Enormous Treasures'

A book and CD give voice to a Russian Yiddish collector.

March/April 2006

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Enormous Treasures'

Courtesy Gabriella Safran

There’s the teensiest sneeze, barely audible on the CD. Then the young voices of the Yiddish children’s chorus of St. Petersburg Jewish Community Center join in, wishing the sneezer health and long life. “May you become a good, pious Jew,” they cheerily implore.

“Tsu gezunt, tsu lebn” is one of 25 songs on The Upward Flight, the first CD to be published by Stanford University Press as an accompaniment to a book. The Worlds of  S.  An-sky is a 500-plus page collection of papers and essays about turn-of-the-century Russian and Yiddish writer S. An-sky (1863-1920) that was published in May. It was edited by history professor Steve Zipperstein and associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures Gabriella Safran, who hosted a conference on An-sky’s work in 2001.

The author of The Dybbuk, a well-known play in Yiddish literary culture, An-sky was a Woody Guthrie-type who worked in Ukrainian mines, lived abroad in Paris and returned to his homeland in 1912. He spent the next three summers traveling to shtetls in the Ukraine, collecting smatterings of Jewish folklore: photographs, wax-cylinder recordings, folktales, jokes, rhymes, costumes and ritual objects.

An-sky’s collections were thought to be lost, but then along came glasnost and perestroika, and the opening of museums and archives in former Soviet republics. Today, archivists at the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine, to cite one example, “realize they are sitting on enormous treasures, and they’re excited to have people visit,” Safran says. “They will ask, ‘Would you like some tea? Cookies? Red wine?’ ”

Safran has spent several summers mining collections in Kiev, Moscow and St. Petersburg, gathering many of the counting rhymes, drinking songs and folk songs that An-sky collected. Some are whimsical—like a children’s rhyme about a magpie and a crow—and some are hauntingly beautiful, like “Di nakht” (“The night”), an An-sky poem of loneliness and despair that is accompanied by a stringed cimbalom on the new CD.

Safran co-produced the CD with Michael Alpert, a traditional Jewish musician and ethnomusicologist who sings on the album and accompanies many of the pieces on accordion, drums and violin. With funding from the office of the vice provost for undergraduate education and from the Taube Center for Jewish Studies at Stanford, Safran and Alpert had some songs recorded in St. Petersburg, and others on campus, at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. Credit for the enthusiasm in a Russian miner’s song is given to “the honey-pepper vodka of contemporary Ukraine.”


The book and CD will be published in June 2006.

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