Part One: Oy I Like They, A Queer Tribute to Aaron Lebedeff
By Jeremiah Lockwood, Research Fellow
Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience
A last minute response to the COVID surge forces a pivot to live streaming but fails to stop the exuberance and creativity of the New York Yiddish art community.
Founded in 2015, Yiddish New York is one of the flagship events of New York Jewish culture, held each year during the Christmas holiday week. As its name suggests, the festival focuses on Yiddish language, music and culture, specifically in its secular Yiddishist form, associated today with the klezmer revitalization movement and the academic study of Yiddish. The festival is notable as a success in fostering an intergenerational community, bridging together participants across the generational divide. The festival presents events that attract both elder Jews and the youth-oriented politically conscious Jewish activist scene focused on social justice and gender and sexuality activism. Klezmer music holds a central place as a focus of performance; klezmer pedagogical workshops and jam sessions attract an eager and energetic multigenerational following. While the festival features concerts by renowned musicians, the bulk of its offerings are classes in Yiddish language and klezmer music performance, and lectures on a broad range of subjects relating to Ashkenazi culture.
In a two-part report on the festival, I will discuss the role played by archives and reappropriation of heritage in the work of artists exploring Yiddish culture, and on themes relating to the challenges of performance in the Corona pandemic-era. This year’s festival was slated to offer a triumphant return to in-person concerts and group events, reaffirming the Yiddishist community that has managed to stay connected during two years of limited physical contact. Instead, last minute changes were necessitated by the Omicron-variant surge in New York City. The entire festival was conducted online, continuing the reliance upon Zoom video events as the modality of community building. For some endeavors, especially those focused on archival materials that can be accessed digitally, the freedom from geographic restraints offered by Zoom and the fluidity of time commitments in the era of lockdowns and working from home (or being unemployed) have been a surprise benefit. But for artists whose work depends on performance, this year’s festival was yet another disappointment in a period of challenges and setbacks.
At this year’s Yiddish New York, I presented as a musician and as a lecturer, as well as participating in numerous pedagogical, performance and lecture sessions as an audience member. While I was enthralled by the quality and breadth of the work presented at the festival, the indefinite deferral of in-person experiences offers a challenge to the ideals of performance. The problems of virtual concerts, its absence of physical feedback between artists and audiences, demands some new approach that has perhaps not yet been discovered. In the meantime, artists are continuing the stopgap measure of the Zoom concert, a compromise that is imperfectly tailored to replicate the experience of live art, but which has maintained its status as the “new normal.”
This first post on Yiddish New York will highlight one of the evening concerts hosted by the festival, titled “Oy, I Like They…A Queer Tribute to Aaron Lebedeff.” The name portends to offer a commentary or a revision of the work of Yiddish theater star Aaron Lebedeff (1873-1960). Lebedeff was the Belarus-born star of the New York Jewish theater world whose decades-spanning career is perhaps best remembered for the iconic hit “Roumania, Roumania” (1941) a song that became a placeholder for Jewish immigrant nostalgia.
I spoke to music director Frank London, who came up with the concept for the concert, and emcee and vocalist Shane Baker to discuss the event. Baker appeared in drag at the concert as the character Mitzi Manna, his homage to elder Yiddish female theater stars and a semi-regular part of his stage performances. Our conversations explored how the queer frame speaks to the work of Lebedeff. The salience of the approach of “queering” for the Yiddishist scene as a politic, an aesthetic stance and a source of word play and fun, gave body to the variety show format. The framing device helped hone an hour-long recital of mostly forgotten Yiddish theater hits featuring eight different singers into a concert intended to speak to the multi-generational audiences of the Yiddish New York festival.
Both London and Baker suggested that the juxtaposition of the terms “Lebedeff” and “queer” was simultaneously arbitrary and intimately linked to the source material. The framework for approaching the material derived from the desires of London and associates to engage the queer consciousness which is part of the zeitgeist and the politic of the contemporary Yiddishist community but is not specific to the vocabulary of Lebedeff’s songs. His lyrics are coarsely and satirically focused on male-female physical relationships.
A deeper dive into the material suggests a more analytical engagement with the role of sex in Lebedeff’s work than its bufo presentation initially allows. Lebedeff unrelentingly insists on giving presence to bodies, pushing against rules of behavior, either from a Jewish religious perspective or in the behavioral norms of Christian American society. His songs name and publicize secrets and scandals. In his lyrics, desire cannot be contained in normative frames of heterosexual behavior and erupts into flamboyant body humor, digestion metaphors, and scandalous excess. The insistence on the body and the bending of boundaries of private and public suggests queer readings that foreground the transgressive qualities of its exuberant sexuality.
“His songs are about food, place and sex,” London commented. Lebedeff’s songs “are so heavily gendered. There’s so much to play with.” Baker commented similarly that, “The songs are so heteronormative. It’s fun to queer it up.” The stylized depictions of male-female relationships, centered on outrageous appetites and gendered stereotypes of lustful men and desirable women, take on a different hue when genders are reversed, bringing out new humor in the destabilization of the vaudevillian stories being told. Each of the Lebedeff songs featured in the concert were treated in different ways by the singers, some rewriting lyrics to bring out homosexual overtones, and others shifting the meaning of a song by embodying male perspective-lyrics in a female voice.
Frank London, a founding member of the Klezmatics, pioneers of the klezmer revitalization movement, views Lebedeff’s book of charming pop tunes as woefully under played. He approached the concert as an opportunity to air a raft of new-old Yiddish songs. In a flourish typical of the eclecticism of the late 20th century New York downtown music scene, London and his ensemble constructed arrangements of Lebedeff’s songs drawing heavily on the sounds of psychedelic cumbia. Psychedelic cumbia is a 1970s pop music idiom that is stylish in the current moment, in part through the work of the Meridien Brothers, a band that London cited as an inspiration for the concert.
The musicians appearing in the house band were primarily not drawn from the “usual suspects” of the New York klezmer scene and notably skewed young. The sound of the band was driven by Ksenia Vasileva on electric bass guitar, given prominent place in the mix, and Sam Day Harmet on electric guitar. Two keyboard players, Erica Mancini and Adam Matlock, doubled on accordion (a typical instrument in contemporary klezmer) and synthesizers driven through effect pedals (a genre ambiguous sound, derived from psychedelia and other late 20th century pop music sounds). The band was rounded out by cellist Francesca Ter-Berg, and Larry Eagle on Drums.
The concert was fueled by an impulse to give the spotlight to artists that aren’t usually heard on the Yiddish New York stage. London worked with Amanda (Miryem-Khaye) Seigel, a singer and librarian and seasoned researcher on Yiddish culture, to put together the group of featured vocalists. Seigel brought archival skills to the production, offering material from Lebedeff’s catalog to singers who were not intimately familiar with his work. She also sang in the concert, appearing in drag as the character Aaron Lesbedeff. The singers included several performers who have appeared in recent productions of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, including Mikhl Yashinsky, a star of “Fidler Afn Dakh,” the recent Yiddish language production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Yashinsky sang a rendition of Lebedeff’s 1941 record “Az Men Farzucht, Un S’is Gut” (which begins at 56:44 of the concert video). The song is a double-entendre romp, with a chorus that translates to “If you taste it and it’s good, you’ll want it again and again.” Yashinsky, a skilled speaker of Yiddish, wrote new lyrics to the song. In his spoken intro to the song, Yashinsky says, “I’ve rewritten what were already pretty sexy verses to be about some tastes Lebedeff may have not necessarily had in mind.” Like in Lebedeff’s original, Yashinsky’s version offers a series of comic-erotic vignettes in the verses that set up the bawdy chorus. Not shockingly, the new version revamps the song with gay themes, but with charmingly specific Jewish content.
For example, the first verse of “Az Men Farzucht” describes a Purim shpil, a traditional folk theater presentation for the Purim holiday that retells the Bible story of Queen Esther saving the Jews from an attempted genocide in ancient Persia. In pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe and in some Orthodox communities today, the roles in a Purim shpil are all played by men. In Yashinsky’s verse, the onstage romance of two men, one playing King Achashverosh, the other Queen Esther, is an eye-opener. “Zey kishn af der bine/Der oylem makht a rash” (They kiss on the stage/and the crowd goes wild). To the delight of the singer, who dramatically kisses his fingers to punctuate the end of the rhyme, the kiss of the two male actors is “zis vi homentash” (sweet like a homentash pastry).
The arrangement of “Az Men Farzucht” begins with a doina, a non-metered instrumental section characteristic of klezmer performance, that sets up the modality and motifs of the song. Solos were passed around between instruments, beginning with a synthesizer solo by Erica Mancini. Her choice of timbre, a distorted organ setting, and the stylistic markers of her solo that referenced late 1960s rock, placed the arrangement in a disoriented temporal and idiomatic space. The accompaniment, like the lyrics, blurs stable boundaries of identity. The musical arrangements in the Queer Tribute version of “Az Men Farzucht” is conceptually linked to the original record. On Lebedeff’s record the band arrangement, written by Yiddish Theater composer Sholom Secunda, features a “hot jazz” trumpet obligato weaving in and out. This kind of borrowings from the current American pop music offered a musical counterpart to the boldness of its lyrics, gesturing sonically towards the breaking of communal barriers and taboos.
Queerness in the context of this concert and in the contemporary Yiddishist scene more broadly, signifies both as an identity descriptor of individual artists and a conceptual keyword signaling a stance of anti-normativity. In the Lebedeff concert, erotically charged word play points towards a broadly construed politic of subversion. Writing in 2006, Jeffrey Shandler identified Queer Yiddishism as a phenomenon that challenges the status quo of Jewish culture and American political life through expressive culture. In contrast to “the ideal image of culture as an enduring inheritance passed from parents to children, the queer paradigm of culture is that of a dynamic proving ground, its constancy comprising an ongoing breaking down and rebuilding of cultural practices and sensibilities among closely differentiated cohorts”.  This dynamic revision of culture offered artists a means to express non-conforming identities and push back at institutional sites of oppression.
The Queer Yiddish aesthetic emerged in the 1980s against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic and the maligning and devaluing of the lives of its victims. The origin of the aesthetic movement in a period of reaction to tragedy and oppression underscores the urgency of its activist stance. The lineage of the Queer Yiddish movement was specifically referenced in the opening section of the Queer Tribute to Aaron Lebedeff concert. The event began with a video of a song and dance performance of Lebedeff’s 1921 record “Hulie Kabtzen” from the 1996 film adaptation of Nikolai Erdman’s play “The Suicide,” directed by Greg Bordovitz. As Baker (in the role of Mitzi Manna) describes at the beginning of the concert, Bordovitz’s adaptation of the play transposes the bleak parable of the futility of life in Stalinist Russia onto the experiences of “a person living with AIDS. A person who’s suffering was turned into a political football.” The Lebedeff number from the film was choreographed and sung by Jenny Romaine, with a backing ensemble that included Lorin Sklamberg, co-founder of The Klezmatics. Romaine and Sklamberg are pioneers of the klezmer and Yiddish song revitalization movement who are still active performers.
Queerness and Yiddish culture are closely linked in the projects of Jewish artists whose identities and creative practices were intertwined. The chosenness of Yiddish as a modality of expression not predicated on “natural” language formation in the context of heterosexual family life mirrors the intentionality of the formation of communities based in affect and choice. Queerness as an aesthetic offers a refusal of marginalization and centers the experience of “outsiders” to the mainstream. As pioneering klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals notes in a recent article, the confluence of queer identity and Yiddishism has grown over the course of the past generation, in part because of a deep affinity with the outsider status of Yiddish in American Jewish life. She writes, “Queer Yiddishism is an act of integration — a poignant one because it isn’t just about integrating different parts of ourselves, as in lesbian poet Irena Klepfisz’s work (such as her iconic A Few Words in the Mother Tongue), but also about integrating our true selves into families and histories.” 
Discussing his choice of a queer frame for the Lebedeff tribute concert, Frank London turned to the classic 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” in which Susan Sontag discusses the inspired excesses that elevates “bad art” into the rarified experience of camp. Camp achieves aesthetic virtue through the negation of aesthetics, and by instantiating an aesthetic of subversion of the normative.  Both camp and the vaudevillian sensibility represented by Lebedeff share in a sensibility of discovering the good in “bad taste.” London suggests that Lebedeff is a purveyor of camp. In this reading, Lebedeff’s songs subvert the pretentions of high art, offering democratizing, utopian tendencies through the bold dramatic gestures of the vulgar, the extreme and the sentimental.
Camp is a broadly enough shared characteristic that it could stand as a catch all point of connection tying together any of the shund (low brow) genres of Yiddish theater with queerness. This connection is sufficiently loose to provide the basis for a host of project ideas, as demonstrated by another concept-concert London directed for the festival in 2019, a queer-themed tribute to Yiddish theater legend Molly Picon. The Queer Tribute to Lebedeff concert shows how deeply the concept of Queerness is baked into the culture of Yiddish New York; it is a point of shared meaning making for artists from a variety of age groups and scenes.
In the context of Yiddish New York, the queer reading of Lebedeff is a practical choice as an organizational principle. The rubric of Queerness helped draw together a cast of artists, most of whom have never worked together, in the space of a very short period of time to create a new work of art collectively. London’s insight into the camp qualities of Yiddish musical theater classics helped spur a creative repurposing of Lebedeff’s songs, repatriating classic showtunes into the contemporary repertoire by inviting artists to warp the archival materials to their needs.
This cut-up approach to old Yiddish popular art matches the functional spirit of the music. Lebedeff’s songs reflected their political moment, offering wry commentary on assimilation and corruption, and was a source of communal solidarity for immigrant Jews, unapologetically romanticizing memory and heritage as a locus for communal affect. These two functions of Yiddish theater, political commentary and ethnic solidarity, are resurfaced in the Queer reading offered up by “Oy I Like They.”
In my conversation with Shane Baker, the focus was not on his multiple recent productions but rather on the uncertainty of the immediate future of theater and performance. Given his solemn tone, one would be forgiven for not realizing that he had just come off a triumphant production of his Yiddish translation of Waiting for Godot at the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theater and then headlined multiple events at Yiddish New York. The past two years of cancellations and postponements, and now the latest Covid surge, have left Baker with a profound sense of the vulnerability of the performing arts. The exuberance and physical presence that are at the core of theater, and especially events like the Queer Tribute to Lebedeff, have been hobbled by the epidemic.
Onstage as Mitzi Mana, Baker announced the Covid status of participants, mining macabre fun from the uncertainty and dangers of the moment. His anxious stance in relationship to the current moment is a cogent response to the unrelenting difficulties performers have faced. Baker’s melancholy is a cautionary reminder that virtual experiences, however great the relief they have provided to the monotony of isolation, are not the same as in-person experience. The ubiquity of digital streaming shows offers a challenge to two of the axioms of performance, presence and ephemerality, that are completely lost in the digital environment. Losing these elements is keenly felt, especially in contexts like Yiddish New York where community, noise and play are central creative forces and sources of pleasure.
In contrast to performance, which has faced obvious challenges during the Covid period, archival research has undergone a surprising boom. In the context of the online Yiddish New York festival and other digital gatherings, archival projects have taken on some of the force of social events, moving away from the traditional solitary research model to create community around the shared experience of music and learning. Next week, I will offer some observations about an important archival research project that was presented at Yiddish New York and the musical performances the project has inspired.
1. Jeffrey Shandler, “Queer Yiddishkeit: Practice and Theory,” Shofar, 25 no. 1, Special Issue: Beyond Klezmer: The Legacy of Eastern European Jewry (Fall 2006), 112.
2. Alicia Svigals, “Whither Queer Yiddishkayt?” In geveb (October 2021).
3. Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp,” Against Interpretation (New York: Delta, 1966). The essay originally appeared in Partisan Review in 1964.