The nation’s top honor for folk art went to a Yiddish singer, songwriter and poet from the Bronx last week. Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman was one of 12 honorees to receive a National Heritage Fellowship at a September 22 ceremony on Capitol Hill.
“She is a master of Yiddish song and poetry,” said Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, who presented the $20,000 prize. “And she’s been an outstanding mentor of the klezmer revival.”
Among the other winners of what Gioia called “the Nobel Prize of the traditional arts” were a Cajun fiddler, a Navajo weaver, a Hawaiian chanter and a Norwegian woodcraft artist.
“She is a one and only,” said Josh Waletzky, who is making a documentary film about Schaechter-Gottesman, 85. Her blend of traditional folk idiom and original material is unique, he said. “There’s a certain quality of naiveté in her work, but also an immense sophistication.”
Raised in Czernowitz, Romania (now Ukraine), Schaechter-Gottesman survived the Holocaust and came to America in 1951. She brought with her a huge repertoire of Yiddish songs.
“I grew up in a house full of song,” Schaechter-Gottesman told the Forward. “One of our main forms of entertaining was to sing together.”
Schaechter-Gottesman first began writing songs and plays to amuse her children. (Her son, Itzik, is now an editor at the Yiddish Forward, working alongside her niece, Rukhl Schaechter.) Then she branched out into poetry. Her three books and two musical albums, published over the past 30 years, encompass a wide range of styles and subject matter: lively children’s ditties, poignant reflections on the passage of time, haunting laments for the lost shtetl, a ballad about September 11 and a song about a saxophone player on a subway platform.
Passing on the Yiddish cultural tradition has been a lifelong passion. “I’m a native Yiddish speaker,” she said, “so Yiddish comes naturally to me. But more than that, it’s ideological. I want my children, my grandchildren and many young people to have the gift of Yiddish.”
Schaechter-Gottesman taught at the Sholem Aleichem Folkshul in the Bronx during the 1950s and ’60s. In the 1970s, the Yiddish song revival brought a new generation of musicians and writers to her doorstep.
“There is definitely a resurgence,” she said. “The young people want their heritage back.”
Her work has been widely performed and recorded, both in America and abroad. Klezmer musician Michael Alpert, who arranges and performs Schaechter-Gottesman’s work, traveled to Washington to attend the award ceremony. “She writes wonderful texts,” he said, “deceptively simple, with many, many levels of meaning. Her lyrics and melodies come out of a folk tradition, but she takes it much farther.
“If I had to use one word to characterize her work,” Alpert said, “it would be ‘benkshaft’ — longing. It’s a longing for the people and places that did not survive the war — and also a longing for a better, more perfect world.”
Adrienne Cooper, another singer who performs Schaechter-Gottesman’s work, said she draws inspiration from her “great generativity, the enormous creativity that has flowered in her later years.” In one of Cooper’s favorites, Schaechter-Gottesman dubs herself “a branch of an old tree” and invites birds to nest among her leaves. “I want my crown to turn green and blossom,” she writes.
Among Schaechter-Gottesman’s works are “Steshkes tsvishn moyern” (“Footpaths amid Stone Walls,” 1972), “Sharey” (“Dawn,” 1980), “Zumerteg” (“Summer Days: 20 Yiddish Songs,” 1990), “Lider” (“Poems,” 1995), “Perpl shlenglt zikh der veg” (“The Winding Purple Road,” 2002) and “Af di gasn fun der shtot” (“On the Streets of the City,” 2003).
Ellen Cassedy is a writer in Washington, D.C.