|Isa Kremer singing in Yiddish.|
Amidst the current revival of Yiddish music and culture in attempts to keep the language from “dying out,” it’s easy to forget that Yiddish has led a tenuous existence through much of the 20th Century. Long seen by the wider world as the Jewish tongue, Yiddish has survived suppression, obsolescence and the extermination of most of its native speakers. Today, its musical torchbearers offer CDs and digital downloads to fans of all religions. But back when opera was the only place to hear the greatest singers of the age, the renowned voice that brought Yiddish songs to non-Jewish ears belonged to Isa Kremer, the subject of the film Isa Kremer: The People’s Diva.
A living reminder of a vanished people, Kremer was born into the world’s largest community of Yiddish speakers, the five-million-strong Jewish “pale of settlement” in 19th-Century Western Russia. Yiddish folksongs she heard within the kitchens and wedding ceremonies of her youth would later be performed in sold-out opera houses around Europe and the Americas. She became renowned for her innovative arrangements and her passionate interpretation of lyrics, with dramatic gestures that would bring Jewish characters to life on the stage.
Always aiming for the broader audience, she made only a single foray onto New York’s famous Second Avenue stretch of Yiddish theaters. Yet the show produced what is arguably the genre’s most popular song of that era, “Mein Shtetale Belz.” Written about Kremer’s Bessarabian hometown, it evoked a way of life obliterated by the Second World War.
On tour, she performed in Russian, Italian, French, German, Polish and English, but things always got dicey when she insisted on singing songs in her native tongue. In 1922, an antisemitic riot broke out in Warsaw because of a Yiddish performance she was to give to a Jewish audience. Elsewhere, resistance came from Jews themselves. At stops in America, Yiddish was looked on by some Jews as the unwanted legacy of Old World poverty and the shtetl. In 1936 Berlin, German-speaking Jews looked down on Yiddish speakers because they believed it reinforced the Nazis’ assertion that Jews were different. While in staunchly-Hebrew-speaking 1948 Israel it was called “the language of exile.” Yet in each instance, Kremer used the leverage of her celebrity to bypass these complaints and perform anyway.
Today, commercial recordings of Kremer’s voice are difficult to come by. But some modern singers have continued her efforts at spreading the word about Yiddish beyond the Jewish realm. A few years back Chava Alberstein, an Israeli musician who performs Yiddish songs, got together with Peter Yarrow and New York band the Klezmatics to tape a live concert special at the Neue Synagogue in Berlin. And for at least one evening, in the musical spirit of Isa Kremer, Germans, Israelis and Americans honored a language which has refused to die.
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