Nov 12, 2020
Isabel Frey is a Vienna-based activist and musician who recently released a debut album, Millennial Bundist. Faith Hillis recently caught up with Frey on Zoom to ask about millennials’ rediscovery of the Bund, the place of Yiddish music in contemporary left-wing politics, and Frey’s creative rewritings of revolutionary anthems.
Faith Hillis: Can you tell me about your background and your path to Yiddish music?
Isabel Frey: I’m from a typical Jewish secular Vienna home that is a bit bourgeois and a bit assimilated, but not completely. I grew up taking part in mainstream non-Jewish Austrian life. I went to a Sunday school and to shul for holidays, and to a socialist Zionist youth movement from the age of six. I never had any contact with Yiddish. My Austro-Hungarian Jewish family spoke Hungarian and German, not Yiddish because that was considered lower class.
When I spent a year in Israel, a gap year after high school with my youth movement, I started to question the mainstream Zionist narratives that I had grown up with. I didn’t actually feel at home in Israel. I was really socialist then, and into the idea of the kibbutz. But the kibbutz movement was not as it used to be — for example, the kibbutz where we were staying was privatized — and I realized that maybe it never was.
Then, I visited the West Bank for the first time and did a Breaking the Silence tour and was confronted with the realities of the occupation. That was a moment when I called my parents in tears afterwards. Like, why didn’t you tell me? What followed was a disillusionment from my Zionist upbringing, and from Zionism as an anchor for secular Jewish identity.
After my year in Israel, I moved to Amsterdam where I became very politically active in nationwide student protests and university occupations, the squatters’ movement, the feminist movement, the antiracist movement, and the climate justice movement. But I was not connected to any Jewish life there. Then by coincidence, because I was into political music, I found Yiddish revolutionary music. I was like, Oh wow, this exists! This history gives me the feeling that I’m part of a bigger tradition. I can be a Jew in left wing spaces and be Jewish, act visibly Jewish, or proudly Jewish, or openly Jewish.
I’m not trained as a professional singer. I didn’t study singing or music performance. I just started autodidactically, playing the songs and then performing them at protests.
FH: Did you end up studying Yiddish as well?
IF: I only started studying Yiddish quite a bit later, about one and a half years ago. Before that, I mispronounced a lot of things. But I learned Hebrew as a kid, for my bat mitzvah, then when I was in Israel, I did an ulpan. And I know German, so it was possible to figure out a lot for myself. I’ve been doing a lot of self-learning. I took a few one week classes. I haven’t done a summer program yet but I want to in the future.
FH: I want to ask about the title of the album: Millennial Bundist. In geveb is an international journal, but most of its readers are in America. So I wanted to talk to you about what it means to be a millennial in Europe. In Europe there are similar generational challenges to those experienced by young people in the United States, from the gig economy to the effects of neoliberalism. But in the US it’s also inflected by the fact that so many millennials, for example, don’t have access to quality health care.
IF: I think you’re right that the discourse around millennials in Europe is probably less tied to precariousness than in the United States. The way I understand it, in the US the idea of being a millennial is linked to college debt and, like you said, health insurance. In Europe, if millennials are acknowledged or analyzed, it’s more superficial: this generation, they are digital, or they are overworked, or whatever. There’s not a lot of political discourse around it. But I do very much politically identify with being a millennial; I feel it is a different kind of politicization. I grew up with the financial crisis, seeing neoliberalism breaking down and questioning that. And I think that’s different from the generations before who were really riding a high tide of neoliberalism. I do think there is something to be said about thinking about generations as having different types of political horizons.
FH: Because of the history of immigration, many American Jews have direct family connections to Eastern Europe and family histories of political radicalism. Earlier, you mentioned that this was not the case with your family, which came from a more elite socioeconomic background and a German/Hungarian cultural milieu. Could you speak more to that and what Bundism means to European Jews with backgrounds like yours? I read an interview with you in which you said that these songs actually allowed you to sneak radical ideas into your bourgeois family. How did that work? What does Bundism mean to European families like yours today?
IF: Part of me sometimes questions the legitimacy of me singing these songs and reviving this tradition that is not in my immediate family background, which is not working class, and not Yiddish. At the same time, I feel like it has extra complexity because it goes beyond a more superficial, “back to the roots” engagement with identity.
I’m into this music not because it’s part of my past, but because it does something in the present. It creates completely new types of solidarity and speaks to publics in different ways. If I were to sing only the canon of shtetl kitsch, or Holocaust music, I would become a stereotype. A Jew in Austria performing Afn Pripetchik, okay. But these revolutionary songs, some of them have very radical content and they confront Jewish audiences with a part of their history, our history, that we don’t think about a lot, such as that there used to be huge class divides and class hatred among Jews before the Holocaust. There still are today, despite rhetoric about unity and Jewish peoplehood. These revolutionary songs are also about the fact that if you’re living a comfortable life today in Vienna, you’re complicit within global chains of capitalist production that you don’t want to think about all the time. So, I sing songs about sweatshops in the Lower East Side at the beginning of the 20th century, and then I make a point about sweatshops today.
FH: I appreciate you being honest about that because even many Americans who do have family histories of radicalism or class struggle have nevertheless become bourgeois themselves. I think that acknowledging your personal estrangement from that history is a really interesting mode of engaging with it.
IF: When I became very politically active in Amsterdam, I was fighting a lot with my family, all the time, about Communism and the nation state and all these things. It was a tiring process. And so if I say “Overthrow capitalism,” then they get mad and we need to discuss. But if I sing it in Yiddish, they say “Oh, this is a great song!” I get to smuggle all kinds of content in through my music.
I’ve also performed this for non-Jewish audiences, either general leftists or unions. One of the best concerts was for Catholic union workers and I feared that there was going to be a bit of a fetishization going on because it is Jewish, and that is a bit of a curiosity in Austria... and that wasn’t there at all. It was just like, “These are worker songs. Great! Yes, yes, strikes!” The fact that they were Jewish was really secondary. So performing these songs creates a different type of solidarity between different publics, and also breaks with dominant images of what it means to be Jewish.
FH: I love the way you’re framing this in terms of solidarity, creating conversations between new groups of people. I’m a historian and I have a lot of ideas about why this old radical Jewish music is appealing to new audiences today. But coming from a more activist point of view, why do you think this music is so of the moment?
IF: A lot of young Jews living in the diaspora in cities are moving to the left — a different kind of left than it used to be, more academic but still very radical and questioning the bourgeois assimilation of previous generations.
It also has to do with the role of Israel and with more and more young Jews having my typical story of having grown up with these Zionist narratives from a different time. I grew up with Zionism from the beginning of the 20th century, but I’m living in the 21st century. These old narratives don’t have an answer to the reality in Israel-Palestine today—the oppression of Palestinians and the occupation and annexation of their land. Because Zionism has become so hegemonic and has taken up a large part of the space for being a secular Jew, there needs to be some kind of alternative.
That is the appeal of the Bund. It’s not about the specificities of the Bund vis-a-vis Jewish Communists or Poale Zion. It’s really about the reclamation of the Bund’s legacy as a non- or anti- Zionist organization before the establishment of the State of Israel. YIVO streamed a panel on Bundism’s influence today and Jacob Plitman from Jewish Currents was saying that Bundism just gives you the feeling that you’re not crazy. There have always been a lot of different political ideologies among Jews, and it’s really bad if that’s not possible anymore.
FH: As an historian, it also strikes me that there are really interesting structural affinities between the juncture at which the Bund coalesced and the present. The Bund originally emerged at a moment when there had been intense globalization and economic expansion that caused immense inequality. The theme of generation—which you brought up before—was also crucially important. You had a generation of youth, even privileged youth, who felt that they just didn’t have a future. I think some of the songs that you bring on the album really speak to that, like the unemployment march and Dire gelt—the problem of not being not being able to afford a crappy apartment that’s so expensive.
The other thing that really intrigues me is that although many enthusiasts of the Bund focus on its anti-Zionism and its defense of Jewish national culture, it also had an intersectional critique of injustice. It viewed Jewish emancipation not merely as an end in itself, but as a necessary step in the emancipation of all humanity. The Jews were particularly oppressed in late imperial Russia, and the logic went that no one could be free until the most oppressed became free. That idea is reminiscent of things we’re still thinking about today.
IF: They were proudly Jewish. The Bund allowed Jews to find a middle ground: It’s possible to be a revolutionary Jew who speaks Yiddish and thinks that we can defend ourselves from antisemitism and promote Yiddish culture, and at the same time be internationalist socialists… For me on an emotional level, it’s this coming together of a particular kind of communist, socialist universalism and internationalism and of a cultural particularism: we’re Jews, and we’re not going to give into the hegemony of Christian cultures that are trying to erase ours.
FH: Yes. The Bundists, at least in in Russia, were also Federalists who spoke up for other oppressed nations and supported their rights. I want to ask specifically about Daloy politsey, which was the song of my summer, at least. I was really struck that on the album you sing the traditional Yiddish version, which denounces tsar Nicholas II and his oppressive police. Then you switch to German and you start singing about the far right party in Austria, and we hear a crowd cheering in the background. Can you can you speak more to that song and what it means for this moment?
IF: Yeah, that was last May. There was a far right wing coalition in Austria —the Conservative Party, together with the extreme right, which emerged out of the party of former Nazis. The first time Austria had this coalition was in the 2000s; for four years, there were weekly anti government protests every Thursday. When this coalition appeared again at the end of 2017, these weekly Thursday protests started up again. In May 2018, I was invited to perform Yiddish revolutionary songs. The night before, I rewrote Daloy politsey to be against the government and about the demonstrations.
My performance was a big hit; everyone was cheering and singing along, and I got invited the week after that to sing it again. It was called the hymn of the protests and the German text was printed out and handed out to all the protesters. And so then I felt like, Oh, well, I have a weekly demo gig. But then we had a huge scandal with the vice chancellor on camera saying very corrupt things. The chorus of the song as I rewrote it is “Nieder mit H. C.,” (down with HC) [Heinz-Christian Strache], who was the Vice Chancellor and the head of the FPÖ right wing party. So, the day after that video, there was a huge demonstration in front of the chancellor’s office with about 5000 people and I performed the song. The recording on the album is from that day, which was really the high point of the song. Everyone was like, oh, wow, this was prophetic, you know, the song kicked off and two weeks later, this happened. And I added the additional line, “heute ist Straches letzter tag” [“today is Strache’s last day”].
Frey performs Daloy politsey/Nieder mit HC on May 2, 2019 at an anti-government demonstration at Ilgplatz, Vienna.
FH: That song is also an interesting contrast to the rest of the album with the crowd noises because the rest of the album is more intimate; it’s mostly you and a guitar. You’ve noted elsewhere that these are songs that are really meant to be sung as a group, at demonstrations or political events. That’s vital to how they were conceived in the first place. And then we have you and your guitar. Were you trying to say something with that? Or was that a result of COVID?
IF: No, no, it was actually recorded last December.
I wanted the album to be a document of my music project, which was solo me with guitar performing first at protests, and only then at concerts. I do perform sometimes with other people, but I never really had a band. With this album, it’s not that I was a performer already and thought about how I want to present it—it just grew. But in a sense it is an artistic choice to put them in an intimate context, because to me, they speak differently. I like having songs very simple. I think the music speaks more that way.
FH: I agree, and I appreciated that about the album. Particularly the Sholem lid, because the most famous version of it that I know is by Adrienne Cooper, with a band and huge booming voice; she’s saying, “if my voice were louder,” but her voice is already very loud! The intimacy of that song in your performance allowed me to appreciate it in a new way. And I also love that your album is not only political music: you also have love songs and songs about being nostalgic for your childhood and things like that, because I think that sometimes in talking about these political movements, we forget that they were built by people who had a range of emotions. Love and nostalgia and depression were all part of these political movements as well.
IF: From the beginning of my project, I was saying, “I perform Yiddish revolutionary songs.” For me, for example, Di sapozhkelekh is a revolutionary song. I wrote it in the booklet that I classify it as a socio-critical love song, because it’s about all the shitty precarious jobs that one person would do to be with their lover. In concerts I usually say the equivalent today would be, oh baby, for you I’d work for Foodora [online food ordering], or insert random precarious underpaid job.
In the booklet, like I do at concerts, I give a bit of historical context and explain things about the songs. For example, I put Margaritkelekh in there because I contextualize it in the context of consent and #MeToo, not because I think it’s a nice love song.
FH: Can you say more about the feminist subtext of a lot of these songs? Daniel Kahn has talked about his discomfort with remaking Arbeter froyen because there’s a way of reading that song, when sung by a man, as being kind of like, “Hey, women. Why aren’t you with us? Why aren’t you behind us? What’s wrong with you?” I think you’re doing something different with that song. You also have songs about women’s suffrage, and I saw you posting the other day that you wanted to write a song about abortion rights. So can you say more about the intersection of Yiddish revolutionary anthems and feminism?
IF: I actually also have some discomfort with Arbeter froyen. I really love Dovid Edelshtot’s music and texts. On the one hand, it’s amazing that a song from 1891 is explicitly talking about women workers and the double burden of being at home and the factory that’s so relevant still today. On the other hand, by today’s standards and probably also by the standards then, it’s really mansplainy: “Women, listen to me! Why are you standing around? Join the revolution.” I know guys today who would talk to me in that way. I’m an experienced political organizer, but there are always these men who think they know better and want to tell me what to do. So when I perform it, I usually introduce it in that way.
About the suffragette movement: I found that song on a CD on women in Yiddish theater, recorded by a woman singer, Clara Gold, who performed it 1921 in New York, a year after women’s suffrage in the US. I tried transcribing it. It was really difficult. Then I found another recording from a year earlier, sung by a male comedian and introduced with a sexist joke about women’s suffrage: I have this wife at home and she’s really annoying and nagging and now I tell her just shut up, you can vote now. I found out that the song was written by Reuben Doctor who has a whole repertoire of super misogynist songs. Then I understood that the song was actually sarcastic. But my feeling was that Clara Gold, when she recorded it a year later, was not sarcastic anymore. She subtly changed it from Ale vayber megn shtimen to Ale vayber muzn shtimen. It’s a small change, but I think it’s important. She wouldn’t have been untouched by the fact that she’s allowed to vote.
So, inspired by that, I felt I could also use the technique of feminist reappropriation. I had to change a few things anyway because the Yiddish was not really audible from the recordings. And then I added an extra English verse because I have different ideas about what it means to be a feminist today in the 21st century than 100 years ago; today we have other steps to take [than suffrage].
Frey’s version of Ale vayber megn shtimen
FH: You’ve just spoken very eloquently to reappropriating these songs, including some of the darker or less savory elements of them, like misogynistic tendencies that were part of Yiddish culture. We also talked about the fact that some people singing these songs today are middle class people whose lives are quite remote from the struggles that these songs are about. There is a critique that singing these songs is some kind of revolutionary cosplay or that we’re romanticizing them too much, not understanding what the struggle is about. How would you respond to critiques like that?
IF: It depends on by whom the critique is voiced. I definitely think it’s valid if someone who has a working class background or working class reality says, What do you think you’re doing? One of the reasons doing leftist politics today is so difficult is because we don’t actually talk about class enough at all. And we don’t actually have enough class consciousness, being aware of privileges that come with being middle class, but not seeing ourselves being exploited in the precarious contracts that we may have.
But if the critique is coming from middle class Jews, it’s just gatekeeping for the imaginary working class subject. It’s not like anyone owns the songs, or anyone owns Yiddish culture. The same is true for class: I believe it’s possible to be a socialist even if you’re middle class. There have been important socialist organizers who have been bourgeois or middle class.
FH: Including the founders of the Bund.
IF: So I think it’s possible to sing the songs while being middle class. It’s not cultural appropriation or something like that. Class has different dynamics than race or ethnic identity. It’s not about identity. A lot of the songs are mobilizing for the revolution or mobilizing against the capitalists; that’s still relevant and anyone can say that. But I do think it’s important to acknowledge that romanticization is happening and to think about what the negative side effects are. At the same time, I think it’s also okay to romanticize history if it’s relevant today.
FH: Well, it was such a pleasure talking to you. Is there anything that In geveb readers can do to support your further work? Are you doing online concerts in this era of COVID-19? In addition to buying the album, how can they give you love?
IF: So far there’s no online concert plan, but I might plan one now that we have another lockdown. In the meantime, follow me on Facebook, Instragram and Twitter and sign up for my newsletter. I’ll add that I’ve been running for local council elections here in Vienna as a millennial Bundist for a left wing party called Links, which means left. It’s left of the Greens and the Social Democrats; it’s anti-capitalist, antiracist feminist, queer feminist. Although I didn’t get voted in directly, I’m going to become a councilor in the next years when the chair of our list retires.
I got to perform a lot of these songs in the context of the campaign. At some point I started saying: “If you like my music, all this content is things that we’re also talking about, so you should probably vote for us. Mordechai Gebirtig would have voted for Links. Dovid Edelshtot would have voted for Links.” It’s like a modern Bund for me, less Yiddishkayt and better gender politics. It had a quota for people of color, migrants, and ethnic minorities, so there was a space for me to be there as a Jewish performer and a Jewish activist in Vienna, which was a first for me. Combining these two worlds did actually feel like being part of the Bund assembly.