Inspired by the past, singing for today

Daniel Kahn has gained a devoted following among radical Jewish diasporists for his bilingual versions of Yiddish songs that bring the past sharply into the present, in a style that combines klezmer, punk and Brecht. His new album, Der Binyen (The Building) reveals other influences. David Rosenberg spoke with him

Inspired by the past, singing for today

This article is from Jewish Socialist 78 Summer 2023

I spent the 1970s collecting vinyl, especially Baez, Bowie, Cohen, Dylan and Marley. By June 1980 I had seen each of them playing live, except Joan Baez whom I saw several times much later. But in the early 1980s I followed a different musical obsession. I sought out Yiddish records, the older and scratchier the better. From exuberant klezmer to revolutionary ballads, I discovered gems. I loved Dovid Edelshtadt’s songs. An immigrant sweatshop worker and anarchist in 1880s New York, he died aged 26 from TB. But what a legacy! His timeless song In Kamf (in struggle) warned the oppressors:

Ir kent undz dermordn tiranen,
naye kemfer vet brengen di tsayt.
Mir kemfn, mir kemfn biz vanen
di gantse velt vet vern bafrayt.

You can murder us tyrants,
but the times will bring forward new fighters.
We will fight, we will fight
until the whole world is free.

Some 10 or more years ago, I was in Ilford, at the home of Diana and the late Chaim Neslen. Chaim grew up in Toronto in a family of Bundists. Yiddish was his mother tongue. He put on a CD and asked me what I thought of this track. It was Edelshtadt’s In Kamf, but the backing band sounded like The Clash or The Stranglers with a bit of Slade. I was blown away. The singer spat out the English lyrics:

You tyrants may murder or beat us
New fighters will rise in our place
And we’ll fight, and you’ll never defeat us
We fight for the whole human race.

That was my introduction to Daniel Kahn’s music. I loved it. I saw him play live (with Psoy Korolenko) on a magical night organised by jewdas in an East End synagogue in 2015. At our recent International Zoom event for the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Daniel sang his bilingual version of Shtil di Nakht, a defiant resistance song from 1942, honouring an act of sabotage by women partisans. Then he sang a darker, more reflective song, Der Binyen, by the Yiddish poet, Beyle Shaechter-Gottesman who died in 2013. It is the title track of Daniel’s new album, produced with his longtime friend and partner in the Painted Bird and the Brothers Nazaroff, Jake Shulman-Ment. Jake provides backing vocals and exquisite violin-playing.

So where had his exposure to Yiddish come from? What kind of political and cultural atmosphere had he grown up in?

“My family is pretty deeply Detroit. My mother was born in Detroit, my father in Ohio. My mother's mother was born in New York, my mother's father was born in Wisconsin. My father's father in New York or Cleveland, but even his father was born in New York. It was my great great grandfather who emigrated with the name ‘Cohen’ from Koenigsberg, East Prussia, to New York, so I’m as deeply American as Ashkenazim get!

“My exposure to the Yiddish language was really negligible. I knew vaguely it was something that my grandmother had spoken. It wasn’t a part of my Jewish cultural or religious education.”

So the immersion in Yiddish came later. But his political identity formed early.

“From my teenage years on, I was increasingly alienated from the Reform kind of suburban, assimilated version of the religion, and from the de facto chauvinism of American middle-class liberal Zionism. I visited Israel for the first time when I was still in high school, and I was pretty organically disillusioned from it, literally without any influence from any kind of public Zionist-critical/post-Zionist/anti-Zionist Jewish perspective, or by general leftist critiques of Zionism, even though I was a budding Wobbly (Industrial Workers of the World).“

Daniel’s family were politically left of centre.

“We were all Democrats. My mother – schoolteachers union. We were always pro-union. The things that radicalised me politically were not necessarily linked to any kind of Jewish topic. I was sensitised to labour and anti-racist struggles because I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. There was a major newspaper strike going on at the time that became violent, and everybody lost their jobs. It was fucking criminal what those companies did. 

“I was  going to Utah Phillips shows [radical labour organiser, folksinger, poet], listening to Billy Bragg records, The Last Poets and the radical arts movements in Detroit of the 1970s. I was getting into punk rock, that 1980s co-mingling of hip hop and punk rock in New York. I was into hardcore bands and we had a pretty strong 2-Tone scene”.

Different forms of Black music were major influences: “Everything from Fats Waller through the art ensemble of Chicago, Nina Simone. I was into early ska and rocksteady from Jamaica: Desmond Dekker, Toots and The Maytals. I was obsessed with Otis Redding. I loved Mahalia Jackson – spiritual music for a person who’s not particularly religious! Also the Soul Stirrers and Sam Cooke. Later when I got into klezmer I was like, OK, I could get into hasidic chant, nigunim and zmires.”

So when did that klezmer moment happen, and where?

“I had been involved with a Jewish theatre in the Detroit area since I was a kid. That was a space of Jewish cultural collaboration, my foot in Jewishness. But it wasn’t until I was living in New Orleans cutting my teeth as a singer-songwriter that I found myself falling in love with the sounds and texture of klezmer music – the New Orleans Klezmer All Stars and the Panorama Jazz Band who played klezmer. I got into the Yiddish language from there.

“I was playing music on the streets – accordion, learning klezmer tunes from friends of mine. That was a way for me to get deeper into the instrument. I did a workshop with Yid Vicious – who win the prize for best band name!

 “Then, almost 20 years ago, I went to KlezKanada. It was the first time I was really in a Jewish cultural space that was welcoming to non-Jews, where it was about the culture and not exclusively about identity. I was also, for the first time, in a space where being Jewish and being critical of Zionism, or being ‘other than Zionist’ was implicitly tolerated. I could make connections to other people who were questioning. Some of them still faced a lot of backlash from the more conservative ‘let’s not talk about it’ element there. But that has changed immeasurably since then, in a more open direction. There's a generational groundswell of folks who are just not buying it any more.”

It was partly through KlezKanada that Daniel built a strong personal connection with Theodore Bikel whose songs and approach to “internationality” were inspirational.

“I met him in 2005, and we engaged very often at KlezKanada. We spent hours talking about translation and interpretation. I hung out with him once for a conference in Vienna, his hometown. We saw each other in California, Boston, in New York. He became a real dear person to me, as he was for so many. He also went through a very personal transformational odyssey over Zionism and Israel.”

He recorded many Hebrew songs over the decades, but Daniel describes how even Bikel was harshly ostracised later in life for his critical stand. The far-right Jewish Defence League protested outside his show in Toronto.

“I was, like, you fucking potzes. Do you have any idea like how much that man did for Israeli culture? His records were the ambassador for the idea of an Israeli culture for decades, and now you're protesting outside of his concert because he gave an interview where he said that we shouldn’t be bulldozing people’s homes. Like, stop it!”

I asked Daniel about the new album, Der Binyen, where another set of musical influences is revealed. It opens with a Yiddish version of Lou Reed’s haunting song Tomorrow’s Parties and closes with a Yiddish take on Tom Waits’ classic Tom Traubert’s Blues. Along the way are Yiddish translations of two Leonard Cohen songs, one Tom Paxton and My Father’s House by Springsteen. Daniel says he was: “paying homage to the learned elders of English songwriting. I learned guitar playing Beatles songs, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. I learned piano by playing jazz standards and Tom Waits songs. On this new album are songs that have meant so much to me for a long time.”

Woody Guthrie was another of those “learned elders”. The album includes a heartwarming collaboration with other singers on a Yiddish version of Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land. Among a panoply of co-creators and singers, he especially credits Linda Gritz who runs the Boston Workers Circle Yiddish choir.

“She has this incredibly warm, generous, folky, lefty spirit. She was a natural ‘go to’ for this. We ironed out a final version of it and we made one of those classic corona videos in the middle of the lockdown, 2021 – everyone singing in their own living room. At the end you'll see Linda singing and my wife Yeva Lapsker and my son Leon dancing around. We released it, just as a video, through The Forward newspaper and got Nora Guthrie to sign off on it, registering that as the official Yiddish translation of this song.”

Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, is president of the Guthrie Foundation. Her maternal grandmother was the Yiddish poet, Aliza Greenblatt. The album version, though, subtly modifies the video version.

“I changed the first line. In the original translation I had: ‘kh’hob mir gevandert in a land a frayen’ which can be ‘in a free land’. I had originally wanted ‘unter hashemayim’ – ‘under the heavens’. Someone probably told me that it wasn't so idiomatic in Yiddish to talk about the sky as hashemayim.  But after January 6th [Capitol Hill], and everything happening in the United States, and George Floyd, I was just so fucking sick of talking about the United States as if it’s somehow ‘free’. I didn't want to talk about America as place that is any freer than anywhere else, so I put back hashemayim. I like it better that way. If there's something high-falutin’ about it, my argument is, no one goes around talking about the ‘diamond deserts’ either!”

My personal favourites on the album include its most optimistic song, Dos lid fun der molde  – a yiddish translation from Brecht – and the deeply melancholic Brokh Shtiker (broken pieces) by Russian/Ukrainian poet Peretz Markish.

“I need to devour more of Markish,” says Daniel. “I love his work. That particular setting was done in preparation for a programme I ran in Weimar along with Sveta Kundish and Patrick Farrell last summer, marking the 70th anniversary of the murder of the Soviet Jewish poets. We ran a workshop specifically about setting poems to music. I gravitated to that poem, which relates also to the Springsteen song on Der Binyen, about the unrepaired and the irreparable. It was at a time when I was dealing with things that had gone kaput and asking is there a way to move on? To rebuild without the wish to restart? Brokh Shticker was written during the war and it’s impossible to say whether this irreparable shattered mirror is about Yiddish cultural life under Stalin or about the world that was being shattered in the war. It could also have just been about his personal emotional state then.”

The album’s title song, though – Der Binyen – by Beyle Shaechter-Gottesman, is the stand-out track.

“Beyle was a masterful songwriter. She probably wrote it in the 1980s – it's like a dream song or a nightmare song. It’s not a hoyz (house). Der binyen is really an edifice, and there’s this horrible image of a collapsing building. It can be as large or small a metaphor as you need it to be. In those days, before your Warsaw Ghetto event, I had been listening to a podcast about the book Finf yor in varshever geto, Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto, by Bernard Goldstein. I still haven’t read the whole book but certainly his was a name that I knew alongside Marek Edelman and alongside the things that I had heard from Irena Klepfisz about her family and her survival.

“But I realised I had never really looked at the original source. I spent an afternoon reading through it. I found the part that had been read in English, and the language in the Yiddish was completely different. In that passage there was this mention of their grandieze binyen vos hot geheysn yidn fun varshe – that grandiose majestic building that was Jewish Warsaw. And I thought, this isn’t the obvious ‘go to’ song for this type of event, but it gets at the deeply personal loss. It’s not about trauma; it’s just about massive loss, the human heart of loss. A very human catastrophe. It also connects to now: look at what’s happening in Bakhmut and Mariupol – people's lives and worlds being needlessly pulverised.”

What is remarkable about the song is that it lifts from the deep sadness and refuses to wallow in it. “Come on, let’s dance!” it demands.

“What’s more human than that? It’s that whole ‘hope in despair’, ‘despair in hope’, thing. It needs both of those. Both sides of that need to share the song. I don’t think that the point of the suffering is the dancing.”

In our conversation, it is clear that when Daniel talks about the Bundists Bernard Goldstein, Marek Edelman, Irena Klepfisz, it is with palpable love and respect for that tradition and philosophy. I asked him about his involvement in a film made by the left-wing Israeli, Eran Torbiner, quite a few years back, about the last Bundists in Israel.

S’iz geven an emesdiker koved. That was a huge, huge honour. It was so wonderful to be among those folks. They would gather there once a week for events. It wasn’t all political. They would be literary, they would play games, it was a place for people to shmooze. It was also a great reminder of the complex paradox that is Israeli culture. This generation of Yiddish-speaking Bundists, they’re Israelis, critical Israelis. Lebnsfragn [Israeli Bund journal] was a great paper, engaged with totally contemporary topics. There was a lot of talk about how that was really the end of the Bund. Tell that to the teenage Bundists in Melbourne! That was the end of a certain generation of Bundists.”

I press Daniel on the extent to which these Bundist themes, with their related concepts of diasporism and crossing borders, are central to what he writes and performs. He crosses borders regularly with this music. Although born in America, he has now lived in Germany for 18 years.

Daniel corrects me: “I was in Berlin, which is not exactly Germany! And now I’ve  been living on a boat in Hamburg for two years, which is more Germany than I thought it would be, but it’s also its own world, and I like it. But these themes continue to inspire me, inform me, and guide me, not only in terms of my understanding of Jewish discourses and Jewish politics. That’s my way of understanding the broader context of what’s going on in the world today, with massive displacement, with so many immigrant communities.

“In the time that we're living in and the times we’re facing, there’s so much to be drawn from the Jewish experience of diaspora and the oscillations of home-coming and home-leaving. In terms of political signification, I’m not as interested in being a certain kind of ‘ist’ as I am in certain kinds of ‘isms’, as a permeable soup of ideas. I want to be able to bask in the wisdom of so many different ‘isms’. Woody Guthrie said ‘I’m  not a communist but I've been in the red all my life!’

“This idea of diasporism – which inherently relates to goles [exile] – has to do with seeds and sowing, being strewn. The idea of doikayt [here-ness] is related, but it’s not the same. Diasporism is about displacement. Doikayt is about this-placement. What is ‘this place’?  For me, right now it’s Hamburg, and that’s why I’m singing about sailors and rust!”

Photos by Adam Berry

Der Binyen is available from Oriente Musik


Der Binyen

Imagine the building you built on your own,
With your very own hands
Out of red brick and stone
No more than a torn old shirt you have worn
Leaving you naked and stripped to the bone
Now imagine your building, familiar and tall,
How it suddenly burns
And collapses and falls,
And you and your hands and your shoulders and all
Lie buried in the ruins of your very own walls
Why just sit and sigh and let your sorrows linger?
Let us dance a tango with entangled fingers,
A tango till the breaking of the dawn,
Warming our souls
With the burning of straw.
Out of what is this building constructed and made?
Just crumbling pieces of hope and of faith.
And what is this binyen standing upon?
This tower of steel on foundations of straw…
Un vos az der binyen vos du host geboyt
Mit di eygene hent
Un mit tsigelekh royt
Iz nit mer vi a hemdl tserisn, eyn tsoyt
Un du shteyst a nakete biz tsu der hoyt
Un vos az der binyen vos du host gekent
Tsefalt zikh gor plutsim,
Tsi er vert gor farbrent
Un du ligst mit akslen
Mit beyde un hent
Bagrobn in di khurves
Fun dayne eygene vent
Vos-she blaybst du
Epes azoy troyerik zitsn?
Lomir geyn a tentsl
Oyf di finger shpitsn
A tentsele glat in tog arayn
Un varemen zikh
Bay der shtroyener shayn
Vayl fun vos iz der binyen geboyt,
Der gebay?
Fun brekelekh hofn un gloybn ay-ay.
Un af vos shteyt der binyen
Un halt zikh azoy?
Vi an ayzerner moyer
Af balkns fun shtroy

Posted: 28 July 2023