Recapturing the Raunchy Dark Humor of pre-Holocaust Yiddish Cabaret

The idea of performing music depicting Jewish lawbreakers in pre-war Warsaw raised some eyebrows, but it didn't deter the Jerusalem Quartet

“Introduction to the Jewish Theater,’’ by Marc Chagall (circa 1920).
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The song “I Won’t Steal Anymore” (composer and lyricist unknown) tells about a Jewish criminal who is incarcerated in a Warsaw jail sometime in the 1920s or ‘30s, and who declares his intention to turn over a new leaf: “I won’t steal anymore, I’ll just ‘take.’” The irony then becomes sharper: The criminal promises the Lord to follow his path, by which he means he will no longer get involved with unprofitable robberies: “If I get out of jail, I’ll steal a gold watch.”

That song and four more like it – including one describing a conversation between a violent Jewish gangster and his moll, and another featuring impressions from a brothel – will be performed this week as part of the International Chamber Music Festival in Jerusalem.

The idea for the act, titled “Yiddish – 5 Songs for Voice and String Quartet,” came from the world-renowned Jerusalem Quartet, who will be joined by soprano Hila Baggio. The composer-arranger is Leonid Desyatnikov, a 63-year-old Jewish, Russian-born musician, and direction is by Shirit Lee Weiss.

The raw materials of the composition are songs written in Yiddish by Polish- and Russian-Jewish composers and lyricists in the years before the Holocaust. The characters in the songs are also Jews – mainly from Warsaw’s underworld.

Musicologist Gila Flam, an expert in Yiddish music, who helped to find the original lyrics and melodies, recalls that she was astonished by the quartet’s initiative to revive the forgotten songs, but was also apprehensive about it. She was primarily concerned that performing such pieces in concert without fully illuminating the broader context in which they were composed might damage the image of Jewry overall and in particular of pre-Holocaust Eastern European Jewry.

The Jerusalem Quartet and soprano Hila Baggio.
karina van den broek

The moving spirit behind the whole initiative is the quartet’s violist, Ori Kam. “A central trend in the classical music scene today is the search for new, ‘different’ things,” he tells Haaretz. “The people at [the record label] Harmonia Mundi, which records us, asked us to think about a special project. That was about three years ago. We hesitated; we knew that the fate of many projects like this is to be forgotten, in the best case, or also to embarrass acclaimed artists who became involved in them.

“Nevertheless,” Kam continues, “we took up the challenge and started to look for a non-‘classical’ field of music that would allow for the integration not only of innovative and interesting works, but also high quality ones. And then I happened to hear a few performances of cabaret songs from interwar Berlin. Among the best of them, the Australian actor Barry Humphries appeared with the Australian Chamber Orchestra in London. The theme of the performance [called ‘Barry Humphries’ Weimar Cabaret’] was a story about a stolen suitcase that was brought to Australia by a Jewish refugee, which contained scores of music from before the war. The program combined classical works by Jewish composers and popular cabaret songs.

“I discovered that German art between the wars was significantly influenced by Jewish and Yiddish culture. I think this comes through in the humor, the wordplay, the ability to express ideas and feelings that aren’t considered beautiful or sublime. I was a bit upset that the artists of today’s Berlin cabaret, which has become so popular lately, don’t know its roots, and I started to look for information about Yiddish cabarets in Warsaw. Very quickly I found materials about theaters and cabarets such as Azazel, which were among the pillars of the city’s Jewish culture.

“All this led me to the conclusion – which was enthusiastically supported by my colleagues in the quartet – that our new project would be an homage to the interwar Yiddish cabaret. But then the question arose of which songs to choose. We were familiar with the sentimental, saccharine songs that are identified with our grandparents, such as ‘My Yiddishe Momme.’ We wanted certain songs, different ones, that would be worthy of being listened to today, in the context of their era, not through the [prism of the] tragedy that occurred a few decades later.

“The result,” says Kam, “was that with the help of Gila Flam’s inexhaustible knowledge, we found songs that can be characterized as ‘dark.’ Songs about the street life of ‘simple’ Jews – cheats, prostitutes – songs that express black and sarcastic humor that did not exist in the authentic German culture. Songs whose performance as a whole will give the listener a glimpse of a particular aspect of the Jewish world of Warsaw in that period.

“In order to build a fully formed work from the material,” he continues, “we needed a composer-arranger, and from the start it was clear to me that Leonid Desyatnikov was the appropriate person. I was familiar with works he had prepared for Gidon Kremer’s Kremerata Baltica ensemble, and knew he could write music that would make the quartet sound like a street band.”

Following the premiere at the Jerusalem festival, Kam and his colleagues in the Jerusalem Quartet, together with singer Hila Baggio, will perform the work Desyatnikov created in Switzerland and Holland. They’ll also record them for a CD in December, together with works by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Erwin Schulhoff.

What sort of arrangement did Desyatnikov do for these Yiddish songs?

Kam: “Quite a drastic one, also at the harmonic level. The existing materials for these songs are very meager. In some cases there’s only a melody and a text, without any harmonies at all. He also took into account that some listeners wouldn’t understand the language, and tried very hard to make the music reflect the words.”

As a general impression, would you say that his style here recalls Kurt Weill?

“There’s something to that.”

Dr. Flam says that the idea of mounting a public performance of these songs, which present a lowly aspect of Jewish life in the 20th century, makes her apprehensive.

“That’s definitely understandable, but my approach is different. Our message in this project is that perhaps it’s time to talk about Polish Jewry in a way that goes beyond the context of the destruction, the perdition. After all, there’s an element of triumph in the scope of influence wielded by these Jewish creative artists of the last century on popular culture today, on the music industry in Hollywood and on Western culture in general.”

With respect to the issue of the image of Jews – in particular, the concern of some that add negative stereotypes will take root that will cling to every Jew – it’s worth recalling what Theodor Herzl wrote at the end of the 19th century. Herzl, a Central European Jew in terms of his culture, whose native language was German, took a supercilious attitude toward the character of the poor, backward East European Jew who spoke a dialect (Yiddish): “Suffice it to look at him [at a Jew like that] or, heaven forbid, to touch him, in order to make us feel nauseous,” he wrote.

After more than 20 years, during the heyday of the Berlin cabaret, assimilated German Jews were appalled to see shows in which Jewish actors portrayed buffoonish caricatures of East European Jews – for the purposes of entertainment. The shocked German Jews did all they could to censor such performances, ridding them of scenes that were liable to heighten anti-Semitism. As one senior official in the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith wrote, “We have a supreme interest in taking strong action against this corruption.”

Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival, Sept. 4-8.