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Isaac would be proud: The Bashevis Singers’ Yiddish concert was sold out

Deborah Stone
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Published: 20 August 2018

Last updated: 4 March 2024

YIDDISH MUSIC IN MELBOURNE is typically performed to a thinning audience of Bubas and Zaydes, in the utilitarian Kadimah Hall, positioned, significantly, next to the Holocaust Centre.

But a few weeks ago the hip Memo Hall in the heart of St Kilda was sold out to a crowd of 450 mostly young music-lovers, who packed in to hear music sung in a language many of them could not even understand.

The occasion was the launch of the first, self-titled album by The Bashevis Singers, a trio of young Yiddish-loving musicians from Melbourne who are making it clear that the music of their grandparents is not only alive but resonating for a new generation.

Those who follow the Australian music scene will be familiar with Husky, a contemporary band with folk roots comprised of Husky Gawenda and his cousin Gideon Preiss.  The pair, joined by Husky’s sister Evie Gawenda, also have a second life as The Bashevis Singers, a band playing traditional Yiddish folk songs and original compositions in Yiddish.

The Bashevis Singers has already played the Mullum Music Festival in Mullumbimby and a few community events but Memo Hall was their first ticketed concert as well as their album launch and they were delighted to draw their peers to hear music that evokes deep cultural roots.

The Bashevis Singers – named for Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote in Yiddish - is a project motivated by love for the music that was an essential part of their growing up.

All three were raised with a strong Yiddish language culture, both through grandparents who spoke Yiddish to them and through Sholem Aleichem School or Sunday School, where Yiddish is a compulsory subject. They speak passionately – and collectively ---about their desire to be true to the original music.

Husky: “We wanted to do it in a way which honoured the songs. We didn’t to take them somewhere entirely different. We didn’t want to turn them into pop songs or metal songs or jazz songs…

Gideon: “…which often happens with Yiddish music. I think there is a tendency with young people doing Yiddish music to try to make them cool and to make them relevant now…”

Evie: “…which sometimes is a cool idea but it can destroy it too…”

Husky: “…so we tried to arrange them in a way we thought brought out the beauty of the lyrics and melodies and held on to the sentiment of that world.”

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The “Yiddish police”, as they refer to the vigilant old guard, have also ensured they hold on to the fine points of the language. Their mother Anne, who heads Jewish Studies at Sholem Aleichem, edits and corrects them fiercely ensuring they even rerecord mispronounced words.

The Bashevis Singers’ arrangements echo – sometimes literally – with generations of resonance. Their recording of Nor a Mame (Only a Mother) incorporates the voices of three generations of mothers:  their grandmother Chaja, for whom they have precious audio from a 1930s film, their mother Anne and Evie, whose two-year-old is already learning Yiddish.

Evie cites Nor a Mame as one of the first songs she ever heard as a baby, a song her grandmother sang to her mother and her mother sang to her.

Husky has written two original songs for the album – both using lyrics of Yiddish poems composed by his and Evie’s father, former editor of the Age, Michael Gawenda. One of them Far Dir a Lid (A Song for You) is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Written by their father and addressed to their grandparents, it talks about how his children are singing their songs in the orphaned language of Yiddish.

Husky: “So I read it and I thought, ‘We have to sing this song. I have got to write a song,’ and really, it took me five minutes to write the music, which is very rare.”

Evie: “Remember the experience of playing it for the first time?”

Husky: “Yeah, everyone sat around crying, including me.”

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The sense that they are keeping alive an endangered language through reviving old songs and writing new ones gives The Bashevis Singers a flavour that is quite distinct from the musicians’ other work as Husky. There are musical similarities, certain harmonies and chord progressions that they find themselves drawn to in both incarnations but as The Bashevis Singers there is both a sense of mission and a certain freedom that comes with a passion project.

“Bashevis Singers is not a career. It’s something that I love doing as much as if not more than anything else and I’m glad that I don’t have to worry about how it’s going to pay the bills. Husky’s a different story,” said Husky.

“You tap into something different. It’s about this pure and simple thing which is getting Yiddish across, getting these beautiful songs across.”

The Bashevis Singers will be performing at the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto in the first week of September

Photo: Gideon Preiss, Evie and Husky Gawenda (Gideon Szental)

 

About the author

Deborah Stone

Deborah Stone is Editor-in-Chief of TJI. She has more than 30 years experience as a journalist and editor, including as a reporter and feature writer on The Age and The Sunday Age, as Editor of the Australian Jewish News and as Editor of ArtsHub.

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