This story originally aired on March 30, 2019.
The American Blues is a genre born of suffering — of oppression, heartbreak and hard work. It originated in African-American communities of the Deep South, but it all sounds very familiar to Jewish Seattleite Ilan Speizer.
“They’re two cultures that have suffered tremendously,” he says. “Sometimes the words just come out as a moan, any kind of ‘oy yoy yoy!’ It’s not so different.”
Speizer, a speech therapist and musician, decided to try an experiment: How would those plaintive melodies and lyrics sound in Yiddish?
Yiddish was the language of Central- and Eastern-European Jews. It has all but died out, due largely to the emergence of Hebrew as the language of modern Jews, and the fact that a sizable chunk of the world’s Yiddish-speaking population was wiped out in the Holocaust.
It took some work for Speizer to adapt the lyrics — in part because he relied heavily on Google Translate, not having fluency himself. But there also was the problem of the blues idiom: Some things just don’t translate directly.
Take a verse from the blues standard “Come on in my Kitchen.”
“One of the ones that I loved is, ‘The girl I love, she’s long and tall. She can move her body like a cannonball.’ And I thought, huh. A cannonball isn’t Jewish, but a matzo ball is Jewish. And that was a word I knew! It’s ‘knaidel,’ and it rhymes with ‘maidel,’ which means girl.”
The exercise of adapting blues songs to Yiddish has helped Speizer connect with the language of his ancestors, and perhaps play a small part in preserving it.
Meanwhile, Speizer says he delights in finding those points of intersection.
“It’s Jewish blues, so, yeah, your heart hurts, but so do your hemorrhoids.”