About the Music

Immigration - The Early Years

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     The second set of songs on Crypto Jewish Melodies: Semitic Sounds of Russian Extraction starts with Papirosn. Sometimes colloquially referred to as "Cigaretten", the song was composed by Herman Yablokoff in 1922. Starting his Jewish journey as a young chorister from Grodno in the choir of Cantor Yoshe Slonimer and proceeding to make his home in the realm of Yiddish theater and radio, Yablokoff wrote this song after seeing children peddling cigarettes during the pogroms in Grodno after the First World War. The song narrates the plea of an orphaned cigarette peddler freezing in the rain on a street corner, and has since become a staple of Yiddish, Russian, and Jewish folk tradition. Renditions vary from vibrant tangos to sorrowful ballads. This version is meant to fall somewhere in between, capturing the energy of the cigarette peddler's streets while connecting with the inner yearnings of a displaced youth.

     The second set proceeds with a survey of the impact of Russian Jewish immigrants on the American Jewish songbook scene, charting their influence and struggles. 

     Bei Mir Bist Du Schon is a popular Yiddish song composed by Jacob Jacobs and Sholom Secunda in 1932. Secunda, born in the Ukraine in 1894, came to New York with his family in 1908 after escaping the infamous pogroms of the Russian empire. A child cantor and committed chorister, he never forgot his Jewish roots and infused his subsequent compositions with themes from his roots. Bei Mir Bist Du Schon embodies what it meant to be able to express love and Judaism freely in America. 

     George and Ira Gershwin, born of Russian and Lithuanian parents who came to New York in the late 19th century, never new repression of their Jewish identity, and so, felt free to taunt it. It Ain’t Necessarily So uses essentially the same melody as the one commonly applied to a blessing before the reading of the Torah, “Bar’chu et Adonai Ham’vorach”. The Gershwins pair this melody with lyrics that question the stories of the bible, toying with its authority and credibility, and the rendition on Crypto Jewish Melodies: Semitic Sounds of Russian Extraction attempts to highlight the original melody alongside the Gershwinian parody. 

     Irving Berlin, born Israel Isidore Beilin (1888-1989), was a Russian-born Jewish-American composer and lyricist. His father was a cantor, and the family fled Russia at a very young age as a result of a series of pogroms in the late 19th century. A protégé of his father, who was himself unable to find work as a cantor in New York, Irving Berlin remained close to his Jewish identity while realizing the freedom that America could offer and the doors that music could open. Blue Skies is a tribute to this Berlin’s sense of freedom, openness, and use of Jewish melody in his American Songbook standards.

     Yip Harburg, born Isidore Hochberg on the Lower East Side of New York City, was the child of Yiddish-speaking Orthodox Jews who had emigrated from Russia. Harold Arlen, a renowned American standard composer, was also the son of a cantor, and joined Yip Harburg in digging into his Jewish roots to compose Somewhere Over the Rainbow - a song of yearning for the promised land of their forefathers - Israel. While known for its canonical rendition in the Wizard of Oz, this recording challenges the listener to absorb the lyrics through their Jewish intention.

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Lara Traum, Ljova Zhurbin, Alex Greenleaf, Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch, Jordan Morton: Crypto Jewish Melodies: Semitic Sounds of Russian Extraction

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