Inside the Mad Yiddish World of Psoy Korolenko

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If eyes are windows to the soul, the sills of Psoy Korolenko’s have a menorah prominently posted in them and it’s always the eighth night of Hanukkah.

Despite — or is it because of? — his bushy beard, his mad-professor/Old-Testament prophet look, there is something affable and approachable about Korolenko. He has a determined stroll, gives a firm hug, is quick to laugh, grows excitable easily. When he appears in the courtyard at The Paper Box on Saturday afternoon, a few hours before the Borscht Ball, advertised as “an allstar multi-genre musical extravaganza / high-energy Russian-inspired duly debaucherous evening,” which he curated, Korolenko wears a short-sleeved button-down covered in multi-colored turtles and has a bounce to his step. Picture a jetlagged Allen Ginsberg hopped up on a double espresso: a polyglot people-pleaser, a born performer, a half-serious shaman (though apparently not one who believes in astrology: when I tell him we have the same birthday, he responds, “So we both may or may not be a Taurus”). He is also a practitioner of what he calls “spell art,” which is to say art that casts a spell on its befuddled, bemused, blissed-out audience.

He is here and ready to perform, and talking to me is a distraction, though he handles the obligation gracefully, dutifully stopping and starting to accommodate the planes making their plane noises overhead and enunciating his responses with professorial elocution. There is a sound check happening inside the club, and huddles of reunited comrades in the courtyard, people enjoying a cigarette and catch-up chast. Korolenko wants to huddle, especially when he spots Merlin Shepherd, in town from the UK, to lead the Klezmer Kapelye, which will tonight back Korolenko’s performance. Korolenko wants to play.

But first he must explain who he is, what he stands for, what he does and what that means. On the subject of his “art name or pen name,” Korolenko, née Pavel Lion, is voluble: for a good ten minutes of the hour he has set aside to speak, he discourses, like the lit scholar he is, on Vladimir Korolenko, the late-nineteenth century Russian writer and human rights defender, the subject of the artist’s doctoral research, his “symbolic ancestor.” Gesturing wildly, not so much with his hands as his very fingers, which bend and turn, at random and in implausible, curious configurations — ring finger to thumb, middle finger crossed over pointer, digits bent entirely into the palm or contorted at the knuckles — Korolenko describes his namesake’s work, dubs him the “Russian Zola” for his defense of Menahem Mendel Beilis against accusations of blood libel, and otherwise extols his virtues, with which he had the chance to get well acquainted as a philology student at Moscow State University. Vladimir Korolenko explored a “very wide spectrum of marginalities,” Psoy Korolenko says approvingly, addressed the experiences of “wanderers, homeless, immigrants,” and wrote “the very first” book about Russians in America, called “Bez Yazyka (Without Language).”

The name “Psoy,” by the by, is a joke of sorts about language: like all jokes worth much of anything, this one is multi-layered, though it might also be accused of being a tad too reliant on obscure naming practices. This name too comes from Vladimir Korolenko, who, in a letter, mused about the Russian Orthodox tradition of naming children according to the saint governing the day of their birth and marveled at the ridiculously comical possibility of being born on “Psoy Day” and being dubbed “Psoy Korolenko.” “Psoy” sounds, Korolenko the performer notes, not unlike the Russian “pyos,” or “dog.” And this is perhaps especially poignant—and/or especially absurd—in conjunction with “Korolenko,” a name that invokes royalty or kingliness (“korol’” means “king”).

“I was in love with this word combination,” Psoy Korolenko concludes.

And love is important to him. He speaks, often and with apparent, though also apparently amused, sincerity of being “in love with,” of “flirting” with language and with languages. He attests to a profound connection with and to all of the languages he uses in performance: the Russian that is his native tongue, the language of his graduate research; the Yiddish that is his “heritage language” (“All my ancestors are apparently Jewish”); the French that was spoken by his maternal grandfather (“the most important role figure for me in my childhood”) and became another “heritage language,” an introduction to “French song and to French cinema and French literature.” His knowledge of the languages might not be perfect, but then it need not be: in his music, Korolenko is after something beyond literal understanding, pursuing instead the more pure forms of knowledge, like communion and community.

Of his audience, he proclaims several emphatic times, “They are good people.” Which means what, exactly? Well, he says, “They typically know how and love to deviate a little bit from their straightforward, mainstream tastes and interests, because they know how and love, a little bit, to feel different. Think in alternatives. Broaden their perception somehow.” Warming to the theme, he continues in the manner of a jazz improviser, “They know how and love to love things they hate or think they hate, get involved with things they feel bored by. So they know how to overcome boundaries. They love to overcome such boundaries and stereotypes. So that’s why they are a creative audience. But, why? Because they are good people.” Whether in Berlin or Beersheba, Salt Lake City or Nizny Tagil, Moscow or Petersburg or New York—all sites of Psoy Korolenko performances—the people at his shows participate in nonverbal message perception and this happens in no small part because of how verbally intricate the songs are, the songs’ dependence on multiple allusions in multiple languages. Their willingness to abandon themselves to the experience and to take joy in it, to laugh because other people in the audience are laughing, makes Psoy “totally happy.”

And that may just be because he himself is a “good person,” the kind of person who repeatedly uses cute as a modifier: of his English (“foreign” — though in fact it is quite fluent —and “cute because of that”); of Yiddish generally (“Yiddish is about being a weird Russian, a weird Pole, a weird Ukrainian, a weird German. Weird but somehow cute and familiar”); of being a Jew in Russia (in a follow-up email, he notes that “recently, anti-Semitism and related issues have become way less topical, which, to some extent, deprives the Jewish performer of this cute subversive vibe”). It is not, he is careful to clarify, that he wants to objectify ethnicity or propound a cartoon multi-culti vision, but that he sees, in the crowds at his concerts, a chance to encounter the Other and make him less so, to recognize and overcome alienation, to embrace love. Which is certainly cute.

Also: borscht-like. “Borscht is a very good metaphor for what is going to happen tonight,” Psoy says, “because it’s a very tasty and diverse meal, which you can eat and drink. You can both eat it and you can drink it.”

Most importantly, you must taste it. Borscht is not something to talk about, but something to embrace, to taste and taste again. So is music, especially the kind of music Psoy Korolenko plays. It’s funny and disorienting and weird and cute. But you have to be there.

Yevgeniya Traps is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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Inside the Mad Yiddish World of Psoy Korolenko

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