They are going to be rocking in their seats, if not the aisles, at Shabbat services at Congregation Ohr Shalom-The Summit Jewish Community Center on Friday, Feb. 6.
The Conservative congregation is holding “Der Litvisher Shabes” with Belarus-born musicologist Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch as artist-in-residence, and he and his band Litvakus will conduct a “Klezmer Band Shabbat Service.”
In addition to a Tot Shabbat and teens-only session on Friday, on Saturday, Feb. 7, Slepovitch will give presentations about the music of Belarus, an “Express Yiddish Class for All,” his own life in Belarus, and his research gathering Yiddish music and culture.
The combination of passionate personal anecdotes, images, and music is typical of his style. “When I did my first teaching, in 12th grade, my teacher said it was so flashy, I was like a TV talk show,” Slepovitch told NJ Jewish News, “but that’s just my natural way.”
Slepovitch is a regular presence at the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene, and the multimedia concert program he created, Traveling the Yiddishland, has been performed nationwide. He has also been the Yiddish language and culture instructor at The New School in New York City, which is how the contact with the Summit congregation was made.
SJCC’s Cantor Janet Roth told NJJN, “My daughter Abbie studied Yiddish with him at the New School and said to me that he was one of the most exciting teachers she ever had, and that he had this really cool band, and she said — ‘Mom, you must bring him to the shul!’ When an 18-year-old is that excited about Yiddish culture, you know that there is something very special there.”
Roth said, “Zisl is one of the most creative forces on the Jewish music scene today. His knowledge of the Ashkenazi tradition is breathtaking. His love of our culture and his work to not only preserve our musical heritage (virtually obliterated in Europe) but to keep it alive and flourishing and relevant for our times is remarkable.
“For Zisl, Yiddish culture is as here and now as contemporary Israeli culture.”
Slepovitch, generally known as Zisl, is also surprisingly fluent in English for someone so recently arrived. That, he said, is an incredibly lucky aspect of his background: His parents are both retired now (and still living in Minsk, where he grew up), but his father was an English professor, and his mother was an editor and translator, working with English and French.
“Language is my primary tool, though — obviously — combined with music,” he said.
He clearly loves stories of all kinds, and mentions a true one linked to Litvakus’s new CD, Rasyn: The Music of Jewish Belarus. The cover illustration — a misty image of a picturesque old cottage — is by Boris Zaborov, a revered French artist of Belarusian Jewish descent, whose work illustrated a volume of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales, which Slepovitch’s mother was busy translating from English when she was pregnant with him.
“By some miracle,” he recalled, performing in Paris a few years back, he found himself sharing the stage with the artist’s son, who put him in touch with his dad. “Of course, he knew my mother — and he immediately gave me permission to use his picture.”
Contrary to so many Jews from the former Soviet Union, Slepovitch’s story is not one of victimhood. He grew up, he said, “as a Soviet child,” aware of being Jewish but with little Judaism in his life and a mostly positive connection to the general culture. He attended a high school for gifted music students. He got to explore his Jewish identity and discover Yiddish music and to have his classmates learn the scores he composed based on that tradition, from his early teens.
But ultimately, because of the limitations of a repressive government and limited career options, he began traveling abroad. At a KlezKanada, the annual festival of Jewish/Yiddish culture held in the mountains north of Montreal, he met Mariana, a fellow musician whose family had emigrated from Belarus many years before.
“We had friends who knew each other in Minsk, but amazingly we had never met,” he said. He came to the United States on a fiance visa, and married her. He and Mariana now have a 20-month-old daughter. He has been back to Minsk a few times, and his identity remains a mixed one.
As he wrote in a blog a few years back, “I am a Jewish artist, but also a Belarusian one.”