I couldn’t believe I was reading bodyguard instructions. The “Red Carpet FAQs” for new Grammy nominees included lots of rules, dress codes (black tie, of course) and instructions on where to park your limo. I worried that they might rescind my nomination if they discovered that I’ve never been in a limousine, employed a bodyguard or worn a tux.
The Recording Academy nominated the Toronto-based ensemble Yiddish Glory for Best World Music Album, for their recording that resurrected some long lost Yiddish songs from the Second World War. It was meant to be a historical project, largely with educational appeal. Instead, here I was as the album’s producer, just weeks before Purim, all dressed up on the red carpet, being photographed by paparazzi and sipping champagne at Grammy parties.
I tried to tell myself this was, in a way, just an extravagant Purim party. Still, this was a party unlike any I’ve ever attended. After arriving in Los Angeles, our first stop was the Nominee Gift Lounge – a place where rich and famous celebrities are offered high-end designer goods, in the hopes that they’ll post something about it on social media. A typical exchange I had with a jeweller whose business focused on what appeared to be diamond bling-filled accessories, went down like this:
“Congratulations on being nominated, what kind of music do you do?”
Me: “Yiddish. Eastern European Jewish music created during the Holocaust.”
Vendor: “Is it hip-hop?”
Me: “No, it is mostly folk music with some classical elements.”
Vendor: “How many Instagram followers do you have?”
Me: “I don’t have an Instagram account.”
Vendor: “I don’t think we can offer you anything, but there is a really fantastic massage chair to my left that you can try.”
After 10 minutes of bliss in that
massage chair, I left the gift lounge with no diamonds, but an interesting sociological lesson on the current state of consumerism.
In reality, that conversation was the exception to Yiddish Glory’s Grammy experience, an incredible opportunity to share moving stories of amateur songwriters who used music to document Nazi atrocities, demand social justice and dream of a better world.
The Soweto Gospel Choir’s album Freedom, which is about the fight to end apartheid, took home the award in the world music category. As we prepare to celebrate Purim, marking how Esther and Mordechai managed to save the Jewish population in ancient Persia from genocide, I couldn’t help but notice how perseverance and hope has led to modern-day miracles.
When I came of age in the 1980s, Nelson Mandela was sitting in prison on Robben Island. Who could have predicted how rapidly apartheid would fall (a story described in song by the Soweto Gospel Choir)?
During the Second World War, Yiddish Glory’s original songwriters compared Hitler to Haman and, even in the face of death, sung about how fascism would end up in the dustbin of history. After the war, their songs were confiscated during Stalin’s crackdown. Once again, the odds of these stories seeing the light of day seemed bleak. But after the determination of librarians and researchers, this music was not only rediscovered in an Ukrainian archive, but was being celebrated at the Grammys. And the artists who revived it were walking the red carpet next to Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga.
Now the Yiddish Glory team has left Los Angeles and is back in Toronto. We returned our rented tuxes. No one on the red carpet asked “Who are you wearing?” I doubt it was because of our lack of bodyguards. Rather, I suspect they can spot a rented tux from a mile away. However, we did get to share stories about anti-fascist Yiddish songs like “Shelakhmones Hitlern” (“Purim Gifts for Hitler”) on a world stage. As I strap my kids into their seats in the back of our old minivan and head to a local Purim shpiel, I can’t help but think of the last lines of “Shelakhmones Hitlern,” which were written in 1945: “Am Yisra’el Chai” (“The Jewish People Live”).