The iconic song "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen — seen here with a feline friend — is the subject of a new documentary opening soon in the Bay Area. (Photo/Graeme Mitchell-Redux)
The iconic song "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen — seen here with a feline friend — is the subject of a new documentary opening soon in the Bay Area. (Photo/Graeme Mitchell-Redux)

Hot Jewish Summer: Yiddish album and ‘Hallelujah’ doc will strike a chord

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It’s shaping up to be a Hot Jewish Summer.

Drake just dropped a dance album. A movie about a bar/bat mitzvah party motivator is playing in theaters around the country. Locally, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival opens next month, with in-person screenings at the Castro Theatre and Albany Twin Theater (full coverage coming soon). Meanwhile, two new projects by local artists — an album of modern Yiddish poetry set to music, and a Leonard Cohen documentary — are sure to strike a chord with Jewish audiences.

The future of Yiddish music

Accordionist Dmitri Gaskin and singer Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell have been performing Yiddish music together for five years as Tsvey Brider, which means “two brothers.” For their latest album, they decided to add two more “brothers” to the mix — violinist Matthew Stein and cellist Misha Khalikulov, who belong to a Bay Area klezmer trio with Gaskin called Baymele.

“I wanted a little bit more texture and color on this album, and it started out that we would just add [Stein and Khalikulov] on one song, so I wrote a violin and cello part,” Gaskin, 26, told me. “Next thing we knew, the whole album had these guys on it.”

Tsvey Brider and Baymele will release their joint album, “Kosmopolitn,” on July 3 and perform special arrangements of several of the songs at two concerts that day in Berkeley, the first at Maybeck Studio (which has already sold out) and the second at The Back Room.

The album’s 15 songs encompass a range of styles, from traditional klezmer to more contemporary classical pieces, with French chanson and jazz influences. The lyrics are taken from modernist Yiddish poems written in Europe and the United States during the mid-20th century that Gaskin and Russell — who won the international “Yiddish Idol” contest together in 2017 — unearthed in various archives.

Gaskin shared two very different songs from the album with me: a short, upbeat number about a “circus lady” who has daggers flung at her and a longer, slower one about romantic longing (“I longed for you like a sailboat longs for the cool swell of the river”). “Our interest is very much in taking the culture beyond where it left off in the ’30s and ’40s, and imagining the future that never happened,” he said.

Guests on the album include local klezmer trio Veretski Pass (Cookie Segelstein, Joshua Horowitz and Stuart Brotman) and renowned klezmer clarinetist Kurt Bjorling. Stein, 27, explained that he and his collaborators are “deeply rooted” in the Yiddish music tradition “but not beholden to it.” Case in point: Indian musician Vivek Datar plays harmonium on one track.

Stein and Gaskin have known each other for years and used to meet up for jam sessions after work in Palo Alto. They formed Baymele — which means “little tree” in Yiddish and is a play on “Bay Area” — with Khalikulov in 2018 and have played at weddings and b’nai mitzvahs. (“I definitely am ‘Hava Nagila’-phobic at this point,” Stein joked.)

The July 3 concerts are not just for Jewish audiences, but for anyone who appreciates good poetry, Stein said. Before each song, Russell will read his English translations of the lyrics. A zine containing the source poetry is in the works.

“It’s really been wonderful to bring my two groups and my two worlds together for this project,” Gaskin said. “It’s as far away from nostalgia as one can possibly get.”

Tsvey Brider and Baymele. 7p.m. Sunday, July 3 at The Back Room, 1984 Bonita Ave., Berkeley. $15. Proof of vaccination and masks required. 

The evolution of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”

Leonard Cohen wrote somewhere between 150 and 180 verses for his most famous — and arguably most Jewish — song, “Hallelujah.” After releasing the original version in 1986, he began performing a different, “secular” version live (gone were references to David, Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah). Scores of artists would go on to record their own versions of the song.

The fascinating evolution of that beloved anthem is the subject of a new documentary by local Jewish filmmakers Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine. “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song” opens July 8 in San Francisco, Berkeley and San Rafael, and in additional Northern California cities thereafter.

Cohen gave his blessing to Geller and Goldfine to make their film a couple of years before his 2016 death. They told me they did not request an on-camera interview with Cohen. Instead, they have excavated material from his personal archives, including lyrics notebooks, photographs and rare performance footage. There are also clips from older interviews with Cohen, as well as new interviews with his collaborators, admirers and rabbi — that would be Rabbi Mordecai Finley, the leader of Ohr HaTorah Synagogue in Los Angeles, which Cohen attended during the last decade of his life. (In the film, Finley suggests that Cohen received divine inspiration via the bat kol, or the feminine voice of God.)

Dayna Goldfine (Photo/Courtesy Larsen Associates)
Dayna Goldfine (Photo/Courtesy Larsen Associates)
Dan Geller (Photo/Courtesy Larsen Associates)
Dan Geller (Photo/Courtesy Larsen Associates)

“Leonard Cohen was not a singer-songwriter who happened to write a Jewish song as part of a catalog of songs that weren’t referencing his Jewish tradition,” Geller said. “His grandfather was a well-known rabbi in Montreal, so many of his preoccupations referred directly to the Old Testament and kabbalistic literature: the questioning of God, the questioning of faith, the brokenness of the human being, the holiness of attempting to live a human life.”

At nearly two hours, this documentary is long and reverential toward its subject; Cohen’s womanizing and connection to infamous music producer Phil Spector are glossed over. But it left me with a greater appreciation for Cohen as a meticulous songwriter. (Alas, his ordinary-sounding voice has never moved me.)

Geller and Goldfine, who are married and live in San Francisco, won an Emmy for their 1999 documentary “Kids of Survival: The Art and Life of Tim Rollins + K.O.S.” Asked which of the hundreds of recordings of “Hallelujah” is their favorite, they recounted seeing Cohen perform the song in 2010 at the Paramount Theater in Oakland.

“The act of him singing it, getting down on his knees and putting everything he had into that song, makes that version the most compelling one,” Goldfine said.

“Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song” opens July 8 at Opera Plaza Cinema and Roxie Theater in San Francisco, Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley and Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. Some screenings include Q&As with the filmmakers. Check theater websites for details.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.