The phrase “Yiddish music” usually brings to mind a couple of familiar images. Most people imagine either a group of older men recreating the klezmer music of late 19th century and early 20th century Eastern Europe, or the kind of American showtunes made famous with catchy songs like “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” (“To Me You’re Beautiful”). For some, it’s the musical equivalent of a sepia-toned photograph frozen in the past.
Today, that’s changing. You can still find traditional renderings of Yiddish classics. But with a resurging interest in the language and music festivals, from KlezKanada in Montreal to Yiddish Summer Weimar in Germany, artists are expanding beyond the traditional confines of what we imagine Yiddish music to be. These artists have built on what the likes of Chava Alberstein, The Klezmatics, and Brave Old World have started. Now, there’s everything from psychedelic Yiddish rock to Yiddish rap a la Joshua Dolgin of Socalled.
Here are some of the most innovative artists performing in Yiddish today, representing a variety of genres and geography. This is hardly an extensive list, and it’s admittedly subjective. Truth is, there’s a treasure trove of material to explore. This is only the beginning. To help you get started, I’ve also made a playlist featuring many of the musicians mentioned here, included at the bottom of this article.
Louisa Lyne & di Yiddishe Kapelye
We begin in Malmö, Sweden with Louisa Lyne and her Yiddishe Kapeleye. Lyne didn’t grow up with Yiddish music but fell in love with the world of Yiddishland when she found it — a common thread with many of these artists.
Lyne takes original elements of traditional Yiddish music — the double bass, the accordion — but manages to put her own spin on classic tunes. Her “A Mol Iz Geven” (“Once Upon a Time”) recites the introductory verse like spoken word poetry before jumping into an original composition exploring the culpability of Sweden in assisting Nazis during the war.
Annette Ezekiel Kogan founded Golem in 2000, and they released their first EP the next year. The klezmer rock band based in New York City performs in Yiddish and Yiddish-adjacent languages, like Ukranian, Russian, and English as well. Yiddish music often gets pegged as a weepy genre stuck in the key of D-minor, and though there’s a bit of truth behind that, you wouldn’t think it listening to Golem. Songs like “Freydele” with high-tempo beats would fit in nicely as part of any lineup at your next big bash (when that’s allowed again).
Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell
Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell’s Twitter profiles read, “So, your bubbe was nattering on about some black guy who sings in Yiddish. It’s me.” Indeed, it is him, but Twitter doesn’t allow enough space for all the things that could be said of Russell’s incredible, genre-bending music.
He’s half of the songwriting duo Tsvey Brider. Plus, his most recent release, “Convergence,” with the klezmer trio Veretski Pass, combines African American spirituals with traditional Jewish folk songs. The man has a powerful, operatic voice to be reckoned with, claiming a unique space within the world of contemporary Yiddish music.
This Latvian five-piece band formed in 2003 in Riga, but now stretches across Yiddishland. They bill themselves plainly as “Yiddish psychedelic rock” and it’s easy to hear why when you put on one of their two records, including the recently released “forshpil:tsvey” featuring a mix of dark Yiddish love songs that imagine a world where secular Yiddish-speaking Jews rediscover their roots in garage bands.
Daniel Kahn is a staple of any enthusiastic Yiddishist’s musical diet. Even in the pandemic, Kahn has been busy. He brought “Mentshn-Fresser” (“Man Eater”) out of the archives and into our contemporary quarantined lives alongside Sveta Kundish (a force in her own right). More recently, he co-wrote and performed a Yiddish translation of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land,” complete with original verses touching on Jewish heritage.
You’ll wish you had some Bon Jovi in the ‘80s-esque hair to swing around when you put on “Ver Vet Blaybn” (“Who Will Remain”) by Yiddish Princess. Sarah Mina Gordon co-founded the group while simultaneously recording and performing with other Yiddish all-stars like the aforementioned Klezmatics and Daniel Kahn. But when she’s on stage with her Yiddish Princess cohort, she rocks hard with a double guitar onslaught and “a voice that can shatter ice and coo you into mellifluous bliss,” as described by the band. And she does it all oyf Yiddish.
This self-described anti-fascist klezmer folk-punk trio in Seattle sounds like they could’ve fit in nicely on the Juno soundtrack somewhere between Vampire and The Moldy Peaches with their airy banjos and ukuleles. Their mission is to “braid together oral history, Yiddish language, contemporary and old-country musical genres, American Vaudeville, and visual arts.” Indeed, you can tell they care about tradition but aren’t stuck in the past with songs like “Hungry Yid,” which comments on rising rent in Capitol Hill. Keep an eye out for their forthcoming album, Cradle Songs, Grave Songs, releasing on May 1.
Hasidic music is a genre in and of itself, with its own performers and stars. Lipa Schmeltzer sticks out with his prolific career — at just 43, he’s already churned out 17 solo records. He’s been called “The Jewish Elvis Presley” and “The Hasidic Lady Gaga” in the same breath. But his loyal followers might call Elvis Presley the gentile Lipa Schmeltzer.
The New York-born son of a Holocaust survivor performs in a mix of Yiddish, Hebrew and English. He’s generated a bit of controversy within his community for mixing traditional Hasidic music (or nigguns) and lyrics with his contemporary stylings, which run the gamut from rap to klezmer and even comedic skits. Some Hasidic communities have gone so far as to ban his music, in part because he doesn’t enforce gender segregation at his performances. But that’s hardly slowed Schmeltzer down. As recently as mid-March, he released a seven-minute ballad as part of a celebration commemorating two Torah scrolls written during the pandemic.
When most people think of Yiddish, they think of Eastern Europe and New York. But the Argentina-born Alejandra Czarny has been singing in Yiddish most of her life. Like other artists on this list, she’s blended stylings and genres with traditional Yiddish music. Using Argentine influences, Czarny occasionally employs something of a tango tempo in her music even while playing traditional tunes like “Un Az Der Rebbe” (“And When The Rabbi”).
Now living in South Florida, she’s passing the pandemic by organizing talks and performances of Yiddish songs on Wednesdays at 4 p.m. EST.
Feel free to join her on Zoom (with a voluntary $10 contribution).
Spotify’s selection of Yiddish music can be limited, but this list will get you started. Check out the YouTube links and the artists’ websites for more.