Feb 11, 2021
“…to call something something can be more offensive than calling it nothing.”
Apocalypse - something
Irony - something
Stupid songs that try to make it better -
something, something, something
In September 2020, in the midst of... shall we say, an uneasy year, fans of Yiddish music were overjoyed to discover the release of not one, but two new albums by The Unternationale, aka Daniel Kahn and Psoy Korolenko. While some form of irony and apocalypse runs throughout the music, no one but the artists themselves would think to describe any of their songs as “stupid.” With virtuoso translations, code-switching between three languages, and frequent references to historical events and ideologies, not to mention occasional citations of critical theorists like Badiou and Žižek, the songs prove quite the intellectual challenge. Nonetheless, through sneaky rhymes, happy dance tunes, and more than a bit of humor, they sustain an air of levity that might just, if only for a moment, “make it better.”
The new albums, The Third Unternational and The Fourth Unternational, were released by Auris Media Records, an Israel-based label dedicated to independent, experimental artists in Israel and around the world. The timing of the release, twelve years after the group’s first album and in the thick of the pandemic, was not entirely coincidental: as Auris Media explained to its social media followers, the pandemic has given the label time to rummage through its archives and unearth dormant recordings. The tracks on these albums, recorded in 2008 and 2011, represent a period of fruitful collaboration among Kahn, Korolenko, and a wide range of musicians from the worlds of klezmer, Yiddish music, and beyond.
The core band includes Gershon Leizerson and Eyal Talmudi (both from the group Oy Division, who were also part of The First Unternational), Dmitri Shumilov, Amir Weiss, and Eli Preminger, with occasional contributions by Frank London, Michael Winograd, Sasha Lurje, and many others. The albums are housed at the label’s Bandcamp page and are available on all digital platforms, as well as in physical formats (CD/vinyl). While the music itself is available online for free, purchasing the albums — digitally or physically — provides access to rich, beautiful booklets that contain lyrics and translations, historical and contemporary illustrations, and vivid descriptions of the songs, their origins, and their compositional process.
For many years, Kahn and Korolenko have consistently pushed the traditional boundaries of Yiddishist art. Kahn’s “tradaptations,” featuring inventive reworkings of English and Yiddish songs into fresh bilingual settings, have earned him many fans the world over. His Yiddish interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” promoted by the Forverts in 2016, has more than 1.8 million views on YouTube, surpassing almost every other video of Yiddish music on the platform. Korolenko’s polyglot performances, blending multiple languages, musical genres, and historical contexts, have also expanded the audience for Yiddish music: for instance, Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II, an album he recorded in collaboration with Yiddish scholar Anna Shternshis, was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2019. In other words, Korolenko and Kahn are experts at finding creative ways to reach all kinds of listeners, including those not fluent in Yiddish language and culture.
Take “Rokhele,” for instance. Originally a satirical song in Russian from the early Soviet period, it appears on the Third Unternational. Fragments of the original Russian, sung by Korolenko, bookend this recording, but the bulk of the song consists of Kahn’s English translation. The text tells of a “pious old Yid” from the shtetl who, burdened with the task of feeding his bountiful family, seeks to marry off his daughter, Rokhele, to a man “like Rothschild, but possibly wealthier.” But Rokhele is more interested in Bolshevism than in traditional matrimony. She engages in illicit anti-tsarist activities, spends a few dark years in Siberia, and returns as “comrade Rakhilya”: a fully assimilated, Russian revolutionary.
Throughout the text, Kahn infuses his English with Yiddish words and word-fragments, including vocables and suffixes like “oy” and “-le,” recognizable even to the least Yiddishly-informed listeners. These fragments demonstrate what Jeffrey Shandler has termed “the atomization of Yiddish”: signifiers of Yiddish culture are broken down into increasingly smaller units, appearing as inflections, melodies, and gestures rather than actual words or sentences. According to Shandler, the rising esteem for Yiddish fragments comes at the expense of the language as a whole.
Jeffrey Shandler, Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language and Culture (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006), 194–95.
Nonetheless, Kahn’s practice still has something to offer for more knowledgeable Yiddish speakers. Fluent listeners may recognize and enjoy not only the sheer sounds of Yiddish inflection, but also the particular choices that govern it: When Kahn sings “joy doesn’t fall down from heavenyu,” listeners may draw parallels to other common appeals to the heavenly like gotenyu and tatenyu. When he tells of “the suffering peopele” (pronounced pee-pe-le), one can’t help but appreciate the suitability of this endearing diminutive to describe the Jewish folk, coupled with the grammatical joke of treating the final English “L” sound as a Yiddish diminutive. 2 2 While this bilingual portmanteau is new in English, it is not entirely unprecedented: numerous Yiddish authors, primarily in the first decades of the twentieth century, have used the Yiddish word “felkele” for mostly similar purposes. Some of these can be found through Jochre: https://ocr.yiddishbookcenter.org.
The music, too, plays a key role in the telling of this story: the accompaniment on piano and bayan (a button accordion, superbly played by Boris Malkovsky) is through-composed, meaning that rather than repeating itself automatically, it changes with the text, painting the twists and turns of the plot with suitable musical depictions. When Rokhele is “blooming like spring,” the tempo picks up to a merry waltz, and it plunges into a funeral march when she is imprisoned. With the onset of the Revolution in the final verse, the music is mobilized for a military parade, aggressively pounding the downbeat as the people march, “burning and storming with rage.”
More broadly, throughout the two albums, Kahn and Korolenko make extensive use of musical signifiers to gloss the meaning of their lyrics. As Benjy Fox-Rosen has recently explained in an article for In geveb, Yiddish musicians often employ the semiotics of musical genres to enhance their lyrics or compensate for their audience’s lack of fluency. 3 3 Benjy Fox-Rosen, “On Not Understanding: Performing Yiddish Song Today,” In geveb, December 16, 2019, https://ingeveb.org/blog/on-not-understanding-performing-yiddish-song-today. It’s worth pausing for a moment to understand how this works: genres are capable of lifting this weight because they are embedded in a dense network of material, institutional, social, and symbolic elements, whose meaning becomes linked with the genres’ musical signifiers. 4 4 Eric Drott, “The End(s) of Genre,” Journal of Music Theory 57, no. 1 (April 1, 2013): 9. Thus, when Korolenko and Kahn turn from a folk-rock tune, inspired by the flippant counterculture of the 1960s (“Israel Something”), to a military march that doubles as a national anthem (“Eretz Thuringia”), the musical markers highlight the changed atmosphere and guide the listener’s interpretation of the text.
In just twenty-two tracks on both albums combined, Kahn and Korolenko cover impressive musical ground, offering a wide gallery of musical styles. Naturally, there are numerous references to various strains of Yiddish music, including Yiddish theater (“Dos Naye Rusland,” based on Goldfaden’s “Rozhinkes mit mandlen”), Hasidic drinking tunes (“L’chayim Stalin”), klezmer bulgars (“Moskve”), badkhones (“Apocalyptic Prophecy”), and folksong (“Ekh Lyuli Revisited,” and “Israel Something,” based on “Bulbes”). Equally expected are the many gestures towards American folk-rock, such as the Dylanesque “Kloglid far Leyb Bronshteyn,” or the parodies of Russian pop songs in “Sakharov Gardens.”
But apart from these usual suspects, the albums include some less predictable excursions: into the worlds of reggae (“The Jew In You”), rap (“Ekh Lyuli”), and, in a personal favorite of mine, the 1980s-throwback pop ballad (“When a Cosmonaut Cries”). That last example, complete with opulent synths (cameo appearance by Michael Winograd), a “space trumpet” (Paul Brody), and open-ended reverbs, stands out in these albums for its technologically mediated soundscape, amidst a sea of mostly acoustic-sounding arrangements. While listening to it (and shedding an obligatory tear for cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin), I couldn’t help but recall Madonna’s “Live to Tell” from 1986. I do wonder, if perhaps Kahn and Korolenko added a classic 1980s snare drum, whether the “ambassador for Judaism” would be willing to record a cover?
Alongside the diversity of musical styles, the albums also outline a wide survey of diverse political perspectives. At first blush, listeners may be baffled by the mishmash of contradictory ideologies, or by the decision to include songs of praise for authoritarian rulers, especially “L’chayim Stalin.” The albums’ websites proclaim that the music is a “dialectical klezmer cabaret” and describe it as “a dizzying balladic orgy of –isms: Socialism, Zionism, antizionism, chassidism, nationalism, alcoholism and modernism.” In a live concert from 2008 (see below), Kahn explained this repertoire as “an exploration of the wide breadth of Jewish ideologies,” which is how we end up with songs for Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Khrushchev, Zionism, and anti-Zionism.
On its own, each song seems to support particular regimes or beliefs, at times producing harrowing effects. But taken as a whole, the albums become ironic and satirical. The music often reinforces this interpretation by indicating some sort of excess, a hidden layer of meaning that prevents us from accepting the text at face value. In Trotsky’s blues (“Kloglid far Leyb Bronshteyn”), Kahn’s husky voice may at first seem a bit over-emphatic, but when he stops dead after just one minute, the song is revealed to be a comic gesture. Korolenko’s hymn of praise for Lenin (“Marsh Pionierov”), with a deliberately heavy-handed synth accompaniment and lo-fi automated drum machine, similarly announces a musical wink, which is boosted by occasional shifts to eerie whispers and piercing screeches. The ironic intent in many of these songs is further supported by the explanations and illustrations in the booklet, and it becomes unequivocal in the band’s staged performance.
The Unternationale live at Levontin 7, Tel Aviv, November 2008
Of course, an ironic Yiddish pro-Stalin song is still a loaded choice, given the antisemitism of the Stalinist regime. On the other hand, the chilling effect of hearing the words “undzer liber khaver Stalin” (our dear comrade Stalin) uttered in Yiddish is precisely what exposes the irony in the first place. What’s more, the choice to include this song is true to the promise of an “exploration” of Jewish ideologies that avoids presenting a singular core message. Ultimately, the consistent irony on these albums distances the music from actually supporting the Soviet regimes, while still allowing for a nostalgic gesture towards Soviet Yiddish culture.
Korolenko has expressed this nostalgic sentiment in an interview: “Soviet Jewry was awesome. Soviet and kosher! Both in a good way.” Hannah Pollin-Galay, “Ironic Inversions: Rare Soviet Yiddish Songs of WWII,” In geveb, August 12, 2015, https://ingeveb.org/blog/ironic-inversions-rare-soviet-yiddish-songs-of-wwii.
Both albums are described on their websites as an “orgy of –isms,” but this description is a better fit for The Third Unternational, whereas a more narrowly defined political theme emerges in The Fourth. This album promotes a vision of diasporism, broadly construed, taking the Jewish goles (exile) as a platform for thinking positively and fruitfully about a state of rootlessness and in-betweenness, both in a specifically Jewish context and in a more generalized sense. In certain parts of the album, the “Jew” becomes an abstract, faceless figure, denuded of Jewish particularities. This is by no means a call for cultural or religious assimilation, but rather an invitation to consider Jewish history and identity as a model that can encourage certain modes of reflection about history and identity across cultural borders.
This vision is most clearly articulated in “The Jew In You,” originally penned by Kahn in 2010 for the theater production Waiting for Adam Spielman, by playwright and director Hakan Savas Mican. A new, updated version of this song has also been released as a music video (see below), filmed in Berlin during the pandemic. This eight-minute “Universal Diasporic Testament” addresses people of all faiths and calls upon them to “bring out” the hidden Jew within. Lest there be any doubt, Kahn clarifies that by “Jew” he means not land, blood, or religion, but the possession of a collective, mercurial identity, shaped by centuries of exile and dispersion. This concept is echoed by Korolenko, who stated in an interview that “Judaism is much broader than Jewish ethnicity… it is everything that has to do with internationalism, with distancing from the soil, the land, and the blood towards global unification.” 6 6 Originally published in Hebrew, English translation is mine. Liza Rozovsky, “muzikay yehudi-mosklva’i meshiv el habamah shirim nishkaḥim beyidish,” Haaretz, March 27, 2016, https://www.haaretz.co.il/gallery/music/.premium-1.2894598. In part IV of Kahn’s song, “Absolution,” he proposes his universal-diasporic outlook to the people of the world:
And you shlep around like shackles all the roots from which you grew.
So I talk about the inner Other hiding inside you.
And the name I give this other is a Jew.
But a Jew can be an Arab or a German or a Druze.
So if you have a better name that you would like to use
I’d love to read the testament of you
The imaginary messianic diasporic you
The broken and neurotic post apocalyptic you
Daniel Kahn — The Jew in You (2020)
This political-diasporic vision finds many parallels in the history of Yiddish culture, and it holds particular relevance to the academic worlds of Yiddish and Jewish studies. In his recent book, Jewish Studies as Counterlife (2019), Adam Zachary Newton discussed the liminality and “outsideness” of Jewish studies. He suggested viewing this status of the discipline as a positive, productive possibility, and as a lever to lean on for forcing and displacing academic pursuits. 7 7 Adam Zachary Newton, Jewish Studies as Counterlife: A Report to the Academy (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019), 35–54. In his review of Newton’s book for In geveb, Saul Noam Zaritt proposes that the “placelessness” of Jewish studies can be wielded most powerfully when viewed alongside other communities of difference based on ethnicity, class, gender, and other forms of exclusion from dominant academic frameworks. 8 8 Saul Noam Zaritt, “A Yiddish Studies to Come: In Conversation with Adam Zachary Newton’s Jewish Studies as Counterlife,” In Geveb, 2020, https://ingeveb.org/articles/a-yiddish-studies-to-come-in-conversation-with-adam-zachary-newtons-jewish-studies-as-counterlife. In many ways, Zaritt and Newton’s academic discussion echoes the vision outlined by Korolenko and Kahn in the Fourth Unternational.
Beyond this universal perspective on diasporism, Kahn and Korolenko also reflect on the peculiarities of the Jewish diaspora, as well as on its Yiddish component. The Jewish condition, bubbling beneath the surface of their lyrics, is bound to rise to the surface, seemingly in spite of or even against the desire to transcend it: “And what about us people who are actually Jews? With traumas all my deconstructed theories can’t subdue” (“The Jew in You”). Jewish diasporism, the notion that Jews can and must exist as Jews wherever they are, in diaspora, has often produced much friction with various forms of Jewish nationalism, especially Zionism. Yiddish, at times a symbol and a vehicle of Jewish diasporism, has historically taken much of the heat, and Korolenko and Kahn harness this historical and contemporary tension in their aesthetic.
This is nowhere more obvious than in “Erets Turingen / Eretz Thuringia” (recorded twice, in Yiddish and English). In this song, Kahn and Korolenko reclaim the imagery and rhetoric of Zionism and recruit it to the establishment of an alternative Jewish state in the German state of Thuringia. The historical tension is inherent in bilingual, Hebrew-Yiddish statements such as “Erets-Turingen, ikh benk nokh dir!” (“Land of Thuringia, I’m longing for you!”), where the notion of longing for the Hebrew eretz (land) is doubly subverted by the land’s location and by the language in which this longing is verbalized. The music acts out this tension, too, by situating the song in German-speaking lands: the melody is an adaptation of “Aufenthalt” (“Dwelling”), a German lied (song) by Franz Schubert, composed in 1828. Although the use of Schubert’s music is not without precedent in Zionist contexts, this parody adds a layer of fondness for German-speaking culture that further removes the proposed homeland from the land of Zion. 9 9 See, for instance, the many Hebrew translations of Schubert lieder from the first half of the twentieth century: https://www.zemereshet.co.il/artist.asp?id=239. Ultimately, however, as with the political survey in the Third Unternational, the authors once again wink in irony. They proclaim in the accompanying booklet: “The founding of a Jewish state inside Germany is the absolute worst idea we would ever fully support.”
The Third and Fourth Unternationals are much welcomed additions to Kahn and Korolenko’s rich oeuvre. These albums excel on all fronts: They offer ingenious translations and “tradaptations” between Yiddish, English, and Russian, that appeal to multiple levels of fluency; original compositions that weave together Yiddishkayt, politics, irony, and humor; a thought-provoking grand tour of political ideologies, coupled with their overall rejection; and a kaleidoscopic palette of musical hues and historical clues, resulting in a trail of musical-textual breadcrumbs. On top of all this cleverness, Korolenko and Kahn somehow manage to convey a sense of pure fun, of “stupid songs that try to make it better.” And that’s not nothing.