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.

Learning Yiddish

We’ve been learning Yiddish in our house. The mathematician grew up in a Yiddish speaking home, and although he never was a fluent speaker, still remembers  the music of the language. I think it also makes him feel closer to his parents, who have passed on (or, as I prefer to say, emigrated to the shadowy land where we’ll all someday apply for—and probably get—residency).

Me? The second language that makes me feel at home, although I never learned to speak it well, is Spanish. I grew up in California after all, and lived in Mexico for a time. It’s a familiar tune that I can only partially play, but can hum beneath my breath.

But now I’m learning Yiddish. At first I figured, it’s a mental exercised that will help keep my brain fresh and plastic. It’s a fun game to play. And it’s got an incredibly beautiful alphabet.

Then I heard a piece on PRI about the Yiddish language.

One of the people interviewed makes the observation that the only thing we really know these days about the pre-WWII European Yiddish speaking community is the holocaust. And that limited bit of knowledge is not very respectful to that culture.

And I thought, my God, that’s true. What do I know about those people? I know the horror of their end, but not the beauty of their lives.  I know their culture was nearly exterminated, but I don’t know what was lost.

In my small way, I hope that by learning this funny, sparkly, imaginative, old language, I will not only honor who was lost, but will also learn a bit about their lives.