What Do Jews Want From a Black Per­former — of Yid­dish Mu­sic?

Forward Magazine - - Opinion - AN­THONY RUS­SELL An­thony Rus­sell is a clas­si­cal vo­cal­ist and Jewish ed­u­ca­tor in the Bay Area, where he lives with his hus­band, Rabbi Michael Roth­baum.

In case I’ve ever given you oc­ca­sion to think oth­er­wise, I’m black. My par­ents are black, and their par­ents (may they live to 120 years) are black as well, though they were not al­ways so; they were pre­vi­ously “col­ored.” My three broth­ers hap­pen to be black, as is ba­si­cally mayn gantse mish­pokhe, my whole fam­ily. One of their num­ber even­tu­ally de­cided to be­come Jewish through con­ver­sion but still re­mains, for all in­tents and pur­poses, black. That per­son is me. I have re­cently mar­ried a very hand­some Ashke­nazi Jew, but this has not yet man­aged to divest me of my black­ness.

As the chi­canery of Rachel Dolezal has made all too ap­par­ent, black­ness com­prises many skin tones. I like to style my­self as be­ing on the “dark as the cur­tains of Solomon, as the tents of Kedar” side of black­ness, though how dark that re­ally was is for bib­li­cal scholars to de­cide. In any case, I am dark skinned, with fea­tures of un­de­ni­able, rel­a­tively re­cent African de­scent.

De­spite all this black­ness, I’ve oc­ca­sion­ally been forced to con­sider whether I’m black enough for the Jews. This ques­tion never came from me (I’m black enough for me, thank God!), but from the ex­pec­ta­tions of Amer­i­can Jews who have ex­pe­ri­enced me as a mu­si­cal per­former — of Yid­dish.

It turns out if you’re black and sing in a num­ber of Jewish lan­guages over the course of a per­for­mance but don’t lit­er­ally per­form some con­ven­tional idea of black­ness, there are peo­ple who have no qualms about mak­ing their dis­ap­point­ment with these pro­ceed­ings known. Fur­ther­more, they will name other per­form­ers of color — Jewish or oth­er­wise — who fit their con­cept of per­for­ma­tive black­ness bet­ter than you did.

As an artist, it’s been a con­stant pri­or­ity for me to find cre­ative modes of ex­pres­sion that au­then­ti­cally rep­re­sent who I am. Lately, that has been a black guy who sings clas­si­cal Yid­dish rep as a way of telling sto­ries about my­self. More re­cently, I’ve found game col­lab­o­ra­tors — Veretski Pass — to cre­ate my own highly idio­syn­cratic mu­si­cal vi­sion of his­toric African-Amer­i­can Jewish­ness, called “Con­ver­gence.” But even when I was in the midst of per­form­ing that, an au­di­ence mem­ber still asked me, dur­ing the Q&A, whether and when I was go­ing to sing “Ol’ Man River.”

Last year, de­spite hav­ing al­ways been a clas­si­cally ori­ented vo­cal­ist, I was con­tacted to per­form for a syn­a­gogue’s Mo­town-themed Sab­bath ser­vice, which clearly meant that any read­ing by them of who I am and what I do was very su­per­fi­cial and based on one thing and one thing only. I’m not sure I both­ered to re­spond, be­cause I hon­estly never know how to re­spond. Must I be both deeply em­bar­rassed for some­one and have to ex­plain why that per­son should be em­bar­rassed him­self? Genug shoyn, enough al­ready.

I’ve been ad­vised that per­haps I should set aside my pride as a cre­ator and per­former and give the ( Jewish) peo­ple what they want. But what ex­actly does a Jewish au­di­ence want from a black per­former?

No one wants to hear my kha­zon­ish, or can­to­rial, ren­di­tion of “Up on the Roof,” or maybe you do (what have I just un­leashed upon the world?!), but it seems like ba­sic mentshlekhkayt, de­cency, for you not to dic­tate to me how I should per­form your idea of my eth­nic­ity. If another black vo­cal­ist is out there ful­fill­ing your fond­est fan­tasies of what black ex­is­tence is — com­plete with a song writ­ten by Jerome Kern, natch; even in Yid­dish, dou­ble natch — that’s great: They should live and be well. I’m go­ing to be over here, try­ing to serve my God and giv­ing you what­ever mea­sure of soul the Lord has seen fit to bless me with, which is prob­a­bly the blackest thing I could pos­si­bly do. You may or may not find the black­ness of this read­ily per­cep­ti­ble, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

Of course, as a Jew it’s not as if I haven’t stoked other ex­pec­ta­tions as well. I’ve been asked if I can re­ally call my­self a Jewish singer if I don’t sing “Oyfn Pripet­shik,” “My Yidishe Mame” and “Ru­ma­nia, Ru­ma­nia,” so I seem to have the happy fate of po­ten­tially leav­ing por­tions of a sin­gle au­di­ence dis­ap­pointed for com­pletely dif­fer­ent rea­sons.

I can joke, be­cause for the most part this has not been my fate. The im­mense amount of love, un­der­stand­ing and ac­cep­tance that I get from my over­whelm­ingly Jewish au­di­ences is of­ten in­tensely pro­found and life af­firm­ing. I’ve found a com­mu­nity in Yid­dishkeit that lets me es­tab­lish con­ti­nu­ities with its history and my own black­ness — on my own terms. The po­ten­tial for be­ing my­self that I’ve found as a singer of Yid­dish is il­lus­tra­tive of the many ex­pec­ta­tions I have for what per­form­ing Jewish­ness could be.

I’m more than happy to let you know what those ex­pec­ta­tions are af­ter your per­for­mance has ended.

'It's ba­sic de­cency for you not to dic­tate to me how I should per­form your idea of my eth­nic­ity.'


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