'They pinch our cheeks at gigs'

Stephanie Brickman sings with Phil Alexander (right) and Gavin Marwick

Stephanie Brickman sings with Phil Alexander (right) and Gavin Marwick

‘Excuse me dear, but you weren’t singing in English were you?” says a concerned elderly man, who has come to speak to me at the end of a gig. “No,” I reply, “that was Yiddish.”

“Oh, that’s all right then,” he says, relieved, “I thought my hearing aid was playing up.”

Yiddish Song Project is different from other bands. Take our audience, for example. No well-defined demographic for us. We attract funky young world music fans and we attract some seriously old people as well. By no means are all of the funky youngsters Jewish, but 100 per cent of the oldies are, and therefore come up at the end to pinch our cheeks and find out if they, or someone they know, are related to any of us.

I have learned that with the older Jewish person that any praise will always have a barb attached. My first-ever gig singing in Yiddish was for a group of elderly people in Glasgow. At the end the organiser was saying how enjoyable it had been and remarking on the great turn-out. The woman sitting next me whispered pointedly: “Yes, but if there’d been no biscuits, how many of them would have come?”

I learned Yiddish as an adult and I instantly fell in love with the language. I had always dismissed the music as being a bit “oompa, oompa” but I quickly discovered how wrong I was. I had been singing jazz and folk music since my teens, but discovering Yiddish music was like opening a treasure chest of songs, stories, melodies, cadences, and history. I was hooked.

I contacted pianist/accordion player Phil Alexander, whose work I knew from his band Moishe’s Bagel. He jumped on board and before we knew it we had gigs. It just clicked.

Around the same time my husband, daughter and I joined Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation and I was immersed every Shabbat in the beautiful melodies of Orthodox liturgy. But in contrast to the liberal minyan we had previously belonged to, I was not really supposed to sing along. The tunes gnawed at my heart and strains from the liturgy crept into the new songs we were writing for the band.

The greatest compliment we ever had was from Rabbi Zvi Solomons, now rabbi of Reading’s Orthodox Community. He said: “What you do is really important because you can ignite the pintele yid in people.” He was referring to the Jewish spark, the ethnic connection.

I think that is why, for both Phil and I, Yiddish Song Project is more than just a band, it is a mission. Every time we play we rescue these beautiful songs from dusty archives and help Yiddish live and breathe.

Our violin player, Gavin Marwick, one of Scotland’s top folk fiddlers, is not Jewish, although he does have some Jewish ancestry. Experienced and highly skilled as he is, Gavin describes playing with Yiddish Song Project as “a workout”. There are not many musical genres that encompass musical theatre, tango and klezmer solos that appear to require 15 fingers and all in the space of one concert.

Of course, along with the good gigs, we have bad ones as well. I remember a particularly disastrous Yom Ha’atzmaut concert, when not only were we the wrong band for the job, but the audience had half an hour of Ehud Olmert on a DVD before us and were dying to get to the food. In the end a woman came up and hissed at us: “For goodness sake play Hava Nagila, they’re all leaving!” I bet that never happened to Chava Alberstein.

The last word should go to Phil. What does Yiddish Song Project mean to him? “Yiddish Song Project is a chance to connect to this music on an emotional level,” he explains. “It’s also a chance to silence anyone who says Yiddish is on its way out — we’re creating new music and proving people wrong.”

So come along and listen, and, if you have one, make sure your hearing aid is turned up.

Yiddish Song Project play at Fernando’s, London NW4 on November 11, and at the Artsdepot, London N12 on November 12 (www.yiddishsong.co.uk)

    Last updated: 11:25am, November 5 2009