Page 170 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 50

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JEW ISH BOOK ANNUAL
mand performances on the Russian musical stage, he arrived
here in September 1920, at the age of 47. Legend had it that
in Harbin, Manchuria, he had performed on alternate nights
before Kerensky, Lenin and Trotsky, adapting his repertoire
to the politics of each. But the key to Lebedev’s genius, I believe,
was not his ability to tailor each performance to the needs of
a specific audience. Rather it was the way he brought the tension
between two disparate cultures to the fore. Knowing both Rus­
sian and shtetl culture at their source, he could celebrate the
fusion and confusion that characterized Jewish life in
goles.
Lebedev turned the macaronic song into the medium and mes­
sage of American Yiddish culture.
Lebedev’s abiding fascination with the mixed-language song
explains why, of his European repertoire, he recorded the
Ukrainian-Yiddish folksong “Mikitka” on more than one occa­
sion. Its namesake, a Ukrainian peasant, is on his death bed.
A Jew (whose monologue makes up the song) comes in osten­
sibly to offer medical advice, but actually to prepare his gentile
neighbor for the world to come. Speaking what he deems to
be perfect Ukrainian, the Jew instructs his friend in
Jewish
prac­
tices surrounding death and dying, with such culture-laden
terms as
khevre levaye
(“a funeral procession”),
khevre kadishe
(“the
burial society”),
malekh hadoyme
(“the Angel of Death”) and
lifnei
melekh malkhey hamlokhim din vekhesbn
(“to account before the
King of Kings”). The joke is on poor Mikitka, who cannot pos­
sibly understand the practical and theological counsel from his
well-meaning friend. And the Jew, in turn, who for all his bi­
lingualism is utterly incapable of translating the most coded
terms of his culture into that of another, is also the butt of
the joke. And finally, a shtetl Judaism no longer distinguishable
from folklore and superstition is also being poked fun at; a
Judaism whose most effective proselytizer is not much more
than a peasant himself.
Without the benefit of folklorists and fieldworkers, Aaron
Lebedev chose this as his theme song because it recognized no
boundary between religion and life, between peasant and Jew,
between this world and the next. “Mikitka” not only showed
off his utter facility with different languages and musical styles,
but it also expressed his innate understanding of the Jewish
immigrant masses. They, too, were caught between the sublime
and the ridiculous, between shul and sweatshop, shtetl and u r ­