Category Archives: Yiddish

Imagining the stars tonight …

Rain, rain and more rain … here’s hoping we will still have a turnout for the inaugural rehearsal of Dos Pintele Syd tonight. For the rehearsal, I’ve just finished a 4-part arrangement of one of the most beautiful songs to come out of the Vilna Ghetto, Unter Dayne Vayse Shtern, written by the late great Abraham Sutzkever, with music by Abraham Brudno.

I think the poem encapsulates the antitheodical conundrum facing Jewish culture at its darkest moment. In a place of fear and entrapment, with an immanent threat of death, the song expresses the longing for some divine comfort, a place or being that the poet is not sure even exists.

Zachary Braiterman in his excellent book (God) After Auschwitz cites Sutzkever’s friend in the ghetto Zelig Kalmanovitsch commenting thus about the poet’s calling God to trial in the poem Kol Nidre:

“Ver es hot a din-toyre mit Got darft koydem kol gleybt in Got.”
(Whoever calls God to account must first of all believe in God)

Marc Chagall wrote of Sutskever that “Once upon a time we were dreaming of sweet and imaginary fires and of crumbling wedding canopies, but he, Sutzkever, beheld man in his utter ugliness, in his physical and spiritual degradation.”

It is not possible to know what exact poems Chagall was thinking of when he described Sutzkever’s work in such terms, but I don’t think that Unter Dayne Vayse Shtern fits this description. It is a work that exists between hope and doubt.

Here’s one of the most beautiful renditions of this song, performed by Chava Alberstein:

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Filed under Nostalgia, Philosophy, Yiddish

A busy, Yiddishe Wednesday …


Oops. Have I bitten off more than I can chew? This Wednesday I am speaking at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s Music Colloquium Series (4pm, Room 3003 at the Con) on aspects of my doctoral work. The paper is entitled “Hidden Testimony: musical experience and memory in Jewish Holocaust survivors”. Here’s the abstract:

Considering music as a feature of testimony is not a new endeavour in the field of Holocaust studies. The collection ofmusical memories and songs of those times began as early as 1945, with individual zamlers (song collectors) such as Szmerke Kaczerginski, and ethnographers such as David Boder and Israel Adler. For the past fourteen years, I have also undertaken a similar project of sorts, collecting musical testimonies from over ninety survivors in Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States and Israel. My interviewee subjects were asked to focus primarily (but not exclusively) on musical experience in theperiod 1939-1945, in camp, ghetto, hiding or partisan groups, as well as contextualising and reflecting their personal musical backgrounds before, during, and afterwards. Throughout this process, survivors spoke not only of extant melodies and experiences, but also added subtle and significant nuances to existing knowledge as well as adding to the general body of musical experience with new works and newly described musical experiences. Interviews were conducted in English, and songs collected in Yiddish, Czech, German, Polish, Hebrew, Hungarian, French and Russian.

Musical experience and its memory is a unique testimonial construct, arguably distinct from the more judicial process of historical testimony. From the earliest accounts arising out of the Holocaust, to recollections from survivors 65 years after the events, it speaks in a profoundly subjective manner about many difference life experiences during times of trauma. Whereas the musical form in testimony can complement and add nuance to historical readings of the Holocaust, musical testimony as a theoretical construct and practice can offer the possibility of new approaches to the Holocaust, treating survivors as living rather than dying witnesses, and preserving the Holocaust in perhaps the most durable form of testimony itself: narrative song.

So if you are interested, come to the Con on Wednesday at 4pm. The session lasts approximately an hour.

But wait … there’s more … later on in the evening on Wednesday, at Newtown Shul (Georgina St, Newtown) I am directing the inaugural rehearsal of a new choir in Sydney, dedicated completely to the performance of Yiddish song. Organised by the wonderful Clare Fester and Sean Sidky after their successful fellowship at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Pennsylvania, our choir is called “Dos Pintele Syd”. The name is a pun on the famous Yiddish musical by Thomashevsky, Dos Pintele Yid, translated somewhat inadequately as “the Jewish Spark”. If you want to know a bit more about this expression, here’s a fairly good explanation on the web:

http://forward.com/articles/9020/an-essential-point/

Anyway, our new Yiddish choir is open to anyone who has a voice, regardless of age, gender, belief, background or hair colour. You don’t need to be able to read music, you don’t need to be able to read Yiddish, but you do need to be able to sing in tune.

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