They’re songs of love and loss, of leaving and of coming home. But most of all, they’re songs of a culture that refuses to be forgotten.
The raw, poignant sounds Yiddish song may have faded from many Jewish ears, but Sea Point’s Caley-Jo Levy is intent on reconnecting the youth to their roots and culture.
Levy shares Yiddish song in the hope that it will ignite a pride in the Yiddishkeit (Jewish way of life), especially among the youth.
“Apart from being such a wonderful, expressive language, it’s also an informative language; it links us to our roots, our heritage and our culture. The songs are also extremely moving,” she says.
“There are songs that share the immigrant experience, lullabies that share hope, and the importance of learning Torah. There are songs written in the Ghetto that share the Jews’ strong will to survive, songs about Jewish food and wine, songs about the orphan’s experience, the bride’s experience, the Cheder student’s (a boy studying for his Bar Mitzvah) experience... You name it, there’s a story for almost every Jew in the Yiddish song archives.”
Levy has been performing professionally as an actress, singer, dancer and choreographer for over two decades.
She began her love affair with Yiddish song in 2009, when she performed at the Yiddish Song Festival and has since been performing these jewels in Darling’s Voorkamerfest, in celebration of 175 years at the Jewish museum, and at the opening of the global congress for South African Union for Progressive Judaism.
“In Standard 1 (Grade 3) I sang My Yiddishe Mama with the school choir and always remembered it fondly, but never questioned the song’s roots. It was when I was invited to sing in the Yiddish Song Festival that I fell in love with every single song I heard and started to really explore and research the songs and their history,” she says.
A the festival, Levy noticed there was nobody of her generation or younger in the audience.
“When I discovered these songs and how few people know them, the thought of them never reaching the youth of today saddened me. Yiddish song provides insightful, beautiful and poetic information that can really help the youth to not only connect with their roots and heritage but also to question and understand their identities,” she says.
Performing the songs has led Levy on a journey of discovery.
“I’ve learnt so much about the Shtetl and life for the Jews in Eastern Europe pre-WW2. I’ve learnt about how they led an orthodox existence; I’ve learnt how important education was. I’ve learnt that the Yiddish language is delicious in its expressions, understanding of human nature, insults, and how much information it can offer about the lives of my ancestors. I could go on and on, but mostly, it’s led me to discover nachas (pride) for my people and my Yiddishkeit that I always felt but never fully understood,” she says.
Levy has since formed Yid Dish, a band specialising in Yiddish song. Earlier this year they were commissioned by the Jewish Board of Deputies to perform at the 175 years of SA Jewry celebration.
“The response has been wonderful. This show is not about me – it’s about the music and the stories, and every performance reminds me of their importance to those who knew them well and to those who have not yet discovered their significance,” she says.
“Every time I perform the songs, I also feel the profound impact it makes – not just on my life, but on some of the audience, be it from the history, the nostalgia, or the melodies,” she says.
Levy will be performing with international actor Shane Baker on his worldwide tour to celebrate iconic Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem’s 100th yahrzeit (anniversary of his death).