Jun 25, 2019
May it come to dust and may it come to ash,
All the work and toil of my years
But let me be, with every new poem,
like you, my Gd, with each spring, reborn.
Rokhl Korn, “Seems It Had to Be,” translated by Miriam Isaacs
The poet Rokhl Korn is the mother of Nordic folk-inflected Yiddish art song!
Korn grew up in Galicia, claiming to have no friends but trees.
“I had no friends. Instead of friends, I had trees, and I spoke to them…. And I would read a dark calligraphy etched into the white snow, the tracks of wild animals that had emerged from the forest to pay us visits in the night: foxes, hares, does, and sometimes even a wild boar. This was the writing that I read,” Rokhl Korn’s speech “Destined to Create,” trans. Michael Yashinsky in for the Yiddish Book Center website.
She moved to Poland after WWI, learned Yiddish from the man she married, and began to write in it—publishing stories and poems rich with textures of the living world. Beginning in the 1920s, she was an important Yiddish literary figure.
During WWII, most of her family was killed during the Nazi advance on Poland. She and her daughter endured what she called “wandering years,” moving from place to place in the Soviet Union. They lived in Kiev, Tashkent, and Moscow, where she was embraced by Yiddish culture workers like Der Nister, Shloyme Mikhoels, and Peretz Markish. Of her last meeting with Markish she wrote:
“In the month of April 1946, as a repatriate I was given an exit-permit to Poland. I went to Markish to say goodbye. In the beginning, Markish had tried to dissuade me from leaving. Nowhere, he said, would I as a Yiddish writer enjoy such bright and favorable conditions to write and publish my books. When he saw that I had firmly made up my mind he said: ‘Go, in the best of health, but don’t stay in semi-fascist Poland, go from there to America – or Israel!’” 2 2 Rokhl Korn, “Destruction of Yiddish Culture,” Chronicle Review/Oct. 1972, p. 17.
Korn took his advice and did not stay in Poland. Having barely moved into a new home in Lodz, she went to Stockholm for a PEN conference as a delegate of the Yiddish Writer’s Union. She stayed there for two years until, with the help of poet Ida Maze, she was able to move to Montreal.
A Yiddish poet in Sweden in the late 1940s was no rare bird: Yiddish was everywhere. There had already been Ashkenazi Jews who arrived in Sweden at the turn of the 20th century. Now there were all of Norway and Denmark’s Jews, plus thousands of survivors of Auschwitz and the Lodz ghetto—rescued in 1945 and brought to Sweden on the famous white buses.
Could it be that Korn—long wanderer, poet of fields and orchards, dark woods and bright snow—helped the new Swedes translate the alien landscape in front of them into Yiddish? Perhaps the shared displacement of writer and reader allowed a fluidity of time and location. Language from a remembrance of Galicia past may have helped new immigrants see—and claim as their own—the low farmlands of Skåne that surround Malmö, the forests of Västergötland outside of Borås.
“New furrows in the black earth
yield to the autumn sun
like women birthing for the first time:
bearing the pain and smiling,
they’ve decided to give birth again.”
Rokhl Korn, “New Furrows In the Black Earth,” translated by Seymour Levitan
Korn and her short Swedish sojourn remained important for Sweden’s Yiddish-speaking community.
In 1999, when Sweden signed on to the European Charter for Minority Languages, Yiddish became an officially recognized Swedish language. 3 3 Jews have been living in Sweden since the 18th century. Sweden is one of few countries that officially recognize Yiddish as a minority language; the others are Bosnia, Israel, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, and Ukraine. There are five minority languages in Sweden: Finnish and Meänkieli (dialect of Finnish), Saami (actually multiple languages), Romani Chib and Yiddish. The designation of official minority language comes with multiple aspects of support, including allocation of public funding for Yiddish education and culture work. Some of that money goes to the Yiddish Culture Association of Gothenburg. The Association wanted to do a project on Swedish sojourner Rokhl Korn. They tapped the duo Ida and Louise, who were already playing regularly at the Yiddish Culture Association, and were interested in collaborating. Together they made Shtoltse Lider, 4 4 Ida and Louise translate this as Proud Poems, I think Proud Songs makes more sense for a song cycle. a multimedia stage show, with songs in Yiddish and English, and explanations and evocations in Swedish. 5 5 Not including Ida and Louise themselves, the show has a team of seven. Please, for a moment, imagine how awesome it would be if the United States recognized minority languages and helped fund the work that is necessary to keep languages vibrant. Imagine that you can educate your kids in Yiddish, at your public school, or that your local community center pays master teachers well to teach Yiddish dance to all ages. Imagine no one pulling any gatekeeper blood quantum bullshit on non-Jewish people working with Yiddish texts, because it’s now officially part of a nationwide cultural patrimony. Imagine giving emerging musicians the team they need—theater direction, language coaching, contextual scholarship, video projection, costuming etc—to make a show engaging with Rokhl Korn. Then imagine Great Small Works bringing Muntergang and Other Cheerful Downfalls coast to coast, traveling in two nice buses with plenty of staff and all their gear, coming home from tour with money in their pocket. OK, we imagined it: The world where there is a consistent and adequate funding stream for new Yiddish culture. So what’s our plan to get there, Amerike? Ida and Louise composed music to works by Korn, as well as Celia Dropkin, Anna Margolin, Kadya Molodovsky and Malka Heifetz Tussman. All five of these Yiddish poets were born at the tail of the 19th century in East-Central Europe. All five ended up in North America. All five are commonly anthologized. I’d say four out of the five are favorites among contemporary Yiddish musicians engaging with Yiddish poetry. 6 6 Examples: Anna Margolin: “Shake My Heart Like a Copper Bell” by Adrienne Cooper and Marilyn Lerner. I can’t find a recording of this, if you are reading this and have one, holler at me; Anna Margolin: Mayn Glik by Alex Weiser; Rokhl Korn:A Nay Kleyd by Adah Hetko; Kadya Molodowsky: Der Zinger by Asya Vaisman; Celia Dropkin: Zing Ikh Dir by Book of J
Ida and Louise is the duo of Louise Vase (voice, piano) and Ida Gillner (soprano saxophone, glockenspiel, voice). For Shtoltse Lider they are joined by British cellist Francesca Ter-Berg on some tracks. Vase is Danish and Gillner is Swedish; they started playing together in 2009 at the University of Gothenburg, where they studied world music with a specialty in klezmer. Each woman also performs in a Nordic project, Vase with Nordstemmer and Gillner with Westan.
The sonic palette for Shtoltse Lider draws from multiple sources—Yiddish song forms, early 20th-century dance forms, Euroclassical art songs and cabaret. Most interesting and unusual is how the music manifests Nordic folk influences. The way the northern flavor interacts with the Yiddish texts is the strength of the album. Korn’s nature-rich work allowed Yiddish speakers in Sweden to identify—perhaps identify with—the Swedish landscape. Now, by incorporating Nordic folk influences, Ida and Louise allows the Swedish landscape to respond—to enter into conversation with Korn’s palimpsestic Yiddish world.
The audible Nordic landscape is particularly noticeable on the tracks evocative of kulning. Kulning are Swedish herding calls, used by women to bring livestock home from their grazing land in the mountains. 7 7 Herding work in Sweden was traditionally done by women. In form and function it is kin to Alpine yodeling. 8 8 There may be some cross-pollination with Sami yoik as well but unlike kulning, yoik is sung by both genders and connected to shamanism. The vocal placement is an outward-flung head voice with no vibrato, sometimes flipping down into a chest voice to say the names of animals or to shout commands. 9 9 It can be heard over long distances and cows respond to it. The melody, or fragment of melody, is often improvised, with no words. It can be in a major or minor key, or shifting between both. Ornamentation can involve bent notes and microtones. Because of the major/minor shifting and the blue notes, kulning is surprisingly porous with Ashkenazi vocal forms. Traditional kulning sounds like this:
When singers use this technique together (as in the video below), the melodies over the drones can yield unexpected intervals, like seconds (two notes close to each other in a scale. This kind of abrasive yet compelling polyphonic singing is commonly associated with Balkan vocal forms but it is also straight-up Nordic, and it’s all over this record.
It is used to great effect on the setting of Mayn mame by Celia Dropkin. The harmonic discomfort accents the tension in the poem between great love and furious resentment.
Another highlight track is Shlanke shifn, text by Anna Margolin. Here we have a couple of different Nordic styles in play: The sweet head voice and the drone over an ostinato pattern.
Here’s a Swedish women’s singing group presenting both features:
Ida and Louise start with the sweet head voices and a glockenspiel ostinato. In the B section they switch it up, allowing the saxophone to take the drone while the piano plays the ostinato pattern. The poem is about the calm before the storm, and the music suggests that humid, ominous feeling beautifully. Here’s their video for the song:
Nordic balladic textures are also explored in Shtoltse Lider. Listen to this Maytime ballad from Sweden:
And then listen to the Ida and Louise setting of Vays vi der shney by Celia Dropkin, Both songs share a similar sense of melodic motion, ornamentation, and vibe.
The album closes on a decidedly non-Nordic note with the instrumental Epitaf by Anna Margolin—the video has the English translation.
The doubled melody is very powerful (and perfect for a poet who wrote herself double epitaphs). The tune is in a loping three—evoking a gasn nign, a street tune. But it has the solemnity and finality of a firn di mekhutonim aheym tanz, where the in-laws are led home at the end of a wedding, and life begins for the new couple.
You can hear a classic version of a firn di mekhutonim aheym below. I love the way Epitaf evokes this genre of tunes. The ritual status of the genre pushes against the text and Margolin’s life story. It’s haunting.
I want to close with a return to Rokhl Korn, whose work inspired Shtoltse Lider. I wish there was more Korn on the record; the choice not to draw more heavily upon her poetry feels like a bit of a lost opportunity for a Swedish Yiddish project. But one wonderful thing is that Rokhl Korn’s voice is present on the album, reading her “Fun yener zayt lid”—From the Other Side of the Poem.
You can hear it here.
This was the original title of this project, and it still feels like a focal point of the album.
Here is Rachel Seelig’s translation of the third verse:
“On the other side of the poem is a path,
Slender and sharp as the thin-thinnest slit,
And there someone ambles adrift in time
Treading ever so softly with barefooted gait.
On the other side of the poem, wonders can occur…” 11 11 In Seelig, Rachel. “Like a Barren Sheet of Paper: Rokhl Korn from Galician Orchards to Postwar Montreal.” Prooftexts, vol. 34, no. 3, 2014, pp. 349–377.
I love the idea that someone can be lost, getting cut on bare feet, but continuing to walk the uncomfortable path between the present and the past—making new work that is connected to the work that came before. And when this happens, wonders can occur. Seelig reports that Rachel Korn wrote to Kadia Molodowsky in 1966:
“We are cut oﬀ from the younger generations.
Children do not understand one Yiddish word.”
But musicians set their poems to music, translators grapple with minute shades of meaning in their words, literary historians build and explain their context. In Sweden, a multimedia show was based on their poetry, and now, through this review, Yiddishists all over the world are reading about it.
Wonders can occur.
This is the project in Ida and Louise’s own words:
Here are all their videos:
Did you want to learn technique for kulning?
A beautiful speech by Rokhl Korn:
More info on Rokhl Korn:
Maybe you are looking for a project? Set music to these poets, removed from the 1961 version of The Golden Peacock and still hard to find: Rosa Peretz-Laks, Rebecca Gallin, Miriam Wohlman-Czervaczek, Rachel Cohen, and Lottie Malach