Midway through its hauntingly minimalist performance on the opening night of Moscow’s second-annual klezmer festival, the vocal quartet Ashkenazim took a dramatically long pause to introduce the song “Dem Shokhens Meydl.” The group’s tenor, Alina Ivakh, explained that song is an allegorical tale of two young pioneer girls — the Soviet version of Girl Scouts — speaking inquisitively about a letter that their neighbor Lena is writing to her parents in Hebrew, from right to left. “How can I explain why I write backwards from everyone else?” Ivakh asked the audience in feigned exasperation, paraphrasing the fictional Lena’s internal monologue.
“How can I explain,” she continued, “why, for as long as I can remember, my whole life has been backwards?”
Such a maxim could just as easily be applied to the recent history of klezmer itself in Russia. A musical tradition with historic roots stretching back more than a century to Jewish settlements scattered throughout Russia and other countries in the former Soviet Union, klezmer largely disappeared from the region during communist times. But the movement found new life in the West in the 1970s and has reversed itself, with local klezmer performers taking their musical and cultural cues from established Western artists. As klezmer reemerges in the land of its birth, its influences are as Western — if not more so — than they are homegrown.
The Moscow festival, named the Dona Fest after the local troupe that organizes the weeklong gathering, brings internationally renowned klezmer musicians from North America and Western Europe to the city for a series of instructional sessions and collaborative performances.
On the festival’s first day of classes — a bright spring morning in Vidnoye, a quiet village on Moscow’s outskirts — Welsh multi-instrumentalist Merlin Shepherd gave the assembled group of visibly eager performers an impromptu lesson in klezmer’s traditional musical arrangement. “Harmonies, modes, scales — let’s break the music down from the inside out,” Shepherd said as the group prepared to break for individual practice.
“Klezmer is based on cantorial traditions; by being faithful to this style, we can really create a living world and awaken some kind of cultural memory,” he suggested as the musicians clambered into their respective corners and hallways, the familiar whoosh of an accordion snaking its way through the corridor.
Over a lunch of oily cabbage soup and black bread in the communal stolovaya, Shepherd spoke of a great maturity seen in Russian klezmer over the past several years. “When I first started coming to Russia in 1996, practically no one could krechtz,” he said, referring to the wailing, plaintive vocal inflection that gives the genre its clearly identifiable sound. “But Russian musicians have been so hungry to learn, I really now view them more as colleagues than as students.
“The musicians from the region have always been so strong technically. It’s just a question of giving them that specific cultural context.” Just then his wife, Polina, joined us at the table. She is an accomplished klezmer vocalist who began her career with Simkha, the first post-Soviet klezmer ensemble to engage in the early 1990s.
She began to tell her own story of finding Jewish identity in a rigidly secular Soviet society. “When I was 16, I had to decide,” Polina explained, “am I Russian or am I Jewish?” Soviet authorities demanded that all citizens indicate nationalities on their state-issued passports, and being “Jewish” was one of these ethnic categories –– forcing many into a one-dimensional identity. Like many post-Soviet klezmer musicians, Polina experienced a cultural — although not necessarily religious — reawakening through the music and through the expressive Yiddish patois that inherently follows.
In the past decade in the former Soviet Union, it has been foreign and in particular Western klezmer experts who have provided the majority of guidance and instruction to performers in the region. There remain, however, a cherished few native-Yiddish speakers who draw on their own memories of life in the Jewish Pale almost a century ago. Perhaps the most widely revered of this ever-shrinking group is Arkady Gendler, a confessed anachronism who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household in Bessarabia.
“I began to sing before I could speak,” 84-year-old Gendler said in reference to his childhood as one of 10 children in the sleepy Jewish hamlet of Soroke, nestled in the northern corner of present-day Moldova. Having spent the majority of his life forced to speak his native language in furtive spurts, Gendler greeted the collapse of the Soviet regime and its tacit antisemitism with great hope. He quickly moved to open a school of Jewish culture in Zaporozhye, Ukraine, where he almost single-handedly reintroduced Yiddish to the region via his memories and personal repertoire of songs, the core teaching materials.
Down the hall, in a charmingly faded classroom where floral wallpaper had begun to crack and yellow, Grammy-nominated vocalist Adrienne Cooper led a course in Yiddish song for a group of young, largely female lyricists. “Ha-ro-set,” she said in purposeful slow motion for her students, few of whom were familiar with the Passover staple or had ever attended a Seder.
“S’iz matse do,” they continued in Yiddish, “Matzo is here, haroset is here, and a goblet of red wine,” the group sang, pausing every few bars to ask Cooper a flurry of questions about the significance of each item. They continued singing, their voices now dipping and swaying in confident unison, “It’s Passover time, it’s Seder time, what could be sweeter?”
Joshua Yaffa is a freelance journalist who covers Russia and the former Soviet Union.