A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

Culture

A family’s musical collaboration revives the language of their Jewish ancestry

“I do believe some dead poet entered me for a period of three or four weeks and then went away,” says Michael Gawenda, award-winning Australian journalist and former editor of The Age newspaper. Gawenda grew up with Yiddish, a language that a century ago was understood or spoken by most of the world’s Jews, and is now undergoing something of a renaissance.

Interviews by Kate Stanton
Video by Tim Clare
 

Gawenda’s parents, Jewish refugees from Poland, sang Yiddish songs and lullabies to him as a child. But as an adult, he had lost touch with the language. So, three years ago he started attending Year 12 Yiddish classes in Melbourne. One day, he sat down at a computer, and wrote 10 Yiddish poems.

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“Yiddish was a great kind of folk language,” he says. “It was spoken by ordinary people. It wasn’t a national language. It wasn’t a language of a nation-state. They sang songs that they made up for their children. Yiddish has got a vast array of lullabies, for instance, because mothers made them up and sang these songs to their babies. So it’s got a kind of warmth about it that most other languages don’t have.”

Gawenda’s son, Husky, the front man of the eponymously named Melbourne band now touring Europe to rave reviews, put some of his father’s poems to music and started singing and recording them with his sister, Evie. 

Together, the family is compiling an album of Yiddish folk songs – some old, some new, that they hope will be made available around the world.

Husky Gawenda last year won the world’s largest song writing prize – the Vanda and Young competition – for Saint Joan, recorded with his band. The project with his father is different.

“I felt a really deep connection to these poems . . .  I felt like these poems were important and the songs they could potentially be were really important to me and to dad and to our family, and to our grandparents who are no longer here.”

The Citizen spoke to Michael and Husky about their unexpected musical collaboration, their love of words and their shared connection to Yiddish, the language of their Jewish ancestry.

Michael: One day, I was sitting at the computer when suddenly, for reasons that I don’t know, I started writing in Yiddish. And it was a poem. I really did feel like the spirit of some old dead Yiddish poet had entered me and was using me.

Then other poems came. Over the weeks I wrote, I don’t know, 10 poems, in a very intensive way.

Husky said to me: ‘Why don’t I try to write some music to some of your poems and see if they would work for an album?’ I was thrilled. So he went off and he wrote this music to two of the poems.

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I was just blown away. It changed the poems. It totally changed the meaning even. I think they’re incredibly beautiful.

Husky: It was a short period of a few weeks that dad wrote 10 or so poems. He’d send them through as he wrote. I speak Yiddish and I understand Yiddish but not very well. Some of them I could understand and some of them I could just experience without totally understanding them. But I immediately connected with them.

Yiddish was a big part of my upbringing. I didn’t know dad’s parents. They died before I was born. But I knew my mum’s parents and dad’s sisters. They all spoke Yiddish. That was their first language. So I have a lot of memories of being around them and hearing them speak in Yiddish. My mum and my sister and my dad’s sisters and my mum’s parents – they all sang to me in Yiddish. A lot of the first songs that were ever sung to me and that I ever heard were probably Yiddish. Some of the first songs that I ever learnt to sing were Yiddish.

The poems felt a little bit like keys to unlocking a world of my grandparents and my ancestors and a world that’s kind of disappeared and that I don’t have many ways of accessing. They felt like a way of accessing that world. So I had a really emotional response to them.

Michael:Far Dir A Lid,” which means, “For You A Song,” is about a man speaking to his parents who are dead. He’s talking about the meaning of the language to him. He doesn’t know it very well, but they knew no other language and that was the language in which they connected. He’s saying to his parents, ‘I’m writing this song for you in your language and if you listen, you’ll hear the children singing your song.’ Then they do.

“I lost touch with the Yiddish language. I didn’t speak it. I didn’t read it. So when I went back to school I had to learn it again. I found it fascinating. I think in that process something about Yiddish came back from my childhood and that’s why these poems happened.” — Michael Gawenda

Husky: I could really connect with that because I feel like that man is you. You’re writing to your parents, you’re saying that they’re gone and a lot of that world has disappeared, including the Yiddish world. But now your children, and also their children and their grandchildren, are singing their songs in their language. So it’s not all gone. There’s still a bridge.

I read “Far Dir A Lid” and I just felt such a strong connection to it. When I wrote the songs I had a similar experience to what dad described – feeling like it wasn’t coming out of him, it was just coming through him. I wrote the song and I think it took me about 15 minutes. I came over and I sung them to you. But they just came out effortlessly. That doesn’t happen to me often, when I write songs in general.

Michael: I’ve been a journalist for a long time. It doesn’t just come. But these poems all just came. I didn’t work on them. I didn’t think in English and translate. They just happened. I was convinced they came from somewhere else. The language is really quite complicated. I thought, where did this Yiddish come from? So I do believe some dead poet entered me for a period of three or four weeks and then went away. He said: “Here’s a few poems of mine, would you mind putting them down on paper? So I did.

Husky: I don’t see it that way. I see them as [dad’s] poems. They feel like your poems and they feel like your parents’ poems and they feel like my poems.

Michael: For the whole time I was a journalist I didn’t write poetry. This just came as a surprise. I wrote poetry when I was really young to impress girls.

Husky: It’s good. I’ve read some of it.

Michael: I lost touch with the Yiddish language. I didn’t speak it. I didn’t read it. So when I went back to school I had to learn it again. I found it fascinating. I think in that process something about Yiddish came back from my childhood and that’s why these poems happened.

I think that’s true for my kids too. Their Yiddish has improved doing this.

Yiddish was a great kind of folk language. It was spoken by ordinary people. It wasn’t a national language. It wasn’t a language of a nation-state. They sang songs that they made up for their children. Yiddish has got a vast array of lullabies, for instance, because mothers made them up and sang these songs to their babies. So it’s got a kind of warmth about it that most other languages don’t have.

A lot of the songs were written by tailors and bootmakers, not by musicians. They wrote songs in their spare time to sing to children. A lot of Yiddish songs were aimed at children. It wasn’t written by trained musicians. It’s really authentic folk music.

“[The songs] came out really easily and effortlessly and I had a really emotional and, for want of a better word, spiritual experience doing it . . . Usually, I feel like I’m writing songs for myself, but this time, I felt like I was writing them for something bigger than me.” — Husky Gawenda

Husky: I think there are a lot of people in Melbourne and Sydney who know these songs and would want to come and hear them. I think there’s also a possibility that there would be people in New York, in Israel, in Toronto – where there are Jewish communities – who would be interested in these songs.

We haven’t thought ahead much about this stuff because, I mean, we want to do this album for ourselves more than anything else.

Michael: We’ll put on some concerts. I’ve said to him – I don’t know whether he’d want to do this – that I’ll read the poems. Someone can play the bongos while I’m reading.

Husky: Yiddish beat poetry! I think there’d be a market for that (laughing)

Michael: We’ll see. I think it’s a unique project. I don’t think anywhere else in the world there’s this sort of music being produced in Yiddish.

There’s no huge audience for this. He’s got a musical career, he’s a musician, he sells albums, he has gigs, hundreds of people come. How many albums are we gonna sell with this? I mean, I don’t know. Maybe it’ll be hugely successful. But I like the enigmatic nature of this. We’re doing this thing for love – not for commerce, not to become successful – but for love. It’s a wonderful thing to do something like this for love.

Husky: I felt a really deep connection to these poems. I felt pressure to do them well. Partly because it was my old man who had written them and I wanted to do him proud, but maybe more so because I felt it was important. I felt like these poems were important and the songs they could potentially be were really important to me and to dad and to our family, and to our grandparents who are no longer here.

When I sat down to do it, it didn’t feel difficult. It came out really easily and effortlessly and I had a really emotional and, for want of a better word, spiritual experience doing it. I felt like I was part of something greater than myself. Usually I feel like I’m writing songs for myself, but this time, I felt like I was writing them for something bigger than me.

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Michael: The past can’t be resurrected. The fact is that the millions of people who spoke Yiddish died in the Holocaust. They can’t be brought back. So what was left was maybe a small remnant of people who still spoke Yiddish.

History isn’t linear. You can’t say that because there’s only a few Yiddish speakers left, that line will continue until there’s none left. History doesn’t work that way; things change. It’s possible that of the Yiddish speakers of the future, some will be Jewish some will be non-Jewish. American English is full of Yiddishisms, more than people know, even than Americans know. The language lives in all sorts of different ways. So I would certainly not pronounce it dead. It’s not all that robust, but not dead. If we can do things like this maybe other people can do things like this.

Husky: Maybe this is one of the ways in which it lives on. I’ve always felt like there’s a lot of beauty and truth and joy and sadness that are locked in the Yiddish language. I’ve thought about my future and perhaps having children and how I could possibly pass any of that on in a way that would make sense to them. But I think this is a way that I can pass it on. This is a way that makes sense. This is one way in which Yiddish will live on – through these songs and through me and my sister recording them and singing them.

Michael: I have plans for more Yiddish albums – if that poet will come back. I wait everyday. I say, “Where are you? Come back.” He or she will come back, I’m sure.

About The Citizen

THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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