South African singer and featured artist, Leigh Nudelman Sussman, talks about her most recent performance in New York, as well as her process of reviving old Yiddish songs in her work.
“A Bis’ Libe – A Bit of Love” is a two-year old project to revive old Yiddish songs which I perform interspersed with stories about my great-grandmothers. Recently, in an interview with the Jewish Community Radio in Johannesburg, I was asked, “why Yiddish songs?”. This is a question I am often asked by Jewish Jo’burgers (people who reside in Johannesburg) because here, the Yiddish language is mostly dead and forgotten. I think I finally gave a decent answer in the interview, thanks to a new perspective garnered from a recent performance in New York City.
Friends I met in December 2018, shortly after I attended the Asylum Arts International Jewish Artist Retreat in Garrison, suggested that I perform the piece in their apartment in the West Village. They often host artist events which mainly revolve around their newly purchased, recently retired Steinway grand piano, whose ivory keys have been touched by many famous pianists. I took them up on their offer and returned to NYC in April 2019. Together with accompanist Steve Sterner, I performed to a crowd of Asylum artists, philanthropists and community leaders.
Photo credit: Milcah Bassel, NYC Performance on April 2, 2019
Something magical happened during the performance. Many people laughed during the stories of my great-grandmothers and many people cried during the songs. But then something happened after the show that was unusual. Two female doctors from Saudi Arabia, now living and working in Manhattan, approached me to say that they really connected with the songs and stories. This was particularly unusual because these women were my age (my audience members tend to be much older). Secondly, and most obviously, they weren’t Jewish. How on earth could they connect to these stories about dead Jewish South African women, and to these hundred-year old Yiddish songs?
Perhaps it was the stories of migration told in my performance that moved these two women who have worked hard to make their mark in New York. It is the weight of these migrant stories that are inside all of us that makes these songs and stories move us, Jews and non-Jews, young and old. We all hold within us the story of our painful journeys across this earth as we look for a place to feel safe, to belong, to thrive. This is certainly the case for me as a third generation Jewish South African. I am primarily white and privileged in South Africa, sadly still benefiting from the ills of Apartheid, and oh how I long to feel rooted here.
I am now certain that this theme of migration could connect this piece to a wider audience in Johannesburg, a city founded on migrant workers and immigrants. Here, I often feel isolated as the only young Jewish artist performing old and forgotten Yiddish music, but with this theme, and together with a theatre maker and possibly another performer, I hope to find my own sense of connection.
My answer now to those who ask, “why Yiddish songs?”, these songs are important and relevant, they connect us all as human beings and they need to be heard.
Leigh with guitarist, Farryl Roth, Kristallnacht - Goethe-Institut Johannesburg, 2017