Tag: Ukraine

Yiddish Glory: “If You Can Laugh At Something, It Cannot Kill You.”

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Manuy of the songs on Yiddish Glory were written on scraps of paper. (Photo: Six Degrees Records)

Just before Easter, I wrote about a memorable musical experience in which I sang in a language I didn’t speak, to music I wasn’t completely familiar with. It was a haunting, beautiful series of moments I still recall fondly and often; I thought about the experience, in various facets, listening to Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of WWII (Six Degrees Records), a very unique collection of songs which, again, are in a language I don’t speak, but which have a powerful impact, and, as it turns out, a very powerful history.

There are stellar performances from an array of gifted musicians here, including Russian singer-songwriter (and album co-creator) Psoy Korolenko, Juno Award-winning artists Sophie Milman and David Buchbinder, longtime Yehudi Menuhin collaborator Sergei Erdenko, and many more. Lyrical, sad, funny, and very feisty, the album, released this past February, is made composed entirely of works written by Holocaust victims and survivors during the Second World War. They offer not only unique and important historical perspective, but a creative lesson in resistance, resilience, and fierce, vibrant resurrection.  The sheer force of musicality on offer here is noteworthy, but combined with the power of the lyrics and their history, makes for a profound, joyous, and very moving listening experience. 

Anna Shternshis_IMG_1110 photo by Roman Boldyrev

Anna Shternshis (Photo: Roman Boldyrev)

Anna Shternshis, who is Al and Malka Green Professor in Yiddish Studies and Director, Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, helped to put Yiddish Glory together. Professor Shternshis discovered the songs while researching a book about Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union during the Holocaust. As she told CBC“I stumbled upon this collection of Yiddish songs and something seemed off about those songs, […] They were about Stalin. They were about fighting against Hitler. They were about Central Asia. These were the songs in Yiddish I’d never seen before.”

Currently on a music/speaking tour for the album, with stops at Center for Jewish History in New York City and Purdue University last month, Northwestern University’s Chicago campus earlier this month, and Montreal today (May 13th), Professor Shternshis took time out of her busy schedule to discuss the album and its creation, its significance in cultural and historical terms, the role of humour, and the twin timeliness and timelessness of the songs.

Yiddish Glory, Psoy Korolenko (Center), photo by Roman Boldyrev

Psoy Korolenko performing live. (Photo: Roman Boldyrev)

How were the pieces on Yiddish Glory chosen? 

Singer Psoy Korolenko and I worked together on bringing these pieces back to life as music. We selected songs that would give voice to the amateur authors of various backgrounds — women, children, soldiers, refugees — who composed music and poetry under the most difficult circumstances, and therefore provided some of the first testimonies of what it was like to live in the Soviet Union during World War II. Each individual composition has its own story, and together, these songs reveal a collective history of an entire generation, they provide an artistic comment on the Jewish experience in the Soviet Union during World War II

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Moisei Beregovsky has been called “”foremost ethnomusicologist of Eastern European Jewry.” (Photo via)

How did you feel when you discovered the history behind these works? It must have been a very dramatic moment.

The work of a historian consists of many hours of monotonous research, and this project is not an exception. But when I began analyzing the lyrics, and understood that these were grassroots accounts of Nazi atrocities, and that none of these songs had been known before, emotions took over. I felt excited about reading these materials, and strongly moved by the lyrics. Above all, I felt enormous gratitude to Moisei Beregovsky and his colleagues, Soviet ethnomusicologists of the 1940s, who spent years collecting these unique materials.  They were arrested by Stalin’s government for doing so, and died thinking their work was lost to history without any recognition for what they had done. I felt professional solidarity with these people, who, of course, I never met. 

What kind of a reception has the album and your work received in the places where these pieces originated? 

When we began this project, restoring these songs as music, we hoped that these compositions that detailed the experiences of how Jews lived, died, tried to maintain hope and even love under the most horrific of circumstances would touch people. And indeed, radio stations and publications from around the world have been drawn to the project, including incredible coverage in Germany and Austria where so many have really come to grips with the dangers of fascism.  

In Eastern Europe, we have received coverage in Russia, HungaryCzech Republic (and others), but more on specialized media, as opposed to their national broadcasters.  Back in the 1940s, when Beregovsky and his colleagues were preparing these songs for publication, many of the specific “Jewish” references in the lyrics were censored and replaced with Soviet terms. You can actually see the censor’s marks on the original documents.  The researchers were eventually arrested for this work during Stalin’s anti-Jewish purge that began in 1948. The government wanted to stress how all Soviet citizens were victims during the war, even though the Holocaust specifically targeted Jews for their ethnicity. This tendency persists today as well.  

Russian-language media abroad covered the project extensively. When we present these songs live, a significant percentage of our audiences are of Russian-Jewish descent, and these songs represent their heritage, and the broad range of their families’ experiences.

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Cover to Yiddish Glory. The album was released by Six Degrees Records in February 2018.

Why these particular pieces? Do you have any favourites?

Each song was chosen because its lyrics conveyed a unique, often under-discussed historical experience, such life and survival in the Tulchin ghetto or in the Pechora camp, serving in the Red Army, working on the Soviet home front or fighting as a partisan. My favourites include one about a Red Army soldier singing about his machine gun that he uses to fight against fascism. Another favourite is one written by a child after losing his mother in Pechora. Both of these songs have raw emotional strength that just grab you by heart. 

What do you think accounts for the humour that runs through some of these works?

Many songs are so called “motivation” pieces, written by and for soldiers to encourage them to fight against Hitler and his army. Many describe the exact death that Hitler should endure – such as being sliced into pieces. The songs are angry because they blame Hitler, rightly so, for destroying the lives of Soviet people, including, of course, Jews. The hatred of Hitler, expressed in these songs, is raw, strong and emotional. Their authors do not spare curse words. One song, “Misha Tears Apart Hitler’s Germany”, for example, says that soldiers will drive Hitler away in the manner one chases a wild animal. 

Hitler is also an object of ridicule and satire. Many songs in the archive are humorous, sometimes based on the holiday of Purim, including “Purim Gifts to Hitler,” which compares Hitler to all of the failed enemies of Jewish people, including Haman. The song promises that Hitler, just like all other enemies of Jews, will end up being killed for his evil deeds. The fact that so many of these songs rely on humour is significant because laughing seemed to help people to keep their spirits up during horrific ordeals. Many survivors mention in their testimonies that if you can laugh at something, it cannot kill you. Songs indeed include ridicule of German soldiers running away with their pants down and Hitler dressed in funny clothes. Understanding that people wrote these songs during the time when the German army was destroying their cities and communities makes the presence of humour especially poignant and significant

There is an interesting classical connection with some of these pieces, their melodies being based on the works of composers like Glinka; how is this important to their overall story and history? 

About 80% of the songs in the collection did not have their original sheet music, so Psoy Korolenko had to analyze the texts to reconstruct them. He chose Glinka’s “Skylark” for “Yoshke from Odessa” because that song was very popular in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. It was inspiring to think about a soldier imagining himself as a popular Soviet tenor, and using (that particular piece) to tell his own both heroic and tragic story. 

How do you think an album like “Yiddish Glory” changes our perceptions of this period of history?

 One definite thing that we have learned from these materials is that Jews sang in Yiddish in the Soviet Union during the war, and that they forgot all about this decades later. During my work on a related project, on Jewish oral histories of Stalin’s Soviet Union, I interviewed almost 500 people from the generation of Soviet Jews born in the early 1920s, and not a single one of them could remember of a Yiddish song depicting the war. This material means that history and memory tell different stories of the war. Without these materials we would not have known that. 

The second finding is that Soviet soldiers, some of them amateur authors, continued to create in Yiddish during combat. We knew that Yiddish culture survived in the Soviet Rear, but we did not know about the soldiers — this is an important insight of how Jews made sense of these events during the war. 

Yiddish-Glory-303 Sophie Milman, photo by Vladimir Kevorkov

Sophie Milman is one of the artists featured on Yiddish Glory. (Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov)

Also, these songs give us a chance to learn about how children and women, who authored a majority of these songs, used music to make sense of their experiences: there are songs written by orphans, one by a ten year-old whose mother was murdered in the Holocaust; there are songs written by women serving in the army, women working in factories to support the war effort. The works give us an opportunity to hear their direct voices, something that rarely happens in the context of historical research.

Also, some songs are rare —  sometimes the only — eyewitness testimonies of the destruction of Jews in Ukraine. Some were written as early as 1941, and these represent the first documents of the Holocaust in Ukraine. Given that we have very few Jewish testimonies of this destruction, these are especially valuable.  

Why this album, now? How do you see it as relevant (indeed, needed) in the 21st century?

The fight against fascism, racism, bigotry and antisemitism is timely. Unfortunately, violence and wars did not disappear in the 21st century. Women and children are often the first, and the  least noticeable victims of it. The songs alert us to the dangers of wars and who suffers from it the most. 

The Big Scan

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Most days I face a precarious balance between the immediate satisfaction of Twitter and the longer satisfaction of writing and careful reading. Call it the shower vs. bath approach, but minus the cleansing effect. My mind usually comes away from each activity with varying degrees of clutter and mess, to say nothing of my hard drive.

Being a fan of analytics (perhaps the mark of the 21st century Real Life Writer; could emails be next?), I noticed that, amidst the tango of words and numbers and maps and colors of the past week, a post from 2010 is getting a lot of reader love, one in which I gathered various news tidbits I’d seen a week, and mused on each thing. I enjoy doing this: it’s an effective way to make sense of the tidal wave of information that comes at me throughout any given day.

Between the popularity of that post and others like it (ie Linkalicious), as well as the fact I have a few tabs open (“a few” = fifty-one across two windows), and keen to keep things fresh here, the thought occurs: why not share?

Barely Keeping Up in TV’s New Golden Age (New York Times)
The future of TV is coming into focus, and looks pretty great (Quartz)

It will come as no surprise to regular readers that I am slowly becoming seduced (perhaps re-seduced is better) by the greatness of contemporary television. In younger days, I was a devoted fan of Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure; I was late to Deadwood but in no way did it dampen the powderkeg of enthusiasm I felt when I saw it. Zachary Seward at Quartz has gathered up a number of important elements that will greatly enhance future TV-watching enjoyment; things like accessibility, remotes, subscriptions, cost, and subject matter are nicely touched on and explained — but none of this would matter if TV was a cultural wasteland. It isn’t. As the New York Times’ David Carr rightly observes, there’s been a cultural cost of the ascendance of television as a cultural force; books, magazines, and cinema have all seen significant changes. The internet has, of course, played a huge role as well — but it feels like TV and the web are working together, not at odds, to deliver smart programming people can (and do) commit to. (Question to you, readers: should I start watching Game of Thrones?)

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Journalism startups aren’t a revolution if they’re filled with all these white men (The Guardian)
I’m a fan of Emily Bell’s, having followed her fine work, as well as her great Twitter account, for a long time. (Thank you for the follow-back, Emily; forever flattered.) This succinct, snappy op-ed examines the various media startup ventures by Nate Silver, Ezra Klein, and Glenn Greenwald/Pierre Omidyar over the past year, with Bell rightly concluding that, to paraphrase Roger Daltrey, the new boss looks the same as the old boss. Sadly, such a conclusion doesn’t surprise me; theorizing about fairness and justice is usually just that; it takes decisive action to make those ideas reality. This op-ed did make me wonder why more women aren’t creating startups, but hopefully that’s changing. As Emily tweeted (in an exchange with PandoDaily’s Paul Carr), “I am staggered that there are so few women who have Klein / Silver / Greenwald power.” It was good to see Kara Swisher got a mention here; I’ve noticed that, within some circles of the innovation/entrepreneurial journalism worlds, Kara isn’t considered enough, if at all. It’s vital there be more intelligent critiques like Emily’s down the line. As I tweeted to Paul Carr recently, no organization can or should be above scrutiny. Bravo.

I am embarrassingly out of the loop when it come to new bands for one simple reason: I don’t listen to anything but classical music between the oodles of writing and reading and research I do every day. My journalist-come-artist’s mind can’t function properly with anything but Mozart / LVB / Glass et al while I’m in the thick of things. This is probably the result of a classical-filled youth, but old habits die hard. If and when I listen to new music, I like to give my full attention: laptop closed, concentrating on lyrics/melody/production, of course, but also the spaces between beats, the breaths between words. I listen to new music the way I read a new book. When I invariably fall across I band I like, I get really excited, and act like no one else has heard of them before, when in fact, I’m probably the last to the party; Haim, Savages, and Warpaint are, for example, three bands who’ve made me sit up and pay attention. I’m keen on finding more. These lists should help. (I am also open to reader suggestions!)

Recipe for Irish soda buns (BostonGlobe.com)

What with St. Patrick’s Day coming up this Monday, Irish-isms are everywhere online: where to drink, what to drink, what to wash the booze down with. It’s hard for me not to roll my eyes at the automatic Ireland/alcohol associations that invariably come up every March, but surely one of the nicest developments of late has been the myriad of food recipes that appear alongside the cocktail ones. I work in my kitchen;  a big reason I love it (aside from the view, which, right now, is of a snow-filled garden) is the proximity I have to cooking, an activity I love. It’s such a treat to move between making stuff in the virtual world and making stuff in the real one. I’m tempted to make these buns between bouts of reading, tweeting, uploading, writing — or rather, I’m tempted to read, tweet, upload and write between bouts of cooking. As it should be.
It’s been with much interest I’ve noted a real uptick in my overseas blog readership; viewers from Ukraine seem especially interested in my work. (I am flattered and honored — Спасибо!) I actually grew up with a Ukrainian best friend, and I worked with a Ukrainian journalist, Kateryna Panova at NYU. (Her first-hand report from Kiev is in the latest edition of Brooklyn Quarterly if you’re interested; good stuff.) I came across this story via Mark MacKinnon’s Twitter feed, and it points up something I feel is somewhat lacking in the coverage of the Ukrainian / Russian crisis: first-hand experience, or more pointedly, the stomach-churning fear of being there. Mark’s report bubbles with anxiety, though it’s mixed with thoughtfulness. He speaks with his fellow train passengers and cabbies about their fears, and his work reveals an uniquely Eastern mix of worry, resilience, and wry humor; “It can’t be worse than this!” remarks one. It’s a tense, terse situation loaded down by decades –if not centuries — of heavy resentment and power-shifting. Pieces like these are stitches in the as-yet-unfinished quilt of modern history.

Russia Aggression Paves Way For Ukrainian Energy Coup: Interview With Yuri Boyko (Oilprice.com)
This is a separate entry from the one above because I feel like, while Mark’s entry is a diary-style, micro-examination of the Ukrainian/Crimean/Russian crises, James Stafford’s piece is a more macro analysis, offering a strong subtext to the current affairs we’ve seen over the last few weeks on our screens, monitors, magazines and papers. This Q&A came to my attention via the Twitter feed of a favorite financial blogger, Felix Salmon. It’s essentially a Q&A with Yuri Boyko, who has a long list of “formers” in his CV: former deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine, former Vice Prime Minister for Energy, Space and Industry, former Minister of Energy and Chairman of the Ukrainian State Gas industry. In 2004, he was awarded the “Hero of Ukraine,” a title recognizing long-term service to the development of the Ukrainian energy and fuel industries. Why more news outlets haven’t covered the energy angle of this story is mystifying. As Boyko notes,

Natural gas is the single most important weapon in Russia’s arsenal. It is President Vladimir Putin’s weapon of choice. Europe understands this all too well as most of its natural gas supply transits Ukraine, so supply disruption is used to influence events not only in Ukraine, but also Berlin, Paris and Brussels. This is why Europe will be hesitant to apply strong sanctions against Russia.

This brief, if deeply insightful exchange deeply illuminates what is, for some, a deeply confusing issue. Highly recommended reading and one to bookmark for re-reading, especially after Sunday.

“In A World…” : The voice of your favorite movie trailers has died (The Daily Edge)
I feel guilty and not a little stupid at my ignorance; I didn’t know Hal’s name until he passed. He shaped a million movie experiences for me, and I’d imagine, for so many others besides. Movie-going has lost some of its magic for me, what with the relative ease of modern convenience; going to the movies sometimes feels like more of a chore than a pleasure. Still, the sound of Douglas’ voice immediately transports me to the cinema of my younger days, and makes me want to go back, even if I know I’ll never again hear those dulcet tones before the feature starts.

How to grieve when you’re a journalist (Medium)

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The title grabbed me first here. How to show remorse and sadness when you’re supposed to constantly be objective, when you’re supposed to “rise above,” when you have to report things like death with a straight face, no matter how tragic? I had a deeply personal reaction to the passing of Peter Kaplan last fall; I looked at (and still regard) the former New York Observer editor as both a symbol of a past era and a stubbornly gorgeous, tall, bright poppy in a sea of grey, metallic, screen-glare conformity. He understood writing, and he understood branding, and what perhaps he understood best was how the two could — and should –do a sexy tango across a page and into the mind and heart of the reader, heels, hair, lipstick and low-cut dress intact. I’ve been wanting to write a lot more about Kaplan (and intend to), but I appreciated the sensitivity and deft touch with which Mark Lotto approaches his subject matter here, inspired, tragically, by the passing of another great writer, Matthew Power. Lotto writes with great affection (it isn’t cheesy at all), while infusing his piece with a palpable hurt and compelling humanity. He makes me want to read every single thing Power ever did. And he reminds me I’m on the right path:

…with every story we can do a little better, push a little harder, go a little farther, get a little weirder, be a little truer. And we’ll feel happier, knowing such awesome stories would have made Kaplan and Matt happy.

Life in the Poppies

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Prince Igor is haunting.

Days after seeing the Met Opera’s luscious production, I’m still mulling its beautiful marriage of images, design, music, and performance. Though there’s nothing wrong with pure delight and pure entertainment — they make so much of the world go round — seeing the Borodin work did much more than provide an escape from every day mundanities. Thoughts of Ukraine filled my mind, along with more personal reflections on events this past fall; I found myself questioning my relationship with power, both personal and professional, and the role of ego in compromise and defeat. Prince Igor isn’t just beautiful to look at; it’s simultaneously intimate and epic, with resonance in both the inner and outer aspects of existence.

A large part of the opera’s power (as directed and re-imagined by its talented director/designer Dmitri Tcherniakov) is derived through its depiction of war. Though the opera is based on a medieval Russian folk tale involving Igor going off to fight (and he believes,  conquer) the Polovtsians, and subsequently suffering a horrific defeat, Tcherniakov was very selective (make that laser-pointed-strategic) in his use of on and offstage bloodletting. He used a combination of contemporary black-and-white video (using many fast edits and long pans), as well as grand set pieces, costuming, and striking makeup to depict the horrors of war — the loss of life, and the loss of self too. In this Prince Igor, they are very much the same thing.

What I found myself mulling over into the wee hours this past Saturday evening was Igor’s sense of himself, his relationship with other people, and the ways his identity are forced to shift after enduring cataclysmic hardship. Lead bass baritone Ildar Abdrazakov is a thoroughly moving singer, and a very fine actor too;  his expressive face, soft brown eyes, and bear-like physique reveal a man moving between identities, letting go of old ideas and comforts, shifting into far less safe, comfortable, places within himself. These changes aren’t fun or nice or the stuff of easy cliches; this is an Igor who is fallible, failing, heartbreakingly vulnerable, a man struggling with the chimera of ego that kept showing itself in various forms and fashions. He has to relinquish it entirely in order to rebuild, both literally and figuratively.

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This transformation is hinted at through the wonder that is the Polovtsian dances, whose staging, in Tcherniakov’s assured hands, is nothing short of miraculous. Igor whirls around an immense, lush poppy field as human figures dance and undulate around him; it’s dreamy and poetic and earthy yet unearthly. The Met chorus are positioned in boxes close to the stage, allowing dancers to move about freely to the writhing, hypnotic, East-meets-West choreography of Itzik Galili and associate choreographer Elisabeth Gibiat. Igor’s face is one of delight and joy, as if he’s found refuge from the horrors of war and grandiose ambition. Yet we know it’s all an illusion; he’s hallucinating everything. It’s this knowledge that fuels the extraordinary power of the scene. How can something so beautiful be so far removed from reality? And why is reality so much harder and more hideous? Why can’t we stay in the poppy fields forever? Why can’t we whirl, Dervish-like, to the beautiful sounds and visions, forever and ever? It was fascinating to observe Igor’s wife, Yaroslavna (Oksana Dyka) being included in this scene, as if she represents a kind of authenticity and grounding he so desperately lacks. There’s a knowingness to her inclusion here, as if Tcherniakov wants to remind us of the power balances within intimate relationships, and to note how those balances translate in the wider world. To see a man of Abdrazakov’s physicality rendered so vulnerable before the wife whose advice he had earlier eschewed, is deeply moving and wildly important; even amidst the hallucination — or especially because of it — we see a more honest version of Igor that needs to show itself in the real world.

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And it does, eventually show. You sense a deep transformation as Igor wanders, shell-shocked, through what was once his elegant, pristine palace in the final act, when it is a literal shell of its former self. He turns his back on the worshipful masses who herald his return, realizing worship isn’t what’s needed. He woke up, and in so doing, so did we. It’s precisely what his hubris hath wrought, this destruction. The very centrality of Igor’s mission — charging off to some distant victory you are so sure will be yours — has been destroyed; as such, so has Igor’s sense of identity. You can’t find yourself in something so far outside yourself, the production whispers, amidst its gloriously crashing choruses and pounding percussion; you can’t be inauthentic when the chips are down. It won’t work. Hell breaks loose. People die. A part of you dies. And somehow, in some horrifying way, that’s precisely how it should be.

If you get the chance to see Prince Igor either in-person at the Met or through its Live In HD series, go. You’ll mull relationships to power, ego, sacrifice and compromise. You’ll hear beautiful music. You’ll see some gorgeous/disturbing things. You won’t look at the news/your rulers/your lovers/your life the same way again. You will be haunted.

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