Former opera singer-turned-Yiddish basso profundo and B'nai Mitzvah teacher Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell will perform as part of this year's Philadelphia Seder at the Gershman Y.
As far as autobiographical blurbs go, Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell’s is an attention-grabber: “A Jew by choice, an opera singer by training and a Yiddish singer by calling.”
So, too, is Russell whenever he walks onstage to perform Yiddish songs, nigunim, Negro spirituals or some combination thereof, as he will do when he performs at the Gershman Y’s Philadelphia Seder on March 15.
Russell is aware that audiences are often taken aback by the sight of a 6-foot tall black man singing traditional Yiddish melodies in a bass that calls to mind Paul Robeson — who himself sang a number of Yiddish songs to great acclaim, including the unofficial anthem from the Vilna Ghetto, “Zog Nit Keynmol” (“Never Say It’s the End of the Road”).
The desire to overcome any initial disconnect between him and his audience is why Russell employs humor, both in his biography and in his performances, with patter like: “My bubbe and zayde don’t speak Yiddish; unbeknownst to them, their grandson did grow up to do so” and “If I have a sense of humor about it, then audiences have license to listen to what I’m saying, to hear the message I’m getting across — that the music I perform is beautiful music.”
Russell has been immersed in sound for most of his 35 years, from a childhood surrounded by the music of his classically trained pianist mother to his “rebellious phase,” when he became a “hardcore Bach and Handel fan” to a 15-year career as an opera singer.
So just how did this California native and resident, the product of a devoutly Christian family, wind up as one of today’s few contemporary Yiddish singers?
To hear Russell tell it, he owes it all to the Coen brothers or, more precisely, to the soundtrack of their 2009 film, A Serious Man. While watching the film in 2011 about a Jewish physics professor whose life unravels in 1960s Minnesota, Russell heard the song, “Dem Milners Trern” (“The Miller’s Tears”), sung by Sidor Belarsky, a basso profundo.
He immediately felt a connection to both the music and Belarsky, who performed with the Leningrad State Opera Company in the early 20th century and in the United States after immigrating in 1930.
“When I look back on it, it seems absolutely ridiculous,” he acknowledges. “Who was I to think I could do this? But I felt a connection — it was the first time I heard someone who sounded like me!”
In hindsight, his decision to become a Yiddish singer wasn’t that ridiculous. His career in opera wasn’t progressing as he would have liked, and he already felt at home with both Judaism and Jewish music, having converted in 2011. Conversion was a logical step for him, he said, considering that he had been drawn to Judaism ever since reading the Bible as a child and that it would bring him and his longtime partner, Rabbi Michael Rothbaum of Beth Chaim Congregation in Danville, Calif., closer together.
Other than learning what the lyrics meant, the transition to singing Yiddish songs wasn’t too much of a stretch, he says. To sing opera, “you learn how to make these sounds that come from very specific places in Europe. I just applied that to Yiddish. I listened to the sounds and the styles of cantorial, folk and classical Yiddish singing.”
After three to four months of training and rehearsing, he accepted an invitation to perform at the Sholom Aleichem Center in the Bronx in January 2012. That performance was so well received that he was invited to perform a few months later at the JCC Manhattan, where he was heard by Huffington Post contributor Richard Z. Chesnoff, who wrote rapturously about Russell. He has been in demand ever since, playing Jewish and Yiddish music festivals and events around North America.
As he has grown more at ease with his Yiddish repertoire, Russell says that he has begun reaching into his own past to experiment with music from his African-American heritage, something he never before felt comfortable doing. It was while exploring this genre that he found himself creating his own style of mashup. “I was in the middle of learning this song from the Belarsky songbook, ‘Der Germore Nign,’ about a little boy in Hebrew school in the 19th century. It reminded me of ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’ ” — the Negro spiritual — “and I saw they matched up really well. They shared a similar scale, they both traversed a similar terrain of loneliness — one kid in the Pale of Settlement, one kid in the American South.”
That spontaneous pairing led to Convergence, a song cycle of similar combinations that has allowed him to reach wider audiences — and share something of himself in the process. “What I wanted to do was create a synthesis of folk and traditional roots music. As someone who is simultaneously black and Jewish, this is an outward realization of my own story.”
When he isn’t on the road performing, Russell spends most of his time in synagogue. Not as a cantor, though — “9 to 9.5 times out of 10, the cantor is a tenor,” he says with a laugh — but drawing on his own experience of becoming a Jewish adult. “I run the B’nai Mitzvah program” at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, he says. “My job is to get up in front of 12-year-old children and say, ‘Now is the time to become a Jew.’ That is very real for me, and something I have to live every day.”