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Opera singer finds his calling in Yiddish music, Judaism

It was only his second gig of this sort, and Anthony Russell was introduced at a vaudeville show as “a new voice on the Yiddish stage.” As he walked out to face the audience, they began to laugh.

“It didn’t make sense to me why they were laughing, but it didn’t matter,” he said. “I had to get up there and perform.”

He told a joke to defuse the tension, and then began to sing about a lonely yeshiva boy who’s away from his family. “I poured myself into this song,” said Russell.

By the time he’d sung his first line, the laughter had stopped.

Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell photo/clara rice

“I admit there’s a little bit of shtick involved,” Russell said of his performance a year ago at the JCC in Manhattan. “I would be a fool if I didn’t realize that would be the case when I started. Most people were showing up to see if I could even do it, or if my head would burst into flames.”

Meet Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell — black, gay, Jew-by-choice, opera singer turned Yiddish singer.

Russell, 33, a resident of Oakland since July, will perform Sunday, April 7 at a communitywide Yom HaShoah event at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, and at Congregation Netivot Shalom’s music festival on April 14.

Born in Texas to a military family, Russell moved to Vallejo when he was 7. With one grandfather a deacon in Texas, Russell was raised in a Christian family in which Bible literacy was of paramount importance. Though he didn’t know any Jews growing up, the Hebrew Bible always interested him more than the Christian one. In the church his family attended in American Canyon, the children were encouraged to dress up on Halloween as biblical characters. “The Esther narrative was always my favorite,” Russell recalled. “I dressed up as Mordechai.”

As a young teenager, Russell decided he wanted to be a cultured person — which, for him, meant learning about classical music. He started taking piano lessons, became fixated on a tape of Handel’s Messiah and began to sing along with it.

“I listened to it every day for four to five years,” he said. “I wore it into the ground. I didn’t know I was training myself to be a singer. It’s not easy music.” Then, one day at a piano recital, he was blown away by a peer playing Chopin, and he realized he’d never be able to play like that.

So, at 17, he started voice lessons. After a year, he won his first competition with the Vallejo Chorale Society. That led to his singing in theatrical productions, choruses and the North Bay Opera in Fairfield. In 2007, he sang in the San Francisco Opera world premiere of Philip Glass’ “Appomattox.”

A move to New York followed. But while Russell loved opera, he didn’t love the life that came with it.

“You really have to apply yourself 110 percent to the act of making a career of being an opera singer,” he said. “Just having a beautiful voice is not enough, there’s a lot of work behind turning that into a commodity.” Not to mention, he said, fewer roles are available for black opera singers in the United States.

On a more positive note, however, Russell met someone who would change the course of his life.

On their first date, Michael Rothbaum, the religious school director of Beth Chaim Congregation in Danville, told Russell that he was a rabbi.

“I thought, ‘No big deal, I know a lot about the Bible, and I had a basic understanding of what rabbis do.’ ”

That was five years ago: The two are a couple, and over time Russell decided he would convert to Judaism. He recently celebrated the second anniversary of his conversion.

Russell laughed, remembering the beit din’s pro-forma question about joining a people who have been persecuted throughout their history. His response: “I’m gay and I’m black. Anything else?”

As for his opera career, Russell suffered a few disappointments and was beginning to grow disillusioned with it. He had chanted the U’netaneh Tokef prayer at a Yom Kippur service in Woodstock, N.Y., and for months afterward got feedback like “You took us to a different place,” and “You have such Yiddishkeit,” or Jewishness.

“I knew I had to create that kind of feeling every time I performed,” he said.

While he briefly considered cantorial singing, Russell realized it wasn’t bass-friendly. And then he recalled a song he had heard in the Coen brothers’ film “A Serious Man” in 2009.

Not only was it “the most Jewish movie I had ever seen in my life,” he said, but he was instantly haunted by the soundtrack. A voice singing in Yiddish “was dark, deep, beautiful, with this velvety sound.”

It turns out the song, “Dem Milners Trern” (“The Miller’s Tears”), was sung by Sidor Belarsky, a cantor of Ukrainian origin who immigrated to the United States in 1930.

Russell found an online archive of Belarsky’s work, and knew he had found his calling.

“It covered the gamut of what I wanted to do as a singer,” he said. “It had songs that were rousing and interesting, sad and vulnerable, slow songs, fast songs, ones that were complicated, and simple. Practically anything I would want as a singer was right there, and as far as I knew, there wasn’t anyone doing any of it.”

Russell even got the blessing of Belarsky’s 91-year-old granddaughter after visiting her in Brighton Beach, N.Y.

Now, after a few gigs, the Jewish world is taking notice of Russell. He recently was one of 67 emerging Jewish artists from around the world to attend Asylum, a Jewish retreat in New York sponsored by the Six Points Fellowship, and he sang at Toronto’s Ashkenaz Festival.

“I’m performing a music that’s giving back to me as much as I give to it,” he said. “It rewards me for putting large parts of myself into it, and I don’t have to be anyone else when I sing it.”

 

Anthony Russell will perform at 4 p.m. Sunday, April 7 at Temple Isaiah, 945 Risa Road, Lafayette; 3 p.m. April 14 at Netivot Shalom, 1316 University Ave., Berkeley; and 7 p.m. June 6 at the Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. www.tinyurl.com/anthonyrussell

Headshot of Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."