Yiddish Preservationists Take Their Subject To The Stage

Jul 6, 2013
Originally published on July 12, 2013 10:49 am

The name of the An-sky Yiddish Heritage Ensemble doubles as its mission statement: The quartet of performers and researchers has built a repetoire of old Yiddish folk songs dating back 100 years to the shtetls of Ukraine, in hopes of keeping that music from disappearing. Michael Alpert, who sings in the group, says it's part of a revival of Eastern Eurpoean Jewish culture that's be going on for nearly 40 years.

"We often, these days, talk about Yiddish land — which is not a particular piece of territory, but it is all the places in the world where Yiddish culture survives and continues, and is both preserved and renewed and reinvented in a contemporary existence," Alpert says. "To me, these songs, they express everything that's in life and in our lives. Even though they may be very old songs, they still have a tremendous emotional content. They're new and meaningful to those of us that sing them."

Michael Alpert and fellow singer Ethel Raim recently spoke with weekends on All Things Considered about the genesis and motivation of the An-sky Ensemble. Click the audio link to hear more.

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This is an old Yiddish folk song, so old it goes back 100 years to the Jewish towns - or in Yiddish, the shtetls - of Ukraine. The song is still around today thanks to a Russian Jewish writer who set out to document all of Jewish culture in the early 1900s. And now, singers Michael Alpert and Ethel Raim are working to preserve this song and others.

MICHAEL ALPERT: (Yiddish spoken)


ALPERT: Well, I was privileged to grow up speaking Yiddish. Most of my family, my parents were immigrants from eastern Europe, and I've always been fascinated with the world that my parents and my family came out of. I've been speaking and singing Yiddish since I was - pretty much since before I can remember.


ETHEL RAIM: Well, I guess like Michael, you know, I grew up with singing this music, as well as some other East European music. And I was 3 years old when I was put on a table and asked to sing Benillah(ph), Benillah.

(Singing in Yiddish)

This just has such profound meaning for me. And it really does sustain me.

(Singing in Yiddish)


ALPERT: Ansky was the pseudonym of Shloyme-Zanvel Rappaport who was the father of East European Jewish ethnography, was really the first person to begin collecting East European Jewish, Yiddish folklore tales, music, what we call material cultures. We are part of a larger movement that's been going on for almost the last four years of the revival of East European Jewish - often known as klezmer music - Yiddish song, which is very closely related genre, and Yiddish culture in general.

This - I guess it's important to see it in the light of the Second World War and the near-destruction of the East European Jewish world.

(Singing in Yiddish)

But we often these days talk about Yiddish land, which is not a particular piece of territory, but it is all the places in the world where Yiddish culture survives and continues and is both preserved and renewed and reinvented in a contemporary existence.

(Singing in Yiddish)

It's not a music that's very familiar in terms of what people think of as Yiddish or East European Jewish music today. But this is the real old-time stuff.


RAIM: I would be very, very sad if this music had no future. It's such a fantastic repertoire, and I think it puts people very much in touch with deep places within themselves that, you know, in contemporary life, we don't have that many opportunities. And I think that's really, really important.


RAIM: You know, I sing when I walk up my five flights to my loft, I sing in elevators. It's tunes that are constantly going in my head. And the music is just very, very meaningful to me.


ALPERT: To me, these songs, they express everything that's in life and in our lives. Even though they may be very old songs, they still - they have a tremendous emotional content. They are new and meaningful to those of us that sing them. They express what's inside us, and that's the traditional aesthetic of these songs.


SHEIR: Michael Alpert and Ethel Raim, along with cymbalist Pete Rushefsky and violinist Jake Shulman-Ment. Together, they make up the An-Sky Yiddish Heritage Ensemble.


SHEIR: Now an update on the ongoing news this hour. A passenger jet crashed while it was landing earlier this afternoon at San Francisco International Airport. Two people are confirmed dead. Area hospitals have received more than 40 people with injuries, some listed in critical condition.

At a press conference this evening, Debbie Hersman of the National Transportation Safety Board said the agency has little information on the cause of the crash at this point.

DEBBIE HERSMAN: We're certainly going to be looking at the aircraft to try to find the cockpit voice recorders and flight data recorders are functioning at the time of the accident. We'll be looking to get information from them as well as document the accident scene. It's still too early for us to tell. We haven't left Washington yet. Once we arrive in San Francisco, we'll have a lot better sense of what's going on and be able to provide additional information.

SHEIR: Debbie Hersman, part of the National Transportation Safety Board team that will be investigating the crash. The Asiana Airlines jet was coming from Seoul, South Korea. Elliott Stone was one of the passengers on board. He exited the plane safely and says he saw some crew members who had been badly injured in the crash.

ELLIOTT STONE: There is five I at least saw just terrible, just, like, you know, bad, bad news. And those are the flight attendants that got dropped out the back. The back got the worst of it. I think, like, right where the flight attendants sit, and they, you know, got pulled out right (unintelligible). And then we kind of fish tailed for another, like, 300 yards, just slide and then rolled over, fire started, and that's when everyone, all the passengers jumped out.

SHEIR: Passenger Elliott Stone who escaped safely from the plane after it crashed talking to CNN. Flights are delayed at airports across the country as a result of the plane crash in San Francisco. We will continue to follow this story as it develops. This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Sheir. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.