A Jewish grandmother’s Coney Island memories inspire a new album by her composer grandson


(New York Jewish Week) —  Growing up in New York in the 1930s, Irene Weiser spent many happy days at the beach or the Russian baths in Coney Island. She sold knishes at the front counter of her family’s store there during the summers and stole change from her parents to go to the movies with her older sister.

Her childhood memories echo those of so many first-generation Jewish immigrants in New York — memories that composer Alex Weiser, Irene’s grandson, explores and sets to music in his new Yiddish and English album, “in a dark blue night.” Set to be released Friday by Cantaloupe Music, the contemporary classical album features a seven-piece orchestra and song lyrics combining his grandmother’s stories and early 20th-century Yiddish poetry, sung by Annie Rosen.

“We have these sweeping narratives about history that are depersonalized, and making them personal is how we can really feel what they actually mean,” Weiser, who is also the director of public programs at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, told the New York Jewish Week. 

In 2020, Weiser’s grandmother, who was 87 at the time, became very ill. Weiser, 34, set out to record an oral history of her life before she passed. Over the course of an afternoon, Irene shared memories of her childhood and her family. At the time, Weiser did not know what he’d do with the recordings — he simply wanted to preserve her stories. But when she died six months later, Weiser, who was already in the process of creating his second album, decided to put her words to music he composed.

Alex Weiser is the composer of the Yiddish-English album “in a dark blue night.” (Annabel Braithwaite)

“My grandmother’s story is the story of so many of that generation. In a way, that is why it’s poignant — because otherwise it would just be special only to me. But the details and the specificity of her story act as a stand-in for this broader history,” he said, referring to the lives of Jewish immigrants to the U.S. at that time. 

Weiser’s first album, a song cycle titled “and all the days were purple,” also set 20th-century Yiddish and English poems to music. It was a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Music, with the selection committee calling it “a meditative and deeply spiritual work whose unexpected musical language is arresting and directly emotional.” He also developed “State of the Jews,” an opera about the life of Theodor Herzl, in 2019. 

Though Weiser grew up in the East Village and occasionally heard Yiddish words here and there. He only began to learn the language in earnest when he started working at YIVO eight years ago. Today, he can read and have conversations in Yiddish, he said, practicing with YIVO colleagues and patrons at their classes and lectures.

“One of the big things that really moved me about Yiddish, in general, was the ability to connect with Jewish culture and Jewish history in this way that transcends religion, and it also transcends politics,” Weiser said. “Those are the kind of two big things that mark many people’s Jewish identities — and there’s nothing wrong with either of those things, but the idea that there’s this other way to be Jewish and to access Jewishness that transcends those things is really powerful to me.”

In “in a dark blue night,” Irene’s stories make up half of the songs in the album; the other half is modernist Yiddish poetry written by newly arrived immigrants to New York City in the 20th century. 

In the Yiddish poetry half of the album — which comprises of five songs that center on a theme of nighttime — writers attempt to make sense of their new lives in New York, where everything is different from the world they left behind and anything is possible. Take, for example, the words to “Like the Stars in Heaven,” which features poetry by Naftali Gross, who immigrated to New York in 1913: Like the stars in heaven/In a dark blue night,/ Your streets are illuminated,/ Your towers are illuminated/Great noisy city.” (The original title of Gross’ poem was “New York;” Weiser changed the song title because he deemed “New York” too generic.) 

“I found these poems about the nighttime particularly moving because they connected to the city in a way that really felt familiar to me, and that didn’t engage with the cliches about the city,” Weiser said. “It felt like these were real people who are really writing about New York, not just the idea of New York.” 

The English side of the album, “Coney Island Days,” features seven songs that draw upon his grandmother’s words. Instead of the forward-looking hopes of the Yiddish writers, Irene’s songs are memories, told as she was looking back at her life, trying to make sense of her parents and their great journey from a town near Kyiv to New York City around 1910.

“The most poignant thing is how she thought about these things at the very end of her life,” Weiser said. “The [details] in the stories obviously hadn’t changed, but one of the things that was very moving when she passed away was just how much gratitude she had, and how much love she had when she thought back to her childhood and her family.”

The wide-ranging album juxtaposes many things: night and day, hope and memory, Yiddish and English, children and adults. As a whole, Weiser said “in a dark blue night” is meant to be a conversation between the past and the present. By using the poems and words from Jews who grew up in a different era and setting them to modern classical music, Weiser said he aims to make our ancestors’ words feel fresh and relevant once more. 

“The poems that I chose for the Yiddish half of the album are all poems that I think in many ways could be written right now,” he said. “We are still the children of these Yiddish-speaking immigrants. Their experiences are our experience — there’s a continuity here, even though it’s beneath the surface and it’s not immediately accessible to us.”

“That’s really what the album is about,” he added. “It’s about looking at the past and seeing the present in it and understanding who we are as Americans and as Jews today, through the lens of the stories that we tell about what happened before.”