On Yiddish Nuances: Yiddishkayt as Listening Key in the Music of Osvaldo Golijov

Lila Fabro


This paper explores the strong links between the con­cept and imag­i­nary of Yid­dishkayt and the poet­ics of Argen­tin­ian com­pos­er Osval­do Goli­jov through an analy­sis of the musi­cal pieces: La Pasión según San Mar­cos (St. Mark Pas­sion, 2000), The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind (1994), Yid­dishb­buk (1992) and Three Songs for Sopra­no and Orches­tra (2002). By focus­ing on the transna­tion­al con­nec­tions between the con­cepts of Yid­dishkayt, the Yid­dish postver­nac­u­lar, the acoustic cul­ture of Yid­dish, and the con­cept of Ashke­naz as an orga­niz­ing idea, I sit­u­ate Yid­dish and Jew­ish themes with­in the poet­ics of Golijov’s works.

Born in La Pla­ta, Argenti­na in 1960 and edu­cat­ed in Argenti­na, Israel, and the Unit­ed States, Golijov’s musi­cal dis­course is shaped by his lived geo­gra­phies. His com­po­si­tions often cen­ter on the use of Jew­ish mate­ri­als, espe­cial­ly Yid­dish lan­guage and cul­ture, mixed with ele­ments from Europe and the Amer­i­c­as. As such, the composer’s writ­ings bring out cul­tur­al ten­sions not only between Jew­ish-Yid­dish ele­ments and ele­ments from oth­er tra­di­tions, but also ten­sions with­in Yid­dish cul­ture itself. Hence, the con­cepts of dif­fer­ence and nuance become aes­thet­ic prin­ci­ples with­in his poet­ics. My aim is, there­fore, to approach these ten­sions and nuances, in an attempt to think through the unfold­ing of Yid­dish and Yid­dishkayt in the works of this world-renowned con­tem­po­rary art music composer.

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Introduction: A Shofar on Top of the Piano

In 1996, the young Jewish Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov was commissioned by the International Bach Academy in Stuttgart to create a Latin American interpretation of the Passion of Jesus Christ. 1 1 The International Bach Academy in Stuttgart is a foundation based in Stuttgart, Germany, founded in 1981 by Helmuth Rilling to promote concerts and workshops dedicated to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and its relationship concerning contemporary musical composition.
This was part of “Passion 2000,” a project celebrating the 250th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s death. That same day, Golijov ran to buy a Christian Bible and read it for the first time.

Coming from a Yiddish-speaking family that had emigrated from Russia and Romania to Argentina in the 1920s, and having been a Monish-type boy himself, how could he tell this deeply Christian story? La Pasión según Marcos (St. Mark Passion, 2000) ends with a movement called Kaddish, which is a mourner’s prayer. The Kaddish is not the only Jewish text musically deployed throughout the piece, but it is important as it is both the finale and the frame of the entire piece. In a narrative in which Jewish elements do not constitute the textual structure, the Kaddish stands out for its sonic and semantic dissonance. The Kaddish is not part of the evangelical narrative; it is there as a textual appendix, as a commentary, as a composer’s addition which reframes the entire piece to enact a Jewish-Latin American interpretation both of the Christian Gospel and of the Passion oratorio genre.

Through an analysis of the cultural and interreligious tensions of this piece and others (Yiddishbbuk [1992], The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind [1994], and Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra [2002]), this paper will explore the relationship between the concept of Yiddishkayt and Golijov’s musical discourse, as well as the way his musical discourse carries the marks and nuances of his own transnational biography, career, and education. It is also my aim to approach Golijov’s contemporary classical music through what Ari Kelman names “the acoustic culture of Yiddish.” 2 2 Ari Kelman, “The Acoustic Culture of Yiddish,” Shofar 25, no. 1 (2006): 127–51. I will detail the sounds, resonances, and cultural meanings of the Yiddish language as they stand in tension with materials from other cultures and traditions. These questions are the starting point to approach Golijov’s music from the intersection of musicology and Yiddish studies, bringing together the concepts of Yiddishkayt and sound.

By ‘Yiddishkayt’ I refer to a reading of Jewishness that includes forms of Jewish religiosity, folkloric elements, linguistic practices, and cultural imaginaries of Ashkenazi culture. In this regard, I borrow from the concept of ‘Yiddishland’ as defining a linguistic-cultural locus and a realm of meaning of Yiddish language and culture.

The Yiddish markers (together with other markers of Jewishness) that can be heard in Golijov’s music produce tensions, reorganizations, and interpretations of musical discourse. In order to discuss these markers, I will develop the methodological concept of Yiddishkayt as a listening key, an association the composer articulated when asked about his thought on cultures as keys within his work:

Not like keys on the piano, but like tonalities. For instance, in the opera I wrote about García Lorca, there is an intense interlude of gunshots, over which a flamenco cantora sings a lament. It ends with something very lush, very much like Richard Strauss. That modulation—from flamenco and bullets to Strauss—is similar for me to when Mahler goes from a key that has three flats to one that has five sharps. 3 3 Osvaldo Golijov, “A conversation with Osvaldo Golijov,” Habitus: A Diaspora Journal – An Anthology (March 2011), Conversations, Kindle.

I define this “key” both as an interpretive key, and as a synonym for tonality, for a sound system within his musical composition. This paper explores the manners in which Golijov’s poetics engage cultural, religious, national, and transnational tensions related to Yiddishkayt, by poetically reproducing them as an undertone in his musical compositions.

Biographical Overview

Osvaldo Golijov was born in 1960 to an Ashkenazi Jewish household in La Plata, Argentina, fifty-six kilometers away from Buenos Aires. Son of a piano teacher mother and physician father, Golijov was raised surrounded by classical music, Jewish liturgical and klezmer music, and the music of tango composer Astor Piazzolla. Golijov was also raised speaking and listening to Yiddish, Spanish, and later Hebrew. He studied piano at the local conservatory and composition in Buenos Aires with Gerardo Gandini.

In 1983, in the aftermath of the last Argentine civil-military dictatorship (1976–1983), Golijov left a devastated Argentina. He moved to Israel, where he studied with Mark Kopytman at the Jerusalem Rubin Academy. Golijov described his new home as a “liberation experience” where he no longer felt like a second-class citizen. His years in Israel also provided him with the opportunity to immerse himself in the roots of the cantorial music he had learned during his childhood, and its connection with Sephardic, Yemenite, and North African music. 4 4 Ibid.

With this expanded musical background, Golijov moved to the United States where he solidified his credentials as a scholar and composer. He earned his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied with George Crumb, and later was a fellow at Tanglewood, studying with Oliver Knussen. In 1991, he began teaching at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he still teaches as the Loyola Professor of Music. Since then, he has collaborated with some of the world’s leading chamber music ensembles and musicians, such as the Kronos Quartet, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, the Silkroad Ensemble, Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, Gustavo Santaolalla, Luciana Souza, Biella Da Costa, and Robert Spano.

In 2000, the premiere of the piece La Pasión según San Marcos (St. Mark Passion) was a turning point in his career, earning him worldwide recognition and posing questions throughout the field of musicology regarding new paths for classical music. The growing attention to his work led to a series of awards and increasing acknowledgement. In 2006, he earned two Grammy Awards, one for Best Classical Contemporary Composition and the other for best opera recording for his first opera Ainadamar: Fountain of Tears. That same year, the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts held a sold-out festival called The Passion of Osvaldo Golijov featuring his works. In 2007, Golijov was named as the first composer-in-residence at the Mostly Mozart Festival, and in the years 2012–2013, he held the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall. Golijov has received numerous commissions from major ensembles and institutions around the world. He has been composer-in-residence in several festivals, and he is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and the Vilcek Prize among other awards. 5 5 “Long Biography”, Osvaldo Golijov,

A Kaddish in Latin America

Golijov’s transnational artistic and biographical characteristics place him at a crossroads which defies easy classification. He is Argentinian but he has lived in the US longer than he has in his homeland, and he calls Boston his home. His musical career has developed in the US and his music belongs more to the North American scene than to the Argentinian one. He has been described as an “Argentinian composer,” a “Latin American composer in the Contemporary Art music scene in the United States,” a “Jewish composer,” a “Jewish Argentinian composer,” a “Jewish Latin American Composer.” His music has a lot of Jewish materials, but is his music Jewish? Or is it related to Jewishness? Jewishness comes into play precisely within these permanent tensions between the national and the transnational. As musicologist Philip Bohlman states: it is disjuncture rather than commonality what characterizes the musical and aesthetic practices of Jewish modernity. 6 6 Philip V. Bohlman, “Prologue”, Jewish Music and Modernity (United States of America: Oxford University Press, 2008), xv-xxxiii. So, within the cultural tensions that mark his work, how does his attention to Yiddish and to Jewish musical and cultural vocabularies function?

To begin answering such questions, it is worth focusing closely on the composition that has earned him the most fame. La Pasión según San Marcos is one of the four pieces that constituted the “Passion 2000” project on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s death. The project entailed commissioning and premiering four Passions by four world-renowned composers who chose one of the Gospels and wrote a version of it in his or her language. The other composers were Wolfgang Rihm, Sofía Gubaidulina, and Tan Dun. Golijov’s Passion premiered, alongside the other pieces, at the Europäisches Musikfest Stuttgart in Germany in 2000, with Maria Guinand as the conductor.

In this piece, the Passion is relocated to Latin America and the text is largely composed of a selection of fragments from the Gospel of Mark. Golijov produces a new narrative that displays a constant problematization of the biblical text and religious liturgy. The piece is anchored by an intertextual structure of thirty-four movements. Throughout these movements, five textural levels can be found in the written score that shape an apparent musical continuum. Thus, the entire work can be heard as a cross-linking of diverse texts and discourses, resulting in a compositional accent on the selection and deployment of diverse materials. It’s important to stress that the way in which intertextuality occurs—as the primary writing operation—is in the form of quotation. Hence the entire musical piece can be heard as a quotation network that emphasizes stylistic and acoustic contrast. This strategy highlights both the force of the piece’s lyrical and musical structure and the differences between its source materials.

Regarding the Kaddish—the last movement of the piece—it has an introduction followed by ten parts named A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, and it is structured through the juxtaposition or overlapping of three diverse textural elements, which are: a) minimalist elements, b) popular Cuban and Afro-Brazilian rhythms performed by percussion instruments of African and pre-Columbian origin, and c) musical textures based on extended techniques such as the use of the accordion delay pedal, the harmonics played by the strings, and the guitar used with a drumming effect, which shape a background timbre worked in a minimalistic way, based on recurring patterns repeated over time with minimal variations and phase shifting. Within these extended techniques, a series of textual fragments in different languages is overlaid in one particular moment of the Kaddish movement. 7 7 Lila Fabro, “Decir/cantar Kaddish en América Latina: transmisión diaspórica en La Pasión según San Marcos de Osvaldo Golijov”, in Hacia la superación de la disyuntiva teoría-praxis en la música. Prácticas y etno-estéticas musicales: Actas de la XXI Conferencia de la Asociación Argentina de Musicología y XVII Jornadas Argentinas de Musicología (Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires: Asociación Argentina de Musicología e Instituto Nacional de Musicología, 2015), 9-19.

The movement contains repeated notes and rhythmic motives. A women’s choir sings a fragment of the mourner’s Kaddish in Aramaic; a solo singer sings a fragment of the Lamentations of Jeremiah in Latin; and a text in Spanish is performed by a chorus of men representing “the voice of the heavens” singing: “Tú eres él, mi hijo amado, yo a tí te elegí” (‘You are him, my beloved son, I chose you’). In this fragment (C-F), the percussive ostinato ceases, and the emphasis shifts to the overlapping and mismatching between the different texts and their respective colours, rhythms, and pitches. The inclusion of the mourner’s Kaddish in the last movement operates on a textual level, and it also produces a unique tone along with the other texts and languages layered within this fragment.

Within the Passion as it is traditionally understood, there is certainly no precedent for a Kaddish as a concluding movement; thus Golijov’s inclusion of this text creates an immediate dissonance that challenges the genre itself. Regarding this, the composer has stated: “Essentially the Kaddish is the Credo of this work, the ‘ani maamin’ and also the signature, as in the crucifixion paintings.” 8 8 Osvaldo Golijov, e-mail to author, July 30, 2014. By ‘Ani Ma’amin’, translated as ‘I believe’, Golijov refers to the Thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith compiled by Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon or Maimónides. The text of the Kaddish is a work of divine praise which makes reference to the twelfth of the Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith, that is, to the belief in the coming of the Messiah and the messianic era. 9 9 The Kaddish reads: “Magnified and sanctified be His great Name in the world which He created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom during your life and during your days, and during the life of all the house of Israel, speedily and in the near future, and say Amen. May His great Name be blessed forever and ever. Blessed, praised and glorified, exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the Name of the Holy One, Blessed be He; Who is beyond all blessings and hymns, praises and songs that are uttered in the world; and say Amen.” (Hayim Halevi Donin, “Kaddish,” To be a Jew. A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 306.

Moreover, a musical synthesis of the whole work can be found in the Kaddish - and that has a lot to do with the relationship between music and language, and perhaps also with the importance of the number twelve within twentieth-century music history. If Golijov uses the juxtaposition of diverse genres and materials as a particular way of modulation throughout the entire work, the Kaddish is the only place where the overlapping of texts—as musical materials—renders them unintelligible. The relationship between words and music moves, then, from a diachronic axis to a synchronic axis, bringing out an interlinguistic knot, a struggle, and a dissonance of languages ​​and texts. The presence of the texts and languages are, then, ​structural elements of the work, both with regard to sound and meaning: it is a knot that unfolds in time and moves along, so that the mixture and juxtaposition within the previous movements of the Passion are represented as inextricably knotted in this mourner’s Kaddish.

Furthermore, the Kaddish calls the listener back to the beginning of the whole piece, the first movement, Vision: Baptism on the Cross and expands its initial material through the unfolding of the sung texts. In this way, the first movement could be heard as a fragment of the final Kaddish, or it could be said that there is a quality of beginning within the end, which brings us back to the commencement, but in a varied and expanded way. Because of its synthesis, and of the refashioning of initial materials, the Kaddish reveals itself as a frame, proposing a reframing of the entire composition. The Kaddish is transformed into a credo that reinterprets the Gospel as constituted musically through a marker of a Jewish ethnic-identity, becoming a key to listening to and reinterpreting the whole musical discourse.

The inclusion of the mourner’s Kaddish, its relationship with the rest of the elements in the Passion, and even the title Kaddish, become a sort of guide and subjective mark that establishes a hierarchy and a certain listening order within the intertextual network. Thus, Golijov’s Passion might be taken as an example of a diasporic web, a term coined by Philip Bohlman, which proposes a musical synthesis drawn from a work’s historical, ideological, and religious elements, connecting different centers and highlighting their relationships. The Passion’s diasporic web with its intertextual character, especially in the Kaddish, may be initially located in Latin America, but it also entails an expansive logic that adopts a diasporic perspective. In this respect, the Kaddish produces a cartography of diasporas within diasporas, fusing and counterposing Jewish Diasporas and African Diasporas.

While the concept of diaspora is connected to the concept of displacement, in Golijov’s piece its diasporic web structure does not describe placelessness but strong cultural anchors in specific symbolic territories, such as the Christian evangelical discourse in Afro-Cuban or Afro-Brazilian communities, and Jewish-Argentinian communities. These anchors produce points of contact and divergence. In this sense, Golijov’s writing shapes a border aesthetics heard within the tensions both of the materials synthesised and also within the articulation of past, present, and future times.

Citas con Fantasmas

On December 10, 1978, after receiving the Nobel Prize for his Yiddish writing, Isaac Bashevis Singer began his speech at the Nobel Banquet with the following words:

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
People ask me often, ‘Why do you write in a dying language?’

And I want to explain it in a few words.

Firstly, I like to write ghost stories and nothing fits a ghost better than a dying language. The deader the language the more alive is the ghost. Ghosts love Yiddish and as far as I know, they all speak it.

Secondly, not only do I believe in ghosts, but also in resurrection. I am sure that millions of Yiddish speaking corpses will rise from their graves one day and their first question will be: “Is there any new Yiddish book to read?” For them Yiddish will not be dead.

Thirdly, for 2000 years Hebrew was considered a dead language. Suddenly it became strangely alive. What happened to Hebrew may also happen to Yiddish one day, (although I haven’t the slightest idea how this miracle can take place.)

There is still a fourth minor reason for not forsaking Yiddish and this is: Yiddish may be a dying language but it is the only language I know well. Yiddish is my mother language and a mother is never really dead. (…) 10 10 Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Banquet Speech,”

IBS (the initials of Isaac Bashevis Singer) is the title of the second movement of Yiddishbbuk (1992), a piece for string quartet, commissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center and the Fromm Music Foundation, written for and premiered by the St. Lawrence String Quartet at the 1992 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music. It consists of three movements whose titles bear the initials of commemorated people such as: the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, the American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, and Doris Weiserova, Frantisek Bass, and Tomas Kauders, three children murdered in the Nazi concentration camp Terezín between 1943 and 1944, whose drawings and poems were posthumously published. 11 11 Hana Volavkova, I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944 (New York: Schocken Books/ United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1993). Bashevis’s remarks are part of the program notes, which also include Golijov’s attempt to reconstruct apocryphal psalm fragments found in Franz Kafka’s notebook under the title “Yiddishbbuk” (written in the alef-beys and carrying musical information—cantillation in the mode of Babylonian Lamentations). The imaginary reference to the ‘Yiddishbbuk’ recovered by Kafka is not clarified in the program, but in a note published years later. 12 12 Kevin Berger, “Golijov´s World,” Salon, 14 August 14 2019,
The clarification does little more than highlight the choice of a Borgean frame of writing based on an imaginary psalmodic quote: “A broken song played on a shattered cymbalon (...) No one sings as purely as those who are in the deepest hell. Theirs is the song which we confused with that of the angels (...).” 13 13 Osvaldo Golijov, “Yiddishbbuk,” EMI Music Canada, 2002, Compact Disc, Liner Notes.

This phantasmagorical framework, as chosen by Golijov, underscores his intertextual writing strategies—as in the Passion. The veracity of the original source does not matter as much as the poeticization of the deployed materials. Yiddishbbuk is, then, a piece based on apocryphal Psalms, which refers to the singing of those in infernal situations. Golijov’s piece reproduces the gloomy character of the Lamentational mode not through a short melodic line, but through highly dissonant sections between the strings, as, also, through the use of ornaments or dreydlekh, characteristic of klezmer music, such as trills, glissandi, krekhts-sobs and chromatic passages.

Golijov recreates the Lamentational mode in a piece that preserves the mournful character in the three movements unified by an atonal musical style, mainly defined by the search for a dissonant shock in pitch, rhythmic desynchronization, and sound effects of pain and affliction between the strings.

Within Yiddishbbuk there is no one melodic lamentation, but deeply dissonant laments and abstract portraits in a musical piece in which the Yiddish language is contained, hidden, and muted within the titles’ initials and the breaking sounds of Golijov’s twentieth century Yiddish book. It is as if music occupies the space where language is absent. In this case, the music becomes a site of memory, such as in movements 1A and 1B, where the sound of breaking is played out loud, or in 1B, where the chords and their broken sounds seem placeless and suspended in time like a monument to children murdered in the Shoah. In this respect, this dissonant, breaking sound recalls the composer’s notes regarding his own definition of ‘Yiddishbbuk’ as “a broken song played on a shattered cymbalon,” as well as the link between Yiddishland and its representation through the sound of a crushed klezmer tsimbl.

On the other hand, despite being an entirely instrumental piece, Yiddishbbuk gives the Yiddish language a voice within its atmospheric portrait of Isaac Bashevis Singer. From the beginning of IBS through part E, the insistence of the first measure motif with its rhythmic identity and the sound of linked seconds, and the harmonic sounds, which imbue color and textural thickness, recall what could be the sound of the sway and harshness of a winter breeze in Singer’s stories. In parts F-H, another heymish (Yiddish for familiar or domestic) portrait is described, and the composer makes sure performers get the picture when playing. The score states that the lines should be played “like a flickering candle by long bows and feverish vibrato.”

Yiddishbbuk’s last movement is an homage to the American composer Leonard Bernstein, in particular his 1974 composition Dybbuk and the ballet (choreography by Jerome Robbins) it accompanied. The ballet premiered in 1974 at the New York State Theater and was performed by the New York City Ballet. It is based on the canonical Yiddish play The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds by the writer and ethnographer Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport (S. An-sky). 14 14The Dybbuk poeticizes the Jewish folk story of the dybbuk, a malicious spirit that possesses another person’s body. An-Sky dramatizes the tragic story of Khonen and Leah, who, destined to love each other, are unfairly separated. The young Khonen, a student of the Kabbalah, dies after hearing that his beloved Leah would marry another man and his soul possess Leah’s body. Leah dies after an exorcism is performed to force the dybbuk out of her body and, at the end, the two lovers reunite in death. The initial motif from Bernstein’s Dybbuk can be heard in Yiddishbbuk’s eight-note final motif (not counting acciaccaturas) and its immediate variation. Bernstein’s motif is presented at the beginning of the ballet and unfolds with repetitions and variations throughout the work. Golijov’s eight-note motif is highlighted in contrast to the previous extensive acordic passage and also as it is the passage that ends the piece. In this regard, the Yiddish language is contained within landscapes, atmospheres, and scenes as soundscapes, and most of all, within a sort of abstractness in which Yiddishland’s spatiality becomes time.

Language Contact

The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind for String Quartet and Klezmer Clarinet is a piece commissioned by the Schleswig Holstein Musical Festival, the Musical Society at the University of Michigan, and the Chamber Series at the University of Kansas, written for and premiered by Giora Feidman and the Cleveland Quartet in 1994 at the Schleswig Holstein Musical Festival in Germany. The piece, consisting of a Prelude, three movements, and a Postlude, is described by the composer as a history of Judaism, including the story of Abraham, the exile, and redemption, and its movements sound like they are in three Jewish languages: the first in Aramaic, the second in Yiddish, and the third in Hebrew. 15 15 Osvaldo Golijov, “Foreword” in The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind: Concert Score (New York: Hendon Music, 2012). The second movement, linked to the Yiddish world, is a klezmer-styled piece with a klezmer band-sound, which unfolds the following klezmer motif that is played by the clarinet for the first time at the beginning of the movement:

Golijov imbues Jewish languages and their sonic landscapes with the remarkable ability to narrate Jewish history, in this case from a specific diasporic Ashkenazi linguistic perspective.

Moreover this motif can be heard as a variation or a reminiscence of Leonard Bernstein’s Dybbuk, already mentioned above. The reference here is to the fourth movement of Bernstein’s composition (which has the title “The dream”), specifically the flute line from the initial motif of the entire ballet repeated at the beginning of the movement.

This motif is combined with the second tetrachord in a descending direction of the octatonic motif that follows the initial motif of Bernstein’s piece. In keeping with the Kabbalistic themes of An-sky’s play, Bernstein’s Dybbuk was composed using the Kabbalistic tree to derive some of its melodic motives. Bernstein focused his composition on the divisions of thirty-six and eighteen, which are the numerical values of the name of the play’s main character, Leah, and the Hebrew word chai, respectively. Both numbers are multiples of nine, a fact that leads the composer to use the octatonic scale while repeating the scale’s top note to arrive at the requisite number.

Dreams and Prayers’s echoes this strategy by sustaining an eight-note chord in the strings over almost the entire movement. This insistence regarding the number eight coupled with the reference to a character from the dybbuk in the composer’s notes confirms the relationship between the two pieces. Regarding this Golijov states:

About eight hundred years ago, Isaac the Blind—who was the greatest Kabbalist rabbi of Provence—dictated a manuscript saying that everything in the universe, all things and events, are products of combinations of the Hebrew alphabet’s letters (...) The forces of God and man, they never unite, but they do commune; [in the first movement] you can hear the dybbuk and the shofar, searching for a revelation that is always out of reach. 16 16 Osvaldo Golijov, “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind,” Recorded January 1996, Nonesuch Records, 1997, Compact Disc, Liner Notes.

Another piece, Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra, similarly presents a song cycle with three different texts in three different languages: 17 17 Commissioned by Minnesota Orchestra and premiered in March of 2002. It was performed by Dawn Upshaw and the Minnesota Orchestra and conducted by Alan Gilbert. Close your Eyes from the song Night of the Flying Horses, a lullaby written by filmmaker and poet Sally Potter and translated into Yiddish by Barry Davis; Lúa Descolorida, a lament in the Galician language or Gallego based on a text by nineteenth century Galician poet Rosalía de Castro; 18 18 Originally composed in 1999 for Dawn Upshaw and then adapted by Golijov as the sixteenth movement of his St. Mark Passion.
and the song How Slow the Wind, in English with text by the American poet Emily Dickinson.

As The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind is a musical story of Judaism, Three Songs and its inner structure leads us to think of it as a personal soundscape of Golijov’s life and languages: Yiddish comes first, then Galician—part of the Iberian languages group—and English last.

I focus now on Night of the Flying Horses since it is the only one of the songs that presents identifiable elements related to Jewishness, being largely a variation of the Yiddish lullaby Makh tsu di eygelekh (Close your little eyes), an intertextual choice also mirrored in the title, Close your Eyes. The original Yiddish lullaby was written by Isaiah Shpigl and composed by David Beygelman in the Lodz Ghetto and performed in the ghetto theatre by professional singer Ella Diament. 19 19 Gila Flam, “The Theatre. Other Contexts for Singing,” Singing for Survival: Songs of the Lodz Ghetto, 1940-45 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 146–48. As Gila Flam and Shirli Gilbert state, Shpigl’s lyrics overturn the concept of a typical soothing and hopeful lullaby to describes a somber and deadly present and future: 20 20 Shirli Gilbert, “Vilna: Politicians and Partisans,” Music in the Holocaust: Confronting Life in the Nazi Ghettos and Camps (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 96.

מאַך צו די אייגעלעך

ישעיהו שפיגל

מאַך צו די אייגעלעך
אָט קומען פֿייגעלעך
און קרײַזן דאָ אַרום,
צו קאָפּנס פֿון דײַן װיג,
דאָס פּעקל אין דער האַנט,
דאָס הויז אין אַש און בראַנד;
מיר לאָזן זיך, מײַן קינד,
זוכן גליק.

די װעלט האָט גאָט פֿאַרמאַכט,
און אומעטום איז נאַכט—
זי װאַרט אויף אונדז
מיט שוידער און מיט שרעק.
מיר שטייען ביידע דאָ,
אין שװערער שװערער שעה,
און װייסן ניט װוּהין
ס'פֿירט דער װעג.

מען האָט אונדז נאַקעט, בלויז,
פֿאַרגויט פֿון אונדזער הויז.
אין פֿינצטערניש,
געטריבן אונדז אין פֿעלד,
און שטורעם, האָגל, װינט
האָט אונדז באַגלייט, מײַן קינד,
באַגלייט אונדז אינעם אָפּגרונט
פֿון דער װעלט.

Makh tsi di eygelekh (Close your little eyes)

Isaiah Shpigl

Close your little eyes
Soon little birds will fly
In circles everywhere,
Around your cradle,
Your bundle in your hand,
Your house in ash and sand;
We leave you, my child,
In search for luck.

God closed the world,
Everywhere is night —
She waits for us
With horror and with dread.
We both are standing here,
At this difficult time,
Not knowing where
Our road is leading.

Stripped naked,
We were thrown from our home.
In the dark of the night,
Driven out into the open field,
The wind and hail and storm
Accompanied us, my child,
Accompanied us into
The depths of the earth.

Close your Eyes by Sally Potter and Osvaldo Golijov performs a lyrical and musical variation of the original, but it also takes a step forward. Close your Eyes was originally written for Potter’s film, The Man who Cried, which premiered in Venice International Film Festival in the year 2000. It tells the story of Feygele/Suzie, a Jewish girl, who, after escaping from Russian pogroms and then from Nazi occupied France, reunites with her father in the US. Golijov and Potter’s variation is first sung to Feygele/Suzie by her father in a Russian shtetl before his departure for America. The lullaby rings throughout the film, recalling the love of a lost father and also the hope of finding him in America. Caught between melancholy and hope, Gollijov and Potter’s variation could be thought of as a mixture of the memories of a past and lost, beloved Yiddish world, and the call of a better, or at least possible, future in America.

מאַך צו די אייגעלעך
און דו װעסט קומען
צו יענעם זיסן לאַנד
פֿון בעלי־חלומות
אַװוּ מילך און האָניק
פֿליסן תּמיד
און דײַן מאַמע
היט דיך אָפּ.

פֿאַרשפּריי דײַנע פֿליגעלעך
פֿייגעלע מײַנס
מײַן טאָכטער סערצע
מײַן קליין זינגפֿייגעלע
הייב אויף דײַן פּנים
אַרויף צום הימל
איך װעל דיך אָנקוקן
װי דו פֿליסט.

געדענק זשע טײַערינקע
אַז קומט דער מאָרגן
װעט זײַן די מאַמע
אַהיים געפֿלויגן.
דאָס לאַנד פֿון חלומות
מוזטו אַװעקלאָזן
דײַן אייגן זיסער היים
װייסטו, איז דאָ.

Close your eyes
and you shall go
to that sweet land
all dreamers know
where milk and honey
always flow
and mama
watches over you.

Spread your wings
my Fegele
my darling girl
my singing bird
lift your face
towards the sky
I will be watching
as you fly.

Remember dear
when morning comes
your mama’s here:
fly home to me.
The land of dreams
must let you go
your own sweet home
is here, you know.

Potter’s title and first line match up with Makh tsu di eygelekh, but unlike Shipgl’s text, Potter’s lullaby goes back to the typical sweetness and mildness of the genre. Meanwhile, in Golijov’s music, the original Yiddish song is recognizable within the variations of Beygelman’s first and main melodic and rhythmic motif (Bars 1-2):

In spite of the melodic variations Golijov keeps the rhythmic identity of the pick up beat followed by two shorter notes that precede a longer one. While in Night of the Flying Horses there are rhythmical variations, the repeated note in the second part of both Beygelman’s and Golijov’s motifs, makes the correspondence between the two recognizable. Despite the inner rhythmic variations in Golijov’s version, both compositions have a similar stanza structure that is repeated throughout the text.

There is some musical and linguistic continuity between Golijov’s variation and the original Makh tsu di eygelekh, but there is also a departure: while Beygelman’s motif, repeated throughout the lullaby, draws a descending line emphasized by the strength of the anacrustic ending and by the note repetition at the second bar, Golijov’s variation draws an upward movement coherent with the shift in lyrics. Golijov and Potter’s lullaby is then followed by a second section in the klezmer genre of Doina, characterized by its free rhythm and improvisation style on the clarinet and the employment of the klezmer scale Ahavoh-Rabboh. A third part has a galloping tempo, accented with bursts of ostinato patterns on the low strings and a melodic line on the violins and wood instruments. It is interesting to note that the musical motif of the Doina part, after the lullaby, is the same one played by the clarinet in the second movement of The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. 21 21 Golijov, The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind: Concert Score, 34.

In connection with Golijov’s Buenos Aires roots, it is also worth observing that Makh tsu di eygelekh itself is a hybrid lullaby-tango, a type of Yiddish tango often written in the ghettos and camps, which was mixed with other genres such as lullabies, work songs, satirical songs, ballads, and songs of struggle and freedom. 22 22 Lloica Czackis, “Reflexiones sobre el rol social del tango en ídish,” in Aporte del Pueblo Judío a la Música, ed. Mario Benzecry (Buenos Aires: Editorial Milá, 2009), 171–79.

Regarding Golijov’s song cycle that follows an autobiographical path, or, at least, is made up of an amalgam of different texts, languages, ​​and cultures, the composer’s decision to begin with an Yiddish tango is an eloquent articulation of the symbiosis between the Ashkenazi world and other worlds. The final result of the acculturation process and transnational reinterpretation is, as Czackis and Kohan state, the rise of a different profile from the original. 23 23 Lloica Czackis, “Reflexiones sobre el rol social del tango en ídish,” in Aporte del Pueblo Judío a la Música, ed. Mario Benzecry (Buenos Aires: Editorial Milá, 2009), 171–79. There is, then, a reinterpretation of Makh tsu di eygelekh in Golijov’s lullaby-tango, observable in the mixture of genres with which it is structured and in its placement in a song cycle with two other songs in Galician (or Gallego) and English, which makes it a part of a multicultural and interlinguistic ensemble. Night of the Flying Horses turns out to be a doubly diasporic variation of an already diasporic (or nomadic) tango—a deterritorialized tango with transnational circulation which reterritorializes itself into other cultures and places. 24 24 Ramón Pelinski, El tango nómade: ensayos sobre la diáspora del tango (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Corregidor, 2000). Like Potter’s movie, Golijov’s piece has its roots in Yiddishland, but ends in America and in Yiddish.

In keeping with this diasporic mode, the song cycle was first performed by the renowned American soprano Dawn Upshaw. Golijov had in mind as he was composing not only the sound of Upshaw’s voice, but also the sound of a Yiddish lullaby sung by a non-Yiddish speaker. Note that the lyrics’ transliteration in the liner notes does not follow YIVO’s transliteration system and uses a type of transliteration that would be more easily identified by an English speaker.

On Yiddish Tones

Golijov’s music has been situated at the junction of Jewish music history and art music at the turn of the twenty-first century, a trend characterized by multiple aesthetic norms and standards. Scholars and critics have given Golijov’s writing many labels: multicultural, 25 25 Marc Gidal, “Contemporary ‘Latin American’ Composers of Art Music in the United States; Cosmopolitans Navigating Multiculturalism and Universalism,” Latin American Music Review 31, no. 1(Spring/Summer 2010): 40–78,; Andrea Moore, “Millennial Passions: New Music and the Ends of History, 1989-2001, ” (PhD Diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 2016), 20–107; Federico Monjeau, “Anotaciones sobre la presencia europeaen la música argentina contemporánea,” in Caminos de la Música. Europa y Argentina, eds. Pablo Bardin and Edgardo Gutíerrez (San Salvador de Jujuy, Argentina: Editorial de la Universidad Nacional de Jujuy, 2008), 145–46; Richard Taruskin, “Sacred Entertainments,” The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 280–300. usion and eclectic classical music through the use of quotation, polystylism, and the use of extended techniques and diverse folcloric and popular music. 26 26 Alex Ross, “Sunken Cathedrals” and “Epilogue,” in The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (New York: Picador, 2007), 558–91; Diego Fischerman, “Las tendencias actuales,” in Después de la Música. El siglo XX y más allá (Buenos Aires: Eterna Cadencia Editora, 2011), 127–44; J.P. Burkholder, D. Grout, and C. Palisca, “El siglo XX y después,” in Historia de la Música Occidental, 8va Edición (Madrid: Alianza Editorial S.A., 2011), 1109–1140.
In this, he is not particularly unique. As part of a lineage of art music composers of the North American scene who engaged with Jewish materials and themes in their writings, Golijov can be placed next to Ernest Bloch, Arnold Schoenberg, Joseph Achron, Lazar Weiner, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Lukas Foss, Mario Davidovsky, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, among others. Golijov is certainly a contemporary of Paul Schoenfield and John Zorn, along with musicians of Radical Jewish Culture (RJC) such as David Krakauer, Marc Ribot, Anthony Coleman, and Frank London.

Radical Jewish Culture was, as ethnomusicologist Tamar Barzel states, a space where musicians engaged with Jewish cultural heritage within the context of the 1990s New York downtown experimentalist scene. 27 27 Tamar Barzel, “An Interrogation of Language: ‘Radical Jewish Culture’ on New York City’s Downtown Music Scene,” Journal of the Society for American Music 4, no. 2 (2010): 215–50, Artists mixed Jewish-identified materials with free jazz, punk, rock, and blues music, while collectively interrogating and thinking about Jewish heritage. It is also, as ethnomusicologist Jeff Janeczko asserts, the title of a recording series launched in 1995 by avant-garde composer John Zorn, described as “Jewish music beyond klezmer: adventurous recordings bringing Jewish identity and culture into the 21st century,” in which most artists practice some form of hybrid music-making while problematizing the notion of Jewish music. 28 28 Jeff Janeczko, “Beyond Klezmer: Redefining Jewish Music for the Twenty-first Century,” (PhD Diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 2009), 1–15.

Anthony Coleman, part of RJC, explains:

Klezmer—its gestures, its scales, its instrumentation—are the basis for the signification of Jewishness in nearly all the new Jewish music. . . . And that’s why I’m uncomfortable with it. It’s not that I haven’t used it—you can surely hear it in my piece “Jevrejski by Night” [Jewish by night] (1992). But the challenge for me has always been to figure out a way to use the tropes and signifiers in a more abstract way. Barnett Newman, Morton Feldman: That’s my Radical Jewish Culture too! 29 29 Barzel, “An Interrogation of Language,” 222.

While Golijov and Zorn have shared performance spaces and festivals, and RJC clarinetist David Krakauer was the guest performer along with the Kronos Quartet at the 1997’s The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind recording, Golijov was not part of the RJC scene and his music has belonged to the art music circuit and its system of premieres, performances, theatres, publishing houses, and record labels. However his work could be linked to it with regard to an experimental and eclectic type of writing in the last decade of the twentieth century and the first years of the 2000s, which incorporates Jewish-identified sounds and combines them with other genres, raising questions as well as new materials related to an explicitly enunciated Jewishness within Jewish-identified works and/or points of view.

Musicologist Andrea Moore describes a multicultural turn in music during the 1990s. Moore reformulates the idea of musical progress, shifting from technical innovation to new modes of personal representation. 30 30 Moore, “Millennial Passions: New Music and the Ends of History, 1989-2001,” 20. This approach can be linked to what Tamar Barzel describes as new interrogations of both of Jewish heritage and of the musical genres and traditions involved within the RJC music during the same decade. Golijov’s music adheres to this shift in its capacity to construct a transnational network through which the composer displays his subjectivity, his relationships, and thereby, a re-reading of a diasporic Jewishness. In the realm of the American art music scene, Golijov’s music stands out for its combination of three components: Latin American materials and subjects, Jewish materials and subjects within a US classical music scene, and a personal heritage that allows the development of his Jewish-Latin American-American transnational and eclectic discourse. In evidence of this, it is worth highlighting two significant sources of inspiration from Argentinian culture: the writer Jorge Luis Borges and the musician Astor Piazzolla. In his own words:

The reason I became a composer was probably [tango composer] Astor Piazzolla. His way of approaching music—he was not afraid to be both high and low, popular and classical. I understood right away that Piazzolla wasn’t simply using notes, he was distilling all of life in Buenos Aires: the way people talked, walked, flirted, fought. He skirted all of the big European existential questions. But we didn’t have to ask ourselves those same questions (…) People like Piazzolla or Borges could own all of Western culture, but they could approach it with playfulness. What was exciting for me in Piazzolla was not so much his tango roots, but his transmutations of Bartók, Stravinsky, and life in the streets into a new and vital music. 31 31 Golijov, (March 2011), Conversations, Kindle.

Such “transmutations” could be seen to take place on a personal level, as shown in Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra, The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, or even in St. Mark’s Passion; each of these works gives a central place to the composer’s subjectivity and the search for difference within his own evolving discourse. However, many of his pieces are also diasporic musical cartographies of Jewish diasporic movements that point out nuances within concrete diasporic imaginaries, as in Three Songs (Yiddishland and Argentina - Galicia - The United States), Yiddishbbuk (Terezín - Poland - The United States), Dreams and Prayers (Land of Israel - Yiddishland - Israel), and St. Mark’s Passion (Brazil - Cuba - Argentina - Galicia - Rome - Israel).

The fragmentary, displaced, transnational, and heterogeneous materiality in Golijov’s music resembles, as described by musicologist Diego Fischerman, the work of a disc jockey who chooses what he needs from a wide palette of possible objets trouvés. 32 32 Diego Fischerman, “Las tendencias actuales,” 127–44. In a discourse based on difference and subjectivity, Yiddishkayt comes up as a nucleus of meaning within the analyzed works concerning their material aspect, significance, and structure, both in writing and in listening/interpretation.

Also linked to the Yiddish postvernacular, Golijov’s music, in its production and its circulation, provides a material form for Yiddish sound objects. 33 33 Jeffrey Shandler, Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language and Culture (Berkeley: America: University of California Press, 2006). Golijov’s Yiddishkayt—his use of Yiddish music and text—encourages reflection on possible employment of Yiddish musical genres as art music, not only through its various musical and textual referents, but also through its fragmentation, its muteness, and its recompositions. This strategy reinvigorates genres—like Lamentations in Yiddishbbuk, or the Yiddish lullaby-tango in Night of the Flying Horses—particularly when it juxtaposes songs in different styles and languages. Ashkenaz, in Golijov’s music, becomes, then, what Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett calls an ‘organizing idea’—one way to broaden the domain of Yiddish culture across music media. 34 34 Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Foreword,” in Choosing Yiddish: New Frontiers of Language and Culture, ed. Lara Rabinovitch, Shiri Goren, and Hannah S. Pressman (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2013), xxi–xxiv. Within Golijov’s works, Yiddishkayt becomes a prism simultaneously reflecting and splintering components according to specific relationships or personal migrations, while also, at the same time, entailing, on a larger scale, a revision of the history of Jewish migrations from Eastern Europe (der alter heym) to the Americas and Israel in the twentieth century. Close enough and far enough away, in Golijov’s music, Ashkenaz is heard as a place composed of cutouts, layered over a tradition that was transmitted to him, but that he also invents for himself. In the composer’s words: “(...) I only got Judaism from transplanted sources so I could invent – do you know what I mean? I was not burdened by the reality of Judaism either in a little village in Poland or Russia or even in medieval Spain or France – I could imagine it. I got enough truth through my ancestors.” 35 35 Osvaldo Golijov, “Conversations between Osvaldo Golijov and David Harrington,” in La Pasión según San Marcos: Full Score (New York: Hendon Music, 2012), viii–xi.

As Ari Kelman states:

For musicians, returning to their Jewish roots meant reclaiming a tradition of Jewish music in Eastern Europe and America, and they have created a substantial body of klezmer-inspired music since the late 1970s. (...) For musicians and writers, the rich heritage of Yiddish music became a playground for creativity, expression and arguments about ethnic and artistic authenticity. (…) But for this generation, recapturing the precise inflections of the generation just passed is less important than paying homage while translating the modes, rhythms, and references into the idiom of a new generation that is ready to listen. 36 36 Ari Kelman, “The Acoustic Culture of Yiddish,” 149–51.

Golijov exposes, thus, different ways of listening to Yiddishland, whether as homage to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Leonard Bernstein, and Yiddish theatre, in a refiguration of the children murdered in the concentration camps, or through the dissonant, broken sounds of a Yiddishbbuk. At times, such mediations of Yiddishland become translations of sorts, musically transpositioning previous artistic acts. 37 37 Oscar Steimberg, “Libro y transposición,” Semioticas: las semióticas de los géneros, de los estilos, de la transposición (Buenos Aires: Eterna Cadencia Editora, 2013), 97–114.

At other times, as with The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, Yiddishland can be summoned through direct evocations of a dybbuk, and more directly through the invigorating sound of a klezmer band. Here, the klezmer movement becomes an intermediate chapter in a narrative of the entirety of Jewish history. Such a renewed, yet still faithful rendering can be grouped within the larger klezmer revival movement, part of what Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett calls “a new shift in sensibility defined by new types of klezmer music,” in this case, within American art music. 38 38 Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Sounds of Sensibility,” in American Klezmer: Its Roots and Offshoots, ed. Mark Slobin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 129–73.

Finally, Yiddishland can figure in Golijov’s work as a new way to respond to the legacy of the Holocaust, by revising a hopeless Yiddish lullaby-tango. This composition mitigates trauma through variation—variation informed by a new English language text translated back into Yiddish and yet performed in a non-native voice.

Linked to the definition of “tone” by Fink, Wallmark, and Latour as a complex quasi-object shaped by cultural networks, there are, therefore, identifiable Yiddishkayt tones within Golijov’s writings. 39 39 Robert Fink, Zachary Wallmark, and Latour Melinda, “Chasing the Dragon: In Search of Tone in Popular Music,” in The Relentless Pursuit of Tone. Timbre in Popular Music, ed. Robert Fink, Melinda Latour and Zachary Wallmark (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 1–17.
They are built through variations and mixes of Yiddish genres such as the Doina, the Yiddish lullaby or the Holocaust Yiddish tango; and the use of Yiddish-related subject matter such as klezmer motifs, genres, and sounds. Their inherent cultural networks include the piece’s topics, the composer’s notes, commissions, performances, the musicians entailed, and the premieres, reviews, publications, publishing houses, and recordings, among other things.

In contrast, while Golijov’s klezmer-styled compositions and his use of klezmer materials as sonic icons have a direct and clear link to Yiddishkayt, the relationship towards St. Mark’s Passion is more problematic and more indirect. In this respect, the link goes beyond the immediate translation of Yiddishkayt as ‘Jewishness’, and its importance within the discursive structure of the piece. However, placing the Passion within the composer’s corpus sheds light on possible connections. The shared motif between The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind and Night of the Flying Horses, and the connections with Bernstein’s Dybbuk in both pieces and in Yiddishbbuk, exposes a characteristic feature of Golijov’s discourse not only as intertextual but as intratextual as well. Golijov’s corpus constitutes a patchwork network which spreads out and reveals material insistences throughout his works. Lúa Descolorida, the sixteenth movement of St. Mark Passion, reappears as the second song of the song cycle Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra. It is worth noticing, then, the unfolding of shared materials that brings together different relationships and diverse transnational perspectives, resulting in a spiraled temporality. In Golijov’s intratextual and intertextual corpus there is a circularity that involves repetition, but, in new contexts; there is variation within explicitly networked compositions. One can find this also in the recurrence of topics such as mourning and memory. 40 40 On this regard, without Cuban or Afro-Brazilian rhythms and after years without premiering a work, Golijov picked up and deployed the mourning space once again within the tone poem Falling Out of Time (2019) based on the novel by Israeli writer David Grossman.

Golijov’s work employs the concept of Yiddishkayt as a nucleus of meaning that is expressed aurally. 41 41 Ari Kelman, “Hear and Now: Prelude” in Choosing Yiddish, 315–17.
Golijov’s compositional poetics build, thus, a Yiddish tonality characterized by difference, a way of marking disjunction and convergence among Jewish Eastern-European elements and elements from other cultures from the Americas and Israel. Regarding Golijov, Yiddishkayt is a listening key that enables the listener to hear cultural tensions, the transnational networks of contemporary Jewry, and the personal and collective dimensions of diaspora. His music inhabits a place of questioning, of alternating subjective and collective positioning, a place to remember and to listen to the undertones and emergent nuances of Yiddishland.

Fabro, Lila. “On Yiddish Nuances: Yiddishkayt as Listening Key in the Music of Osvaldo Golijov.” In geveb, May 2021:
Fabro, Lila. “On Yiddish Nuances: Yiddishkayt as Listening Key in the Music of Osvaldo Golijov.” In geveb (May 2021): Accessed May 17, 2021.


Lila Fabro