At home with Yiddish song
By Jennie Szink, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer
When Ira Segalewitz attended a Yiddish conference last spring, he didn’t expect to be enveloped by songs about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed more than 145 workers in New York in 1911. He didn’t think he’d be so connected to the disaster either, until he heard Yiddish a cappella singer Susan Leviton describe it through song.
“Her voice was just so moving,” he said. “I had never heard a voice like hers, and it was just beautiful to listen to the story.”
The impact her singing had on him and so many others struck Segalewitz. The co-chair of the DJCC’s Lynda A. Cohen Yiddish Club of Dayton, he told Leviton she had to come to the area.
She will perform at Beth Jacob Synagogue on April 1 with accompanist Lauren Brody.
Leviton’s songs are in Yiddish, the language of Eastern European Jews, largely derived from High Middle German and written with Hebrew characters. Leviton said she uses several performance techniques to capture the entire audience, whether they know the language or not.
When she was growing up in Camden, N.J., the Yiddish that Leviton was exposed to had never been spoken to her or her sister directly. Her mother relished the melodramatic ballads and freilachs (dance melodies) on the radio that often brought her to tears, but Leviton’s father would call from the other room for her to turn it down.
Leviton began researching Yiddish music 25 years ago. She found she connected to the messages of several songs. She was unsure how her parents would react when she told them she was going to travel as a Yiddish singer.
“You know, when I told my father, he was actually absolutely thrilled,” Leviton said. “He came to hear me sing at a performance and afterward told me one of the songs I’d performed was one his father used to play. That was incredible to me because that was one of the first times he’d really spoken about my grandfather.”
Bridging generations, different viewpoints, and cultures is what Leviton has experienced while traveling the world as one of the few people to explore women’s a cappella singing in Yiddish. She has been doing so since 1984, when she moved to Harrisburg, Pa. and sat in on a rehearsal of the Old World Folk Band, an instrumental group playing klezmer, Eastern European Jewish folk music.
The lore is that the band’s leader, Fred Richmond, handed her sheet music and invited her to their next performance without even hearing her sing.
“I called my Mom up and said, ‘OK, here is payback for all of those times you used Yiddish as a secret language in front of me when I was a child. Now I need you to teach me,’” Leviton said.
Leviton, who is also an experienced Judaic calligrapher and papercutter, began with language lessons and quickly threw herself into everything surrounding the music: including the culture’s art (she is a visual artist as well). Digging up sheet music dating back to the 1800s, Leviton was surprised to find that most of the songs’ messages are still relevant today, such as the labor anthem Arbeter-froyen (Working Women) that called women to join the labor movement.
“This song was sung at virtually every labor gathering in Europe and America in the 1880s through 1930s,” Leviton said. “The song was calling to women to come out into the street and help raise up the people who were slaves, or rise against the oppressors. I thought, ‘If this song had so much to say to me, how many more are there?”
Arbeter-froyen is just one song Leviton will sing in Dayton. She said the music touches on topics including, “every political issue that matters today, whether it’s domestic violence, the complicated word of the immigrant or people’s vision of making the world a better place.”
At Leviton’s performances, she assumes no one in the audience understands Yiddish. She uses body language and occasionally projected visuals to help tell a song’s story, and often provides printed translations.
But for people such as Segalewitz, her music is almost as if they are home again. His parents spoke primarily Yiddish at home and it was in that language that he spoke his first words. He said it’s a part of the Jewish community that’s important to preserve. Leviton agrees.
“We have a cultural treasure in Yiddish music, but just like with anything, unless you use it, it ceases to be a part of your world,” She said. “There’s so much antagonism in political behavior today, so it’s important to know who we are as Jews, to be strengthened by values telling us we’re capable of healing this world.”
The Lynda A. Cohen Yiddish Club of Dayton Memorial Concert featuring singer Susan Leviton accompanied by accordionist/singer Lauren Brody, Sunday, April 1, 1:30 p.m. at Beth Jacob Synagogue, 7020 N. Main St., Harrison Twp. $10 per person in advance or at the door. R.S.V.P. to Karen Steiger at 853-0372.