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Homegrown and Botkin Plus: Ethel Raim and the An-sky Yiddish Heritage Ensemble

An-Sky Yiddish Heritage Ensemble playing traditional Yiddish song and Klezmer music from New York. The muscians from left to right are Jake Shulman-Ment, Pete Rushefsky, Michael Alpert, and Ethel Raim. Photo by Shealah Craighead/Library of Congress

In the Homegrown Plus series, and the Benjamin Botkin Folklife Lectures Plus series, we present Homegrown concerts and Botkin lectures that also had accompanying oral history interviews, placing both together in an easy-to-find blog post. (Find the whole Homegrown Plus series here, and find the whole Botkin Folklife Lectures Plus series here.) For Jewish-American Heritage Month, we’re continuing both series with the An-sky Yiddish Heritage Ensemble, who performed a concert here and sat for an oral history, and their singer Ethel Raim, who spoke in the Botkin series.

The An-sky Yiddish Heritage Ensemble is a New York group playing Klezmer and other Yiddish music. The group appeared at the Library of Congress on June 25, 2013.  Raim spoke about her own work as a folklorist, ethnomusicologist, and cultural advocate on June 20, 2008.

The An-sky Yiddish Heritage Ensemble was formed to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the historic An-sky Expedition of 1911-1914, an ethnographic collecting trip documenting Jewish culture in Russia and Ukraine. The expedition was named for its leader, Yiddish writer and folklorist Shloyme Zaynvl  Rapoport, who was better known as Seymon An-sky, and who is now best remembered as author of the folklore-based dramatic work Der dibek: Tsvishn tsvey veltn [The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds]. During the expedition, An-sky systematically documented the Jewish folk culture of dozens of communities in Ukraine and White Russia. The An-sky research team transcribed and recorded onto wax cylinders hundreds of examples of folksongs, instrumental klezmer melodies, folktales, incantations, children’s songs, Hasidic nigunim (wordless melodies), zmiros (paraliturgical songs) and cantorial melodies. The cylinders have only recently been rediscovered in archives in Ukraine and Russia. Additionally, a rich trove of material culture was collected, including original manuscripts, many of them beautifully illuminated. All together, the An-sky materials stand as an unparalleled record of a lost, preindustrial Jewish society that was carried out in the Yiddish language.

Inspired by the work of An-sky and other folklorists, a group of four leading performers and researchers of Yiddish music came together as the An-sky Yiddish Heritage Ensemble. Affiliated with the New York-based Center for Traditional Music and Dance (CTMD), the ensemble presents a diverse program of rare Yiddish folksongs and klezmer instrumentals, as well as original music rooted in the tradition.  Let’s take a moment to introduce the band members–if you know them already or want to proceed directly to the concert and interviews, just scroll down to watch the videos!

Michael Alpert, seated, plays the accordion on stage.

Michael Alpert plays with the An-Sky Yiddish Heritage Ensemble, playing traditional Yiddish song and Klezmer music from New York. Photo by Shealah Craighead/Library of Congress

Michael Alpert (vocals, violin, accordion, poyk/drum, dancer) has been a pioneering and innovative figure in the renaissance of Eastern European Jewish klezmer music and Yiddish culture. He is internationally known for his award-winning performances and recordings with Brave Old World, Khevrisa, Kapelye, Julian Kytasty, Itzhak Perlman and Theodore Bikel. A native Yiddish speaker, Alpert is considered the finest traditional Yiddish singer of his generation and is noted for his original Yiddish songs. Alpert was Musical Director of the Emmy/Rose D’Or-winning PBS special “Itzhak Perlman: In the Fiddler’s House,” and the related CDs and concert tours.  Alpert has extensively documented Jewish music and dance traditions and taught them to students in workshops throughout the world. Longtime Co-Artistic Director of KlezKanada, he is a Senior Research Fellow at New York’s Center for Traditional Music and Dance, and has taught and lectured at numerous institutions including Indiana University, Oxford University, Columbia University, Yale University, and the New England Conservatory of Music.

Pete Rushefsky, seated, plays tsimbl, a cimbalom or hammered dulcimer, on stage.

Pete Rushefsky plays tsimbl with the An-Sky Yiddish Heritage Ensemble, playing traditional Yiddish song and Klezmer music. Photo by Shealah Craighead/Library of Congress

Pete Rushefsky (tsimbl), is a leading revivalist of the tsimbl, the traditional cimbalom or hammered dulcimer of klezmer music. He is one of a handful of contemporary klezmer musicians to use field and archival research in recreating a performance style for the instrument. Rushefsky toured and recorded with violinist Itzhak Perlman in a program titled “Eternal Echoes: Songs and Dances for the Soul,” featuring the leading cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot, as well as klezmer revival legends Hankus Netsky and the Klezmer Conservatory Band. A protégé of tsimblists Walter Zev Feldman and Josh Horowitz, Rushefsky regularly performs and records with many of the leading contemporary performers of Yiddish music. He serves as Executive Director of CTMD. A popular instructor at camps internationally such as KlezKamp, KlezKanada and Yiddish Summer Weimar, Rushefsky is also the author of a pioneering instructional book on adapting the American 5-string banjo for klezmer. He is a well-known lecturer on klezmer and other traditional musics and has a number of published articles to his credit.

Jake Shulman-Ment, seated, plays violin on stage.

Jake Shulman-Ment plays violin with the An-Sky Yiddish Heritage Ensemble, playing traditional Yiddish song and Klezmer music. Photo by Shealah Craighead/Library of Congress

Jake Shulman-Ment (violin) is recognized internationally as one of the leading performers of the klezmer violin tradition, as well as an innovator for his work in exploring the deep connection between klezmer and Moldavian muzica lautareasca (Romani/Gypsy music). Beginning studies in klezmer from age 12, he was initially a protégé of Alicia Svigals, the long-time violinist of the Klezmatics. Shulman-Ment later immersed himself in related violin traditions, living in Greece, Hungary and Romania for extended periods, becoming fluent in both the musical and spoken languages. In 2010-2011 Shulman-Ment was a Fulbright Scholar based in the Eastern Romanian province of Moldavia, where he was the first American (or outsider from any other place) to become a member of the well-regarded professional Botosani Folk Orchestra, apprenticing himself to the Orchestra’s leader. He has headlined festivals with his own ensemble as well as with Daniel Kahn and The Painted Bird, and teaches at leading Yiddish music camps internationally.

Ethel Raim, seated, sings into a microphone on stage.

Ethel Raim sings with the An-Sky Yiddish Heritage Ensemble, playing traditional Yiddish song and Klezmer music. Photo by Shealah Craighead/Library of Congress

Ethel Raim (vocals) is a leading performer and teacher of the unaccompanied women’s Yiddish folksong tradition. She is also the co-founder and artistic director of CTMD, one of the nation’s preeminent traditional arts organizations. Through CTMD, Raim has worked closely with thousands of master immigrant musicians and dancers to assist them in preserving and presenting the traditions of their communities. In 1966, she co-founded and was musical director of the renowned Pennywhistlers, who were among the first to bring traditional women’s singing traditions from the Balkans and East Europe to the folk music world. She has also worked as a research assistant to pioneering ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, and as Music Editor of Sing Out! magazine (once sitting with Bob Dylan to transcribe “Blowin In the Wind”). She has also edited a number of important folksong collections. At CTMD, Raim has curated and overseen the production of hundreds of artistic presentations, as well as publications, recordings and film documentaries, and has developed many of the innovative program models for which CTMD is known. In 2012, Raim received the American Folklore Society’s Benjamin Botkin Award in 2012 in recognition of her career impact on the field of public sector folklore. In 2018 she was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts for her tireless advocacy on behalf of traditional culture and cultural equity.

In the first player, immediately below, watch the concert.  Then scroll down for the oral history. After that, there’s a third video presenting a long-form interview with Ethel Raim.

In the oral history, Pete Rushefsky spoke with his colleagues about the An-Sky expedition and the traditions of singing and music that the band members inherited from their families and communities. Watch it in the player immediately below.

In Ethel Raim’s presentation, Raim discusses with AFC staff member Nancy Groce her five decades of work with community-based traditional artists in urban America. Beginning at a time when to most Americans “folk music” was practically synonymous with rural and Anglo-Saxon, Raim built on her own interests in Balkan music and dance to document and collaborate with a wide panoply of urban ethnic communities. Raim and her colleagues identified and documented performers and strengthened commitments and educational opportunities within communities. At the same time, they developed innovative approaches that introduced many previously in-group traditions to mainstream audiences. By educating Americans about the wealth of world cultures surrounding them, she literally and figuratively brought ethnic music from church basements to center stage. Raim shares stories about what it was like to be at the epicenter of the theoretical and applied folklore movements that rediscovered and revitalized numerous performing genres that are now integral to America’s musical landscape, including many forms of Irish, Albanian, Puerto Rican, and Jewish traditional music.  Watch it below.

You can find all of these videos with more bibliographic information on the Library of Congress website, with the concert here at this link, the group oral history at this link, and Raim’s interview at this link.

The American Folklife Center’s Homegrown Concert Series brings music, dance, and spoken arts from across the country, and some from further afield, to the Library of Congress.  For information on current concerts, visit the Folklife Concerts page at Concerts from the Library of Congress. For past concerts, including links to webcasts and other information, visit the Homegrown Concerts Online Archive.  Each year, the Benjamin Botkin Folklife Lecture Series invites 10-12 prominent scholars, researchers, authors, and experts from across the United States and around the world to the Library to present public talks on a wide variety of folklife related topics, curated by AFC staff. For a list of present and past Botkin lectures, including links to webcasts and other information, visit the Botkin Lectures online archive.

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