Review: Shtetl 2 Stream, featuring Caely-Jo Levy and band, journey of Yiddish Songs

Available to watch as video-on-demand: Until 5pm on Sunday August 16, 2020

Direct booking link:

Shtetl 2 Stream went out as a live stream at 5pm, Sunday August 9, 2020. The recording is available for ticket holders via a link. Tickets may be purchased up to next Sunday – August 16 – and viewing will end around 6pm – details to be updated here. I loved this highly considered concert which is elegiac, sad and hopeful. There is a lot packed in the playlist of this lockdown concert.

The show features Caely-Jo Levy (vocals), Robin Cohen (keyboard), Matthew Reid (clarinet) and Petrus de Beer (violin). Levy talks about her journey into Yiddish music; embracing her Ashkenazi Jewish roots through the language and music. That journey began when she was invited to sing at the Yiddish Song Festival in Cape Town [the festival which was conceptualised and produced by Philip Todres and staged at The Baxter, is no longer in existence]. Levy talks about how no Yiddish was taught when she attended a Jewish school. It was not part of the curriculum.

Yiddish is a language of exile, hope, despair, longing. It was initially medieval German and became a hybrid and container of many dialects and argots. Yiddish music intersects with Klezmer – Jewish celebratory music – usually instrumental. Klezmer in turn embodies Balkan and other idioms. Yiddish/Klezmer has attracted musicians and artists who are not Jewish. They are pulled in by the music, motifs, rhythms and stories. Yiddish music tends to be story music and it straddles Roma and other musical idioms–songs of wandering, displacement and seeking home.

Here we are with the charismatic Caely-Jo Levy who has been engaging with Yiddish music for over a decade. There were The Yiddish Song Festivals. There were gigs with Shane Barker – a non-Jewish proponent of Yiddish culture – from the USA. He was one of her teachers. Levy staged a series of shows under the banner of Yid Dish at venues like The Kalk Bay Theatre [theatre closed – forever – casualty of lockdown]. Over the years, Levy has collaborated extensively with clarinettist Mathew Reid (also not Jewish). She first connected with Reid at the Yiddish Song Festivals. He is in the band of Shtetl 2 Stream. The show went out on Women’s Day 2020- South Africa’s designated Women’s Day – a national holiday – during lockdown and the pandemic.

The show opens with Bei Mir Bist du Schön (To Me You Are Beautiful) which has seen a surge of interest recently, with new renditions. The 1937 song – also referred to as Bei Mir Bist du Sheyn – is said to have sparked in the era of Yiddish Swing. The song has been covered by great artists like The Andrew Sisters, Ella Fitzgerald and Judy Garland- in English – with the original refrain in Yiddish – tossed in as a one liner. In the Shtetl 2 Stream version, it is back to the Yiddish, with a smattering of English. We hear the signature Yiddish lullaby Rozinkes Mit Mandlin [Raisins and Almonds]. There is the poignant ghetto anthem Mir Lebn Eybik [We live -literally – Forever we live]. It is a song which taps into the yearning for home and it speaks about endurance and hope.

Mir Lebn Eybik has a special place in the Yiddish Song Book, South Africa- if I may call it that. I think it is wonderful that Levy used it to open this show, in time, when many people feel uprooted and when the notion of home and shelter in place is in a kind of in a liminal space. I will tell you about the song. I have this knowledge at hand as I covered the Yiddish Song Festivals. The articles are yellowed and crumbling in my scrapbook. Here I am putting it up on my website, to tell you why the song resonates me, particularly this Women’s Day, the year of the pandemic.

Mir Lebn Eybik was written in the Vilna Ghetto by poet Lyb Rosenthal. He was the brother of Chayele Rosenthal who was referred to as the Wunderkind (Wonderchild) of the Vilna Ghetto. She became famous for singing his songs in the ghetto. However, Chayele Rosenthal was a teen singing sensation, before the Nazis hounded her family into the ghetto. Lyb Rosenthal was murdered in a camp – a day before liberation. Chayele Rosenthal survived. She lost her parents and most of her immediate family. She was 19 when the war ended and met journalist Xavier Piat who had seen her perform before the war and written about her. He recognised her. They courted, married and moved to Paris where Chayele continued performing. Chayele was offered a contract to perform Yiddish theatre in South Africa. They stayed. They made their home in South Africa and had two daughters Naava and Zola. Chayele continued to perform in Yiddish Theatre until the mid-70s when that era came to an end in SA. Ponder all of that. This is why, the opener of Shtetl 2 Stream was so powerfulfor me- a song about longing for home – by a renowned poet of the Vilna Ghetto – brought to this country by his sister who survived.

Another song in the show which is part of the Yiddish Song Book, South Africa is Those Were The Days in Muizenberg, written by the internationally acclaimed songwriter Hal Shaper who was born and grew up in Muizenberg. He wrote this nostalgic and fun ode to Muizenberg for the Yiddish Song Festival [2nd edition] and subsequently wrote another song Minsk for the 4th edition of the festival. Minsk was completed the day before his death in Cape Town. He returned to live in his home town after years, abroad. He had trained as a lawyer but went to England in 1955 to make his way in the song world. Over 650 songs are attribute to him, including Softly As I Leave You – recorded by Matt Monroe, Elvis Presley, Bobby Darin, Shirley Bassey and Frank Sinatra. Shaper’s songs have been recorded by Elton John, Bing Crosby, Elaine Paige and Dusty Springfield. He started Sparta Music and published other artists’ music wrote music for films and theatre productions. That is Hal Shaper’s contribution to the Yiddish Song Book, South Africa and again it is great to hear it being revived in Shtetl 2 Stream – in a time when we cannot commune on the beach as in the olden days; in a time when families have been split geographically. Yes, the Shaper song is a lament and tribute to Jewish Muizenberg but I think that it will resonate with anyone who yearns for the beach.

Stepping away from Yiddish standards and Yiddish Song Book, South Africa, my breath was taken away by the inclusion of two songs by Leonard Cohen: Dance Me to the End of Love and Hallelujah. The latter is a famous song which has been covered widely and which has popped up in films like, Shrek. It has become a lockdown signature anthem. Some years ago, I stumbled on a Yiddish version on YouTube, with lyrics translated and sung by American singer, Daniel Kahn. He recorded his version, shortly after Cohen died in 2016. It is on YouTube. One feels wrecked after watching. Levy knows Kahn and has worked with him. She tell me that he has given her  his permission to use his translation in the Shtetl 2 Stream show. Watching, I once again, stunned. The song takes on an edginess in Yiddish which is lost in English – just watch.

And then we get to Dance Me to the End of Love which most people think is a love song. Well, yes, I suppose it is – but a very tragic love song- an end of life love song. Some years ago, I heard that Cohen had been inspired to write the song, from accounts by Jewish musicians forced to place in the death camps, while Jews were led into the gas chambers. They were given the job of serenading them to their deaths. The lyrics- snippets:

“Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin…Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in… Dance me to the end of love…Oh, let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone… Dance me to the children who are asking to be born…”

Yup, I know.

It is certainly not a sweet love song.

In a time of so much uncertainty, here we have Caely-Jo Levy and band singing the song- in Yiddish. This I have not heard – a Yiddish version – and again the language provides layers to an already emotionally drenched song. In the wider landscape globally, many people have been left homeless. Over three hundred thousand – homeless – in Beirut. Homeless in South Africa, India. It is about moving one foot in front of another; through panic and fear; and to help us -singing and making music, theatre, art; through uncertainty.

There are also upbeat songs in Shtetl 2 Stream and a fabulous song that we need now – Abi Gezunt – be well- be healthy. As long as you have your health;  then the rest can follow.

That is very true. Here is to life – Le’ Chayim.