Indie Yiddish Pop Singer Olke Will Be Your New Obsession

The singer-songwriter spoke with Hey Alma about turning Yiddish poetry into her debut EP, "Di Froyen."

In 1927, Jewish writer Kadya Molodowsky published her first collection of Yiddish poetry, “Kheshvndike nekht” or “Nights of Cheshvan.” The book contains “Froyen lider” or “Women’s Songs,” a sequence of eight poems in which Molodowsky ponders the place of women in Judaism, desire, pregnancy, mother-daughter relationships and more. (English translations of “Froyen lider” can be found here.)

Nearly 100 years later, fresh-faced singer-songwriter Olke has transformed “Froyen lider” into “Di Froyen” — a debut indie pop EP musically worthy of Molodowsky’s genius.

Meaning “The Women” in Yiddish, “Di Froyen” gives a 21st-century voice to the first three poems in the “Froyen lider” sequence while staying true to Molodowsky’s words (all with the permission of Molodowksy’s family, of course). In “Di Froyen” (“The Women”), “Der Man” (“Husband”) and “Shteynerne Shtogn” (“Stone Steps”) Olke utilizes brooding vocals, lofi beats and echoing instrumentals to masterfully capture the yearning essence of “Women’s Songs.” It’s worth noting that this feat would still be impressive even if that essence weren’t well beyond her years: Olke is the musical persona of 18-year-old Katherine Bulthuis.

Regardless, to put things more plainly: the EP is just really, really good.

Olke spoke with Hey Alma recently about “Di Froyen” and turning Kadya Molodowsky’s poetry into Yiddish lofi pop.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

Can you tell me about how the EP came to be?

I was a fellow with the Bronfman Fellowship in 2021, and one of our shiurim (or lessons) was on Yiddish children’s literature with Miriam Udel, a professor of Yiddish at Emory University. We studied a poem by Kadya Molodowsky that I just fell in love with: “Olke mit der bloyer parasolke” — which is actually where I got my artist’s moniker. I really fell in love with Molodowsky’s poems. With the Bronfman fellowship, there’s a project after the completion of the summer session. I had been looking a little bit more into Kadya Molodowsky’s work, and I saw that she had a collection of eight poems called “Froyen Lider” (“Women’s Songs” in English). And I decided that I wanted to set some of them to music for the project. It’s been kind of a long journey, but I’m really excited to share [the EP] with people.

That’s awesome. Did you learn Yiddish through the fellowship?

So I’m fluent in German — I did an exchange year in Germany in high school. And so I was always really interested in Yiddish, because of my connections with the German language. There wasn’t any kind of official learning of Yiddish with Bronfman, but it definitely kickstarted me on this Yiddish journey.

I really love the juxtaposition of Yiddish poetry and the lofi, indie vibe of the music. Can you talk about that pairing and how you developed the music for the EP?

I really wanted to create something that I could envision my peers listening to as they would listen to other music. I very much love klezmer, and it is definitely a part of my listening diet, but I also know that pop music is something that my generation really has a special connection to. Throughout my own adolescence, I was inspired by artists like Lorde, and I grew up on ABBA, so I’m definitely a pop music person. I was especially inspired by Lorde’s “Pure Heroine” album and that really intimate setting it created. And I thought that that paired really well with “Froyen Lider” and its theme of an intimate journey of self-discovery as a young woman.

I’ve also discovered that music, to an extent, does have free will. I had this artistic vision, and it didn’t always go exactly how I imagined it. So for instance, “Der Man” was supposed to be a lot more electronic. And then in the studio it just kind of showed me what it wanted to be. But I think that the intention behind it was wanting to create something that would make Yiddish feel more accessible for people in my generation.

And what about the melodies?

I had the melodies written when I went into the studio. I had strummed things out with my guitar and figured out what I wanted [the songs] to sound like. And then I sent some recordings to my producer, Reid Kruger with Waterbury Music in Northern Minneapolis. I’m kind of new to production, so I’ve never really experienced that before. But [songs] really kind of take on their own personality and show you who they are along the way.

Can you tell me about your own Jewish identity and background?

I actually converted when I was in high school. My dad grew up in a Christian household, but in high school, I started feeling very, very drawn to Judaism — my family was no longer practicing Christianity at that point. I come from a town in northern Utah where the Jewish population is not that robust, so I would drive like an hour or so down to a synagogue in Ogden. I worked with a fantastic rabbi and started to develop my Jewish identity there, and I completed my conversion in my junior year. The Bronfman fellowship also really helped me. I’m a big fan of pluralism, so being in that environment was really cool. I would say I’m probably closest to Reform or conservative Judaism in my own practice, though I incorporate traditions from all denominations in my current practice. But I’m also going to Brandeis next year. So I’m excited to see how that will help develop my identity.

That’s incredible. So then how did discovering Kadya Molowdowsky’s poetry help you discover things about your own identity as a Jewish woman?

That’s a really good question. I don’t have Jewish women who are related to me by blood, though I definitely have Jewish women who I can look up to and who are fantastic role models. But some of the things Molodowsky describes is these women coming to her, ghosts of the matriarchs and her family, coming to her at night. I don’t have that in the sense that my ancestors were Jewish, but I am somewhat able to relate to that.

It’s interesting because the poem that drew me into her work wasn’t from “Froyen Lider.” But I just remember in this poem, “Olke mit der bloyer parasolke,” this little girl has an imagination that is able to transport her. I actually come from a theater background — I love to act and I love theater, and I was always a really imaginative kid. I loved playing dress up and writing these things and creating stories, and being able to see myself in this character that she wrote is really what got me hooked. And then also, there are so many different layers to these texts, especially with “Froyen Lider,” and so every time I come back to them, I feel like I gained something more, which almost feels a bit Talmudic in a way. But that’s one of the things I love most about Judaism, how everything is so layered.

Absolutely. I had never encountered Kadya Molodowsky before listening to your music, and then like reading the translations of the “Froyen lider” poems recently, I was just like, “Oh my god! Why aren’t more people talking about her?” Obviously, she’s well-known in Yiddish and Jewish literary circles, but I was dumbfounded by how poignant her writing is.

Oh, yes. Yeah, I completely agree. That’s my hope for this musical project — and I also hope at some point to do all eight songs, maybe when I have a bigger budget. But I hope that people will find the connection that I found with that poem, and are able to start reading her work. I just want to share my love for her poems, because she’s so cool. She is the greatest thing.

Agreed. So you’re going to college next year — is your intention to study music? And will you continue making music as Olke?

Olke is something that I can imagine myself continuing for quite a long time. I definitely want to continue releasing Yiddish music, and I hope that someday my Yiddish will be strong enough that I can write my own songs in the language — although I can see myself releasing maybe a few English language songs as well.

In college, I don’t think I’ll be studying music. One of the things that drew me to Brandeis was their minor in Yiddish. So I’m really excited to hopefully expand my knowledge, but otherwise I’m kind of wide open to wherever I go and whatever I study.

Why would you say that Kadya Molodowsky’s poetry is still relevant to Jewish women today?

I think it’s kind of the same reason that a lot of literature is still relevant to people today in that it expresses themes that are, to an extent, universal. I think connections between mothers and daughters and grandmothers and daughters are already so strong from an anthropological perspective. Then layering in that added dimension of Judaism to it makes it especially relevant to Jewish women today — especially those who have pretty complicated relationships. But, you know, something that I’ve always really believed about art is that it takes place in the interaction between the art and the person receiving it.

Yeah, absolutely. And what do you want your listeners to get out of hearing “Di Froyen”?

I just hope that they are able to form their own connection to it and find a special place for it within their lives. I hope that they’re able to find whatever they might need or want from it. And I hope [the music is] also able to, I don’t know if “reflect” is the right word, but provide almost a solace or a sanctuary for whatever they might be going through in life, whether that’s positive or negative.

Do you think you’ll turn any more of Kadya’s poetry beyond “Froyen lider” into music?

I would definitely be open to it. I have so many ideas for different musical projects — not necessarily different genres, but different instrumentation and experimenting with different things. So yeah, I would be open to working with her work again, and also other Yiddish writers and poets.

Oh, that’s great. Do you have any in mind?

Not any specific ones at the moment. I’m getting into Miriam Karpilove’s “Judith,” because I saw Jessica Kirzane’s translation of it, but I’m making myself read it in Yiddish first before the translation. So it’s going a little slowly, but I really love it so far.

I love it. And Yiddish or otherwise, are there any future musical projects on the horizon?

Oh, definitely. Right now, I’ve been thinking a lot about — perhaps this sounds a little bit silly — a space theme. Being in early adulthood almost feels like being an astronaut, where your childhood self is like a planet that you’ve left and you’re thinking, “How does your relationship to that former version of yourself change?” You’re still in this same body with the same brain but it can just feel so alien to be this young adult with all this new information and all these experiences. So I’d love to do an astronomical-themed Yiddish album.

I’d definitely listen to that. In the meantime, where can listeners follow you for updates?

I’m on Instagram under @olkemusic. And then of course, my music is on Spotify and Apple Music — and I found that my distributor released the music to the Peloton app.

That’s hilarious.

I thought it was pretty funny. But if anyone wants to listen to some Yiddish pop while they’re going through their morning workout, it’s there. And then I’m also on Twitter, @Olkele.

Read More