Yiddish swing

During the 1930s and ’40s, even as young people across America were swing dancing to the beat of such Jewish bandleaders as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Harry James, a vibrant musical subculture dubbed “Yiddish swing” was flourishing in an L.A. enclave, according to Tali Tadmor, a local pianist, composer and vocal coach. Tadmor’s homage to that Yiddish subculture comes to Hollywood this week, in a musical show she created after being awarded a prestigious Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists. 

“I’m mostly a classical musician,” Tadmor said, “but I do a lot of work in the Jewish music world as well, and I’ve done a lot of Yiddish programs before, of traditional Yiddish music, so I knew I wanted something in that vein. And the fellowship required it to be brand-new music — original — as opposed to a remaking of something old.

“A lot of times with Jewish music, it tends to focus on the Holocaust and a lot of the trials and tribulations of the Jewish people. And, to me, Yiddish swing and that whole era in the ’40s is unusual in the sense that it was happy music and happy dance — of course in the midst of a lot of other things that were going on. But that’s really what drew me to that musical genre in particular.” 

While most people associate Yiddish music and theater of that era with New York, Tadmor said the youth of Boyle Heights, quite independently, created a very original form of Yiddish music, dancing and even theater.

“From the interviews that I’ve done,” Tadmor said, “what struck me the most was this idea that Los Angeles had always been an open-minded place … and that a lot of Jews found New York, especially, to be kind of a ghetto of its own. And when they wanted to escape that and do new things, and try new things and not have everybody in your business all the time, they tended to go west.”

Tadmor, a native Israeli, came here 18 years ago, and, while she has performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and other venues around the world, she considers Los Angeles her home.

“I always joke and I say I love Israel like a mother, and I love Los Angeles like a lover. It’s a different kind of love, but it’s very intense, and I don’t see myself ever living anywhere else,” Tadmor said. “This is really where I honed my skills and was given opportunities by many, many people and organizations. So it was exciting for me to write a show that was a tribute to that.”

Tadmor’s proposal earned her a place alongside eight other Six Points fellows in the first L.A. cohort; she is the only musician in the group. She hired Jonathan Maseng, a frequent writer for the Jewish Journal, to collaborate with her on the book that serves as the anchor for her original score.

They named the project “Ella Fitzgeraldberg,” because, Tadmor explained, “Bei Mir Bistu Shein,” the Yiddish swing hit originally made famous by the Andrews Sisters, was also covered by the legendary jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald.

The cabaret-style show will be performed Dec. 14 at the M Bar in Hollywood, where the club will re-create a posh nightspot of the late 1930s with newspapers of the day strewn on tables, and, in one corner of the room, a silent film will be projected on the wall. Audience members are asked to dress in the style of the period. 

The evening begins with drinks and dinner, followed by a pre-recorded broadcast, in English, of a fictitious radio program called “Talk of the Town,” in which host Janice Howe (Connie Nelson) interviews 90-year-old Esther “Estee” Gerson (Annie Korzen), the last surviving member of the famous Gerson Girls trio, composed of two sisters and a cousin. Estee now lives in a Florida retirement community and is mourning the recent passing of her sister, Gilda. The story unfolds in flashback, as Estee, who has become a virtual recluse, relives the girls’ glory years as well as their dark days involving alcoholism, scandals and suicide. She also reveals, for the first time, what really caused the breakup of the trio. Her memories are inextricably bound up with the Depression era, World War II, the Holocaust, Jewish assimilation and the founding of the State of Israel, among other issues.

At key points in the story, live musicians and singers will perform a song from the Gersons’ repertoire. Tadmor herself will be on piano and will also be part of the vocal ensemble. Her original score is accompanied by Yiddish lyrics (with English translations provided in the programs), because, as Howe tells the radio audience, the Gersons sang exclusively in Yiddish. Tadmor took her lyrics from a Yiddish magazine called Keshbn, published between 1946 and 2007. “There were about 150 issues,” she said. “It was community generated, so people would send in poems, short stories, jokes and whatever. 

“I took things that looked like poems, that looked like they rhymed, and I went to the Jewish Home for the Aging, and a couple of people there just sat and translated all these poems” into English, so she could understand them before using them in their original Yiddish. 

“That was the starting point for the whole show, those lyrics. And then I set about 10 of them to music. That was the basis of the show, and then the story was written around that and connected one song to another. 

“I hope,” she said, “that people appreciate the richness of Yiddish culture — the language, the humor, the arts — and that they see that there are still young people who are interested in it and wanting to create new works and keep the language alive. 

“It’s not that the language is dying,” she said. “Enclaves of Orthodox Jews will always keep speaking Yiddish, but the secular Yiddish culture is in danger of being buried, and I think this show is just an example of how many people, young people, were excited to take part in this, from the writers, to the performers, to everyone who shows up. And I hope it gives hope for all of us that this beautiful, funny, sarcastic, creative culture will live on.”

“Ella Fitzgeraldberg,” Dec. 14, 7 p.m. (dinner), 8 p.m. (show) at M Bar, 1253 Vine St., Los Angeles. $15, plus $10 food/drink minimum. For reservations, call (323) 856-0036.