Mama Loshn plays Yiddish with a twist

Suzanne Shanbaum sits at a long wooden dining table, an acoustic guitar propped on her lap.

Across the table, vocalist Gale Kissin flips through a thick binder filled with songs. “Let’s do the bridge!” Kissin suggests. “I want to end ‘Miserlou’ and come back.”

Shanbaum strums a few notes, and percussionist Rhonda Findling starts up on the bongo drums at the far end of the table.

The trio is three-fourths of the Yiddish revival band Mama Loshn, and the practice session in Kissin’s Sebastopol home keeps breaking up amid strings of jokes and discussion about what they’re playing. The fourth band member, trumpeter Mike Margulis, can’t make it because he’s teaching music, but he’ll be joining the others as they prepare for their next big gig.

Mama Loshn members (from left) Rhonda Findling, Gale Kissin, Suzanne Shanbaum and Mike Margulis photo/eve goldberg

That would be a Nov. 14 benefit concert the band is headlining for the Jewish Community Free Clinic in Santa Rosa.

Findling, a counselor at Santa Rosa Junior College, said she often refers students to the clinic, which provides medical care to anyone in need. She views the concert as an opportunity to support the 14-year-old clinic and the community.

“I don’t think any of us are in this [band] for the money. We do it for the joy of music,” she said.

“I’m hoping this concert links people to the values that are Jewish,” added Kissin. “I want people to make that connection. I hope people have a good time and want to be immersed in Yiddishkeit.”

Kissin certainly is. Growing up, Kissin lived with her Yiddish-speaking grandmother and parents and studied with Yiddish scholars. She said she is driven to keep the richness of that culture alive.

“They say there are many more words for snow in the language of the Inuit,” Kissin said. “Yiddish has more nuance about the human relationship that would take 30 English words to explain.”

Shanbaum, a guitarist for more than 50 years who studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston, grew up with Yiddish-speaking parents and grandparents, but does not speak the language. Playing this music, she said, takes her back to those roots. Plus, it’s fun.

“These songs are more like doing original material rather than doing covers, because they have a lot of meaning and a lot of soul in them,” Shanbaum said. “I really appreciate the opportunity to unwrap and communicate those songs.”

Mama Loshn (Yiddish for mother tongue) also plays songs in Ladino, English, Hebrew, French and Spanish, using contemporary, playful arrangements

“Mama Loshn is about playing Yiddish music in a way that is relevant right now,” said Shanbaum.

Though they’ve been together for five years, the three female band members — all Sebastopol residents — play together as if they’ve done so their whole lives, making eye contact and looking to each other for guidance and timing. Margulis joined the band permanently only recently and travels from his home in Berkeley to rehearse when his schedule allows. He said the Jewish music Mama Loshn plays resonates deeply with him. “I feel music on a very deep level,” he said. “I love the music and I feel creative.”

At their practice session at Kissin’s house, the trio begins a rendition of “Yiddishe Mama,” a beloved tune about memories of a mother’s love. Kissin sings the opening words as Shanbaum slowly strums a few chords. Findling starts on the drums, and they are jamming for a moment before stopping to discuss timing.

The song delivers a wailing sadness with a heavy beat. When the band plays songs like this, Kissin said, audiences react with great emotion.

“There’s a benkshaft — a yearning — when you allow it into your bones and start moving to it,” she said.

While Kissin’s passion for the Yiddish language and culture became the catalyst for the band, the other band members also contribute their personal histories and enthusiasm for the music.

Findling, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, said her grandmother spoke English with a Yiddish accent, and her father used Yiddish only for swear words.

“What’s important to me about the revival of Yiddish … [is] we almost lost our language in the Holocaust,” she said.

Turning to Kissin, her friend of 30 years whom she considers a sister, Findling noted that not many people today are fluent in Yiddish, adding, “Gale, you’re a legend.”

“My parents did not get to have secrets in Yiddish,” Kissin said. “I sang Yiddish early on and I loved it.”

Kissin recalled a memory of when she was 11 years old and sang “Kinder Yoren” before hundreds of people in a hall in Brooklyn. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” she said. “I remember the power of the music and what it evoked in them. The quality of people’s response is what keeps me doing it.”

This power comes through the music effortlessly, Kissin said. “I’m so unbelievable lucky, so unbelievably grateful. It’s just in there, and I have no business keeping it to myself.”

Benefit concert for the Jewish Community Free Clinic, with Mama Loshn, juggler Sara Felder, Jewish dance leader Bruce Bierman, Carlitos Medrano and Sabor De Mi Cuba band, and Hubbub Club, 5:30 p.m. Nov. 14 at the Center for Spiritual Living, 2075 Occidental Road, Santa Rosa. $25 advance, $30 day of event. (707) 585-7780 or www.jewishfreeclinic.org

Shoshana Hebshi
Shoshana Hebshi

Shoshana Hebshi is a freelance writer and former J. copy editor living in the North Bay.