Monday, November 29, 2010

Q&A with Yiddish Performer Extraordinaire Eleanor Reissa

Last week Joseph Berger wrote a really fun piece for the New York Times about how Yiddish is living on in the Catskills. We’d like to point out that you don’t have to go as far as the Catskills for a good, hearty dose of the mama-loshen (mother tongue). The Museum is lucky to be hosting Brooklyn-born Yiddish diva Eleanor Reissa in a fantastic Hanukkah program on December 12. We caught up with her to ask her a few questions.

Museum of Jewish Heritage: What first interested you in Yiddish?

Eleanor Reissa: Yiddish was actually my first language, even though I was born in the U.S. My parents were Holocaust survivors and I had one set of grandparents and they and everyone else seemed to speak Yiddish. I learned English in Kindergarten.

Then in later years, when I started looking for work in the theatre, I saw an ad for a role in a play in Yiddish at Town Hall. I auditioned for that, and the rest is history. I worked with some of the greatest Yiddish actors of our time. They taught me a heck of a lot about Yiddish, about theater, and about being a mensh (kind hearted person).

MJH: What is your favorite Yiddish word or expression?

ER: There are so many great expressions. When faced with a hopeless situation one says: ‘Es vet helfn vi a toytn bankess.’ That means ‘It will help as much as putting leaches on a dead person.’ When you are angry, you can say, ‘Di zolst leybn vi a chandelier; hengen bay tog, in brenen bay nacht.’ It translates to: ‘You should live like a chandelier—hang by day and burn by night.’

MJH: What is your favorite Yiddish song and why?

ER: There are so many great songs. I cannot pick one. There are 50 songs for every mood. They each, in their own way, appeal to an emotion, need, desire, longing, or joke. They run the gamut from aleph to zed. How can you choose your favorite child?

MJH: What is it like to sing for an audience that doesn’t speak the languguage?

ER: It is a challenge to transmit and implant these beautiful gems of this precious, living language in people who are unaware of what is possible. The concert is completely focused on the people that do not understand Yiddish and by the end of the concert, they all think that they understand way more than they thought at first. I think registration at Yiddish classes around the city pick up after these concerts. The language is so accessible and so communicative, it practically speaks by itself.

MJH: What do you wish people knew about Yiddish music?

ER: I wish that people realized that it is a living language, not a dusty old relic that speaks to the past. The lyrics and music are as contemporary and modern as the artist. Yiddish is a language that will welcome you in and make you feel full, as though you just had a good meal...

MJH: What would you like the audience to experience at your concert on December 12?

ER: I want them to light up, to be thrilled at the opportunity of being included in this afternoon with such a great band. Frank London, Brian Drye, Patrick Farrell, Rex Benincasa, and Marty Confurius are extraordinary artists. When I rehearse with them I always feel so lucky to simply be in the room with them and to sing with them is a great gift.

MJH: How do you plan on celebrating Hanukkah this year?

ER: Definitely with latkes — one of my major weaknesses.

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