African-American singer in love with Yiddish songs
Inspired by the Coen brothers’ Yiddish soundtrack to their 2006 film A Serious Man, up-and-coming operatic bass singer Anthony (Mordechai Tzvi) Russell is being hailed as the new voice of Yiddish song.
The California-based singer performed in Toronto this week on June 19 at the Ashkenaz Festival’s annual summer Yiddish concert at the Randolph Theatre (736 Bathurst St.), and is scheduled to sing at the Ideacity conference on June 20 at Koerner Hall in The Royal Conservatory.
He’ll also sing at Bialik Hebrew Day School on June 21.
In an emailed statement to The CJN, Russell said he has become enamoured of Toronto over the course of various visits to the city.
“I love Toronto because I found out the warm welcome I received there had historical precedent,” he wrote. “It just so happened that [African-American singer and civil rights activist] Paul Robeson, one of my personal heroes, was warmly received by the Jewish community of Toronto at a time when racial and political prejudices kept him from performing on many other stages. Toronto resonates with me both personally and professionally.”
Russell is gay and a convert to Judaism; his website notes he is “African-American by birth. Jewish by choice.” He feels like singing in Yiddish bridges the gap between his African-American heritage and his newfound Jewish one.
“This music was perfect for my voice type. These songs really touched me. I always want to bring a quality of vulnerability and sensitivity to my singing, and did I ever find that in Yiddish. I found songs that were about me, even though people wouldn’t expect it,” Russell said.
In a June 11, 2012 interview with the Forward, he further described his love of Yiddish song.
“The reason I feel like there’s a relationship between African-American classical music — by which I mean, say, spirituals that have been arranged for performance — and Yiddish art song, is that it’s an ethnic music. It’s very directly an expression of the lives, the loves and the struggles of the people who are in the songs,” he told The Forward. “My affinity with Yiddish vocal music is my affinity with ethnic expression. It really is about a people, as opposed to a set of ideas.”
Russell lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his partner of five years, Rabbi Michael Rothbaum.