Friday, July 8, 2011

The Russian Jewish Experience Part II: Shalom Comrade!

Shalom Comrade! album coverIn doing a little more homework on Russian Jewish music, I came across a wonderful archive album titled "Shalom Comrade! Yiddish Music in the Soviet Union 1928-1961." The album, which was produced in 2005 by ethno-musicologist Ritta Ottens and ethno-musicologist / klezmer musician Joel E. Rubin, both through it's music and extensive liner notes helps fill a critical gap in Russian Jewish history. As I noted in yesterday's post, there is a tendency by American Ashkenazim Jews (including myself) to marginalize the history and experience of Soviet and post-Soviet Jews. It defies the 'escaping the old world of the Shtetl (poverty, orthodoxy, anti-semitism) to the new world of America (opportunity, liberalism, assimilation)' foundation myth that underlies a lot of our cultural narrative. The Soviet Jews didn't escape. Instead, under pressure of the Soviet system they were slowly transformed, with results no less dramatic than the transformation Ashkenazi Jews experienced in the West.

One of the drivers for the Russian transformation was the conflicted view that the Soviet leaders had toward Judaism. As Ottens and Rubin note,
"Stalin’s cultural ideologues planned to deploy the music of the Yiddish-speaking Jews of the Soviet Union as a building block for the new Soviet music, whereas the Jewish religion with its traditional way of life was damned as counter-revolutionary."
As I've written previously, when talking Russian Jewish art music, there was an amazing output of art music in the early days of the Soviet system that drew on Yiddish folk and Jewish liturgical music. This music was composed by Jews and non-Jews alike, including Dmitri Shostakovich, one of Soviet Russia's premier composers. This activity faded though as the religious life of Soviet Jews came under more and more attack by the Soviet regime. As Ottens and Rubin note, not more than 200 to 300 (Yiddish popular and liturgical music) recordings were released up to 1967. They compare this with approximately 10,000 similar pieces recorded in the West.

This scarcity of these recordings make the Shalom Comrade! album that more special. At 24 tracks, it contains over 10 percent of the entire recorded output of Soviet Jewish music of that period and covers a range of thematic topics the show integration and tensions of Soviet Jews. This first sample (from Rubins website) is a Yiddish art song composed by B. Bergolt, lyrics, and Moses Milner (score). The song is performed by Misha (Mikhail) Aleksandrovich, who was born in Latvia, lived in Britain, and after World War II became one of Soviet Russia's most popular performers. Here's a translation of the lyric from the album liner notes.
Last night grandma suddenly remembered how grandpa came back from the Civil War front. Her big tears shone happily as she embraced him, danced and cried. That’s how they partied, into the deep of night, the tables broke under all the honey-cake and wine. A glass and another glass, higher and higher in the hand, to spite the enemies and to the joy of our country. Many years pass by with peace everywhere, and an old lady sits with her grandchildren around her and tells of the Great Fatherland War [World War II] and what a holiday it was when grandpa came back in victory.
Misha Aleksandrovich / Di bobe hot zikh dermont (Grandmother Recalled)(M: Moses Milner; T: B. Bergolts)

This second sample was, as Ottens and Rubin note, "belonged to the handful of warhorses which every Soviet interpreter of Yiddish song had to have in his or her repertoire." This version, performed by Zinovii Shulman, was the one that popularized the song.
Oh dear! Where do you get flour to make varnitshkes? [A plain
dumpling ]?
Without yeast or salt, or pepper or fat. Where do you get a board
to roll out the varnitshkes? Where do you find a stove to cook
the varnitshkes? And where do you find a lad to eat the
varnitshkes? Without yeast or salt, or pepper or fat. Where do
you find one, where?
Zinovii Shulman / Varnitshkes

The album can be purchased through The Workman's Circle and, of course, Amazon. And did I mention the extensive liner notes?

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