Yid­dish song Meet the maven

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - MICHAEL KAMINER

AN­THONY RUS­SELL didn’t en­counter Jewish mu­sic un­til the age of 30. Dur­ing a screen­ing of the Coen broth­ers’ 2009 moral fa­ble A Se­ri­ous Man, he heard the plain­tive folk song Dem Mil­ners Tr­ern, sung by the great Ukrainian-Jewish vo­cal­ist Si­dor Be­larsky.

“Hear­ing Be­larsky’s voice, for me, was like Ha­gar sud­denly see­ing the spring of wa­ter in the desert,” Rus­sell says. “I heard a voice that sounded like mine, at a point when I in­creas­ingly felt like my voice was an un­wanted thing, and a voice that sang the way I wanted to sing — with great warmth and sen­si­tiv­ity. In a sense, I was hear­ing my fu­ture.”

Now known as An­thony Morde­cai Tzvi Rus­sell, and an en­thu­si­as­tic con­vert to Ju­daism, Rus­sell is now a much-pur­sued per­former and ed­u­ca­tor, recog­nised as a fore­most author­ity on Yid­dish song.

When he spoke to the JC, Rus­sell had just re­turned from Copen­hagen and an in­tense week of teach­ing and croon­ing at Lim­mud.

From there, he’d jet­ted to Mi­ami Beach, where he was guest of hon­our at a weekly Yid­dish salon hosted by the swish Betsy Ho­tel. Michi­gan beck­oned from there, with ses­sions at a lo­cal Lim­mud and a con­cert at a lo­cal shul. Rus­sell now spends half of ev­ery month on the road per­form­ing and ex­plain­ing clas­sic Yid­dish vo­cal works.

De­spite the ini­tial sur­prise that a black man is singing dic­tion-per­fect Yid­dish from his kishkes, Jewish au­di­ences have wel­comed him over­whelm­ingly: “I don’t think I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced any­thing neg­a­tive other than very friendly scep­ti­cism,” he says. “And, even then, they’re in a dis­tinct mi­nor­ity. Peo­ple are very friendly. There’s some­thing haimish about the qual­ity of Yid­dish. When some­one finds out an­other per­son shares a love for this lan­guage — to which so many peo­ple have their per­sonal his­to­ries tied — it goes to the very heart of who they are. So when my au­di­ences find out this is the lan­guage in which I tell sto­ries about my­self, it’s also the lan­guage of sto­ries about them­selves.

“It’s an in­stant con­nec­tion with peo­ple I’ve never met. That is my ex­pe­ri­ence with Yid­dish. And it’s amaz­ing.”

You could say Rus­sell’s path to Jewish mu­sic was besh­ert. Born in Texas, Rus­sell was raised “all over the place” in a peri­patetic Amer­i­can mil­i­tary fam­ily. “The long­est time we spent was in the Bay Area, so that’s the place I feel I’m from,” he says.

Trained as an opera singer, Rus­sell made his pro­fes­sional stage de­but in 2007. “I was play­ing a newly lib­er­ated slave in a Philip Glass opera [2007’s Ap­po­mat­tox, set in the Amer­i­can Civil War]. Abra­ham Lin­coln en­tered stage right, and was greeted by us after the siege of Rich­mond. We greeted him with words from Psalm 47 — the te­hillim,” he re­calls. “I re­mem­ber think­ing it was un­usual. But it’s an his­tor­i­cal fact that it hap­pened. It was an amaz­ingly prophetic mo­ment, por­tray­ing my own African-Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence us­ing Jewish words. But if you’d sug­gested I’d be singing in Yid­dish 10 years later, I would have said you were in­sane.”

Around the same time, he met his now-hus­band, Rabbi Michael Roth­baum, on a dat­ing site. “I was in Cal­i­for­nia. He was in New York. He said: ‘If you’re ever here, drop me a line.’ I was cast in Cosi Fan Tutte in New York City, and wrote him when I got there. He asked me to a Mets game. I’m pretty sure the Mets lost that day. But we won.”

Just a few months after that first date, Rus­sell moved across the United States to join Roth­baum in Ny­ack, just north of New York City. And, at Con­gre­ga­tion Sons of Is­rael, where Roth­baum was rabbi, Rus­sell be­came a Jew. “I think of my­self pri­mar­ily as Con­ser­va­tive. That’s the prac­tice where I feel most com­fort­able,” he says. “I’m start­ing to get a lit­tle more used to dav­en­ing in Ortho­dox syn­a­gogues. Ev­ery time I go to shul in Europe, those are ones I end up go­ing to, though more out of ar­chi­tec­tural in­ter­est than re­li­gious af­fil­i­a­tion.”

The pair now live in Oak­land, near San Fran­cisco. “When my hus­band got a job with a sy­n­a­gogue here, it was a par­tic­u­lar kind of home­com­ing. When I left the Bay Area, I wasn’t Jewish. When I re­turned, I was. Peo­ple here think I’m a New Yorker,” he laughs. Along with his per­for­mances and education work, Rus­sell is a cre­ator of Con­ver­gence, an on­go­ing mu­si­cal col­lab­o­ra­tion com­bin­ing “di­verse strains of tra­di­tional Ashke­nazi Jewish and African Amer­i­can mu­sic di­rectly at spir­i­tual, his­tor­i­cal and tex­tual cross­roads. It’s a high-minded mash-up of Cha­sidic piyyu­tim, ne­gro spir­i­tu­als, Yid­dish labour union songs, Civil Rights an­thems, Is­raeli folk-song and tra­di­tional Ashke­nazi sy­n­a­gogue mu­sic.

“When I made the de­ci­sion to be a Jew, I also made the de­ci­sion not to leave my own cul­ture be­hind,” Rus­sell says. “I want to be as much of my­self as pos­si­ble. This pro­ject’s one way I’m doing that. When an au­di­ence hears I’m go­ing to be per­form­ing 100 years of African-Amer­i­can and Ashke­nazi mu­sic, one re­ac­tion is that there’s ab­so­lutely no con­nec­tion, and that any at­tempt to cre­ate one is bor­der­ing on farce,” he says.

“Which I think is un­true, as borne out by jazz and other forms of Amer­i­can pop­u­lar mu­sic.”

The other re­ac­tion, he notes, is: “‘Of course, th­ese two things come to­gether. They’re ab­so­lutely per­fect.’ Which also makes no sense. They’re dis­tinct types of mu­sic, with re­spec­tive his­to­ries. It’s not a co­in­ci­dence that the sounds of mu­sic, cul­ture, and spir­i­tu­al­ity were cre­ated at the same time and sound the same. The chal­lenge for me is to draw those sim­i­lar­i­ties out and make them ap­par­ent.”

With iden­tity ques­tions in mind, I men­tion that many Yid­dishists I know — ar­chiv­ists, aca­demics, po­ets — are gay or les­bian. Why that affin­ity?

“A lot of peo­ple see Yid­dish as an old thing. But, from my ex­pe­ri­ence, it’s a lan­guage of moder­nity,” he says. “That’s borne out by the peo­ple who study and per­form it.

“And it presents an al­ter­na­tive Jewish cul­tural space that isn’t tied up in a pol­i­tics of ex­clu­sion.

“There are es­sen­tial texts that pro­mote a kind of uni­ver­sal­ism that the world is still catch­ing up to. It’s not sur­pris­ing in the least that Yid­dish has been a wel­com­ing space for LGBT peo­ple. It’s al­ways been that way for me, from day one.”

Rus­sell’s sched­ule looks busier than ever for sum­mer. He’s been cho­sen for a con­clave called Yid­dishkeit, which as­sem­bles a se­lect group of artists and schol­ars to in­ter­act around the Jewish his­tory of Europe. At the mo­ment, he’s bon­ing up on Vitebsk, Be­larus, the birth­place of Marc Cha­gall. “We study the his­tory, and then ac­tu­ally see the places we’ve stud­ied. It’s go­ing to be amaz­ing.”

An­thony Tzvi Rus­sell

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