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From Russia with love for an eclectic repertoire
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From Russia with love for an eclectic repertoire

Svetlana Portnyansky sings of her devotion to Israel and Judaism

Svetlana Portnyansky says, “Through my body, soul, spirit, and heart, I feel the Judaism running through my veins.”
Svetlana Portnyansky says, “Through my body, soul, spirit, and heart, I feel the Judaism running through my veins.”

On Saturday, Nov. 6, hundreds of Eastern European Jews will gather in Deal to celebrate the culture many of them left behind when they emigrated from their homelands. A performance by singer Svetlana Portnyansky at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center is expected to attract some 400 people from New Jersey communities heavily populated by Russian Jews.

For many ticket holders, the concert is as much about nostalgia and longing as it is about music. “It helps bring out the old Eastern European experience,” said concert cochair Susan Diamond of Long Branch, who came to the United States from Slovakia in 1966. “In the communist era, culture was subsidized by the government, making it accessible to the average person.” The immigrants who have settled in the area “don’t necessarily miss Russia,” Diamond said, “but they long for the cultural experiences that they enjoyed throughout their lives there.”

Portnyansky, whom the Los Angeles Times likened to a “Russian Barbra Streisand,” describes her music as a fusion between modern folklore and classical cantorial, with an energetic dose of klezmer. “I have an interactive Jewish connection with my audiences,” she said in an NJJN interview from her home in Los Angeles, just before leaving for a concert tour in Australia. “Through my body, soul, spirit, and heart, I feel the Judaism running through my veins. I hope my love for Israel and Judaism can be heard resonating in every note that I sing.”

Portnyansky will be accompanied by two acclaimed Jewish virtuosos, pianist Ernest Shteynberg and violinist Arkady Gips, who played lead violin with Madonna’s 2008 tour. Proceeds from the performance will benefit a fund for wounded Israeli soldiers, and to support future Russian cultural programs, said Jess Levy, CEO of the 520-seat performing arts center.

Portnyansky was born in Moscow during a time of severe religious oppression. She attended Moscow State Music Academy before moving to the United States in 1991. “Half of my family immigrated to Argentina at the beginning of the 20th century,” which partly explains her polyglot repertoire. “I sing in Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, Spanish, and English,” she said.

The peripatetic Portnyansky has performed throughout the world, including in Israel, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Mexico, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and China. Although her music has wide cross-cultural appeal, she said she feels a special bond with those who share her personal culture.

“Because of the difficulties of integration of Soviet Jewry, we lived in a very isolated society,” she said. “I think many Americans may not understand the dark side of our former lives. What saves us and connects us are our shared roots, religion, history, and love for Israel.”

More than 600 emigres from the former Soviet Union settled in Monmouth County, mostly in Long Branch, Ocean Township, Asbury Park, Marlboro, and Manalapan, said Diamond, who assisted the newcomers during her 18 years of employment with Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Monmouth County. “I feel it is our community’s responsibility to help them,” she said. “We owe our gratitude to the Jewish federations of Monmouth and Middlesex counties, and the Axelrod Performing Arts Center for making this concert more accessible by covering some transportation expenses” for elderly community members who might not otherwise be able to attend.

Event chair Michael Levitt of Long Branch, who came to the United States from Lithuania in 1978, said he looks forward to more such cultural events at the Axelrod. “Usually I have to go to Carnegie Hall or the Metropolitan Opera for cultural performances,” he said. “The Axelrod is right in our backyard, plus we get to raise Hanukka gelt for Israeli soldiers.”

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