Public School Students Perform in Yiddish

The Yiddish Daily Forward

Arts and Culture

Published April 08, 2015, issue of May 01, 2015

Public School Students Perform in Yiddish

By Isaac Bleaman

On the 31st of March, Carnegie Hall held a concert in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater, under the musical leadership of Hankus Netsky. The concert included the world-famous violinist Itzhak Perlman, klezmorim Lorin Sklamberg, Michael Alpert, Frank London, Alan Bern, and Kurt Bjorling, among others. The evening ended with performance of the song "Ale Brider," [“All Brothers”] sung by a group of students, mostly from private Jewish and non-Jewish day schools.

The children's choir also included thirteen students from the East-West School of International Studies, a public school in Flushing, Queens. The name comes from the fact that it teaches classes of Chinese, Japanese and Korean - literally a rarity in the New York school system. The East-West School is also outstanding for other reasons, such as the low-income level of the students (above 60 percent of the students qualify for free lunch), and the number of university bound students, above 80 percent, while the average in the New York City is only 50 percent. 96 percent of the students are from ethnic minorities.

How did the East-West School get involved in the great celebration of Yiddish theater? In a very large extent it was due to the initiative of Larisa Pechersky, a teacher of mathematics, science, history and English. Born in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), she learned hundreds of Jewish folk songs from her grandmother. She is a trained folklorist and has edited the Yiddish texts of a multilingual anthology of Yiddish folk songs. After getting a master’s degree in education, she worked as the education director of the "Adain Lo" ("Not Yet"), a community center for Jewish families in St. Petersburg. In New York, she further focused on special education and teaching students with different abilities. From 1998 to 2006 she taught in private Jewish schools, and since 2006, has been in the public school system.

As soon as she heard about the concert in celebration of a hundred years of the Folksbiene, she contacted Zalman Mlotek regarding the participation of her students. The principal of her school, Ben Sherman, also understood that the students would gain much enjoyment from Pechersky's program, which she organized as an afterschool club. Within three months, Pechersky taught a crash course to the children, so they could be familiar with the Yiddish language and culture, and not only with repertoire that they would have to prepare for performance. She held the lessons as a volunteer, together the full-time music teacher of the school, Sarah Minkler. Not one participant of the afterschool program, including the music teacher, had previously known the Yiddish music or culture.

At each lesson, Pechersky introduced the students to a Jewish folk song and showed its broader multilingual and cultural context. For example, in the seventh lesson, they sang the song "We Have a Melody (Hobn mir a nigndl)".  Pechersky taught them how they should correctly pronounce the Yiddish sounds and explained the Yiddish diminutives, which the students have encountered before in their own mother tongues (eg, Spanish and Chinese).

Pechersky discussed the cultural contents with questions that the students had to answer, such as, what songs does your family sing around the table or at other opportunities? What qualities and cultural values do your parents or grandparents have, and what do you want to pass on to your children? Which songs do you remember and why?  In each lesson, Pechersky emphasized  similarities across cultures.

Two weeks before the concert, Zalman Mlotek visited The East-West School and listened to their rendition of "Ale Brider." According to Pechersky, "Mlotek was surprised that our students knew the full song, even with two new stanzas that the Folksbiene had added to the original." Her students, all not Jewish, were the only group who knew the words by heart at that point.

About the concert, she wrote that “the whole day was outstanding in every sense of the word. The children spent more than seven hours at Carnegie Hall, singing with other students and interacting with the professional musicians. The project was the collaboration of many communities .... The children discovered many similarities between their [own] culture and universal aspirations, values, and traditions, which are expressed in Yiddish folk song.”

Translated by Yakov P.