When Bob Duskis, president of Six Degrees Records in San Francisco, agreed to release an album of songs rescued by an international team of musicians and musicologists from 20th-century Soviet Jewish history, he wasn’t aiming for a platinum hit.
Yet, given the global rise in anti-Semitism, he hoped that the album, sung entirely in Yiddish, would speak to “a little more of the mainstream zeitgeist.”
“Yiddish Glory” hit the mark. The album has been nominated for a Grammy Award in the world music category, it was announced in December. It is a first nomination for the Six Degrees label and is believed to be only the second time that a Yiddish album has been nominated by the Recording Academy. The 61st annual Grammy Awards will take place on Sunday, Feb. 10.
Daniel Rosenberg, the album’s producer, said by phone from Toronto that he had no idea if it could win: “Yiddish Glory” is up against several more popular world music nominees including “Freedom,” from the two-time Grammy-winning Soweto Gospel Choir.
“I don’t think they have betting odds on this category. All the nominees are magnificent artists. Even to be among them is an honor,” Rosenberg said. “For us to be there with a Yiddish album, getting that kind of attention — nobody expected that.”
As far as he knows, he said, the soundtrack to the 1986 film “The Partisans of Vilna” was the only other time that an album with Yiddish lyrics was nominated for a Grammy.
“You don’t do Yiddish music for commercial success,” Rosenberg said. “These songs were written to describe unimaginable events, atrocities that people witnessed, and maybe never spoke about. I still don’t know how the singers even get through it.”
“Yiddish Glory” as a recording project began when Rosenberg attended a concert and lecture by renowned Russian American singer-songwriter Psoy Korolenko and Canadian professor Anna Shternshis about a cache of long-lost transcriptions of songs written by Polish and Soviet Jews during World War II. The songs had been collected toward the end of the war by Jewish ethnomusicologist Moisei Beregovsky and his team of researchers, who were arrested in 1949 by the Stalin government and imprisoned in a Soviet gulag for years. One member of the team died under interrogation.
The manuscripts surfaced in the Judaica section of the Ukrainian National Library after the fall of the Soviet Union. While conducting research at the library, Shternshis conceived the idea to bring these songs — musical testimonies to the wartime experiences of Soviet Jews — back to life. She then contacted Korolenko.
The 17 songs on “Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II” receive cabaret-style arrangements by Roma violinist Sergei Erdenko, who leads the band. Korolenko and award-winning, Russian-born jazz singer Sophie Millman are the featured vocalists. Since the album’s release one year ago, the music has been performed in several countries both with a full 10-piece ensemble, and as a smaller lecture demonstration.
The ensemble will perform for the first time in Russia, on Thursday, Feb. 7 at the Museum of Tolerance in Moscow.
“It is quite an important event considering that the researchers who saved these songs were arrested by Stalin. So performing there is significant,” Rosenberg said.
“We started this recording project in 2015 in the memory of both the songwriters who were killed in the war and the researchers who collected their music, to honor the work they had done and the amount of suffering they endured to preserve those songs,” Rosenberg said. At that time, violent anti-Semitism was seen as something from the past, at least in the United States, he said.
“Sadly, it becomes more imaginable today,” he said, noting that he grew up in Pittsburgh, a few blocks from the Tree of Life synagogue. “Who would have thought that in 2018 American Jews could be murdered simply for being Jewish?” he asked. “Or that refugee families would be separated at the U.S. border? It feels like a different world now.”
Perhaps the Recording Academy will underscore that point on Feb. 10.