Anthony Russell didn’t encounter Jewish music until the age of 30. During a screening of the Coen brothers’ 2009 moral fable A Serious Man, he heard the plaintive folk song Dem Milners Trern, sung by the great Ukrainian-Jewish vocalist Sidor Belarsky.
“Hearing Belarsky’s voice, for me, was like Hagar suddenly seeing the spring of water in the desert,” Russell says. “I heard a voice that sounded like mine, at a point when I increasingly felt like my voice was an unwanted thing, and a voice that sang the way I wanted to sing — with great warmth and sensitivity. In a sense, I was hearing my future.”
Now known as Anthony Mordecai Tzvi Russell, and an enthusiastic convert to Judaism, Russell is now a much-pursued performer and educator, recognised as a foremost authority on Yiddish song.
When he spoke to the JC, Russell had just returned from Copenhagen and an intense week of teaching and crooning at Limmud.
From there, he’d jetted to Miami Beach, where he was guest of honour at a weekly Yiddish salon hosted by the swish Betsy Hotel. Michigan beckoned from there, with sessions at a local Limmud and a concert at a local shul. Russell now spends half of every month on the road performing and explaining classic Yiddish vocal works.
Despite the initial surprise that a black man is singing diction-perfect Yiddish from his kishkes, Jewish audiences have welcomed him overwhelmingly: “I don’t think I’ve experienced anything negative other than very friendly scepticism,” he says. “And, even then, they’re in a distinct minority. People are very friendly. There’s something haimish about the quality of Yiddish. When someone finds out another person shares a love for this language — to which so many people have their personal histories tied — it goes to the very heart of who they are. So when my audiences find out this is the language in which I tell stories about myself, it’s also the language of stories about themselves.
“It’s an instant connection with people I’ve never met. That is my experience with Yiddish. And it’s amazing.”
You could say Russell’s path to Jewish music was beshert. Born in Texas, Russell was raised “all over the place” in a peripatetic American military family. “The longest time we spent was in the Bay Area, so that’s the place I feel I’m from,” he says.
Trained as an opera singer, Russell made his professional stage debut in 2007. “I was playing a newly liberated slave in a Philip Glass opera [2007’s Appomattox, set in the American Civil War]. Abraham Lincoln entered stage right, and was greeted by us after the siege of Richmond. We greeted him with words from Psalm 47 — the tehillim,” he recalls.
“I remember thinking it was unusual. But it’s an historical fact that it happened. It was an amazingly prophetic moment, portraying my own African-American experience using Jewish words. But if you’d suggested I’d be singing in Yiddish 10 years later, I would have said you were insane.”
Around the same time, he met his now-husband, Rabbi Michael Rothbaum, on a dating site. “I was in California. He was in New York. He said: ‘If you’re ever here, drop me a line.’ I was cast in Cosi Fan Tutte in New York City, and wrote him when I got there. He asked me to a Mets game. I’m pretty sure the Mets lost that day. But we won.”
Just a few months after that first date, Russell moved across the United States to join Rothbaum in Nyack, just north of New York City. And, at Congregation Sons of Israel, where Rothbaum was rabbi, Russell became a Jew. “I think of myself primarily as Conservative. That’s the practice where I feel most comfortable,” he says. “I’m starting to get a little more used to davening in Orthodox synagogues. Every time I go to shul in Europe, those are ones I end up going to, though more out of architectural interest than religious affiliation.”
The pair now live in Oakland, near San Francisco. “When my husband got a job with a synagogue here, it was a particular kind of homecoming. When I left the Bay Area, I wasn’t Jewish. When I returned, I was. People here think I’m a New Yorker,” he laughs.
Along with his performances and education work, Russell is a creator of Convergence, an ongoing musical collaboration combining “diverse strains of traditional Ashkenazi Jewish and African American music directly at spiritual, historical and textual crossroads. It’s a high-minded mash-up of Chasidic piyyutim, negro spirituals, Yiddish labour union songs, Civil Rights anthems, Israeli folk-song and traditional Ashkenazi synagogue music.
“When I made the decision to be a Jew, I also made the decision not to leave my own culture behind,” Russell says. “I want to be as much of myself as possible. This project’s one way I’m doing that. When an audience hears I’m going to be performing 100 years of African-American and Ashkenazi music, one reaction is that there’s absolutely no connection, and that any attempt to create one is bordering on farce,” he says.
“Which I think is untrue, as borne out by jazz and other forms of American popular music.”
The other reaction, he notes, is: “‘Of course, these two things come together. They’re absolutely perfect.’ Which also makes no sense. They’re distinct types of music, with respective histories. It’s not a coincidence that the sounds of music, culture, and spirituality were created at the same time and sound the same. The challenge for me is to draw those similarities out and make them apparent.”
With identity questions in mind, I mention that many Yiddishists I know — archivists, academics, poets — are gay or lesbian. Why that affinity?
“A lot of people see Yiddish as an old thing. But, from my experience, it’s a language of modernity,” he says. “That’s borne out by the people who study and perform it.
“And it presents an alternative Jewish cultural space that isn’t tied up in a politics of exclusion.
“There are essential texts that promote a kind of universalism that the world is still catching up to. It’s not surprising in the least that Yiddish has been a welcoming space for LGBT people. It’s always been that way for me, from day one.”
Russell’s schedule looks busier than ever for summer. He’s been chosen for a conclave called Yiddishkeit, which assembles a select group of artists and scholars to interact around the Jewish history of Europe. At the moment, he’s boning up on Vitebsk, Belarus, the birthplace of Marc Chagall. “We study the history, and then actually see the places we’ve studied. It’s going to be amazing.”