Program Explores War-Era Yiddish Songs About Sickness, Grief

Sept. 10, 2020 – By RUTH SCHWEITZER

Who knew that pandemics could occasion music? Songs written while typhus epidemics raged in ghettos and concentration camps during the Holocaust will be aired on Zoom from noon to 2 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 13.

The program, Pandemics, Hunger, Bribes and Music: Yiddish Songs of the Holocaust in Ukraine, is a lecture/concert featuring Psoy Korolenko on vocals, with guest performances by singer Isaac Rosenberg and the Payadora Tango Ensemble. University of Toronto Prof. Anna Shternshis will discuss the songs and their origins.


One of the songs to be premiered at the free event is I Am a Typhus Louse, written in 1942 in Transnistria (now part of Moldova and Ukraine) by L. Vinakur. It’s a comic song from the perspective of a typhus louse, whose greater numbers ravaged the Transnistria Ghetto, and now wants to turn its attention to the Nazi soldiers.

Spread by lice, typhus was rampant during the Second World War, as Jews and other prisoners in the concentration camps were victims of forced starvation and horrific living conditions. It killed hundreds of thousands of people. 

Remembering the typhus epidemic is all the more timely amid the worldwide COVID pandemic. When the lockdown started in Toronto last March, Shternshis began researching Yiddish songs about epidemics to see how past generations dealt with them.

I Am a Typhus Louse is one of the songs Shternshis discovered in 2005, in an archive at the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine. From the library’s basement, she retrieved thousands of Yiddish song lyrics, stories and letters.

The songs were written in the Soviet Union by men, women and children – Holocaust victims and survivors, and Jewish Red Army soldiers. They were collected from 1943 to 1947 by a team of Soviet ethnomusicologists from the Kiev Cabinet for Jewish Culture, led by Moisei Beregovsky. The subjects of the songs include accounts of Nazi genocide of Jews in Ukraine. The songs often express the desire for revenge against Adolf Hitler.

“Some of the most striking findings from this archive were songs written in small camps and ghettos in Nazi-occupied areas of Ukraine from where there remain no photographs,” Shternshis said in a YouTube video. 

“Songs were written by amateur authors, often children, sometimes women, and none of them were professional poets or songwriters,” she said. “All of these songs document what mattered to people then – issues of daily life, pandemics, starvation, and violence in ghettos.”

Beregovsky had hoped to publish an anthology of the songs but the project was never completed, as he and his colleagues were arrested in 1949, at the height of Stalin’s anti-Jewish purge. The archive was seized and remained in unlabelled boxes in the library until the 1990s, when a librarian catalogued the contents.

Anna Shternshis, Psoy Korolenko
Anna Shternshis and Psoy Korolenko

In 2014, Shternshis worked with Korolenko, who paired lyrics from the archive with melodies he adapted from popular Yiddish and Soviet Second World War-era songs. Since then, they’ve been performed in venues around the world, including at Toronto’s Koerner Hall. A collection of the songs, Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II, was nominated for a Grammy in 2019 in the Best World Music Album category.

Among the songs featured in the Zoom program will be My Mother’s Grave, written by a 10-year-old who was a prisoner in the Pechora concentration camp, operated by Romania during the Second World War in the village of Pechora, now in Ukraine. In the song, the child details his grieving after losing his mother, and vows that the enemy will be defeated. 

Information on how to access Pandemics, Hunger, Bribes and Music: Yiddish Songs of the Holocaust in Ukraine, co-presented by Klez Kanada, the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at U of T and the Canada Council of the Arts, is provided on the poster that accompanies this article.

To watch the video I Am a Typhus Louse, visit

Mayim Bialik: Saving the Class of Covid-19

Sept. 9, 2020 – By SUSAN MINUK

Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, believed that individual initiative and original ideas could make the desert bloom. That dream has been realized: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) is now the fastest growing research university in Israel.

“(BGU) is now the engine that drives the entire Negev region of Israel,” said Mark Mendelson, CEO of the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

From its humble start in Bedouin tents and ramshackle buildings in 1969, the university now boasts over 20,000 students on three campuses in Beersheva, Sde Boker and Eilat. The university is internationally renowned for its cutting-edge research and development.

Most recently, BGU scientists have pioneered a coronavirus testing procedure that is faster and more efficient than any in the world, able to test up to 48 people at once.

In early August, BGU launched “Save the Class of Covid-19,” a global campaign to raise $5.25 million for student financial aid during the coronavirus pandemic.

The COVID pandemic has resulted in a drastic decrease in people coming to study at BGU, Mendelson told The CJR. An estimated one in five BGU students is at risk of delaying their studies due to financial stress, and some are now unable to pay for basic needs.

Mayim Bialik

To help alleviate those hardships, the Canadian Associates of BGU are holding a national and virtual “Big Bang” event on Wednesday, Sept. 9 featuring award-winning actress, neuroscientist and author Mayim Bialik, star of the hit TV show The Big Bang Theory. Sen. Linda Frum will moderate the event, which benefits BGU’s “Class of Covid-19” effort.

Special guest will be Prof. Danny Chamovitz, President of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. A presenting sponsor is the Azrieli Foundation.

The event is sold out and registration is closed.

Bialik earned a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience, and in Hebrew and Jewish studies in 2000, and went on to complete a Ph.D. in neuroscience in 2007. She is a board member of a variety of Jewish philanthropic organizations. She also writes weekly for the Jewish parenting site

The CJR recently caught up with Bialik, who is busy raising her family and celebrating Jewish life.

As a science academic, what are some key messages you will convey at the BGU event?

I love to talk to Jewish communities all over the world and I especially appreciate North American support of universities in Israel right now. I don’t tend to talk about what I think other people should do with their lives or their observance. I like to share my story, with all of its imperfections and all of the doubts and questions I have, and I especially like to talk about (how) being a scientist and being a person of faith do not produce conflict for me. 

How are you and your family doing during the pandemic?

We are, thank God, doing OK. We have essentially remained home. Our kids definitely are used to schooling at home, since they have never been in school and have been homeschooled their whole life. We see my mother at a safe distance and that’s been really hard to not be able to spend more time with her in general. My kids are definitely playing more video games than I would like them to, but I’m basically trying not to nag them, which seems to be something that I find easy to do during the pandemic. Our anxiety is definitely elevated, as it is for a lot of people. 

What can you share with our readers about your Jewish background?

My parents are first generation Americans who were born during World War II in the Bronx. My mom’s parents only spoke Yiddish in the home and she was raised Orthodox. My father had [an] assimilated experience and moved from the Bronx to Long Island in the 1950s, where he was raised in a Reform congregation. My grandparents are from Poland, Hungary and Ukraine. I was raised in Los Angeles in a Reform synagogue, but there were a lot of remnants of my mother’s orthodoxy in my childhood.

I became more observant in college at UCLA and I have always been a very strong Zionist. A lot of my family lives in Israel, throughout the country, from the West Bank to Tel Aviv. I have a minor in Hebrew and Jewish studies from UCLA and have been a devoted student of Talmud for about 15 years. I learn two or three times a week. While I don’t wave the flag of modern orthodoxy, I tend to align with most of the leanings of liberal modern orthodoxy.

Can you explain your career trajectory from actress to scientist?

I was on a television series [NBC’s Blossom] from the time I was 14 to 19 and I had a biology tutor when I was 15 who opened my mind and heart to the possibility of being a scientist. I fell in love with genetics and after Blossom ended, I went to college to study science.

You focused on Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder in people with a genetic condition called Prader-Willi syndrome, or PWS. Can you explain why you choose this path?

As a vegan in the field of neuroscience, there are not many lines of research available if you don’t want to work with animals. One of the populations studied in the neuroscience department at UCLA is individuals with PWS. I had always wanted to work with a population of individuals with special needs and I also have a strong interest in mental health, so it was a really perfect thesis topic for me.

What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of being a mother to a 12- and almost 15-year-old son. I definitely don’t do it perfectly but I’m the best mom they’ve got.

What new projects are in development?

I am starting a new series for Fox called Call Me Kat, which I am executive producing with Jim Parsons, who played Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory. I will also be starring in it and it is based on the BBC series Miranda. We should be starting production next month and it is very exciting because we have 13 episodes already ordered. We focus on a very unusual woman who, at 39, does not have it all but still has an amazing life running a cat café. It is a really funny show and I’m so excited to get back to work.

Ashkenaz Festival Marks Anniversary Online (Starts Tonight!)

Sept. 1, 2020 – By RUTH SCHWEITZER

The Ashkenaz Festival is celebrating its 25th anniversary online. Live daily pop-up performances and a nightly archive series, will be streamed on Facebook and YouTube from Sept. 1 to 7.

Founded in 1995 as a biennial showcase for klezmer and Yiddish music and culture, the festival grew to embrace global Jewish art and culture, including dance, theatre and film. Ashkenaz has attracted audiences of more than 60,000 to Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre.

Due to restrictions imposed by the ongoing COVID pandemic, Ashkenaz is offering a pared-down virtual edition for 2020, featuring a musical sampling.

It’s a jolt to be unable to present the festival in person, said artistic director Eric Stein.

“But being able to mark that milestone in the way that we’re doing, with a look back and also a look at the present, I think is a nice opportunity,” he added.

Twenty-minute live pop-up performances by some of the festival’s Toronto-based alumni will be streamed daily at 4 p.m. from various outdoor locations in the city. The series showcases Sephardic singer Aviva Chernick; the Toronto Klezmer Society; pianist Marilyn Lerner with singer David Wall; Lemon Bucket Orkestra co-founders Mark and Marichka Marcyk; Moneka Arabic Jazz and klezmer/Balkan-style band Beyond the Pale.

Ashkenaz’s founding artistic director, trumpeter David Buchbinder, shot a video for the festival in New Orleans, where he’s based part-time, to be streamed during the festival.

Delivery of music has been completely transformed at this point, with venues not functioning the way they used to, said Stein, who also plays mandolin for Beyond the Pale. But, he added, there are amazing opportunities to hear music in unexpected places, such as living rooms, backyards, porches and parks.

The band “Beyond the Pale,” with Ashkenaz artistic director Eric Stein at far left.

“There’s such a hunger for music out there and there’s a hunger by musicians to get out and play, aside from the fact that they really need to work and earn something because all of their income has been so incredibly constricted,” Stein said.

The festival’s archival series, daily at 8 p.m., presents concerts from festivals from 1999 to 2018. “I would say the further back we go in time with the archival shows, fewer and fewer people would have seen these shows,” Stein said. “It’s like you’re seeing new content.”

Included in the evening series are 1999 performances by the Flying Bulgar Band, a legendary Toronto group that was part of the klezmer revival, and Hasidic New Wave, a band that fuses Hasidic musical styles, such as freylekhs and horas, with jazz, funk and experimental rock.

The archival series will revive a 2014 performance by Zion80, a 10-piece, improvisational horn-heavy band that combines the heartfelt melodies of Jewish music with the polyrhythmic intensity of Afrobeat.

Other highlights of the nightly series include a 2008 concert headlined by Joshua Nelson, an African-American singer who blends Hebrew texts with gospel melodies, and a 2018 performance by YID!, an Australian group that performs Yiddish music mixed with jazz, funk, electronica and indie folk.

The 2016 concert by the Israeli group, Baladino, whose repertoire consists of fresh yet authentic interpretations of Sephardic and Ladino melodies, is also being streamed for the nightly series. 

The finale of the 2006 Ashkenaz Festival rounds out the virtual festival. Featuring an all-star band, the concert is a tribute to the Moldavian clarinetist German Goldenshteyn, an important figure in the klezmer world who died months before he was to perform at Ashkenaz. Goldenshteyn brought his native region’s klezmer tradition to the United States in 1994, when he arrived there with hundreds of klezmer tunes he had transcribed over the years.

“This was a particularly spirited finale because there was an emotional resonance around the loss of German and how significant he and his repertoire had been to the klezmer scene at that time and still to the present,” Stein said. 

“It’s an amazing performance of a complete all-star cast of just about anyone you can imagine who is an important figure in the klezmer scene and it ends with about 40 musicians on stage.”

A virtual exhibition, 25 years of the Ashkenaz Festival, tells the festival’s story, from its launch in 1995 through to the 2018 event. Presented by the Ashkenaz Festival and the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the exhibit is online until Sept. 30. 

The exhibit includes a narrative written by Stein, videos, photographs and digitized memorabilia – press clippings, excerpts from program books, festival T-shirts and the colourful, whimsical posters created for each past festival.

Stein said he put the exhibit together to give people a sense of what the festival has been throughout its life, how important it’s been to the artistic community, and to the community at large. It was also an opportunity for him to honour the people who created the festival and who have along the way been critical to its success and functioning.

Stein reflected that watching this year’s virtual edition is a way for people to remember the amazing times they had at previous festivals, surrounded by thousands of people at Harbourfront Centre and feeling the community and the vitality of the artists and the art forms. 

“That’s what we’re missing so much. We all hope we can back to where we can experience that live again,” he said. “But for now, this is the next best thing.”

For more information, visit