Lomir zingen! Yiddish song as ‘a way to explore my roots’

Lomir zingen! Yiddish song as ‘a way to explore my roots’

Questions for Mark Zuckerman

Mark Zuckerman, left, as the Prime Minister in the Center for Contemporary Opera production of Michael Dellaira’s The Secret Agent with Andrew Cummings as the Ambassador.     
Mark Zuckerman, left, as the Prime Minister in the Center for Contemporary Opera production of Michael Dellaira’s The Secret Agent with Andrew Cummings as the Ambassador.     

Roosevelt composer Mark Zuckerman will serve as Sharim v’Sharot scholar-in residence at Adath Israel in Lawrenceville, discussing his Yiddish choral arrangements and the challenges he has experienced when communicating, through music, facets of Jewish spirit, culture, and experience.

Two of his Yiddish arrangements will be performed at “A Tapestry of Time — A Symphony of Sound,” the eighth annual Mercer County Jewish Choral Festival, which will be presented by Sharim v’Sharot choral group and its musical director, Dr. Elayne Robinson, on Sunday, Feb. 22.

Zuckerman earned his PhD in composition from Princeton University, where he served on the music faculty and taught courses ranging from jazz to computer music; he also taught at Columbia University. 

Zuckerman talked to NJJN in advance of the concert.

NJJN: What was your Jewish background growing up. 

Zuckerman: My grandparents came from Eastern Europe — my grandfather from Lukov, Poland, and my grandmother from Russia. They were a Yiddish-speaking household, and my grandmother used to sing Yiddish lullabies to me. My grandfather was a very confirmed socialist. He became a citizen of the U.S. so that he could vote for Eugene Debs for president, and there are two remarkable things about that: one, the alternative was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the other, Eugene Debs was dead. I was raised Reform.

NJJN: How did you begin your musical development.

Zuckerman: The first piece I had played in public was at 11, when I wrote a piece for my grade school orchestra. The bandleader [at Ardsley High School] was probably the principal formative influence in my musical career. 

NJJN: How did you find your way back to your Yiddish roots musically?

Zuckerman: Tangentially through National Yiddish Book Center [in Amherst, Mass., where Zuckerman did a weeklong program in 1991 with its director, Aaron Lansky]. I met somebody there who later got me involved in the Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus, which has been in existence since 1923. I joined because I love singing and like choral music. 

I became more and more intrigued as time went on. As was the case with virtually every musical organization I joined, after a while I started writing music for it. I wrote arrangements, and it developed into something of a passion for me. I founded a Yiddish choir in New York, Di Goldene Keyt, the Golden Chain, which represents a link to our heritage.

NJJN: What goals did you have regarding the Yiddish musical tradition?

Zuckerman: I was going to try to preserve some of this culture and bring it to the fore, not only of Jewish choirs. There wasn’t really cross-fertilization between Yiddish and Jewish choruses, which wouldn’t be singing Yiddish music but would be singing Hebrew or English. And as much as we keep hearing how Yiddish is the mamaloshen — from the point of view of Orthodox Jews, the mamaloshen is women-speak and not worth paying attention to. 

I wasn’t terribly interested in Yiddish music by religious choirs. I went to the North American Jewish Choral Festival, run by Matti Lazar. They generally did not really welcome the idea of singing all this music, in the mid-1990s. I wanted to make a case for this music to a number of different audiences, among them, serious choral singers, Jewish and otherwise. 

From the point of view of Jews, a lot of people think of Yiddish music as either Second Avenue or the usual cliches, although some great music has come through Yiddish theater. Certain aspects of Jewish experience, I believe, are best captured in Yiddish song: the labor movement, for example, and certainly the Holocaust. 

NJJN: Why is the Yiddish tradition so important to you?

Zuckerman: It has been very much a way to explore my roots as well as identify with the stratum of Jewish society to which I feel I belong. If I wanted to go back and revisit my grandparents’ home, what would I see there? A big hole. The only thing that remains of them is the culture I can revisit today; and one of the things I find fulfilling about doing these arrangements is to actually be documenting part of that culture and helping it to survive.

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