Tag Archives: Holocaust Remembrance Day

Singing Testimony Across Difference: Anthony Russell and Berkeley’s 2014 Holocaust Remembrance Day

The following is a reflection I am pulling out of the archives on occasion of this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan. 27, 2019). It features a write-up on Anthony Russell, black Yiddish opera singer extraordinaire. I have wanted to make this public for a long time and have finally had the wherewithal to do so. Though it is dated by almost five years now, it is still relevant. I trust that you will find it of some insight around issues concerning the performance of racial identity and the role of religious music in creating a platform for cross-racial solidarity in the midst of human suffering and multi-generational trauma. 

On Sunday, May 27, 2014, the City of Berkeley celebrated its 12th Annual Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in downtown Berkeley. Titled “Confronting the Holocaust: American Responses,” the ceremony honored the life and work of creative writer and teacher Renee Passy-Zale and UC Berkeley professor of engineering George Leitmann. Both Passy-Zale and Letmann were commissioned to recount their experiences of surviving the Jewish Holocaust by means of escape from and active resistance to the Nazi presence in Europe. The program included a distribution of lighted candles to survivors in the audience as well as musical performances by Bay Area composer and accordionist Dmitri Gaskin and African-American opera singer Anthony (Mordechai-Tzvi) Russell. The latter, a convert to Judaism, recited Yiddish folk hymns alongside playwright and A Traveling Jewish Theatre co-founder Naomi Newman’s reading of work by Holocaust survivor and poet Irena Klepfisz.

Yiddish opera singer Anthony Russell

Between Passy-Zale’s and Leitmann’s eye-witness testimonies to the struggles of escape and the creative renderings of Jewish suffering that Gaskin, Russell and Newman offered, the ceremony foregrounded the provenance of cultural production—through autobiographical narrative, folk song, and poetry—in effecting historical redress for the wounds of war. Indeed, Passy-Zale’s harrowing account of fleeing Paris to live under an assumed identity in the south of France where, at the age of eleven, she helped to smuggle secret information to the French Resistance when her father came under suspicion, and Leitmann’s moving account of losing his father to a concentration camp before escaping from Vienna with his mother and two grandmothers to New York City in 1940 represent “unofficial” histories that might otherwise go unheard by the public were it not for the cultivation of testimonial space such as that of the Magnes.

Without discounting the significance of Passy-Zale’s and Leitmann’s stories in terms of redress and the role their imaginative witness to trauma and survival plays in suturing the gap between past and present, I was particularly intrigued and moved by Russell’s evocative performance of two Yiddish folk songs: Ukrainian-American singer Sidor Belarsky’s “Der Germore Nign” and “Bessarabia,” a piece attributed to Bukovinian-born folk bard Itzik Manger. The deep bass of Russell’s singing imbued each piece with an air of lament resonant with the mood of the classic Negro Spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” thereby fostering a sonic entryway into what it might feel like, as per the subject matter of “Der Germore Nign,” to be a child separated from her family—an experience all too familiar to survivors of the Jewish Holocaust.

Russell thus expanded the parameters of remembering and, in this, who gets to remember (more on that below), in a turn to music that served to inflect the respective narratives of Passy-Zale and Letimann with a haunting aurality. Furthermore, his singing opened up a space of contemplative silence between testimonies. Indeed, after the ceremony, as I was speaking with Russell about his performance, an older woman and Holocaust survivor introduced herself to the basso to commend him for his soulful singing.  When I asked her about what Russell’s performance evoked in her she smiled and said, “I would need to write a poem about it.” Implicit in this response is an acknowledgment of a mystery that resists category or definition. It is a submission to a kind of unknowing which occurs in the face of trauma. Her inability or, perhaps, refusal to give words to what in Russell’s singing captured her imagination points to an experience of suffering that renders language absurd because nothing save a “tear or a sigh”[1] can approximate the “unspeakable”[2] nature of its magnitude. In this, it was Russell’s role to give some melody to it.

That said, I left my conversation with Russell, which was cut short in light of some other engagements to which he had to attend, mulling over the dual question of identity politics and cultural appropriation with regard to his testimony on behalf of Jewish survivors. What does it mean for an African-American to invoke the memory of the Jewish Holocaust in a way that moves others—both those who have and have not undergone the trials of political persecution—to engage more deeply with the reality of Jewish suffering? Moreover, in what ways does Russell’s appropriation of Yiddish folk songs function as a kind of historical redress and, in this, cultural survival for Jews?

With these prompts in mind, I decided to contact Russell by e-mail to glean insight from him on his own experience of giving witness to the trauma of the Jewish Holocaust, especially in terms of his African-American ancestry and what role it might play in his engagement with the racialized violence wrought on Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Speaking to this, Russell placed himself in company with “every other Jew who has not directly experienced the Holocaust,” emphasizing the impossibility of empathizing with those who withstood “horrors of that event.”[3] He wrote that it is only by way of interaction with survivors, “singing for them, listening and speaking to them, that my attempts to invoke and honor the lives of those affected by the Holocaust has begun to approach their experiences.”[4] Russell meanwhile nodded to what his African-American heritage brings to bear on his performances, noting that he draws on the “immense historic trauma” which “looms in the background” of his cultural history to give himself perspective on the experiences of Jews.[5]

By the same measure, the [then] 33-year-old Russell found a way to self-fashion through the incorporation of Yiddish folk song into his already expansive repertoire of musical training, based mostly in the European tradition of classical opera. In this, he has drawn on the experience of Jews, through music, to give himself perspective on the experience of African-Americans.

In an article he published recently in an online edition of Tablet Magazine[6] the singer recalls his conversion to Judaism, by way of his now-partner and Rabbi Michael Rothbaum, as an invitation to find a medium of self-expression that he could not locate in the world of classical singing where he grew weary of dealing with 15 years worth of “competition, rejection [it is difficult for a basso to find key roles in a field that revolves around ‘high tones’], technical difficulties, great expense, and casual racism.”[7] “Having just left the stage,” he writes, “I tried to find a new direction in texts, narratives, and experiences I had chosen to accept as a Jew. These, in turn, led me to those sounds I had carefully tried to avoid. They led me to myself.”[8]

It was at a Seder two years ago that Russell first heard a live rendition of the first song he ever learned in Yiddish, a piece called “Piramidn” by anarchist poet David Edelstadt that tropes on Jewish enslavement in Egypt. Russell was especially struck by the relevance of the song’s primary message, a question—“People, who will free you today?”—to his own social status as a gay, black male whose cultural history finds credible parallels with the Passover story, as evidenced by the Judeo-Christian themes of the Negro Spirituals. He writes, “It may come as surprise that I—a young-ish African-African gay convert—have any affinities with the world of Yiddish song. But right there, at the beginning of my Yiddish journey, was a story I could credibly portray. I knew the discontents of a history that included ‘di viste shklafnvelt,’ ‘the bleak slavery-world’ described in ‘Piramidn.’”[9]

From there, as Russell notes, he took on the catalogue of the aforementioned Belarsky, “a rich-toned bass from Russia and one of the 20th century’s most prolific performers of cantorial music, Hasidic nigunim,[10] and Yiddish art song.”[11] This led him further into a musical tradition he had, as a young man, scoffed at for the ways in which it marked him as a raced body: the Negro Spirituals. Through his engagement with Yiddish folk song, which has turned into a career of international proportions, Russell said that he returned to the Spirituals with new ears: “I could now hear my own history along with striking projections, elaborations, and celebrations of the foundational texts I had accepted as a part of myself as a Jew.”[12] He adds:

I found that yidishe lider (songs) and spirituals had much in common: folk-derived evocations of culture and spirituality expressed against a backdrop of systematic marginalization and oppression. In both kinds of music I found resignation and despair and impatience. I found hopes for redemption invoked, sometimes cynically and sometimes with great, heartbreaking earnestness. I found voices reproving those earnest hopers-for-redemption, calling them to action, change, and revolution. Out of the smoking crucible of the 19th century, on the eve of more horrors to come, I experienced texts in dialogue with each other.[13]

Russell thus found a means to articulate his own experiences as a racialized subject into whose black body a history of political violence has been inscribed by dint of his skin color and the legacy of slavery it references. Taking Belarsky’s “Der Gemore Nign” as a case-in-point, Russell notes that he drew a striking parallel between the subject matter of that song—“Are you homesick for your / father, mother, sister, brother, / and without them, / you are like a ship without a rudder?”—and, as referenced above, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” part of which reads: “Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone / A long way from home….” Echoing singer/actress Ethel Waters, Russell says he found in Yiddish folk song a “‘despair similar to that of my own people’ that tells the story of ‘my own race, too.’” And with the multi-talented Paul Robeson, Russell notes, “‘The Jewish sigh and tear are close to me.’”[14]

It is therefore out of a place of cross-racial identification that Russell has found a way to delve more deeply into his own cultural heritage without erasing the Jewish presence within it. In his conversion to Judaism and subsequent appropriation of Yiddish folk music that Russell came to acknowledge just how integral Judaism’s “foundational images and texts” are to the formation of African-American religious expression.[15] In the same way, he has witnessed the “reverse appropriation,” as he calls it, of African-American Spirituals by Jews who have incorporated songs such as “Go Down Moses” into Seders he has attended.

In all of this, Russell’s appropriation of Old World Jewish music meanwhile serves as an act of redress insofar as it functions as a kind of reparation that “seek[s] justice for the subjects of racial oppression”[16] through acts of remembering, such as singing, which articulate the needs and desires of the oppressed.[17] This is particularly evident at the level of the language itself. Yiddish is a High German language written in the Hebrew alphabet of Ashkenazi, or Central and Eastern European, Jews whose names derives from the biblical figure of Ashkenaz, the first son of the ancient Jewish patriarch Gomer.

When asked about the role of Yiddish folk songs in giving witness to the Holocaust, Russell noted that “Yiddish itself is a witness to the depredations of the Holocaust, holding as it does the sounds and sentiments of many of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.”[18] In this way Russell is granted access to remembering not only on behalf of, but with, the Jewish community. In this, moreover, he contributes to Jewish cultural tradition and its survival by “performing […] sounds and sentiments through song [that] educate, engage, connect and remind listeners of a world and culture that the state-sanctioned anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany attempted to destroy.”[19]

Playing on Russell’s most recent musical project which combines “African-American roots music (work songs, early blues and spirituals) with Jewish liturgical, folk, and art music from the late 19th and early 20th century [sic] to create narratives of spirituality, redemption, and hope,”[20] the cultural work he is doing as an African-American deeply invested in performances of Jewish identity through Yiddish folk song signifies a “convergence” of experiences related to racialized oppression that catalyze not only cross-racial dialogue in a spirit of cosmopolitanism, but, more to the core, the kind of empathic identification that is necessary to, in the words of Martha Nussbaum, “cultivating humanity.”

As Elaine Scarry notes and Russell himself makes clear, it is essentially impossible to fully know, if at all, another’s pain due to the “severe limits” of our imaginative capacity as human beings.[21] However, it is difficult to conceive of the formation of legal provisions concerned with citizens’ rights or the work of redress without some degree of what Scarry calls the “cosmopolitan largesse” that underlies Nussbaum’s “word-citizen” framework of civic engagement, predicated as it is on an imagining of the so-called other.

Such imagining, in which cultural producers such as Russell seem to engage, is not so much a matter of allowing one group to decide or mediate the welfare of another, as Scarry suggests with regard to the trope of “generous imaginigngs,”[22] or erasing the other’s body altogether as Hartman warns against in Scenes of Subjection, but a means to enact new modes of friendship in communities of solidarity and mutual support. In the same way that Nussbaum speaks of narrative art as a way to understand how circumstances sculpt the lives, desires, hopes and fears of those deemed different,[23] I believe Russell’s performance fosters “an informed and compassionate vision of the different”[24]—his own narrative of intercultural exchange a case-in-point—that in fact makes the so-called other more visible, more audible, and, ultimately, more human.

Indeed, his performances provide a “basis for civic imagining”[25] that is undergirded by compassion for the suffering of others in light of, at the very least, knowing pain in one’s own body and, if nothing else, making plain the plight of the ones who suffer. In his work of translating experiences of human trauma through Yiddish folk song Russell does not attempt to erase the irreconcilable differences that distinguish his personal make-up from that of another, let alone an entire population of people. Rather, he engages with the life-world and texts of another cultural tradition as a means to build bridges across those differences which requires neither an obliteration nor a reification of “otherness”—his own or that of his Jewish brothers and sisters—but an acknowledgement of shared fears, desires, and hopes that come out of historically different circumstances. This kind of multiculturalism, which refuses to flatten difference, but instead finds avenues of “convergence” is the foundation for the healthy constitutionalism that Scarry seeks and undoubtedly conducive to creating the “world citizenship” the Nussbaum espouses.

As a gay, African-American Jew, Russell does well to embody the concept of the “world citizen,” taking on the responsibility of remembering through an act of appropriation that contributes to, rather than co-opts, the cultural heritage of a community which would otherwise consider him an “outsider.” Russell’s performance of lament meanwhile references the terror and torture undergirding “sovereign violence” and its exercise in the extermination of those, such as Jews under Nazism (or African-Americans under American Apartheid), deemed incapable of bearing the “sovereign presence of the state.” [26] In so doing, his recitations of Old World Jeiwsh music restores a sense of humanity lost in what Giorgio Agamben identifies as “a flagrant case of homo sacer [i.e. ‘accursed man’]” by which the Jew living under Nazism embodied a “mere ‘capacity to be killed’” as one banned from the realm of “biopolitical sovereignty” that structured the Nazi state.[27]

In its attempt to accomplish this act of restoration, Russell’s is a work of redress that functions to bring us into a deeper awareness of the ways in which political power, when abused and unchecked by law, can lead to the kind of “grotesque moral blindness”[28] that legitimates historical atrocities such as that of the Jewish Holocaust or American slavery. As African-American cultural critic Huey Copeland notes, however, the work of redress is never done; redress is “terminally unfinished, requiring constant repetition and renewal to keep the past alive and the present under scrutiny.”[29]

For Russell this work is doubly layered, as his artistic output is situated at the convergence of identities—his blackness and his Jewishness—that each carry the burden of a history haunted by state-sanctioned racial violence. In giving representation, through his voice, to these histories Russell “invokes a lost world” via the “circular movement” of translating into song the life experiences of those who survived the trauma of the Holocaust, as well as those who died from it.[30] This makes possible networks of affiliation, communities of solidarity, essential to creating a more just society. Such community-building happens through the refusal to forget. For, as it is inscribed into the front interior wall of the Magnes: “In remembrance is the secret of redemption.” It is my contention that Russell’s act of remembering discloses just such a secret, not only in terms of the Jewish Holocaust, but also with reference to the history of American Slavery.


[1] Riffing on Paul Robeson (see below).

[2] This is a reference to Thomas Merton’s trope of the “unspeakable” as the existential emptiness, the dehumanizing void, out of which the terror and torture of war emerges. See Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1966).

[3] Anthony Russell, e-mail message to author, May 5, 2014.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Anthony Russell, “‘Go Down, Moses’: Engaging with My Complex Musical Heritage at Passover,” Tablet Magazine, April 7, 2014, http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/166969/passover-negro-spirituals

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] From the Hebrew for “tune” or “melody.” The term refers to Jewish religious song.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Huey Copeland, Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 31.

[17] Riffing on Saidiya Hartman. See “Redressing the Pained Body: Toward a Theory of Practice” in Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 77.

[18] Anthony Russell, e-mail message to the author, May 5, 2014.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Anthony Russell, “‘Go Down, Moses’”, op. cit.

[21] See Elaine Scarry, “The Difficulty of Imagining Other People,” Literature, Religion, and Human Rights: Official Blogspace for 2014 GTU Seminar, http://humanrightsandlit.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/scarry_difficultyothers.pdf, March 4, 2014.

[22] Ibid., 106.

[23] Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 88.

[24] Ibid., 89.

[25] Ibid., 93.

[26] Riffing on Paul Kahn, Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror and Sovereignty (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008), 39.

[27] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 114.

[28] See Peter Brooks and Julie Stone Peters, “Law and Literature in Dialogue,” Modern Language Association 120, no. 5 (Oct., 2005): 1645-1647.

[29]Copeland, op. cit., 35.

[30] Anthony Russell, e-mail message to the author, May 5, 2014.———


Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Brooks, Peter and Julie Stone Peters. “Law and Literature in Dialogue.” Modern        Language Association 120, no. 5. (October 2005): 1645-1647.

Copeland, Huey. Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Hartman, Saidiya. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Kahn, Paul. Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror and Sovereignty. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008.

Nussbaum, Martha. Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Russell, Anthony. “‘Go Down, Moses’: Engaging with My Complex Musical Heritage at Passover.” Tablet Magazine, April 7, 2014. http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/166969/passover-negro-spirituals

Scarry, Elaine. “The Difficulty of Imagining Other People.” Literature, Religion, and Human Rights: Official Blogspace for 2014 GTU Seminar. http://humanrightsandlit.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/scarry_difficultyothers.pdf. March 4, 2014.