Sitting in his office at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, where he is lead educator for the b’nai mitzvah program, Anthony Russell uncorks his stunning bass voice and sings a few bars of the Yiddish song “Der Gemore Nign,” about a lonely child who sits in cheder studying, missing his family.
As not-lonely Jewish children wander toward their classrooms on a Thursday afternoon, Russell switches to the old-time spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” The transition is simultaneously startling and effortless, an effect he worked hard to make both musically and textually coherent.
The depth and novelty of his synthesis of Yiddish and African American text and music will be on display Sunday, March 23 when Russell presents the West Coast premiere of “Convergence” as part of the Jewish Music Festival at the JCC of the East Bay (www.jewishmusicfestival.org: see story, 26).
Backed by — and in collaboration with — the Berkeley klezmer trio Veretski Pass, and incorporating video animation from San Francisco artist Meredith Leich, “Convergence” attempts to foreground deep spiritual and musical connections between African American and Yiddish or Jewish culture.
This isn’t completely new territory, as Jewish and African American singers and songwriters have been sampling from each other’s work for almost a century. But Russell is aiming to do something deeper.
“I want to create a new idiom,” he explained, “a kind of archive for African-American Jewish folk music that doesn’t yet exist” except inside his own swirling musical consciousness.
A rising star in the Yiddish music scene who brought the house down two years ago at the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto, Russell, 34, is a unique musical presence: an African American opera singer who converted to Judaism and sings the Yiddish repertoire.
Born in Texas but raised primarily in Vallejo, Russell devoted 15 years to studying and singing opera, including a San Francisco Opera debut for the world premiere of Philip Glass’ opera “Appomattox.” But he increasingly felt a sense of artistic restriction with the roles available for a bass voice, and began to explore other musical vocabularies.
At the same time, Russell’s sense of having a “Jewish neshamah” (soul) had intensified, and he found a profound musical outlet in Yiddish language and melody. In 2008 he began to study and practice Judaism more seriously, and in 2010 he converted. Russell — who sometimes goes by Anthony, and sometimes by Mordechai-Tzvi — lives in Oakland with his partner Michael Rothbaum, a rabbi and educator at Beth Chaim Congregation in Danville.
Russell has become a familiar presence on stages in the Bay Area and around North America, singing a range of Yiddish melodies from art songs to folk songs to Hassidic nigguns (melodies), especially the work of the Ukrainian-born Sidor Belarsky.
He has also become a teacher, finding ways to develop musical and textual connections within the Jewish tradition. Apart from gigs like running the b’nai mitzvah program at Netivot Shalom, he teaches at places like Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, where he recently unpacked the textual connections between Yiddish folks songs and the Hebrew psalms.
Despite the popularity of his concerts, Russell acknowledges that it took a while for both audiences and himself to be fully comfortable with “what must seem like a radical presence: a gay, African American, opera-trained Yiddish singer.”
But now he is pushing even further. The “Convergence” project, which is described in press materials as “Spirituals from the Shtetl. Davening from the Delta,” represents “a much bigger risk for me.”
“In just one song, we use African thematic material, African American material in the form of early blues, Yiddish songs from 19th-century mussar [ethical instruction], the doina folk style from Romania, and elements of baroque recitative,” he said.
At a recent concert at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, for the opening of an exhibit on the haggadah of Arthur Szyk, Russell sang part of “Convergence” that wove together a folk song about Moses getting water from the rock (famous in Jewish summer camps) and the gospel tune “Wade in the Water” (famous at Alvin Ailey dance performances).
“There is a long history of African Americans choosing to illustrate, on an epic spiritual level, their struggle using biblical idioms, especially Jewish idioms, related to themes of redemption, freedom and exodus,” he said about the selection of the Exodus-themed songs at a museum opening focusing on the Passover text.
“Blacks have tsuris, and Jews have tsuris,” he joked. And with songs that affirm both the black and Jewish expressions of suffering, “we’ll now have a way for everyone to talk about their tsuris in the same place.”
The ambition of “Convergence” is not only musical. Textually, Russell brings together speeches and poems from both traditions, including one that integrates civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois and British Zionist Israel Zangwill, and another that combines black poet Langston Hughes and Jewish vaudevillian Sophie Tucker.
Russell is also playing with the ways that traditions confer authenticity on songs and culture. As part of “Convergence,” he made “field recordings” of himself singing a cappella, which he self-consciously plucks from this instantly created archive and presents on stage. In this way he reminds us that cultures are “constantly reinventing themselves” and that the folks songs we imagine were devised by our distant ancestors were often created in recent decades.
Despite the postmodern touch of this aspect of the project, and the occasional moments of humor, Russell explains that the work is born out of a heartfelt, passionate need to bring two cultures, and two aspects of himself, further together.
“I’ve needed this project, this convergence, to work,” he said. “In my heart, my soul, my neshamah, these traditions exist together.”
Dan Schifrin is writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.