What do you get when you take a 1980s Hebrew classic, cross it with gypsy folk
music and klezmer, stir in some Eastern European tunes and season with a dash of
pop and rock?
The answer is Zigayner Neshumeh (Gypsy Soul), the debut album by
Tel Aviv singer and actor Yoni Eilat. A multicultural and vibrant concoction, it
manages to be classic and contemporary, international and Israeli all at the
Released this year, Zigayner Neshumeh
is a reworking of
Israeli pop princess Yardena Arazi’s 1987 Hebrew hit, “Neshama Zo’anit.” Arazi’s
sixth solo album of the same name featured Hebrew lyrics by poet Ehud Manor and
sold over 150,000 copies.
What inspired Eilat to rework this Eighties
Hebrew classic in Yiddish? “Three years ago, I listened again to Arazi’s gypsy
songs,” explains Eilat. “I’d heard the music as a child, but this time around it
was as if I heard it in Yiddish. I realized that Yiddish could add something to
With the help of professional translators Yankele Alperon
from the Yiddishspiel Theater and Miriam Trin from Beit Shalom Aleichem, Eilat
created Yiddish versions of Arazi’s original Hebrew songs.
Arazi’s reaction? By all accounts, she’s flattered.
described Eilat’s album as “heartwarming.”
A well-known figure on Tel
Aviv’s Yiddish scene, Eilat is an actor as well as a singer and can be seen on
the stage at Yiddishspiel, Tel Aviv’s Yiddish-language theater.
curiosity about the language was sparked when as a young child, he listened to
songs by Chava Alberstein, the Polish-born Israeli singer whom he describes as
his “spiritual mother.” His grandmother and late mother, who would hold secret
conversations in Yiddish (“whenever they didn’t want us to know what they were
talking about,” says Eilat) further augmented Yiddish’s mystique.
graduating from performing arts academy Beit Zvi in 2000, Eilat spent several
years in New York, where he had several more brushes with Yiddish culture. The
real “turning point,” as he describes it, happened at a live performance by his
idol Chava Alberstein in Boston. An Israeli woman in the audience upset Eilat
when she yelled at Alberstein to “quit singing in Yiddish.” Eilat promised
himself to find a way to make amends for this insult.
Back in Israel, he
started to learn Yiddish properly, first at Beit Shalom Aleichem in Tel
“Then, things started to happen,” he says. He auditioned
successfully for the Yiddishspiel Theater, where he has performed for six years.
He perfected his command of Yiddish at Tel Aviv University’s Yiddish summer
course and at Bar-Ilan University.
Eilat describes his Yiddish versions
of Yardena Arazi’s Hebrew Gypsy songs as “a natural crossover of Yiddish and
Gypsy culture,” pointing out that Jews and Gypsies (or Roma, as they are
properly known) have much in common.
“There is so much influence on both
sides. In Eastern Europe, Jews and Gypsies lived in the same places; they were
forced to wander the land. So their music shares a lot of characteristics, with
similar instruments like the clarinet, violin and accordion. Even the tunes are
LIKE THE Jews, the Roma endured centuries of
persecution and suffering. Both peoples refused to assimilate with local
cultures, resulting in their expulsion to the margins of communities where they
were dehumanized, persecuted and eventually almost wiped out in the Holocaust,
which the Roma call Porajamos, meaning “the devouring.”
With so much in
common, it is unsurprising that the Jews and Roma influenced each other
culturally. Jewish klezmer musicians would band together – literally – with Roma
artists and wander from town to town, performing together.
reached Jewish high culture: Yiddish poet Itzik Manger collected Gypsy tunes,
which inspired his own Yiddish poems. (Eilat gives a new interpretation to one
of these, “The Little Gypsy,” on Zigayner Neshumeh
.) Like Yiddish, which has
seen something of a revival in recent years, Gypsy music is also being
rediscovered and reinterpreted. Dubbed the “Gypsy Wave” or “global pop,” the
trend has seen bands like Gogol Bordello, DeVotchka and Fishtank Ensemble take
Roma and Eastern European folk themes and shake them up with punk, rock, pop and
folk to produce something new and fresh that appeals to young audiences looking
for something more than cookie-cutter bubblegum pop.
“Lots of Israeli
artists are interested in world music too, as a way to get new influences,” adds
Eilat, citing as an example Idan Raichel, the Israeli musician who brought
Amharic, Hindi, Zulu, Arabic and Yemenite music to global as well as Israeli
Surely it is only natural that Israel, a melting pot of
cultures, should look for musical inspiration beyond its borders. But can
Yiddish, a so-called dying language, really be a part of this trend? Eilat is
adamant that it can.
“There is definitely a revival of interest in
Yiddish, in Israel and abroad,” he says. “I see it everywhere. People understand
that this is the last chance for Yiddish. The older generation, the people for
whom this was their native language, is dying. We have a responsibility to keep
this great culture alive. It would be a shame to lose it, to let it
Despite feeling the need to stop Yiddish going the way of the dodo,
Eilat does not believe he is motivated by nostalgia.
“I am definitely not
nostalgic!” he emphasizes. “I want to create new versions of Yiddish. Yiddish
needs new songs, it’s the only way to keep it alive.”
“Alive” is a good
word to describe Eilat’s debut album, Zigayner Neshumeh
. The album’s 11 tracks
are an energetic instrumental mash-up that refuses to sit neatly in any one
genre. Part klezmer, part East European folk, part Israpop and part Gypsy
violin, Eilat’s Yiddish lyrics ring clear above a thumping bass line,
high-energy electric guitar riffs, lyrical piano interludes and frenetic fiddle
melodies that zip around like a bumblebee on speed.
If you can imagine a
bunch of wild-eyed Gypsy buskers, a motley crew of klezmer players and a Jewish
wedding singer transported from a 19th-century Romanian shtetl to a south Tel
Aviv rock club, you’re on the right track.
It’s certainly a challenge to
categorize Zigayner Neshumeh
, but the fact that the album is generating a
popular buzz here in Israel is a telling sign that young Israelis’ attitudes to
Yiddish language and culture are changing. The album has even had airtime on
Israeli popular music stations 88FM and 103FM, “not places where you’d usually
hear Yiddish,” jokes Eilat.
International audiences are also starting to
take note of the album, he adds. This month, Eilat will fly to Amsterdam to
share his music with global audiences at the International Jewish Music
While Eilat is keen to help spearhead Israel’s Yiddish revival,
he is not yet sure whether his next album will be in Yiddish or Hebrew. Whatever
language he chooses, he has no doubt that Yiddish is not a mere flash-in-the-pan
trend in Israel. “Yiddish is here to stay,” he declares.See Yoni Eilat
perform songs from ‘Zigayner Neshumeh’ at the Enav Cultural Center, Tel Aviv on
October 9. For information and tickets call 03-5217763 Watch a clip from
‘Zigayner Neshumeh’ here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ESa-Sbe2UO8
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