been absent from music parties, family functions, and the blogoshpere, it’s only because I’ve been preparing for a show. My first solo show! (You can read about it on Facebook here, although I’ll be posting more about it as the time draws near. Oh yes, you can bet I will.).

I’ve been painting my brushes ragged to complete a couple more paintings, but as usual, it’s a slow process, with many studies, and lots of time spent staring and pondering. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, painting (for me) is not a relaxing weekend hobby. It’s Work.

Okay, I admit,  it’s work that I like to do, but that doesn’t mitigate the struggle of forcing my interior thoughts onto smooth white paper. It’s focused work, which means I have to take a break every couple hours and do something that’s not work, like cleaning the bathtub or doing the laundry. And yet, while I’m scrubbing, I’m still thinking about the painting, still considering colors, shapes, and brush strokes. While folding socks, I ruminate, talk to myself, and plan my next few passages.

The picture above is the landscape I’m putting into one of the paintings. Below, you’ll see a study for the man in the portrait. In my mind, he’s inseparable from the landscape where we met. When he’s finished I’ll tell you that story.