BWW Review: ZORN Conducts at YIVO
One century ago, 200,000 New Yorkers mourned in the streets, representing the best-attended funeral procession in the history of the city to date. This May, the global Jewish community remembered Sholem Aleichem, for his centenarian yortsayt (Yiddish for "death anniversary").
The Center for Jewish History, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research has an impressive archive of rare books in every European language. The West Village theater housed at the Center was just the place for the live performance of the soundtrack to Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness as a fitting precedent to the May 22 exhibition opening dedicated to the epoch-defining literature of Aleichem.
American-Jewish jazz composer John Zorn scored the documentary, and later released the music as Filmworks XX: Sholem Aleichem with his record label, Tzadik.
Zorn appeared before a delighted crowd, the bespectacled genius in person, to conduct the Masada String Trio, featuring Mark Feldman (violin), Greg Cohen (bass), Erik Friedlander (cello), in collaboration with Robert Burger (accordion) and Carol Emanuel (harp).
The song titles on the Laughing in the Darkness soundtrack speak volumes: Luminous Visions, Portable Homeland, Redemption, Wandering Star, and Jewish Revolutionaries just a few of the gems on the twelve-track album.
To begin, Zorn tapped his signature middle finger to thumb for the time of Shalom, Sholem! Given the name Solomon Rabinovich at birth, Sholem Aleichem dubbed himself what in Yiddish basically means, "Mr. How-Do-You-Do" as the Yiddish Book Center founder Aaron Lansky explained so eloquently in the film.
Light-footed, and swaying to a harp-led melody, the song Mamme Loshen translates to "Mother Tongue" referring to the Yiddish language. As opposed to Loshen Kodesh (literally, "sacred language" referring to Hebrew, which was used only for liturgy prior to modern Israel), Yiddish was the lingua franca of the shtetl, those reservation-like Jewish communities in the Pale of Settlement under the turbulent rule of Tsarist Russia.
The music of Zorn is characterized by heavy improvisation, simultaneous polyrhythms, choral syncopations, and crisscrossing arrangements attuned to a mystical solemnity, all timed with upbeat humor.
Melodies popular and intimate break like mythical waves over magical rhythms, conducted by Zorn with all the demanding intellectual nuance of a revolutionary genre-defying artist.
His music speaks in nebulous bodies of pure sound that express the soul of a people's history, evoked in the bow and pluck of strings, and in the palpable cadence of the accordion, calling to life the sounds of the shtetl. And like the shtetl, Zorn himself dresses as one among the people, in homely attire as informal as an East Village street.
His bass-led grooves harmonize to the muses of Sholem Aleichem, calling forth a textured multiverse wherein storytelling breathes anew, where the laughter of the oppressed is heard as percussive as the whoop and whorl of life in the village round.
They say of Sholem that he succored hearts and led minds because he knew where the Jewish people were from and where they were going, and most importantly, that they were on the move.
Zorn recognizes and dramatizes that movement with his singular American-Jewish genius, heard when the harpist recalls the lofty moods of the bygone Temple court in Jerusalem, and in the underlying rhythms pressing the listener forward into the sonic modernism of New York jazz-fusion.
The audience leaned into the hour-and-change set, digits bouncing to the beat more quickly than any millennial on a new device, and truly, before the ubiquitous ear candy appeared to modern life, it was precious minds like that of Zorn who heard music everywhere as the foundation and blossoming of daily life from the Yiddish shtetl to the East Village, born of a culture that raises its children with ears firmly held to the Wailing Wall of our storied and unforgettably musical generations, past, present and future.
Sholem Aleichem, Mr. How-Do-You-Do, his very name breathes proverbial Jewish wisdom, as in the saying "Shalom Aleichem" (loosely translated from the Hebrew as, "Hello to you") known esoterically as a greeting for intellectual Jewish minds.
When a learned Jew hears "Shalom Aleichem" it doubles as greeting and a challenge of wits among equals. The response is the characterful rebuttal "Aleichem Shalom" (And to you, Hello).
That's Sholem, a name crafted from the page of the Dos Yiddishe Folksblatt (Yiddish People's News-Sheet), in the recurring persona of a literary humorist writing for the popular press. Well, it is true of Sholem Aleichem to have the "Aleichem" at the end of his name, for even the utterance of his name stirs intellectual prompt among Jews.
Music is essentially change, a sensual embodiment of all that is spontaneously beautiful about kinetic potential in the beautiful universe of sensation and intuition. And for that reason, Zorn may be justified in his onstage comment that his music for Laughing in the Darkness is better than the documentary itself.
Storytelling is not only heard in words, and especially in the tradition of Zorn and in celebration of the American multicultural present, Jewish storytelling is often best when it's simply music to our ears.
Tevye the Dairyman, the principal character of the most famous adaptation from the stories of Aleichem, Fiddler on the Roof, first on Broadway in 1964, was developed in real-time chronology, in five-year installments that coincided with the age of Tevye and Aleichem himself. His character development stands as a groundbreaking technique by the standards of any literature anywhere, never mind by the proponent of an endangered language.
Aleichem succinctly wrote what Jewish storytelling is essentially about, which is how a person maintains identity, inheriting a difficult history in confrontation with a very confrontational present. He went to America as the most celebrated Yiddish writer after the Kiev pogrom of 1905, following an unsuccessful Russian revolution that ended in terrorizing the Jews.
Initially welcomed as the Jewish Mark Twain, when American audiences saw his ambitious plays, he was nearly run out of town. What was authentic to European Jewry could not be bridged to the absolutely unshackled minds of Jewish-American youth.
What was Jewish culture without persecution and marginalization? Through its effective integration and religious tolerance, America led to a New Enlightenment of questioning Jewish identity more thoroughly than any authoritarian rule in diaspora, and perhaps even more than Judea itself.
Sholem Aleichem died in New York, May 13, 1916. Every neighborhood of the Jewish community united in procession, stopping frequently to eulogize. Downtown and uptown Jews stood side by side. The literary community was out in force. One hundred writers presided over his coffin. Even the socialist Jewish Daily Forward paid respects, despite staunchly refusing to publish his works for his Zionist bourgeois stature.
Congressmen began to recognize the powerful viability of Jewish political constituency. The pre-statehood Zionist flag of Israel was flown alongside the American flag. Posthumously, Aleichem was celebrated as an anti-capitalist, Marxist writer for the workers, for his people.
Following in the obsessively artful footsteps of Aleichem, the music of Zorn is a perfect expression of how American Judaism turned about face to embrace not only Aleichem. More importantly, American Jews are now continuously learning to respect European-Jewish heritage in the present. Zorn embodies that quintessential European-Jewish home-wrecker of tradition who up and left generations of family only to become the keeper of tradition in America.
He looks back on a lost world, only unlike the rose-tinted nostalgia of popular culture, such as in the 1971 film version of Fiddler on the Roof, Zorn composes with all the characterful immediacy and true complexity of the here and now.
Photo Courtesy of LaPresse.ca