When composer Benjy Fox-Rosen was a kid, his grandmother sang him the songs of her favorite Yiddish poet, Mordechai Gebirtig (1877-1942). “Wait a little longer, dear,” goes one of the Krakow songwriter’s most famous songs, “Reyzele.” But she wasn’t much of a singer, so, like the gentleman courting his pious lover in “Reyzele,” Fox-Rosen had to wait a while to discover Gebirtig on his own terms. In his new album, Tsvey Veltn/ Two Worlds, Fox-Rosen sets lesser-known Gebirtig poems to music, honoring the sounds and rhythms of the Yiddish while still making them feel current.
Just like Gebirtig’s early songs, the first tracks on Fox-Rosen’s record are “in the folk style”: songs for lovers, lullabies. But as pogroms swept Poland, and Gebirtig was interned in the Krakow ghetto, his songs darkened. Tsvey Veltn follows suit: “A Day for Revenge” imagines Gebirtig’s tormentors suffering as his family did, and songs like “Sunbeam” insert a note of irony—and, possibly, hope—into the plight of Jews under the Nazi occupation.
Part history lesson, part act of musical translation, Tsvey Veltn carefully but inventively lends a contemporary voice to an artist who wasn’t allowed to finish speaking for himself.
Listen to “Reyzele”: