Not just for old times' sake

Daniel Galay's opera, adapted from an extraordinary folktale, shows how we can live Yiddish, even today.

galay opera singers (photo credit: Courtesy photo)
galay opera singers
(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
Friday morning is a strange time for the premiere of a new opera, but the opera in question is just as strange. For one thing, it's in Yiddish. For another, it's set to prose. And far-fetched though it seems, the plot is based on what is purported to be a true story. "Chaim der zun fun Chaya, vos iz geboirn bei zein mutter's keiver" (in English: "Chaim the son of Chaya, born in his mother's grave") may have a cumbersome title, but at its January 12 premiere, the audience at Yiddish cultural center Beit Levik was impressed.
Click for upcoming events calendar! Argentine-born composer and keyboard player Daniel Galay, director of Beit Levik, dreamt of producing this opera for some time, but had trouble finding the right singers. The Ministries of Education and Immigrant Absorption brought his quest to an end. In an effort to merge immigrant singers and musicians with the Israeli mainstream, the two ministries brought Galay soprano Natalia Digora, baritone Michael Gaysinsky, conductor Yevgeny Levitus and a sextet in which the majority of players were from the Commonwealth of Independent States. Galay plays piano during the performance, bringing the number of musicians to seven. The opera was adapted from a book of Yiddish ethnography and folklore authored by Abraham Rechtman, who in turn based it on folk tales and anecdotes collected between 1912 and 1914 by an ethnographic delegation under famed Yiddish writer S. Ansky (Shloyme Zanvil Rappoport). Financed by Baron Ginzburg, the delegation traveled through the Ukraine documenting material from 67 Jewish communities. Among the tales was that of the child born in its mother's grave. The delegation came upon a tombstone in Ostrow, Poland, inscribed with the words: "Here lies Chaim the son of Chaya, who was born in his mother's grave." An old man told the delegation that he had seen the inscription, not only on the tombstone but in the register of the Ostrow Jewish community. Unfortunately, this vital proof had been destroyed in a fire. The story involved a childless couple named Shmuel and Chaya. Shmuel was a lumber merchant who spent a lot of time away from home, shipping wood to Germany. On one such occasion he left home and forgot to take some important documents. Not wanting the rest of the town to know his business, he returned home in disguise, had a joyful reunion with his wife and left the next day. Within a few months it became obvious that Chaya was pregnant. Instead of rejoicing with her, the townspeople ostracized her, calling her a harlot. A man had been seen entering and leaving her house, but as far as everyone was aware, he was a stranger. Even Chaya's closest friends kept their distance, and no midwife was willing to attend to her. Thus when Chaya was in labor, she was left to struggle alone. The agony was too much and she died. The rabbi ruled that as a sinner who had betrayed her husband, she could not be buried inside the cemetery. So Chaya and her unborn child were buried just outside the fence. As it happened, her husband Shmuel came home just as the gravediggers were returning. Wrapped in heavy winter clothes, he was not immediately recognizable when he met the gravediggers and asked who died. They spared him no details and he immediately realized they were talking about his wife. He rushed to the rabbi to explain the situation, and the rabbi in turn ordered the gravediggers to go back and remove the child from its mother's womb. To their astonishment, the infant had somehow escaped the womb and was lying on his mother's belly. The community sorrowfully realized the injustice of its malicious gossip, removed Chaya from the grave outside the cemetery, and re-interred her inside. The child was named Chaim after his mother, and in the course of time gave his father much pride. While performing, Galay admitted that he kept thinking of his own father - a Yiddish stage actor who immigrated from Europe to Argentina. "They all came from Eastern Europe," he said of the Yiddish-speaking Argentine community. "This is an act of homage to them and to our heritage." Speaking with The Jerusalem Post, Galay said he was pleased to be collaborating with Russian immigrants. "We're all going through a process of exploring our Jewish roots. In order to decide who we are and where we're going, we have to know our Jewish heritage. This was realized even a century ago, which is why Ansky set out on his mission... Now that we're in an era of globalization, it's more important than ever to recapture the essence of Yiddish." Galay was born in 1945 into a Yiddish-speaking community, with a Yiddish school, a Yiddish theater and Yiddish newspapers. He came on aliya in 1965 because he wanted to be part of the Jewish state. Seeking to advance his musical career, he went to Chicago to study composition, and after his return to Israel realized the need to contribute to the preservation and revival of Yiddish culture. "My children's generation didn't hear Yiddish, so to talk to them about Yiddish was like talking about colors and fragrances which can never be fully described... It's not good enough to be emotional or nostalgic about Yiddish; there has to be a rationale for maintaining the language." Galay, who has traveled widely in Europe, Canada and the US as a composer, pianist and lecturer on Jewish and specifically Yiddish topics, has become convinced that Yiddish can and should be an integral part of Jewish identity. "We don't need to rely solely on the historical memory of Yiddish Europe," he said. "We can live Yiddish today." One of his great ambitions is to establish the kind of Yiddish summer camps that he used to attend as a child. He believes this is especially important for children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, because for so many decades, Jews living there could not openly identify with their religion and cultural heritage. He wants to give them back a part of what they lost. Tickets to the February performance of Chaim der zun fun Chaya, vos iz geboirn bei zein mutter's keiver can be purchased from Bet Levik at (03) 523-1830