BERLIN (JTA) — Isabel Frey stands outside the Austrian chancellor’s residence atop a white van with her guitar surrounded by speakers and protesters.
It’s the day after the Ibiza Affair was made public in May 2019. The scandal centered on a video showing Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache and Johann Gudenus, both members of the far-right nationalist Freedom Party, or FPO, sealing a corrupt deal to earn election support from a Russian oligarch. The affair rocked Austria and triggered nationwide elections.
Frey starts to play “Daloy Politsey,” or “Down with the Police.” Historically it’s a protest song written by Yiddish-speaking demonstrators calling for an end to czar Nicholas and the ruling class of late 19th, early 20th-century Russia. But Frey created a German verse and chorus for the occasion, and it quickly became the anthem of the protest.
“Hey, hey, down with HC [Heinz-Christian] and down with the new OVP [the ruling Austrian People’s Party],” she sings. “Get out on the streets despite the snow and rain. Today is Strache’s last day.”
Audio of the protest can be heard in Frey’s studio recording, fading in toward the end of the track of her recent album, “Millennial Bundist” –– a collection of primarily Yiddish worker and revolutionary songs that the young musician taught herself over the past few years.
That performance at the impromptu protest launched Frey’s own political career. Just 17 months later she would be elected to represent Vienna’s historically Jewish Leopoldstadt neighborhood on the City Council.
Her raw idealism is a throwback to the heady days of workers’ rights and the street protests of another century, but she’s also rooted in the present, part of a growing community of other like-minded radical Jews in the Diaspora attempting to recreate a sense of Jewish proletarian solidarity.
Frey, 26, grew up in Vienna’s 6th District, near the city’s center, and was part of the socialist Hashomer Hatzair Zionist youth movement. But she became disillusioned with Zionism after spending a year on multiple kibbutzes in Israel the year after finishing high school.
“I thought kibbutzim were going to destroy capitalism,” she said, laughing. “And then I got there and it was just this feeling of dissonance, that something was off.”
Her first kibbutz had been privatized. Beyond a dining hall, there were no communal elements.
“One day a week we would ‘work,’” she said, making air quotes, adding that often meant going into fields and painting lemon trees white to prevent them from drying out.
Frey also described dismay at seeing how Thai guest workers, who had recently replaced Palestinian guest workers following the beginning of the 2012 conflict in the nearby Gaza Strip, were underpaid.
“It just felt so ridiculous being these spoiled Jewish kids from all over Europe pretending to engage in manual labor,” she said. “This is not socialism. This can’t be socialism.”
Her time at the kibbutz ended with her group leaving to take a tour with Breaking The Silence, an organization led by Israeli veterans who offer tours to “expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories,” according to the group’s description of their mission. She remembered calling her parents afterward in tears.
“It’s not like they were bombarding me with propaganda,” she said. “It just felt ridiculous that I had been spending my whole life in this youth movement, propagating critical thinking and learning, and I never heard the word ‘occupation.’”
Frey said she realized the issue was far more complex than she had thought.
“You’re not just Jewish because you’re a Zionist,” she said.
Frey soon found a different way to connect to her Jewish identity. A friend from a kibbutz shared something on Facebook from an organization called Jewdas.
“A Jewish-anarchist collective? That exists? That’s awesome!” she said, describing the group, which calls itself a collective of “Radical Voices for the alternative diaspora.” “That was also the time when I first heard Yiddish worker songs.”
Contemporary Yiddish singers like Daniel Kahn and their music drew her into this “universe of left-wing, Jewish revolutionary culture that I could see myself as part of,” with songs like “Arbetlose Marsch,” or “March of the Unemployed.” She was living in Amsterdam at the time, around 2014, becoming more active politically.
Through Jewdas, Frey continued to learn of the political history of Yiddish music and signed up for their “BirthWrong” tour around Marseille — a counter to the free “Birthright” trips to Israel that have young Jews tour the country — to meet other like-minded Jews. She was drawn to the idea of a revolutionary side of being Jewish that goes against the eternal victim narrative that’s prevalent throughout Europe.
“That was really special,” she said of her BirthWrong trip. “You could talk freely about politics. It was super queer and feminist. It was really special just in terms of community.”
On the tour, Frey met Rachel Weston, a Yiddish-speaking performer from London who was studying to be a cantor. From Weston, Frey learned about KlezKanada and Yiddish Summer Weimar, two of the most popular gatherings of klezmer and Yiddish-speaking workshops in the world.
“That was my introduction to modern-day Yiddish Land,” Frey said.
“Down with HC and OVP”
Frey started teaching herself Yiddish songs. She had already taught herself to play guitar while in Israel and had been singing her whole life, so it wasn’t long before she felt comfortable performing them in public.
She performed at various actions throughout Amsterdam and even once in the northern Netherlands at an environmental protest. The performances were never traditional concerts but always in a political context. She once sang “Daloy Politsey” a cappella after a tent of squatters in Amsterdam was evicted.
Later, back home in Vienna, where she was back in school, that song became the contemporary anthem of the Donnerstagsdemonstrationen, or “Thursday Demos,” protesting the conservative ruling parliament coalition in Austria. Her first public performance of the song took place on May 2, 2019. She had written her German lyrics just the day before.
“It was a huge hit,” she said. “Yiddish, no one understood, but then with the German phrases and ‘Down with HC,’ everyone was cheering so much.”
The line “Down with HC” would prove to be prophetic. The organizers invited Frey to perform again the next week, declaring it the new hymn of the movement, and printed sheets of its lyrics to hand out to fellow protesters at demonstrations. The Ibiza Affair broke two weeks later.
The word “Bundist” is front and center on Frey’s album. It refers to the secular Jewish socialist movement that grew out of Russia and Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that saw many of its followers murdered in the Holocaust.
“I identify with the Bundist movement a lot through this tradition of secular, socialist Yiddish politics and culture,” Frey said.
Frey is especially drawn to what she sees as neo-Bundism’s message of anti-assimilation and reclaiming Jewish cultural heritage, as opposed to what she calls Zionism’s “Jewish territorial nationalism.”
Bundism is on the rise among anti-Zionist and other left-wing Jews of her generation, especially in Australia. Frey developed a profound connection with the Bundist concept of “doykeit” or “hereness,” that advocates for liberation where Jews actively live throughout the Diaspora.
“Today, it’s a very big and powerful idea for the Jewish Diaspora,” she said. “The idea that you’re at home where you are in the Diaspora rather than always yearning for your far away homeland, Israel, even though in reality you’re not going to move there.”
Frey acknowledged that Jews still immigrate to Israel in high numbers — and that she has a complicated relationship with Zionism — but points out that many Israelis are also finding their home in the Diaspora, notably in Berlin.
“The Diaspora-homeland conversation is more complicated,” she said. “I understand why people feel there would need to be a Jewish state for there to be Jewish survival.”
Frey is ultimately against the status quo of what she describes as Israel’s “ethnonationalist” government. She also believes doykeit is relevant for both Israelis and Palestinians.
Over the past decade, millennials — many the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Yiddish speakers — have been signing up for Yiddish courses with organizations like the Worker’s Circle or the YIVO Institute. For some it’s a fun hobby. For others it informs their politics and the way they see the world.
The latter is certainly the case for Frey. She took her newfound Yiddishist ideals a step further in Vienna’s most recent election cycle when she ran with the LINKS party to join the district council of the Leopoldstadt neighborhood, historically the city’s most Jewish district and still home to many Jewish institutions.
The neighborhood is also home to a Reform synagogue, Or Chadasch, that her grandparents helped start. Frey grew up in Or Chadasch, became a bat mitzvah and was one of the only Jews among her friends who read from the Torah. She’s still a member and her father recently became president of the community.
LINKS, which grew out of the Donnerstagsdemonstrationen, was founded in January 2020, describing itself as anti-capitalist, democratic, queer-feminist, anti-racist and environmental. It is also unique in that it has a strict quota for representation – 60% women or nonbinary members, and 33% of its members must be people of color or have an immigration background. Frey’s decision to run herself came at the strong encouragement of party leaders.
“I said I would like to run as a left-wing Jew and an anti-racist,” she said. “I wanted to, for the first time in my life, be publicly a political figure and activist as a left-wing Jew.”
By election’s end in early October, LINKS had made history, winning 23 seats and 15 district representatives — the most of any left-wing political party in Vienna since 1954. It’s also in a position to receive state funding and have enough representation to form alliances with other parties. Frey will take her seat within the year.
In Austria, like much of Europe, voters cast their ballots by party, but Frey said they can write in a name as a symbolic measure. In this respect, she placed third on the ballot.
One of the topics on Frey’s wish list is community welfare — she wants to bring in more nurses and social workers to key spots of the district with higher rates of social problems while simultaneously lowering police presence in those areas. Other issues on her agenda are the protection of public space against increased commercialization and dismantling structural racism by fighting racial profiling and making the district a safe haven for refugees.
She’d also like to put the concept of Vergangenheitsbewältigung — reckoning with the past, specifically in the post-Nazi era — to work in a more modern context to include minorities beyond Jews.
“It doesn’t work if you just talk about the Holocaust and then use that as an expression of Austrian national identity, and use it to indirectly exclude other people from the national community, like refugees and Muslims,” she explained. “My goal as a Jewish anti-racist politician is to stop the playing of Jewish and Muslim and other minorities against each other.”
As if Frey didn’t already have a full plate, she also recently joined the cultural council of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien Orthodox community, of which she had also been a member as a child.
“I want to build a scene like what’s in Berlin of Yiddish and klezmer music,” she said, adding that she wouldn’t bring her political work into that community. “I’m there to promote Yiddish music and culture.”
Having said that, Frey paused.
“But in my worldview, that’s tied to my political work,” she said. “It’s not so separate, actually.”