Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Regina Spektor sings Eli, Eli

Ok, I've mentioned before Eli, Eli is one of my favorite songs. We sing it at my house as a zemer every Shabbat and performances of it show up on Teruah from time to time (see Eli, Eli with Ancient Drum, for example.) I was delighted recently when my buddy Jocelyn found and shared this great 2008 performance by singer and pianist Regina Spektor. I've always been a fan of Spektor's music but haven't had the opportunity to write about it before. Spektor has interested me, from a Jewish music perspective, because of her comfort with including her Jewish identify as part of her public stage identify. That said, her public expression of Jewish identity have typically been limited to wearing Star of David necklaces and brief mentions of her Russian-Jewish family history during interviews, including this 2006 NPR interview. This is the first time, though, that I've run across her performing a song in Hebrew or one with explicit Jewish connections. It's a fascinating choice of material too, with deep resonances to Holocaust history, Israeli identify, and contemporary Jewish liturgy. And, of course, it's a marvelous lyric and melody.

Regina Spektor - Halikha LeKesariya [Eli, Eli] (Hanna Szenes Cover)

After listening to the 2008 version, I found this earlier, and equally exquisite, version that Spektor performed back in 2006.

Hat tip to Regina Specktor uberfan & YouTube user Speckography for uploading the video.

UPDATE: For more on Regina Spektor, see my more recent post "Hey Regina, Barths your Biggest Fan"


heebnvegan said...

I saw Regina Spektor live with my then-girlfriend in February 2008. I didn't realize going in that she was Jewish, but my ex insisted that Spektor briefly played "Hava Nagila" on the piano -- I didn't notice. The note to the right of this YouTube video ( also claims that she played "Hava Nagila" in the video, but I'm not 100% sure -- you might be a better judge.

Also, Spektor performed at the Israel@60 celebration in DC last year:

Anonymous said...

Hi Jack. Singular of zmirot is zemer.

I love your site - always fun hearing new (to me) music.

Jack said...

grin. English grammar is a stretch for me, Hebrew and Yiddish fail me utterly. Thanks

heebnvegan said...

Regina Spektor talks about G-d in just about every line in the new single from her upcoming album:

Barth said...

If, for some reason, you feel that Regina is not Jewish enough or does not express her Jewishness enough (a truly ridiculous view, by the way, see for instance, this), you might be interested in what she says about being Jewish and Judaism in general here

Jack said...

Hey Barth, chill. This is a Jewish music blog. I wasn't making a judgement about Spektor. I was making a couple of reasonable comparisons. First, I was comparing her to a history of Jewish pop musicans who have kept their Jewish identity separate from their public identity. Spektor, and a lot of other musicans, have become much more comfortable with being publically Jewish.

The second comparison is between Spektor and musicians who explicitly structure their musical identities around their Jewish identities. This includes klezmer musicians and Yiddish folk singers, hip-hop groups like Ylove and the HipHop Hoodios, pop groups including Stereo Sinai and Blue Fringe, contemporary liturgical musicians including Craig Taubman and Cantor alberto Mizrachi.

I'm not saying that Spektor is not personally as Jewish as these musicians, just that her public identity isn't. But, as I said in my first comparion, her public identity embraces her Judaism a lot more than most Jewish pop musicians.

I dig Spektor's music. I'm not in the habit of judging anyone. But comparions like this are instructive and help me understand what's going on out there.

Barth said...

I see your very narrow definition of Jewish music embraces either liturgical music or something more in keeping with "traditional" Jewish music. If you broaden it a bit, though, you will find Regina---an American citizen today because of antisemitism in her native Russia (then part of the USSR)---presents a very Jewish point of view in quite a bit of her music. She is not proselytizing, of course, but her experiences, attending Hebrew day schools, hiking through Israel as well as her family's departure and settling in with the Jewish communities in the Bronx--define much of her work.

Laughing With is the most direct expression of this. When I first heard it, the song stunned me into writing this:

and, I have written about her both as a Jew and and songwriter/performer several times.

Her "Ink Stains", an assault against holocaust deniers rendered a Radio City audience into virtual silence a few months ago as discussed here:

and the You Tube of her singing it to an audience in Amsterdam after she attended to the Anne Frank memorial is, I think, quite moving:

If songs like these or that talk about "falling into faith" or "why we fight" when facing mortal illness are not part of the NFTY catalogue or something sung while dancing the hora, it is because they were written in the past ten years, and not because they are not "Jewish music" at least from where I sit.

and, of course, there is this---which, with offense intended I am sure, rings very true to many of us as we get inundated with a month of Christianity:

Barth said...

And I forgot this---inexcusable to forget this while posting on a site called Teruah

Jack said...


Thanks for the pointers to her videos and such, but I think you're missing the point here. I've got about a broad a definition of Jewish music there is. I write about everything from avant-garde jazz to punk to hip-hop to chamber music as well as liturgical, klezmer, yiddish and sephardic folk music, chassidic techno, and pretty much everything I can get my hands on. Clearly you haven't read my blog at all.

That said, I still can't figure out what your complaint with my blog post about Spekctor is. I only commented that the video I linked was the first one where I'd seen her perform Jewish material on stage. I noted I'd been a fan of hers, was complementary on the choice of material and it's performance. I made what I thought (and still think) was a correct historical statement, which was that this was her first time doing Jewish themed material on stage.

What's the complaint? Historical inaccuracy? Did she have a long history of including Jewish melodies or lyrical themes that I'd missed? Quite possible, I know her music but am not a dedicated fan. I'm sure I could have missed out.

Being judgmental? Do you think I was being some how critical of her for not having included Jewish themes in her work earlier?

What's up?

Jack said...

Oh, and Barth. Cut me some slack. Calling me on not including a video of Regina Specktor playing a shofar in September of 2009 in a blog post written in APRIL is a bit petty, don't you think?

I think I'm getting this though. In your opinion, Spektor is a great exemplar of a contemporary Jewish pop musician, and my post didn't give her that credit. Is that it?

Ok. I've got no problem with that. But understand that wasn't always the case. It's something she's grown into recently and something I'd be happy to write a follow on post about. I applaud her for it and you for calling it to my attention.


Barth said...

You are taking my comments harder than I intended. I love your site. It expresses much of my own sense.

My point is the one who have expressed here: I am really happy to have her out there both because I enjoy the music and I like the idea of Jewish thought out there in the mainstream.

I don't think, btw, that projecting her Jewishness is a new thing. It just had not been noticed before. Look carefully at the cover of her 2006 album Begin to Hope and see what she is wearing.

Many of the clips I sent you and others like it are years old. She has always borrowed from Jewish themes (Samson) as well as other sources familiar to her, Russian literature, Chopin, Mozart....

There is a paradox that has arisen from her Jewishness that may be worth further examination. A little googling about, for instance, Laughing With, will show many Christian sects, particularly evangelicals, trying to claim her religious references as theirs. Nothing wrong with that, I guess, except the reasoning that suggests that references to God make one a Christian since only their view of God is legitimate.

They do not hear, I suppose, Regina's scoffing reference to a God who will "give you money if you just pray the right way." It was a typo in my post which meant to suggest she means no offense by her "Baby Jesus" song but she has expressed both in song and interviews her unhappiness with people who have co-opted God or religion as their exclusive domain. Hence, my antipathy toward Christians trying to co-opt her.

I have even read the sermons of Protestant ministers based on Regina's songs. To this Jew, it would be great if a minister moved by such lyrics would note that they were written by a practicing Jew, which ought to challenge some of the anitsemitic views of some of their congregations.

I guess what has moved me to write is a pride in what I believe to be the rare Jewish musician entering the American mainstream prominently identifying herself that way. It seems to me that this is exactly what your site is about. For people such as me, whose connection with Jewish music came from the synagogue first and then Reform Jewish summer camp, this new Jewish music, Mark Cohn, Blue Fringe and the Klezmatics (who you mentioned), the Argentine rabbi and cantor team (Alejandra Levi & Diego Rubinsztein), Mark Kelso, Rebbe Soul, the Schneiderman Sisters, even the Barenaked Ladies, and, of course, Debbie Friedman represent something new and exciting.

That's all I meant to say. Sorry if it came out wrong.

Jack said...


I'm glad we're understanding each other. A couple of your comments did come off a bit strident & confrontational, but it sounds like we're in agreement after all. I think we're entering an important era of Jewish music and my excitement about it has fueled this blog for three years. I'm glad you share that excitement.

I think the question you raise about Christian groups co-opting her lyrics is an interesting one. Like you, I don't have an issue with a Christian minister finding something inspiring in her words and using them to teach a point. And like you, I'm disappointed if the minister discounts the perspective of the source of the words (a Jewish songwriter) or recontextualize them. That's intellectually dishonest. But it's the history of such things.

Once Chanukah is over, I'm going to look up some of these sermons. Maybe there's a blog post in there somewhere.

In the meantime, stay in touch. Please send me links to musicians or videos you like. I'm always looking for good material for the blog.

Barth said...

Great. I will stay in touch.

As for Christian views of Regina, here is one example, fairly benign in that this writer is aware that she is "Jewish with a Russian background, but [nonetheless allows that] the lyrics from this song are quite profound." Still, he finds her expression of faith---ours (from which theirs is somewhat based, though they do not always recognize that) to be "just another piece of evidence that western culture is ripe for evangelism. They want God, but they don’t know the way that God has provided through Jesus Christ. Question is, will we, as Christians, show and tell the gospel to a hurting and lost world?"

So, yes, I would love to work with you on something along this line after we get past Chanukah

Barth said...

Just linking to someone else who has found Regina's music to support his reflections of [a Jewish] background."

He says, perhaps better than I that "Musically, Spektor’s sound tends to reflect her Jewish heritage... Spektor’s anti-folk is heavily influenced by Russian and Eastern European folk tunes that have traveled through Jewish communities throughout the centuries. These archetypically Jewish melodies manage to blend fairly well into Spektor’s 'alternative' sound, which has bolstered Spektor’s voice and made it stand out against a sea of singer-songwriters."

That's what I meant.

Jack said...

Hi Barth, FYI I just wrote a blog post following up on our conversation. Check it out.