Review by Seth Rogovoy
Several decades into the Yiddish song revival – part and parcel of the overall revival of the Yiddish language, Yiddish culture, and klezmer music – we are now enjoying a full-fledged renaissance of creativity in the form of new works. Josh Waletzky is at the forefront of this movement, one of a handful of songwriters perpetuating the Yiddish songwriting tradition. (The others include Michael Alpert, Yuri Vedanyapin, and Miryem Khaye-Siegel; lyricists Michael Wex and Sarah Gordon; and Daniel Kahn and Psoy Korelenko, who translate songs from many languages into Yiddish.)
While surely it wasn’t his intention, Waletzky’s new recording, Passengers, makes a strong case for itself as the greatest statement of new Yiddish song. Waletzky’s song cycle features six new compositions that are simultaneously and perhaps paradoxically imbued with an immediate urgency while sailing on a timeless current.
Waletzky’s isn’t a trained voice, but rather a folk voice, a voice of the people, ingrained with natural, organic textures that convey as much meaning (or more, for those who don’t speak Yiddish) as the lyrics – a tapestry of emotions in just a few notes, mournful, triumphant, inquisitive, playful. His original melodies sound like they’ve been around forever, and the instrumental arrangements by Michael Winograd – performed by a who’s who of mostly second- and third-generation klezmer talent – serve the songs beautifully.
Waletzky’s songs address a wide range of topics. “Nayn-un-Naynstik (Ninety-Nine)” is in the great tradition of Yiddish Socialist anthems, inveighing against “the one-percenter [who] screams bloody murder” when the stock market crashes, while the rest of us are “being driven out of the city because luxury is the new god.”
“Blinder Toyb (Blind Dove)” is a heartbreaking love song to Waletzky’s brother, Niel, who lost his eyesight as an adult and then died at a relatively young 63. “Coo your song, my blind dove,” sings Waletzky (in Yiddish), “with those honest eyes of yours. You disappeared on me: a rend in my soul.” Waletzky has the touch of the poet – note how he trades places with his brother in this line metaphorically, he being the one who can no longer see the other.
Waletzky also writes and sings modern-day secular prayers. “Gut-Morgn! (Good Morning!)” is a Yiddish update of soul singer-composer Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” using the same imagery of catching a railroad as a means to towards redemption. “Pasazhirn, pasazhirn, es zenen ofn nokh a rege nor di tirn! Dayn stantsye nit farzamen, nit ver farshtekt in ort,” he sings, which translates, “Passengers, passengers, the doors are open for just another instant! Don’t miss your station, don’t get stuck in your seat.” Whether or not this was a conscious tribute to Mayfield, the result is clear – Waletzky is the Yiddish equivalent of a soul singer and composer.
A word about the package: at a time when music is most often received and listened to via intangible digital files one never sees or holds in ones hand, Waletzky goes totally old school with “Passengers.” The CD comes packaged in a gorgeous book that devotes a four-page overleaf to each song, including the Yiddish lyrics in both the original and in transliteration; the English translation; and, for each song, a carefully selected reprint of an image of contemporary art by the likes of Adam Whiteman, Tine Kindermann, Ellen Langford, and others, making “Passengers” a thing of beauty both musically and visually.