Jewish News September 2017

 The Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus:  A Revival of Yiddish Music in Our Time

By Arlene Stolnitz

     A highlight of the North American Jewish Choral Festival this summer was the Jewish People’s  Philharmonic Chorus, the only chorus in New York City with an all-Yiddish  repertoire. According to a recent article in Moment Magazine the JPPC is a “vibrant intergenerational ensemble…. with an upbeat Broadway bounce.”

I can remember a few years back when it was thought that Yiddish was a “dying language”.
Today we have much evidence that this idea is not true. The JPPC is part of the modern Yiddish renaissance.

      About forty singers  participate in the ensemble. Their members range in age  from young professionals in their 20’s to senior citizens in their mid-80’s, each  committed to preserving the Yiddish language and passing it on through the medium of beautiful Yiddish choral music.

From oratorios and operettas to labor anthems, folksongs and  popular Yiddish folk tunes, the group commissions new Yiddish works by contemporary  composers. The chorale’s conductor, Benyumin Schaechter, is its enthusiastic director whose vision is the inspiration and success  of this remarkable group.

      Audiences have been asked randomly why they have chosen to attend these performances.

Many answer that they remember beloved family members, such as grandparents who spoke Yiddish. They long to hear the language of their relatives in musical form.

Songs such as “Oyfn Pripichok”, “Rabbi Elimlech”, “Rozhinkes Mit Mondlen”, “Tumbalalaika” and others are reminiscent of life in Eastern Europe, and for some, stir long forgotten memories.

Schaechter always provides printed programs for each concert with transliterated words and meanings. Sing-a-longs add another dimension of pleasure for listeners.  Programs often include what is called  “The Yiddish Top Chai-The 18 Top Yiddish Songs People Love To Hear”.

     JPPC has had a long history. Founded in 1923 on New York’s Lower East Side, the group was originally called “Freheit Gezang Farein.” Part of the burgeoning labor movement, it was the first Jewish chorus to be accompanied by an orchestra. Today it is a nonsectarian music organization, open to people of all faiths.  It is the longest continuously running Jewish chorale group in the  world.

      Ben, its current conductor is the son of the prominent Yiddish linguist, Mordkhe Schaechter, which accounts for his intense interest in the preservation of the Yiddish language.  He and his three sisters speak only Yiddish with their children. Ben has been conductor of the chorus since 1995.  Before that he was an award-winning composer and performer in many off-Broadway productions and cabaret settings.  His numerous accomplishments range from composer, musician, pianist, performer as well as conductor.  Performing throughout the world on five continents, his songs have been recorded by artists such as Tova Feldshuh. In his present position he is able to combine his musical talent with his passion for the Yiddish language.

In Schaechter’s words, “ I try to bring Yiddish song to the next generation”. With his two outstandingly talented daughters, Temma and Reyna, known as Di Shekhter-Tekhter (the Schaechter Sisters) they have toured the world singing Yiddish songs and bringing our musical heritage to life.

     There are others working on the preservation of the Yiddish language and the memory of its culture in Europe through the medium of music.  One of the foremost is Yale  Strom, who with his wife Elizabeth Schwartz, has created an entertaining program called Mayses un Musik (Stories and Music), a musical journey through the Jewish culture of Eastern Europe.  Their book “A Wandering  Feast” tells the story of their travels through Eastern Europe and includes Yiddish songs, recipes as well as a detailed Yiddish-English glossary. Several years ago they appeared in a program at Temple Beth Israel in Long Boat Key. Other groups such as The Yiddish Book Center have produced programs such as Yidstock: The Festival of New  Yiddish Music. The popular  Klezmatics continually play to sold-out audiences.

Locally, we have a Yiddish expert in our midst, here in Sarasota County.  David Berman, Emeritus Professor of Music from Ithaca College is a renowned authority on Yiddish music. His extensive library fills an entire wall of his study.

      I encourage you to check out the music of the Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus on Youtube.  I guarantee you will enjoy it!