AMN Reviews: Berjozkele – Yiddish Lullabies and Evening Songs (Żydowski Instytut Historyczny)

The late, lamented, and highly unconventional rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, whose family came from the town of Oświęcim and perished in the death factory the Nazis built on that spot, once referred to the fact that the souls of the deceased are still there and cannot rest. They require prayers, they require testimony. And they probably require music, too.

Berjozkele approaches as an ambient haze. “Lullabies are a musical guide into the subconscious…on the border between waking and dream,” writes Ola Bilińska, whose project this is, in her introduction. Down the centuries, up to and even after the Holocaust, the relationship between Jews and Poles could be fraught. While increased contacts between Jews and Poles led to each culture having significant knowledge of the other, this knowledge stopped well short of mutual understanding; in one anthology, Michael C. Steinlauf writes that “[t]he cultural life of these groups developed separately: “A ‘Chinese wall,’ it was commonly said, separated the two peoples”.

Yiddish Lullabies and Evening Songs tears down this wall, at least quite a few bricks, in a soothing, sobering, salubrious style. That world can never be recreated, but these brilliant interpretations of songs of succor sung in a language that once flourished on Polish soil by a young Polish speaker provides plenty of room to reside in it for a while and consider what its future might have been.

Instead of rehashing tried-and-true styles, Bilińska has pared down the arrangement of each to a lone synthesizer, a lone electric guitar, a lone trumpet, clarinet, vibraphone, or simply the lone echo shadowing her soft voice. One is accompanied by an “artificial” field recording, the closer just by birdsong and hoot owl. Which perfectly suits the material. Each song has a history, some long, some relatively brief, and a birthplace – Romania, Poland, Russia, Silesia. Some come from the stage (by “father of the modern Jewish theater”, Abraham Goldfaden), some based on poems (one by a poet killed by Stalin, another by an émigré to America whose daughter married Woody Guthrie), some handed down in the family home and recorded by folklorists, another by Viktor Ullmann, a composer who died in Auschwitz. All the songs are, perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, about nature (Berjozkele means “the little birch trees”), country life, the river turning from red to dark blue, a well standing “all lost in thought”, mountains and vales and magic, magic, magic everywhere. The life the people were living.

Beautifully designed and illustrated, featuring exemplary background notes to the music and its history and context, all lyrics in Yiddish, Polish and English. A labor of love, a great work of art and certainly an album of the year.

Stephen Fruitman