Gypsy Soul with a Jewish flavor

If you can imagine a bunch of wild-eyed Gypsy buskers, a motley crew of klezmer players and a Jewish wedding singer transported to a Tel Aviv rock club, you’re on the right track.

Eilat 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Eilat 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 same time.
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 the music.”
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.
What about Arazi’s reaction? By all accounts, she’s flattered.
She recently 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.
Eilat’s 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.
After 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 Aviv.
“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 sometimes shared.”
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.
Roma influence 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 audiences.
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 die.”
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 Festival.
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: