By Heather Klein
October 1, 2014

Helther Klein (seated) singing Yiddish at a zingeray.KlezCalifornia, in 2003. Adrienne worked with me the entire festival and made it possible for me to come to Montreal that summer for my first KlezKanada festival. Attending this festival has now given me a community in which I intermingle, collaborate, learn and teach. This is an international festival where people from age 2-92 come to perform, study, teach, collaborate, hear stories and speak the language of Yiddish.

Adrienne was classically trained like me so she understood some of the same hurdles I had singing Yiddish folk song after singing opera arias since I was 11 years old. She helped with some of my technical issues with the pronunciation. But truly the most important lessons I learned from Adrienne was watching her onstage. When she performed I understood how important these songs are and the need to continue singing them and teaching them to the next generation.

Throughout the time I have spent working with mentors, some of the most special people have also been Joanne Borts, an amazing musical theater singer and actress who also focused in the world of Yiddish music. I met her in Canada and she worked with me on my delivery of each Yiddish song, and finding my own personal story that tied me to the piece in a way I hadn’t imagined. Each song was not someone else’s story I was telling, but my own story to present.

They are not just poems or made up lyrics. These are the stories of my Eastern European ancestors that who were moving around escaping strife and life’s own personal hurdles, and were putting those these life experiences into songs. I realized she Joanne is not just a mere performer singing a song, she is reminder to all Jews that being a Jew, is not just a religion. It is a culture. It was then I understood what it means to be culturally Jewish.

New York Yiddishists

Yiddish cultural music is the main focus of my career. Within the community, I’ve had the chance to perform newly written songs, as well as classical and well-known theater and folk tunes that are especially nostalgic for older audiences. I’ve also lead sing-alongs and taught workshops to younger listeners, helping them develop an appreciation for the Yiddish culture.

Yiddish music is a very traditional Jewish art form. It focuses on the oral histories of the Jewish people, especially in Eastern Europe, where this music originated, thrived and was almost obliterated by the Nazis. The songs tell stories of weddings, fiddlers, love, grief and tragedy, of immigration, violence, rabbis, food and holidays. As a language, Yiddish is still spoken in a select number of communities globally, but is not nearly as widespread as it was before World War II.

As a Yiddish music performer, it is not my goal to resurrect the spoken language around the world, but to preserve this important and beautiful culture. This has mainly consisted of singing classical tunes that were written in the last 100 years, though more and more lately, I have been performing newly written songs by modern composers from around the world. To me, it’s especially important to create and perform new songs to show audiences that this genre is not just a collection of old music, but a growing body of art work.

In June 2014 I was offered the opportunity to go to New York to the Sholom Aleichem Cultural Center in the Bronx to sing for its Yiddish cultural festival. This is a very significant center where all Yiddish traditional artists can have a chance to perform for an all-Yiddish speaking audience. The center began in 1970 in a Yiddish speaking Shtetl in the Bronx and even today when Yiddish is not as common, everyone who comes can speak and understands Yiddish.

I performed about a dozen Yiddish songs – some folk, some theatrical – in their traditional style. Before the concert, I worked with pianist and Yiddish music expert Binyumin Schaechter. Binyumin, who comes from the Schaechter family and is very famous in the Yiddish cultural world. This family consists of Yiddish poets, composers, Yiddishists and music experts. Mr. Schaechter now teaches a Yiddish chorus as well as speaks Yiddish with his entire family and the community in the Bronx. While working with him he gave me suggestions on how to better perform the music and to better pronounce the Yiddish. We played together for the concert in front of about 100 attendees, almost all of whom spoke Yiddish fluently. Before and after the concert, I spoke Yiddish with the audience members, and during the show, I introduced each song in Yiddish.

After the concert, I attended a luncheon at the home of the well-known Yiddish newspaper editor Itzik Gottesman with the concert’s attendees and other local musicians, to celebrate the festival. While there, an impromptu, traditional zingeray began. A zingeray is when one person begins singing a Yiddish song and teaches it to those around them. Within a few minutes, everyone is singing together. Then another person teaches the next song. By the end of the zingeray, everyone has a larger repertoire of songs.

These kinds of festivals and gatherings are rare for me and important for my cultural identity. Soon many of the Yiddish-born speakers will not be alive, so it is important to hear their stories now, and hear the way they learned the song and how they speak their Yiddish which makes evident where a person is from. 

Being an artist, it is so difficult to take advantage of opportunities that can really help push one’s art to the next level. You cannot always afford all the opportunities given as you are not always able to take time away. But, luckily the Development program with the Alliance for California Traditional Arts made it possible for me to go on this important trip. I was able to prove that I am committed to my culture and its history.

I almost never get to be in a large crowd of people who are almost all fluent in Yiddish and know the culture and music intimately. They taught me new songs, new expressions and gave me a chance to use and improve my language in a supportive atmosphere. In the Bay Area there are maybe 1 or 2 places total where you can find 80% of the audience fluent in Yiddish. Many Jews who immigrated to the U.S. came in through Ellis Island. Therefore, many of the Yiddish speaking Jews are based in New York and other East coast cities. Therefore going to the East coast is always a treat having a chance to practice this language and perform for this kind of audience.

I have performed throughout the Bay area and I am lucky enough to make my living singing mostly Yiddish music and doing Cantorial work.

I don’t have all the answers, but I am committed to spread awareness by continuing to perform and by teaching others about this beautiful music.

The following video features Heather singing in a concert similar to the one she attended in New York: