When I was 11 years old, late at night while falling asleep, I would listen to an LP album of “Favorite Jewish Music” that belonged to my parents. There were no words, only the sad sounds of an orchestra making me teary-eyed as I listened to the old-world melodies. One melody that stood out for me was “A Yiddishe Mama” (a Jewish mother). I guess it was popular because it turned out that my mother, who was a naturally gifted soprano, had the sheet music with the words. I had been taking piano lessons so I could plunk out the melody on our newly acquired baby grand piano. Within a week I had memorized both the melody and the words.
It was soon after this discovery of traditional Jewish music that my father asked me to sing for his mother, who had moved into a Workmen’s Circle retirement community where the residents were primarily Jewish. There was a common area where many of the residents gathered. My bubby Molly was sitting with her new friends when I began to sing “A Yiddishe Momme”. There was an audible hush in the room when I began to sing, and as I looked into the eyes of these old Jewish souls, some began to gently dab their tears with a Kleenex.
People cried, and for the first time I realized I could move someone with my voice. The fact that it happened while singing a song in Yiddish did not go unnoticed.
When my cellist Diana Parmeter asked me how long I had been preparing for the concert I am currently performing, I meekly answered, “All my life?”
Honoring Jewish composers and writers that perished in the Holocaust by singing songs in the language it was written, Yiddish has become a passion of mine.
Temple Israel is a Reform temple, and quite honestly, I did not know if the Temple members were ready for a 90-minute concert of songs sung solely in Yiddish. With my research completed, I was excited to relay all the fascinating stories I had discovered behind each song. For example, the first song I learned “Dos Elnte Kind” (The Lonely Child) was based on a true story about a mother who hid her child outside the ghetto walls of Vilna to save her child’s life. After contacting Alix Wall, the daughter of “The Lonely Child’, I discovered more truths about the song’s history and was able to add more depth to my interpretation.
With the translations of the Yiddish projected on a screen, the audience was transported to the heart and soul of the Jewish ghettos of Eastern Europe between 1939 – 1945. The overwhelming positive response to my concert proved to me that a predominantly English speaking audience can appreciate a concert of songs performed in ‘mamaloshen’ (the mother-tongue)
Much has happened since the concert’s debut in 2018. The concert has been performed several times including a large turn-out at a synagogue in Wilmington, Delaware, and a nearly full house in a performance at the Art Theatre in Long Beach, California. Displaying English translations has been part of this program from the start, but showing historical photos has added a whole new dimension to the concert.
After obtaining permission to show the photos from Lodz Poland, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the Holocaust Museum of Washington, D.C., I contacted Zola Piatka Shuman. Zola is the niece of one of the composers in my program who perished, and I needed her permission to use both her uncle and mother’s pictures. With permission granted, Zola expressed how happy she was that I was continuing to sing her Uncle’s songs. We have been Facebook friends ever since.
Is there a receptive audience willing to support the performing arts during a pandemic? I believe with a resounding yes that audiences want artists to continue to create works that satisfy our innate desire to be entertained. As I gather the knowledge to create the best ‘virtual concert’ possible I will keep you all posted on any new developments. The next blog will look at my recent connection with a descendant of Leyb Rozenthal, who in 1945 perished in the holocaust. The Yiddish phrase traditionally said as two Jews are parting is “Zay gezunt”. It means literally, “Be in good health”. During this pandemic we all need to be saying to each other “Zay gezunt!…Harriet Bennish