The many nuances of ‘mama loshen’

Israel hosts its first International Yiddish Festival.

47-year-old singersongwriter Kayah (photo credit: PIOTR POREBSKI)
47-year-old singersongwriter Kayah
(photo credit: PIOTR POREBSKI)
The country’s first International Yiddish Festival will take place at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv on April 4 to 6. The lineup includes acclaimed performers from Poland, Norway and Sweden, as well some of our own leading artists in the field. There will also be a dance show and some extramural activity over the three days.
One of the intriguing acts in the lineup is 47-year-old singersongwriter Kayah. The Warsaw-born artist, who came into the world as Katarzyna Szczot, has been performing around the globe for two decades and has earned her stripes, and then some. Her first solo album, Kamien, was released in 1995. Over the years, she has sold more than one million records, establishing her own label, Kayax, in the process.
Kayah’s father is Jewish, but she was not aware of her Jewish roots until seven years ago, even though she had begun delving into the mystical side of Judaism before she came across that discovery.
“I was in Israel for the first time and I was in need of some spiritual guidance. Kabbala crossed my path, and I jumped into it,” she recalls. “It was amazing because Kabbala was studied by men from the age of 40, and I was just 40 then.”
Those initial steps into esoteric Jewish teachings led to a lifechanging revelation for Kayah.
“When I landed at Warsaw airport, I realized it was my halfsister’s birthday – my father’s daughter from his second marriage – and they live in Vienna. So I got on another plane to Vienna. When I arrived, there was a birthday party, and I told my father about my trip to Israel and about getting interested in Kabbala, and that’s when he told me he was Jewish. I had no idea.”
Kayah was clearly searching for something, and she continues to do that today through her music. She is coming here with her Transoriental Orchestra, with whom she will perform material in Yiddish that hails from her homeland, as well as several Polish songs that have been translated into Hebrew, such as “Shabbat Acharona” (Last Shabbat), made popular here by Yardena Arazi, and “Tchol Hamitpachat” (The Blue Headscarf) sung by Arik Einstein.
Discovering her Jewish roots led Kayah to dig into the history of the Jewish community of Poland, which goes back about close to 1,000 years, and grew to more than three million before the Holocaust.
“I feel that what is most important is to come to people with an open heart and with great respect for the past,” says the singer. “I come with the Polish atmosphere and with the Polish attitude. I won’t pretend that I am a master in Yiddish songs, and I will sing some of the songs with Yiddish lyrics in Polish because they were originally written in Polish. I want to bring some type of Poland.”
Kayah’s show is seasoned with folklore, and she says she is keen to remind people of Poland’s Jewish past.
“I will bring some stories from the place where I was born, which was multicultural before and, sadly, is not anymore.”
Kayah says she also wants to spread the multicultural message as far and wide as she can. She has enjoyed a highly successful synergy with stellar Yugoslav artist Goran Bregovic and feted Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora.
“For me, working with them and with the Transoriental Orchestra is a mission to open people’s hearts to different cultures, different nationalities and points of view and different basics. That’s my mission,” she says.
In that regard, she feels that her compatriots might do well to get into the Jewish side of their history.
“I really wish that Poland would be as multicultural as it was before. We can’t deny the incredible influence of Jewish currents in our literature, film and the arts. Most of the famous and talented artists in Polish culture, who built Polish culture, have Jewish roots,” she points out.
Despite not being fully aware of her ethnic origins, Kayah says she was sensitive to that from an early age.
“Since I was a child, I remember that my father was always repeating: ‘Everything that moves in the world has to be Jewish,’” she laughs. “I want to remind people that we are mishpaha ahad, one family.”
Kayah has traversed wide cultural terrain with the Transoriental Orchestra. The Yiddish festival show will suitably feature material from their first album, which fuses a multi-layered spectrum of traditional, ethno-jazz, electronic and movie music with songs in Polish, Ladino, Hebrew, Arabic and Yiddish.
“Music is the universal language,” says Kayah, “and we can share emotions, even if the audience doesn’t understand the language of the lyrics.”
Elsewhere in the International Yiddish Festival lineup there is a cross-generational slot featuring mother and daughter singers Lanna Sokolov and Faustina Abed, who will perform their show entitled “Yiddish Songs from the Shtetl, from Home to New York” as a tribute to their father and grandfather, Matvei (Motel) Fivnevitch, who was an actor and singer in the Kiev Yiddish Theatre.
Other festival highlights include vocalist Ora Singer’s recital of works by iconic Yiddish poetplaywright Itzik Manger, including Hebrew versions put to music by Sasha Argov; and the entertaining Loving in Yiddish offering from Dori Angel and Miri Ragendorfer, which incorporates perennial Yiddish musical favorites interspersed with comedic skits.
The younger generation of Yiddish followers is also catered to at the festival, with a show by cantor Svetlana Kundish, and a spot featuring singer and storyteller Mendi Kahan, who founded and runs the YUNG YiDiSH center in Tel Aviv.
The festival program also features a performance of American-born choreographer Barak Marshall’s Wonderland, while Ya’ad Biran will take some of the festival patrons on a Yiddishtheme walkabout, with a guided tour in Yiddish-flavored Hebrew of the nearby Neveh Tzedek neighborhood.
For more information: (03) 510- 5656 and

Tags yiddish