(New York Jewish Week) — Gustavo Rivera, a Puerto Rican-born State Senator representing the Bronx, had never spoken Yiddish before, let alone sang it. But when his district was redrawn earlier this summer to include the heavily Jewish community of Riverdale, Rivera had to shift his campaign strategy.
On the campaign trail, Rivera was introduced to Ethel Raim, a Riverdale resident and Yiddish singing teacher, by The Jewish Vote, the electoral arm of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice. It endorses and campaigns for local progressive candidates.
The Jewish Vote brought the two together in hopes of making a campaign ad that showcased how the progressive candidate could connect with Jewish voters in ways The Jewish Vote says are consistent with its progressive Jewish values.
The resulting video, which was released on The Jewish Vote’s social media pages on Monday, features the politician and his constituent in the roles of student and teacher. In the video, Raim, who is in her 80s and grew up in the Bronx, teaches Rivera “Shlof Mayn Kind” (“Sleep My Child”), a popular Yiddish lullaby. It ends with them swapping verses in Yiddish.
By Thursday it had racked up 23,000 views.
“It was pretty awesome,” Rivera said. “I was sent the song so I could learn it over a couple of days. Then I actually got on the Zoom with her to go over exactly how it should sound and how the words should be pronounced. I’m very glad with how it came out.”
Raim said that, to her knowledge, Rivera was the first politician to sit down and learn a Yiddish song with her. She called the experience “wonderful.”
“He has a wonderful ear for language and sound and he’s a beautiful voice as you can hear from his singing. He got the notes very easily and he really worked to get those words out,” she said. “He was a pleasure to work with. It was really very satisfying.”
Rachel McCullough, the political director of JFREJ and The Jewish Vote, told the New York Jewish Week that the organization wanted to highlight that Jewish voters in its ranks care about more issues than just Israel.
“If you paid attention to most writing about Jews and elections, and certainly any mailers or ads designed to target Jewish communities, you would conclude that the one issue we care about is Israel,” she said.
“We are, as an organization, very committed to cultural organizing and building vibrant Jewish culture through our work through diasporic languages, traditions, texts, art-making and joyful celebration,” she said.
The ad comes not long after the Anti-Defamation League’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt retweeted a tweet that challenged JFREJ and The Jewish Vote’s Jewish bona fides. Referring to The Jewish Vote’s endorsement of candidates who are often deeply critical of Israel, an ADL spokesman told the New York York Jewish Week that Greenblatt was saying that “a group calling itself The Jewish Vote isn’t representative in any way of the majority of the Jewish community.”
Rivera once opposed legislation that would have prevented public colleges and universities from participating in a boycott of Israel. A number of pro-Israel groups back such anti-”BDS” legislation. Last month, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz said that Rivera supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Rivera responded that “I do not support BDS. Period,” and said he opposed the boycott bill on free speech grounds.
Both Raim and Rivera have worked with JFREJ and The Jewish Vote for about a decade. Rivera, 46, has been a member of the New York State Senate since 2011 and served as the chair of the Senate Health Committee.
In the Aug. 23 Democratic primary, he will face first-time candidate Miguelina Camilo in the running for the Democratic nomination in the 33rd district, which, along with Riverdale, includes the neighborhoods of Fieldston, Spuyten Duyvil and Norwood. This is Rivera’s first competitive election since 2016; Camilo, running to the right of the progressive Rivera, has gotten backing from Reps. Ritchie Torres and Adriano Espaillat and other major Democrats in the Bronx and the city.
“I’m very much looking forward to getting to know the Jewish community here better and figuring out how to serve them better,” Rivera said. Asked if he’ll perform his new Yiddish skills live, “I’ll be spending the next five days focusing on winning the primary and after that one of the many activities I will do for leisure for the rest of the summer will be to learn the song to perform off book.”
Raim has spent her career documenting ethnic music and is credited with bringing immigrant musical traditions into the American folk revival of the 1960s through her singing group The Pennywhistlers. She currently teaches Yiddish voice lessons to students on Zoom from all over the country.
Teaching Rivera “was really consistent with my entire background, giving ordinary people a voice to fight for a good life and equity and justice. I was very proud to have been able to do something like that,” Raim remarked. She said she was interested in learning one of Rivera’s favorite Spanish Cuban ballads when he has the opportunity to teach her.
“We wanted to create something that was unapologetic Jewish content that was joyful and caring, and showcased a very solidaristic exchange between a progressive non-Jewish legislator of color and a Jewish woman in his district,” McCullough added.