Pepi Litman may have been born in the 1800s, but from reading the details of her life, you wouldn’t know it. A cross-dressing performer with undeniable Yiddish swagger, Litman toured Eastern Europe with her vaudeville theatre troupe, singing songs about politics, archaic religions and the death of bureaucracy.
Litman’s music, which has been largely un-archived, will be performed Thursday, Jan. 19 at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. The performance is the culmination of a 20-year fascination with Litman and year-long transcription project by local Yiddish singer and accordionist Jeanette Lewicki.
“The songs are so beautiful and crazy and very timely — she was a satirical singer, part of the movement of café singers that eventually helped lead the revolutions in Paris and Russia,” says Lewicki. “ She still has something to say to us today.”
Lewicki, who has been enamored with Yiddish music since she stumbled upon a book of Yiddish songs in the 1980s, was first exposed to Litman via a friend’s stack of old 78s. Drawn to the odd and beautiful sound of the songs, she was inspired to research the turn-of-the-century singer a few years later, while visiting the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research archives in New York.
Though just a beginner at Yiddish, Lewicki was able to piece together the biographical details of the unusual singer she’d once heard while listening to records in her friend’s living room.
Lewicki was delighted by what she learned: that Litman (1874–1930) wasn’t simply a talented singer, but a trailblazing performer and organizer. That Litman led her own vaudeville troupe across Eastern Europe, dressing in drag as a male Hasid in an era when it was forbidden for women to wear pants.
“The analogy today would be as though someone got on stage dressed up as a member of the Christian right and sang church hymns,” Lewicki says.
Lewicki was mesmerized by the music, particularly by the incomprehensibility of Litman’s Yiddish — a heavily Germanified Yiddish called daytshmerish that is no longer spoken, and therefore, nearly impossible to understand.
This past spring, Lewicki bumped into a fellow Yiddishist at the East Bay Anarchist Book Fair (two worlds that, she says, have a lot of overlap) and after a few minutes of chatting, they decided to put their heads together to attempt to resuscitate Litman’s music.
They reached out to the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring of Northern California, which provided funds for books and printer ink and, most importantly, gave Lewicki a deadline to work toward.
The project was slow to start, as most Yiddishists in the field were unable to parse through the thick accents and poor recording quality, to understand the individual lyrics. However, Lewicki slowly began to find people who eagerly offered their help. She, and others, listened to the songs on repeat and worked to piece the fragmented lyrics together.
“It’s been this giant game of Pokémon GO, with all of us trying to spot Pepi songs, or find people who might have more information, all over the world, and then us dropping everything once we do,” Lewicki says about the process of collaborative transcription.
“When you hear the songs, you’ll understand how fantastic she was,” she promises. “I hope that the show inspires someone else to pick up and carry on — especially a native Yiddish speaker with a Hasidic background — who can better understand all the references.”
Jeanette Lewicki, with singer and concertina player Laura Rosenberg and fiddler Josh Laurenzi, performs “Comedienne in a Hasid’s Pants: of Pepi Litman,” 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 19 at the Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. Free.