By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell understands the fascination many have with his music.
“If I can be completely honest, it is unusual, at least nowadays, to see a Black guy singing in Yiddish, and I am going to fully acknowledge that. … It’s also a genre of music that people either haven’t heard of, so it’s interesting to them, or… are very, very familiar with but haven’t seen anybody doing it in a really long time,” he said.
Russell is one half of Tsvey Brider, the Yiddish song duo composed of singer Russell and accordionist Dmitri Gaskin, who will be featured April 22 at Temple Beth-El in Birmingham’s Southside community.
Russell said he was lucky to find something that wasn’t being done by a lot of other people — “specifically something suited to my abilities as a musical performer,” he added.
In classical music, Russell, a bass opera singer who found the genre through the Oscar-winning 1984 film “Amadeus,” said his voice allowed him to take on a broad range of characters. With Yiddish music, however, Russell said he has found a more personal scope in what he performs.
“When it comes to Yiddish song, nine times out of 10 … the thing you are playing is a Jew,” he said. “I think to a certain extent, I liked the fact that I could still sort of exist as a classical vocalist and yet manage to create stories that were much more intimate and much more sort of smaller scale.”
When he performs Yiddish song, Russell said, he sees a “continuity” between his performance and “the lived experience of people in my audience.”
Russell recalled a talk he recently gave in New Jersey about his work, during which he did a little singing. He chose a lullaby taught to him by Eastern European folk music advocate Ethel Raim, a song that was part of a tradition of music “created and sung and performed in villages and shtetls in central and Eastern Europe.”
Russell, who converted to Judaism in 2011—the same year he traveled to Israel, where he studied Yiddish at Tel Aviv University, said, “After this talk was over, a woman came up to me and said, ‘My mother used to sing that lullaby to me, and when you started singing it, like, I knew it.’ It was really funny because, as I was singing it, I could hear somebody in the audience singing along, and I was like, “Who is this person?’”
Russell learned the song from an archival recording that probably was made in the 1950s: “This woman [singer] brought this lullaby with her from Eastern Europe to the United States. I start singing it, and all of a sudden someone is like, ‘Oh, you were singing part of my life,’” he said.
Russell’s love for Yiddish began as he moved away from classical music and remembered a song “Dem Milners Trern” by Sidor Belarsky, a Ukrainian born Jew who moved to the United States in the 1930s. Belarsky, like Russell, was an opera singer before dedicating his life to singing in Hebrew and Yiddish.
Belarsky’s story hooked Russell, who soon found that Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida, had Belarsky’s entire musical output in the Judaic Collection of the university’s Recorded Sound Archives, a significant amount of which is available for free online.
After finding the recordings, Russell quickly purchased a songbook Belarsky had published, which contained about 70 songs. Russell taught himself a few songs from the book and started calling around to see where he could perform. He found the Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center in the Bronx borough of New York City, and only three people were present during his first performance at the center in early 2012. That was enough.
“Three people saw me there. They told three people. I was getting invitations to perform here and there and all over the place. The second time I ever performed in Yiddish, somebody who saw me there wrote an article about me for The Huffington Post, so it just kind of ballooned from there,” Russell said.
Russell has performed on stages globally including Tel Aviv, London, Berlin, Warsaw, Toronto, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, Miami and Krakow, Symphony Space in New York City and the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.
The Yiddish art song duo Tsvey Brider—singer Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell and accordionist Dmitri Gaskin—will perform April 22 at Temple Beth-El, 2179 Highland Ave. S., Birmingham, AL 35205.