The Art and Culture of Singing Yiddish: A talk with Polina Shepherd

by Tela Zasloff / Special to the BJV

Yiddish music sings of a diverse world that goes back to the 10th century, in a language that was spoken by more than ten million people, European Jews from Russia in the east to the Netherlands in the west. But by the mid-20th century, this culture was endangered, with its great tradition of writers and thinkers severely depleted following the Holocaust and then the creation of the state of Israel, where the official spoken language is modern Hebrew rather than Yiddish.

Yiddish songs and lyrics still speak of a living culture, however. Throughout our history, Yiddish songs have always been central in urging us to remember that culture, conveying as they do a deep awareness of the frailties of common humanity, our vulnerability to illness and mortality, and the power of exchanging stories about our leaving our homes, either by choice or by force. The melodies and lyrics of these Yiddish songs, some based in ancient modes, sing directly to our hearts and make possible the continued survival and nurturing of that culture.

Polina Shepherd is a passionate advocate of singing Yiddish songs together with others. She is an accomplished and prolific singer, pianist, composer, conductor, and arranger of a Yiddish and Russian song repertoire that she has performed worldwide. She presently conducts five choirs in the United Kingdom and the United States that sing Russian and Yiddish folk and art songs connecting those two cultures; performances incorporate the newly-composed material that she bases in the history and culture of Yiddish musical composition and song.  

 She also has a robust Internet presence, with a YouTube page featuring her performances and interviews, as well as a weekly interactive educational Zoom program “Sing with Me Russian & Yiddish Song Sessions Online,” in which she explains the dynamics of classic Yiddish and Russian tunes one song at a time.  Polina’s latest production is a CD (150 Voices) of her Russian and Yiddish choirs, with Lorin Sklamberg, lead singer of the Grammy Award-winning Klezmatics,  and herself as a duo.  Listeners praise her music for its sweetness, exuberance, humor, and pathos. As one of the participants in these Sing With Me sessions, I have experienced the power and charm of Polina’s teaching and singing, especially how she has revived my childhood memories of hearing these songs and melodies, and I am continually surprised at my own emotional reaction to both music and words.

Polina is married to the acclaimed British clarinetist Merlin Shepherd, and both are counted among the leading lights of the Klezmer music revival. Both have performed at the Yiddish Book Center’s midsummer “Yidstock” festival in Amherst, most recently last year.

Polina makes music that reflects her roots. She was born in Siberia and grew up in Naberezhnye Chelny, Tatarstan Republic, in a household where the family all sang and played music together. Her mother’s father played the button accordion, the bayan, and her mother, a teacher and librarian, was a professional singer of Russian art songs. Polina learned those songs and later become her mother’s accompanist on piano. Her father, a university professor and computer programmer, took Polina to her first Klezmer concert in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, which encouraged her to join the youth club and, as she puts it, “start learning about being Jewish.” Her father’s parents spoke some Yiddish, but lived far away in Siberia and died when Polina was very young. Her father was one of the founders and fully involved in the Jewish community in their hometown, and although he does not himself perform, he always loved and appreciated music. He watches her online concerts in Naberezhnye Chelny, where the family still resides, “and loves that I have a connection to Yiddishkeyt.”

Polina’s maternal grandfather, Ivan Skovoroda, was not Jewish, but rather of Cossack/Ukrainian heritage and a World War II veteran. He was shaped by the Russian song and classical music traditions, and inspired Polina to perform Russian art music. “He played music constantly, the button accordion, the bayan, and the piano, and [also] sang,” she remembers. I loved listening to him and exploring his music books.”

Starting at age seven, Polina began 17 years of musical training. Paying for that training was a challenge for her family. She remembers:

“We called ourselves ‘the Intelligentsia.’ My parents made an okay living but we were by no means privileged. We lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a 9-story block. My parents could afford to pay for my brother’s and my extra music school education and go on holiday within Russia once a year. We didn’t go to restaurants and we grew our own vegetables, pickling them for the winter. I never experienced any direct anti-Semitism in my life in Russia. The only occasion I know about for sure, was when my father wasn’t accepted into the Communist party because their Jewish quota was full. That was back in Siberia, in Tomsk, before I was born. When I was growing up, I really felt that we were all equal. All the kids in our school had a similar kind of life and access to goods, regardless of our backgrounds and our parents’ occupations.”

She ultimately attended the Kazan State Secondary School (music college), where she studied music history and theory, with piano as a secondary focus, followed by four years at the Kazan State Conservatory.

Polina launched her career in many directions and in many places at once – she joined Russia’s first klezmer band in 1990 at the end of the Russian perestroika period; joined a Romanian Gypsy-style brass band; and performed and composed lyrical, ritual, and popular folk songs for holidays and ceremonies worldwide. Her choir work has inspired hundreds of people across the world to want to sing together and perform vocal music based on Eastern European sound and modal experimentation.

Audience response to her work reflects the local culture and political system, as well as the audience’s musical expectations. An encounter following one difficult performance in Switzerland sticks with her – Polina and her husband Merlin played Yiddish songs for a showing of an old silent Jewish film, and after their performance, a couple who identified themselves as pro-Israel said to them that Yiddish culture was a dying one and also not worth saving. “These opinions do exist in Europe,” she says,” and we often have to convince people otherwise by our playing and presenting Yiddish songs.”

Polina often addresses this question of the sustainability and durability of the “fragile” Yiddish culture. She says: “There is no home for Yiddish, no homeland, where people would be keeping Yiddish as the native language, where their children would grow up speaking it. What we have now is communities who support that culture here and there across the world, but no home.” She also sees a great deal of stereotyping that presents Yiddish as too funny and shallow, making it difficult for people to grasp the richness and depth of the culture as a whole.

One of her favorite stories of audience reaction is her performing for Boris Yeltsin and his wife, Naina, back in her hometown in Tatarstan. She was then the soloist in a Jewish band that loved performing in Tatarstan, because it was opposed to mainstream Russian culture and supported minority cultures. In the capital, Kazan, the band was the center point of the whole community. The president of Tatarstan started coming to their performances and booking them as one of the ethnic bands of the region at all kinds of big public events. He learned a few words of their songs and liked to come on stage to sing them. During one of the big local festivals in June, when people go into the fields and dress in bear costumes and sing and dance and eat and drink and perform, Boris Yeltsin, running for his second election to the Soviet presidency, appeared with his wife. The Yeltsins ate and drank with the locals, and listened to Polina’s band’s performance. Yeltsin came up to them afterward, shaking everyone’s hands and saying “Good, well done, beautiful music.” His wife gave Polina a hug and a kiss, her eyes wet, and said, “This was so beautiful. The music was so beautiful.”

Polina’s development as a vocal artist is still nourished by her passion for the Russian art song, known as a “Romance.” This genre flourished in 19th century Russia, particularly in the salons and private homes of the upper and middle classes, but have not often been performed in Russia since – according to some critics, they are not nationalistic enough. Russian art songs rarely sound like folk music or Russian church music or village church bells.  But for non-Russian audiences, this very universal, worldliness quality makes Russian art songs especially appealing and, because of the beauty of their melodies, close to the heart. Polina listened to her mother, her grandfather, and her aunt singing them as a trio, improvising harmonies on the spot. She was able to accompany their singing on piano by age 10. “I think it was because of this family warmth, a celebration of making music together, a lovely, melodic music, that I just fell in love with them,” she says.

In Russia, the popularity of Russian art songs and Russian folk songs has increased since the demise of the Soviet Union. “Things have opened up so much that each part of the former Soviet Union is able to focus more on its own culture, rather than what used to be called ‘the people’s culture.’ During the Soviet years, this kind of music was considered decadent, but people always loved it and still do.” 

Influenced by German lieder and classical compositions, Romances rarely sound “Russian” in the way folk songs and church music do. They sometimes, but not always, demonstrate certain elements of Russian music, including melody twists and octave leaps and changes. Overall, however, they are structured more simply.

Polina finds that the connection between Russian art songs and Yiddish songs goes mostly in one direction —Russian songs influencing Yiddish songs. “Aleyn in Veg,” one of the songs Polina likes to perform with her choral groups, is a good example of the overall Russian art song influence on Yiddish songs. Romances are, according to Polina, “songs that speak purely about the emotions, love and betrayal and the broken heart, and trust and nostalgia and death. We see a lot of parallelism between nature and human feelings — in folklore, folk songs, animals, mermaids, mystical creatures. But when we take these songs to the stage, to more classical music, we think big, so the Romance becomes our association with the stars and clouds, the big winds, the whole universe. It’s all about emotion and passion and the open expression of these feelings.” Yiddish songs – including those composed in the US – are similar to this type of art song in the sense that they are more classically composed for a stage setting,rather than for singing at home with the family. The Romance song influence on Yiddish music appears in theater songs, cantorial music, and songs sung by organizations like Workers Circle and the Bund.

Polina summed up her devotion to gathering people to sing together. “Music binds people even when they have contrasting views. It’s possible, it’s doable. I don’t have to talk about ideology, or express any views at all. I just think about love, about joy, about human feelings and connections. And that enables people to come together.” During our interview, she sang a song, setting a poem to music that she composed. “It’s about a ship sailing to warmer lands with beautiful, yellow sand and people welcoming you. You can interpret it as going home to Israel, or you can interpret it as just going home. I prefer to think of it as coming home to your inner self.” 

Tela Zasloff is a writer, editor, and English professor living in Williamstown. Her publications include a book about a pastor-rescuer in Vichy France during WWII, the story of her grandmother who emigrated to the US from czarist Russia, doctors curing blindness around the world, and her recollections of living in Indochina with her husband in the 1960s. She is currently learning Yiddish and Russian songs from Polina’s Zoom classes. 

The video version of this interview can be seen on YouTube, during which Polina sings and accompanies herself on the piano.

Photo of Polina Shepherd by Adam Barry.