Coming Home To Yiddish

Inna Barmash’s new ‘Yiddish Love Songs and Lullabies’ CD merges her professional and personal lives.

03/25/2014
Special To The Jewish Week
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When Inna Barmash sings a Yiddish lullaby during her show next week at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, it won’t be an entirely unusual experience. She is more used to singing those songs to a pair of young men in their pajamas, but having a larger audience that is fully dressed won’t phase her.

It has been seven years since Barmash and her husband, violist-composer Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin, were last interviewed in these pages. They were about to be married, she was starting her day job as an attorney, fronting the Balkan gypsy band Romashka, and singing with Ljova’s Kontraband.

Now they are the parents of Benjy, 4 ½, and Yossi, almost 3, and still juggling multiple careers and an impressive variety of musical styles.

“We haven’t cut back — it’s the opposite,” Ljova said in an e-mail last week. “We go to more concerts, walk more, spend more time outdoors. Life is fuller with kids.”

At the very least, it offers some interesting new performing venues for the couple.

“Our son is in a public school pre-kindergarten program on the Upper West Side, and he’s probably the only Jewish kid in the class,” Barmash recounts. “The teacher has been playing my [new] record [‘Yiddish Love Songs and Lullabies’] for the kids; they’re really enjoying it, so Ljova and I came to class, and when we performed ‘Afn Boydem’ the kids were singing along in Yiddish. And they waltzed to ‘Tumbalaika.’”

She laughs and adds, “We were like rock stars to them. If there was a reason to do this album, well — mission accomplished!”

Meanwhile, back in the so-called grownup world, Barmash has been performing the new repertoire in a tight, melodious quintet with Ljova (viola/fadolin), Shoko Nagai (piano/accordion), Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch (clarinet/bass clarinet) and Dmitry Ishenko (bass).

“In the back of my mind I’ve always wanted to do an album of Yiddish songs,” she says. “There are plenty of people singing in Yiddish, but not many go outside the established canon. I wanted to dig into the anthologies of Yiddish folksongs from the 1930s like the [Moshe] Beregovski collection.”

She had been toying with the idea for a while when she became aware of the Blueprint Fellowship, a project of COJECO (Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations), funded by the UJA-Federation of New York and the Genesis Philanthropy Group. 

“It’s a year-long fellowship for Russian-speaking Jews early in their careers, to allow them to pursue a project aimed at fostering the Russian Jewish community here,” she explains. “They don’t just give you money, though. There’s a well-run structure that makes sure you can actually complete the project, with workshops and deadlines.”

The resulting CD is a work of considerable charm and cohesion and one that should add some new tunes to the contemporary Yiddish songbook.

For Barmash, it was something of a musical homecoming.

“Yiddish is my first singing language,” she notes. Now in her mid-30s, Barmash immigrated to the United States in 1991 from Vilnius, Lithuania, where she first started singing in Yiddish in a children’s song and dance collective.

Needless to say, she wouldn’t settle for just one musical project of her own, in addition to parenting, lawyering and singing in the Kontraband.

“In the last couple of months I’ve done two concerts with Elissa Bemporad, whose book ‘Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk’ has won several awards,” she says. “I perform songs written by Yiddish poets from Minsk in conjunction with her lectures on the history of the Jewish community there.”

Add to that a semi-annual reunion of Romashka and an increasing number of gigs in a duet setting with Ljova, and you’re looking at a full schedule.

But her favorite audience is still a small one that likes to listen in pajamas until they fall asleep.

Inna Barmash will be performing “Yiddish Love Songs and Lullabies” on Tuesday, April 1, 7:30 p.m., as part of the NY Klezmer Series at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue (30 W. 68th St.). Her CD, which has the same title, can be previewed and purchased at her website www.innabarmash.com. 

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