Yiddish album and documentary ‘Hallelujah’ will strike a chord – J.
It’s shaping up to be a hot Jewish summer.
Rapper Drake just dropped a dance oriented album. A film about a bar/bat mitzvah party motivator is shown in theaters across the country. Locally, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival opens next month, with in-person screenings at the Castro Theater and the Albany Twin Theater (full coverage coming soon). Meanwhile, two new projects by local artists – an album of modern Yiddish poetry set to music and a documentary by Leonard Cohen – are tasty summer treats.
The future of Yiddish music
Accordionist Dmitri Gaskin and singer Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell have been performing Yiddish music together for five years under the name Tsvey Brider, which means “two brothers”. For their latest album, they decided to add two more “brothers” to the mix – violinist Matthew Stein and cellist Misha Khalikulov, who belong to a Bay Area klezmer trio with Gaskin called Baymele.
“I wanted a little more texture and color on this album, and initially we were just adding [Stein and Khalikulov] on a song, so I wrote a violin and cello part,” Gaskin, 26, told me. “The next thing we knew, the whole album had these guys on it.”
Tsvey Brider and Baymele will release their joint album, “Kosmopolitn”, on July 3 and will perform special arrangements of several of the songs at two concerts that day in Berkeley, the first at Maybeck Studio (which is already sold out) and the second to The back room.
Gaskin, who won the international “Der Yiddisher Idol” competition with Russell in 2017 and lives in San Carlos, said the 15 songs encompass a wide range of styles, from traditional klezmer to more contemporary classical pieces, with influences from the French song and jazz. The lyrics are taken from modernist Yiddish poems written in Europe and the United States in the mid-20e century that Gaskin brought to light in various archives.
He shared two songs with me, one about a “circus lady” being daggers thrown at her and the other about romantic longing (“I wanted you like a sailboat longs for the cool swell of the river” ). “Our interest is very much in taking the culture to where it left off in the 1930s and 1940s, and imagining a future that never happened,” he said.
Guests on the album include local klezmer trio Veretski Pass (Cookie Segelstein, Joshua Horowitz and Stuart Brotman), as well as renowned klezmer clarinetist Kurt Bjorling and, perhaps unexpectedly, Indian harmonium player Vivek Datar. “We’ve all studied Yiddish music, language and culture extensively, so we’re deeply rooted in those traditions, but we’re also open to incorporating other musical styles,” explained Stein, who lives in Oakland.
Stein and Gaskin have known each other for years and used to meet for jam sessions after work in Palo Alto. They formed Baymele — which means “little tree” in Yiddish and is a play on “Bay Area” — with Khalikulov in 2018 and have been hired to perform at weddings and b’nai mitzvahs. (“I’m definitely ‘Hava Nagila’-phobic at this point,” Stein joked.)
The July 3 concerts are not just for Jewish audiences, but for anyone who appreciates good poetry, Stein said. Before each song, a band member will read English translations of Russell’s lyrics.
“It’s really wonderful to bring my two bands and my two worlds together for this project,” Gaskin said. “It’s as far from nostalgia as it gets.”
Tsvey Brider and Baymele. 7 p.m. Sunday, July 3 at The Back Room, 1984 Bonita Ave., Berkeley. $15. Proof of vaccination and mandatory masks.
The Evolution of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”
Leonard Cohen wrote between 150 and 180 verses for his most famous – and arguably most Jewish – song “Hallelujah.” After releasing the original version in 1986, he began performing a different, “secular” version live (there were no more references to David and Bathsheba). Dozens of artists would go on to record their own versions of the song.
The fascinating evolution of this beloved anthem is the subject of a new documentary by local Jewish filmmakers Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine. “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song” opens July 8 in San Francisco, Berkeley and San Rafael, and other Northern California cities afterward.
Cohen gave Geller and Goldfine his blessing to make their movie a few years before his death in 2016. They told me they didn’t request an on-camera interview with Cohen. Instead, they pulled material from his personal archives, including rare lyrics books, photographs and performance footage. There are also excerpts from older interviews with Cohen, as well as new interviews with his aides, admirers, and rabbi — that would be Rabbi Mordecai Finley, the head of the Ohr HaTorah Synagogue in Los Angeles, which Cohen attended. during the last decade of his life. . (In the film, Finley suggests that Cohen received divine inspiration via the beat kol, or the female voice of God.)
“Leonard Cohen was not a singer-songwriter who wrote a Jewish song as part of a catalog of songs that did not refer to his Jewish tradition,” Geller said. “His grandfather was a well-known rabbi in Montreal, so many of his concerns referred directly to the Old Testament and kabbalistic literature: the questioning of God, the questioning of faith, the brokenness of human beings, the holiness of trying to live a human life”.
At nearly two hours, this documentary is long and respectful of its subject; The feminization of Cohen and her connection to infamous music producer Phil Spector is glossed over. But it left me with a greater appreciation for Cohen as a meticulous songwriter. (Alas, his ordinary voice never moved me.)
Geller and Goldfine, who are married and live in San Francisco, won an Emmy for their 1999 documentary “Kids of Survival: The Art and Life of Tim Rollins + KOS.” When asked which of hundreds of recordings of “Hallelujah” is their favorite, they said they saw Cohen perform the song in 2010 at the Paramount Theater in Oakland.
“The fact that he sings it, gets down on his knees and puts everything he had into this song makes this version the most compelling,” Goldfine said.
“Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song” opens July 9 at the Opera Plaza Cinema and Roxie Theater in San Francisco, Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley, and the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. Some screenings include Q&A with the filmmakers. Check the theaters’ websites for details.