The title of my program, “Tears, Joy, and Hope” reflects the emotions stirred within me every time I rehearsed these songs for my concert. These Yiddish songs written in the Jewish Ghettos are both profoundly beautiful and haunting. Because I had researched the history of each song, I sensed the deep sadness these composers and writers were experiencing at the time of their writing it. To cope with the hardships of living in a ghetto, their music began to reflect their daily life experiences and the confinement of the ghetto walls did not stop them from creating music.
To be honest, in the first few months I found it emotionally difficult to rehearse the songs. I could not get through them without breaking down into deep sobs of sadness and loss. For me, knowing nearly all those connected to the songs were murdered gave me overwhelming grief. My husband Joe would walk over to me, pat me on the shoulder and say, “It’s alright Harriet.” Then I would bury my face into his shoulder and cry. As a performer I knew that an audience does not pay to see an artist cry, but they would pay to connect with the composers and the stories behind the songs. I continued to rehearse the songs until I had no more tears to shed, and understood what the writers were trying to convey. Only then were the songs ready to perform.
While attending KlezKanada one summer evening in 2019, I heard the Grammy nominated performers and creators of “Yiddish Glory”. They were celebrating the discovery of Yiddish poetry long thought to be lost, written in the 1940’s Soviet Union. Newly composed arrangements had been created to infuse meaning into the poetry, and upon hearing this new music I realized what was missing from my existing program….ARRANGEMENTS!
There were many well-known Jewish composers forced into the ghettos such as Misha Veksler conductor of the Jewish Theatre Orchestra and composer and writer Lev Rozenthal; both placed in the Vilna Ghetto. Composer and writer David Begelman of the Lodz ghetto also wrote many songs expressing the tragedies of daily life, but after the war, all that was left of the piano and orchestral arrangements for these songs was the melody line.
The arrangements my musicians and I recreated for my concert were acceptable and entertaining, but the emotional power needed to support a song touched by such painful loss was missing. I made the decision to commission composers to create new musical arrangements for all the songs in my program that very night.
While still at KlezKanada, I began inquiring if there were any composers and quickly discovered there were several attending that summer. Zachary Mayer was one of them and received high ratings from several campers as well as his former teacher and fellow composer Hankus Netsky of the New England Conservatory.
Zach and I negotiated a price per song (not cheap) and prior to stepping onto the bus that would take me to the Montreal Airport to catch my flight back to California, we shook hands to seal the deal (the old fashioned way). As we shook hands my mind was racing with one question: How am I going to pay for these expensive new arrangements?? There were 15 songs in my concert and each arrangement cost $500!
Upon my return to Long Beach, California I began telling anyone who would listen how I needed to start raising money to pay for new arrangements. I was considering writing a grant proposal, but a few weeks after my October 6 concert at the Art Theatre in 2019 I received two surprise checks in the mail from the two daughters of the late Ethel Weinstien (the Yiddish teacher who originally lent me the book of 30 Songs from the Jewish Ghetto) with a note stating how they very much wanted to support my program. Another friend from college also wanted to support my efforts and sent me a generous monetary gift.
Receiving unsolicited monetary gifts can stir up some interesting emotions. Knowing that someone values what you are doing and sees its importance and purpose as much as you do is life affirming. I am beyond grateful for what I have received thus far but realize I still have a ways to go to fully fund new arrangements for this project. My next blog will explore the exciting next level I will be taking this program to and what it’s going to take to make it happen!