All musical on the western Yiddish front

‘The Book of the Rejoicing Soul’ inspires the eclectic Di Tsaytmashin (Time Machine) project.

ALEKSANDER FISZ (front, with megaphone): ‘There isn’t anything like this fusion of Yiddish and Baroque music.’ (photo credit: DANI MACHLIS)
ALEKSANDER FISZ (front, with megaphone): ‘There isn’t anything like this fusion of Yiddish and Baroque music.’
(photo credit: DANI MACHLIS)
There are all sorts of intriguing and seemingly disparate artistic hybrids out there. But marrying West Yiddish with Baroque music is a serious contender for the proverbial biscuit.
Aleksander Fisz is the man behind the Di Tsaytmashin (Time Machine) project, which has produced a CD called Simhat Hanefesh (Joy of the Soul). The album will be officially released this evening (March 1, 9 p.m.) at a concert at the Inbal Multidisciplinary Ethnic Center in Tel Aviv, with a quintet of musicians playing alongside Fisz employing such varied instruments as violin, ethnic percussion, viola de gamba, recorders and theorbo. Fisz will be primarily on vocals.
The basis for the current venture comes from The Book of the Rejoicing Soul (Seyfer Simkhes Haneyfesh), an Ashkenazi songbook written by Rabbi Elchanan Kirchen and published in Bavaria in the early 18th century. If you haven’t heard of said songbook you are probably in good company. But Jerusalem-born, Beersheba-resident Fisz and his cohorts are hoping the 12-track album, and tonight’s show, will help to rescue Rabbi Kirchen’s efforts from obscurity.
Fisz appears to have his talented fingers in numerous pies, across a wide swath of disciplines. For starters he has a scarcely believable vocal range of close to four octaves, incorporating countertenor singing. Oh, and there is the small matter of being fluent in seven or eight languages, naturally including Yiddish. He studied acting at Beit Zvi theater school, followed by Yiddish studies at Oxford University. He has also engaged in voice therapy and is a leading international authority in the field of Yiddish folk song research. He also writes scores for theater.
Betwixt and between his multifarious artistic ventures Fisz find time to delve into Rabbi Kirchen’s writings. The project took time to evolve.
“There is one copy of the songbook in existence, at Oxford University,” Fisz notes. “I have a facsimile of the book, which followed me around the world for quite a few years, and I kept thinking that, one day, I’d do something with it.”
That “something” is finally about to happen, with the Di Tsaytmashin troupe Fisz tailored to the project.
Part of the sluggish pace of the evolutionary continuum can be put down to the complexity of the source material.
“The text is extremely enigmatic,” explains Fisz. “A lot of people have researched the material. The researchers came to the conclusion that the musical score is not a mature piece of work.”
It seems that Rabbi Kirchen complemented his West Yiddish lyrics with musical notation. That would suggest that anyone looking to put the 18th century work into audible practice would have a head start. Not so. In fact quite the contrary.
“There are notes written in lines, sometimes from right to left, sometimes from left to right. Sometimes they are written from top to bottom. Some are perfectly legible, and some are impossible to decipher, and you can’t play them or know what he wanted. That’s why very few of the researchers have addressed the musical side, and those that have generally related to one song or maybe two, and the rest come out half-baked.”
Fisz appears to be a brave-hearted character. Simhat Hanefesh has a round dozen tracks.
Before he got down to brass tacks with the music, Fisz set about trying to get some sort of handle on the 18th century rabbi’s mindset.
“I wanted to understand what the person who wrote this heard in his inner ear. The person who wrote this was a rabbi, not a musician.”
It seems Kirchen had already achieved a degree of success in the market, with the first Seyfer Simkhes Haneyfesh offering.
“He wrote a book of poems and fairy tales. It was very popular,” says Fisz. “We worked on Seyfer Simkhes Haneyfesh volume two. I worked on the premise that after the first part came out, and did so well, he decided to bring out another volume, that he hoped would be even more successful.”
But it was not to be. The writer got a little carried away.
“He was ahead of his time and no one knew what to do with the second book,” Fisz explains. “He probably couldn’t write music himself, so he asked a neighbor to write down the notes [he] sang. The neighbor was probably not Jewish, because all the parts that sound like German Baroque are fine, but everything that sounds like synagogue music, with quarter tones and unusual scales, is notated so poorly that you can hardly understand a thing.”
The 12 numbers on the disc provide a colorful glimpse of various aspects of Jewish life of the time. “Loz dir an Glegin zayn dash Gzang am Purim: ven shoun megn zany Shikurim” (“Allow Yourself the Freedom to Sing this Song on Purim, When You Are Already Drunk”), for example, offers a humorous take on the Book of Esther.
The CD traverses wide musical tracts, and this song references Ottoman melodies and the Turkish language, converting the ubiquitous Turkish phrase “aman” (alas) into Haman. On a more serious note, “Zing dash Gzang mit Kavoneh: um Yom Kippur veRosh Hashoneh” is said to describe “the horrors and pains awaiting those who, due to their false behavior, are said to be doomed after Yom Kippur to eternal suffering. Whereas those who pray with the right intention will save their souls.”
Other religious and traditional topics covered in the CD include the importance of rejoicing in prayers and religious customs, but also making sure men buy their wife a new dress for the holidays, and donating generously to the poor. Hanukka, Shavuot and Passover are all in the CD mix, and there is reference to the importance of maintaining decorum at weddings and circumcision ceremonies.
By all accounts, the Inbal audience is in for an extraordinary experience.
“There isn’t anything like this fusion of Yiddish and Baroque music,” says Fisz. “There are Hungarian songbooks from 1700, and there are all sorts of things that are just as strange, but more people engaged in them.”
Fisz is alert to the fact that Yiddish is not exactly the most popular language, or topic of interest, for most Israelis. But he believes the Inbal Center patrons will get their money’s work.
“This show is primarily for music lovers. The language is less important, especially as it is not modern Yiddish. It is more heavily accented than say, Polish Yiddish. West Yiddish died out before the Holocaust.”
Fisz, whose many professional avenues include teaching Yiddish at a German university, would like the general populace to know more, or at least something, about the dialect.
“I don’t just sing, I also explain what I am singing about. I would like the concert to be more than a musical experience. I try not get entrenched within recognized boundaries.”
If you are headed over to Inbal this evening you’d be best advised to go with the flow.
For tickets and more information: (03) 517-3711 and