Yiddish song has kept the language and culture of Eastern European Jews alive – long after it was said to be dead. To this end, Yiddish song used to be celebrated through the annual Leah Todres Yiddish Song Festival, which ran in the Mother City from 2001 to 2011.
by MOIRA SCHNEIDER | Feb 01, 2018 South African Jewish Report
Leah, Teddy & the Mandolin will be screened at the Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre in Johannesburg on 18 March at 5.30 and 7.30pm.
What was the reason for documenting the event now?
“Initially, it was to honour the people who had been involved with the project and gave of their time, talent and generosity of spirit,” says Philip Todres, the festival’s producer. “I wanted to record it and the fact that Cape Town had this amazing group of people, from a musicologist who specialises in Jewish music to a klezmer band.”
Three soloists – opera stars Aviva Pelham and Beverley Chiat, as well as David Gordon – were there from day one; chazan Ivor Joffe joined in the second year. By the 10th year, the festival boasted 10 soloists and 120 voices singing Yiddish songs on stage at the Baxter Theatre.
Originally conceived purely as a fundraiser for the Cape Jewish Seniors’ Association (CJSA), the event soon developed a life of its own as people flocked from other parts of the country to attend.
The notion of memory became one of its most important by-products, Todres reflects. “It allowed people, through the medium of song, to get back to their roots and discover their cultural history. For many years our history has been the elephant in the room. Eastern Europe – emotionally, you couldn’t go there, people didn’t want to speak about it. It was just too close in terms of the Holocaust.”
In 2008, Todres’ brother Alan entered a CD of the previous year’s festival for inclusion in the Yivo Summer Festival in Chicago, where he lives. “There was one question asked of Alan: ‘How is it possible that in Chicago, with a Jewish population of over 500 000 people, we have never had a Yiddish festival?’,” Todres remembers.“So, Cape Town is very special in terms of the people and the talent it has.”
Todres says Yiddish songs have “fascinating” links to the American musical, “the crossover between shtetl and Broadway”.
“Capetonian Hal Shaper, who wrote songs for Elton John, Matt Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Barbara Streisand, really put me in touch with the importance and contribution of Yiddish song with the song, Those were the days, my friend. If you go back in time, you find that it is based on an Eastern European folk melody!”
Shaper, in fact, wrote The ten tap dancing rabbis from Minsk, which features in the documentary, for the 2004 festival, completing it the day before he died. “That was a very humorous interpretation of the way Jewish music came into America,” says Todres.
The festival was initiated in memory of Todres’ late mother with financial backing from his family. “We thought we’d do it once and that would be it,” Todres recalled some years ago, “but it was such a resounding success” that it became an annual event and the CJSA’s major fundraiser.
Todres is certain that the festival led to an increased interest in Yiddish in Cape Town. “Look at those children singing songs,” he says, referring to the Herzlia Yiddish Festival Choir and the Herzlia Ensemble, who participated in the shows, the latter even singing The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night in Yiddish.
“Some of those kids were in nine of the festivals. Often the children bring Yiddish back into the home, as opposed to the other way round,” he said during a Q & A session after the screening.
“One year, someone came up to me and said: ‘Given our history, every time a song is sung in Yiddish, it is like saying a kaddish for someone who cannot sing anymore.’ So here we are enjoying the event, which is fantastic, but the sense of continuity, reflecting on our past, acknowledging where we’re from and the wonderful people who contributed to all our lives, is perhaps the most important part of it all.”
The film, directed by Heather Blumenthal and Todres, includes footage of the performances over the years, interspersed with interviews with key participants. It has been submitted to several international documentary and Jewish film festivals.
This article by Moira Schneider first appeared in the South African Jewish Report