Just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell had big plans. A former opera singer turned Yiddish performer, the gay Black Jewish musician was ready to cast his self doubts aside and throw himself at every new opportunity with abandon.
“Somewhere between the horror of Cats and the consolations of Little Women I declared to myself that 2020 was going to be the Year of Big Moves,” he tells me in an email interview.
With plans thwarted by an ongoing health crisis, the musician readjusted his goals and threw himself into writing and promoting Convergence, his 2018 debut EP. Recorded with the klezmer trio Verestki Pass, the eight tracks harmoniously blend Yiddish folk songs and African American spirituals.
Like Russell, his music incorporates an intriguing combination of elements that forces listeners to do their job — listen — and dismantle tainted notions about the Black and Jewish communities. Through this new musical idiom, the Black Jewish performer (who met his partner, Rabbi Michael Rothbaum, on a first date at a New York Mets game!) created a “repertoire of songs authentically inhabiting the sounds and histories of two traditions,” as his website reads.
“With Convergence, I was attempting to create a space for Black and Ashkenazi Jewish texts to tell their stories simultaneously, sometimes mirroring each other and sometimes standing in sharp contrast,” Russell says.
Over email, I chatted with the talented musician about the compelling aspects of blending Yiddish and African American music, his road to self-acceptance as a Black Jewish performer, and the songs on Convergence that remain politically evergreen.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
You’ve spoken about your idol, Paul Robeson, one of many Black jazz artists who covered Yiddish songs, pointing to the allure of a shared oppression between Black people and the Jewish community. As a musician who blends Yiddish and African American music together, what are your thoughts on this idea of a shared oppression that bridges two musical styles?
Music has this bizarre quality of being both direct and ambiguous, open to different interpretations and meanings based on who is performing it, when, where, and why. I think I’ve been drawn to creating music because the inherent ambiguity of music and text gives me an opportunity to explore complicated spaces in myself, in history, and the world — directly. At the beginning of my career in Yiddish, this exploration mostly took place as an act of projection: After almost two decades of being an opera singer, I only wanted to sing songs with which I felt a direct emotional connection. I wanted to perform songs that were in some way an extension of myself with lyrics that could just as easily apply to my experience of the world as they did to the Yiddish-speaking people they were depicting.
Kind people have described my singing in Yiddish as “soulful;” less kind people (sometimes directly to my face) have described it as “depressing.” And it’s true: I was singing from a place of depression, insecurity, and confusion about my place in the world. It just so happens that these are spaces that Jewish artists have been extraordinarily adept at depicting in diverse ways over a number of centuries. I think it’s from this complicated place music inhabits — both ambiguously and directly — that Black singers have historically tapped into in their performance of Jewish music. It’s primarily an emotional place. It resists the kind of easy analogies Blacks and Jews have leaned on (perhaps too heavily) in past efforts of solidarity.
Jews have a history of oppression, as do Black people, but I have become hesitant to call it a “shared” history, because it blunts the particularities, contexts, and circumstances that shaped that oppression, that made us who and what we are. Rather, our respective histories of oppression give us a special affinity for understanding and engaging with the experience of another’s life under centuries of oppression. This may seem like splitting hairs, but the difference is profound to me. It requires listening and attention, things I try to foster as a creator and performer.
Tell me more about how you foster listening and attention through your music.
With Convergence, I was attempting to create a space for Black and Ashkenazi Jewish texts to tell their stories simultaneously, sometimes mirroring each other and sometimes standing in sharp contrast. With Tsvey Brider, a Yiddish songwriting/performing duo made up of myself and accordionist/composer Dmitri Gaskin, I wanted the stretch and complicate the phenomenon of modernity in Yiddish poetry. I wanted people to listen to what Yiddish poets from the first half of the 20th century had to say about their lives in a world in which we are very much still living.
In the beginning of Tsvey Brider, we tried to achieve this by very deliberately playing around with genres: taking a short, sharp Dropkin poem, creating a sort of Kate Bush baroquey-vibe setting for it, and throwing some artisanal beats underneath it. I remember describing Tsvey Brider as a “startup” and in that sense, we definitely decided to “move fast and break things.” Some of the Yiddish in early Tsvey Brider songs and recordings is fucked up due to transliterating and writing new songs faster than I could actually read them, or figure out how the language was supposed to sound idiomatically when it was set to music. Now, things have settled down a bit, but we’re still working at making music that makes people listen more closely to what is being said.
In an interview with My Jewish Learning, you said that before realizing that you were performing music for yourself first, and not for others, you tended to stray from playing African American music for Jewish audiences. Did that realization affect other areas of your life?
When performing as a minority, I think it can be hard to untangle the separate strands of performing as a minority and performing your minority for audiences, who at any given moment are sending you mixed messages as to how you make sense to them. Whenever I’ve performed, I’ve only ever endeavored to represent myself, but afterwards, occasionally someone would say something to me along the lines of, “It would be so nice if you could go back to your community and let them know that Jews aren’t bad people.”
After practically scratching my head bald trying to figure out exactly what was going on with that particular sentiment, the meaning became clear: I was viewed by some of my audiences as a tuneful representative of Black people or Blackness. Coming from an aforementioned space of insecurity, I didn’t feel like I was up to the task of being an exemplary representative of either, so I began to suppress any possibility of that being up for conversation.
In general, as a Black Jew it feels very empowering to declare that if I discuss my race, it must be on my own terms, but previously I hadn’t figured how I would want to discuss it in the first place. Instead, defensively, I became the sort of Super Ashkenazi who could discuss many pertinent facts about the village where your grandmother came from over kiddush luncheon. “Enough about me; let’s talk about you!” is still a stance I adopt occasionally, but it’s been interesting trying to figure out exactly what I do want to say about myself and my Blackness in the context of Jewishness.
Let’s talk about “Rosie,” a track on Convergence. Given the current political climate, the song has certainly aged well. Tell me about the power of “Rosie” and how it fits in with the Black Lives Matter movement.
In a recent issue of the New Yorker, Elizabeth Alexander wrote, “Black creativity emerges from long lines of innovative responses to the death and violence that plague our communities.” In this context of Black creativity, “Rosie” is my own innovative response to the violence of mass incarceration in the Black community.
“Rosie” is built primarily on a song that was recorded as part of an archive of music sung by the Black inmates of the Parchman Prison Farm in 1947. In the original call-and-response song, a prisoner asks a woman, Rosie, to keep her promise to him to wait until he is released from prison, so he can marry and provide for her. As a work song, this is sung to a steady, oppressive beat conducive to the performance of collective hard labor. I paired this with a wordless melody from “Es iz Shoyn Shpet,” a folk song originally collected by Ukrainian Yiddish singer Bronya Sakina (1910-1988), sung to accompany newlyweds home from their wedding.
For the sake of contrast, I wanted to illustrate the matrimonial desire of the Parchman Prison Farm inmates in a specifically traditional Ashkenazi Jewish context. I wanted it to sound like it came from another world because, for inmates in the midst of hard labor, perhaps the reality of conventional married life did sound like it came from another world.
In the process of covering what was originally a somewhat flirtatious song, I made it harder and more angular, turning what was lyrical accompaniment by Veretski Pass into jagged, abrupt bursts of sound by filtering and sampling their playing. I wanted to illustrate the destructive effects of mass incarceration on the development of Black love, family life, and community, its ability to take a tune meant to be sung at a moment of joy (the wordless melody from “Es iz Shoyn Shpet”) and turn it into a wordless cry of despair. The Black Lives Matter movement endeavors to fundamentally undo the systemic forces that created and have sustained a legacy of Black imprisonment, the selfsame forces that impacted the lives of the original performers of “Rosie” and continues to impact the lives of the Black community today.
On social media, you use humor to spark conversations that educate your followers on Twitter. Tell me about this strategy and how comedy is a tool for education.
I like to use a little pointed sarcasm or cattiness as a way to briefly destabilize the constant barrage of messaging from misguided and occasionally bigoted people who insist on the prominence and importance of their misguidedness and feel that you should insist upon it as well. Racism, anti-Semitism, transphobia, homophobia, sexism, mobilized state violence against citizens, racial fear mongering within our community — the list goes on and on.
People stoke hate and fear for ridiculous reasons and sometimes it is immensely cathartic to pull out a recent example and say — Look at this! What is that? What was that, even? Yes, was — let’s all consign this to the dustbin of history and move on
I’m a little all over the place, though. One day it feels necessary to deflate a certain amount of hot air that has been generated in the Jewish press about the importance of publishing poorly edited op-eds. The next, I’ll have something snarky to say about the assumptive hegemony of modern Hebrew pronunciation in Jewish prayer spaces. You really never know what you’ll get.
Are you working on anything new?
Dmitri and I have been workshopping Cafe Cosmopole, a loose collection of original Yiddish songs we’ve written set to the work of Yiddish poets from the first half of the 20th century. This was inspired in part by A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture, an engaging work of recent scholarship by Shachar Pinsker. Before the advent of COVID-19, we were actively applying for grants to further develop this project and engagements to try it out before audiences, but at the moment that has been put on hold.
In anticipation of being a member of the next year’s Hadar Rising Song Fellowship cohort, I’ve started trying to create a sort of personal platonic ideal of synagogue congregational music: new melodies appropriate for Jewish congregational singing that are informed by Jewish traditional music but also work over harmonic structures from R&B, jazz, and gospel.
Before this interview, you shared with me that as a Jew of color, you’re tired of explaining yourself. How do you handle this lifelong struggle, and what do you wish people asked you more about?
Nowadays, I have become much more attuned to the reasons as to why I am the source of so many questions. It’s been a personal journey from obliviousness to anger and frustration to finally a bisl rakhmones (a little compassion) for people who have the satisfaction of curiosity as such a great priority, even at the expense of another’s dignity.
For me, self-care has been settling into the reality of not knowing, accepting my ignorance, and then taking the personal responsibility to relieve myself of it. If I look at the curiosity of others as merely being less thoughtful attempts to relieve one’s self of ignorance, it means that I must become more willing to answer the various questions that come my way than I have ever been in my entire life. The question I wish people would ask immediately after those questions is, “Is this something you feel like discussing now?” The brief acknowledgment that I have feelings makes for much better search results.
Image via Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell; illustration via jsnegi/Getty Images