A Christian Singer of Jewish Songs in Ladino and Yiddish

By Joseph Leichman


Originally published in the New Jersey Jewish Standard under the title, “Their songs celebrate good, childhood, love.” Reprinted by permission.

May 30, 2008–A few years ago, Maria Krupoves, a native of the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, met a man named Daniel Berg on an elevator in Bloomington, Ind. Also a few years ago, Krupoves met Gerard Edery at a world music showcase at the Hilton Hotel in midtown Manhattan.

Both encounters led to partnerships. Krupoves, a professor at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University, married Daniel and lives in both her native city and Bloomington. With Edery, she found a kindred musical spirit, a Moroccan-born Sephardic Jew with the same multiethnic inclinations as Krupoves, a self-proclaimed “Christian Zionist.”

Maria Krupoves publicity photoKrupoves and Edery released their first recording together, Two Faiths, One Voice, on Tuesday. The disc borrows from ancient Christian and Jewish material, spanning everything from secular folksongs to liturgical verses. The album is available on sefaradrecords.com, the homepage for Edery’s own label, Sefarad Records.

“When I sing some of these songs that are centuries old, whether it’s Jewish or Christian or Arab, the feelings are the same, the emotions are universal,” said Edery, who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Regardless of ethnic or religious origin, he said, the songs all celebrate “human values. They’re celebrating good, they’re celebrating childhood, they’re celebrating love. So I choose to focus on the commonalities between the cultures, between the faiths, to try and sidestep the ironclad divisions that keep us apart.”

Edery was born in Casablanca, but moved to Paris when he was 4. At 8, he moved to Manhattan. Those first years in Morocco, however, were culturally invaluable. One grandfather, an Argentinian, spoke to Edery only in Spanish. His paternal grandparents communicated in Arabic, because “they didn’t know anything else.”

At the time Morocco was a French protectorate (the north-African country gained independence in 1956), so Edery was immersed in French, the day’s “lingua franca,” he said. Additionally, Edery heard and spoke Hebrew in synagogue.

Said Edery, “A lot of the music that I do reflects the fact that I was born in an atmosphere that celebrated a real transparency, a real interface kind of feeling, where you heard Arabic and you heard French and Hebrew and Spanish.”

The linguistic diversity, he said, represented an even deeper cooperation between the faiths, where “the Jews and the Christians and the Arabs [found] a way not just to coexist but to be inspired by each other.”

Edery’s work with Krupoves exemplifies the same spirit. According to Krupoves, who in 2005 performed at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Two Faiths, One Voice includes songs from the “Sephardic tradition, from Turkey, and from Greece. Some of them are folk songs and some of them are religious songs, like ‘Adir Hu,’ which is a Pesach song.”

The album also features a medieval Portugese-Christian composition, a fourth-century Armenian-Christian work, and a number of songs from Eastern Europe. Edery speaks four languages but sings in 15, which he attributes to his opera training. Krupoves speaks even more — she estimates “six or seven”–and sings in 12 languages and dialects.

Among her favorites, Krupoves said, is Yiddish.

“I started singing folk songs and got interested in vocal studies in university [in Vilnius],” she said, “so I decided to write my doctorate dissertation on Polish folk songs in Lithuania. A great part of this culture is Jewish culture and Yiddish so I started singing in Yiddish. After I finished my dissertation about 10 years ago, I met a professor who came to Vilnius and he started teaching Yiddish.

“I very much enjoyed collecting the Sephardic and Yiddish neshama” (soul).

Like Edery, Krupoves traces her expansive cultural tastes to her family history. She said that her Catholic grandparents helped save Jews from the Nazis in Poland, and “Jewish people are my people.”

Asked whether her family is supportive of Two Faiths, One Voice or of her Christian Zionism, Krupoves said, “My family is excited, very much.”

On June 25, Edery (sans Krupoves) will premiere “The Spirit of Sepharad: From Casbah to Caliphate” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. The multimedia presentation follows the migration of Sephardic music from medieval Spain through North Africa and to the Middle East using music, dance, projections, lighting, sound, set design, narration, and acting. Sephardrecords.com has information on the show, which will tour the world through 2010.

“Some people say this is not the way a Sephardic song would have sounded in 1500 or 1400,” said Edery of the show. “But we’re talking about an oral tradition here, and oral traditions are not museum pieces. They’re meant to be added to, to inspire. To me, it’s something very living.”

About Joseph Leichman

Joseph Leichman is a freelance music and sports journalist.