COMPILATION ALBUMS CAN BE TRICKY. Judged as much by what they exclude as by what they include, they are inevitably incomplete and far from inscrutable. In assembling this anthology I have not sought to amass a list of “best of” or “essential works” of the Milken Archive. Rather, I have tried to provide an accurate and interesting representation of the scope and diversity of the repertoire.
There are 20 thematic volumes in the Milken Archive, each of which illustrates a particular historical or cultural narrative. For this anthology I chose what I felt were some of the most interesting samples from those 20 volumes. One track was chosen from each volume, with an eye toward balancing musical genre, artistic interest, and cultural and historical relevance.
The selections are presented below, along with information on their historical and cultural context, volume association, and suggested links to relevant areas of this website that warrant further exploration.
Most relationships experience rough patches, times when the stars of love simply won’t align and common ground proves illusive. Our first selection here is a Yiddish vaudeville tune about a man and his wife who’ve lost the spark of romance but found new happiness as roommates.
“I’m a boarder at my wife’s. Guys, it’s a sweet deal,” the protagonist sings. “She attends to my every need. When I come home, she doesn’t ask any questions.”
Ikh bin a “boarder” bay mayn vayb is the most well-known song by Rueben Doctor, a lyricist who wrote some 80 theatrical and popular songs during the heyday of American Yiddish theater. First published in 1922, it became one of the most famous Yiddish vaudeville numbers through a recording by Aaron Lebedeff (which can be downloaded here).
It’s a simple, strophic song that lends itself to variation and adaptation for specific performance contexts. One can easily imagine a performer improvising verses that might resonate with a particular audience or adapting the text to reflect contemporary linguistic norms. Missing from the present recording is a strophe from the original published version where the singer expresses his relief at not having to worry about coming home while the butcher is delivering the meat.
For the present recording the Milken Archive enlisted the talented Bruce Adler. Born on Second Avenue to a family steeped in Yiddish theater, Adler was a highly regarded Broadway performer who left an indelible stamp on this and several other Milken Archive recordings.
Ofer Ben-Amots’s Celestial Dialogues is a musical confrontation of the sacred and secular, represented here by a klezmer clarinet and a cantorial voice. The composer describes these as the two poles of Jewish music. Adonai melekh, the movement excerpted for the 2016 anthology, is based on one of the most prominent expressions in the entire Hebrew liturgy, the proclamation of God’s sovereignty for all times:
The Lord is King,
The Lord was King,
The Lord shall reign for all eternity
The tension of the confrontation can be felt most acutely in this movement, where the cantor and the klezmer (i.e., musician) seem to play both with and against one another and the slightly syncopated accents and shifting tempo in the accompaniment periodically disrupt the musical flow. That tension is relieved in the final movement, which unifies the two opposed forces in a dance and calls the sacred/secular dichotomy into question.
Our recording features two of the most accomplished musicians in all of Jewish music, David Krakauer and Alberto Mizrahi.
Through his enculturation in the Moroccan Jewish musical tradition and his formal training in the cantorial program at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Cantor Aaron Bensoussan has developed a unique sound. Moreover, his musically innovative spirit has led to a vast array of projects and collaborations that challenge traditional notions of Jewish music, both sacred and secular.
His setting of L’kha dodi, a kabbalistic poem that is part of the kabbalat Shabbat (welcoming the Sabbath) liturgy, for cantor and choir (accompanied by oud and percussion) included here was one of his first compositions. Bensoussan also composed and recorded for the Milken Archive a complete weekday evening service in the Moroccan Sephardi tradition, and three songs exploring the nexus of Jewish liturgy and popular music.
The text for Eshet ḥayil comes from Proverbs and is customarily recited or sung at the table as part of the pre-prandial (before the meal ) Sabbath ritual. Frequently translated as “A Woman of Valor,” the text recounts the attributes of an ideal—or idealized—wife from a biblical perspective. The Milken Archive contains several works and settings based on this text, including this one by the celebrated Hassidic Modzitzer composer, Benzion Shenker. It became known to the general Jewish world in the 1960s through this arrangement made by Stanley Sperber for the Zamir Chorale.
In the Hassidic world, niggunim (loosely translated as “melodies”) are part of a complex sacred musical tradition where singing is an inextricable part of an ecstatic religious experience. Sperber’s arrangement is highly stylized for presentation on a concert stage, and reflects a longstanding fascination of Hassidim among non-Hassidic Jews.
In the oral history video linked below, Shenker recounts how he became the Modzitzer rebbe’s musical assistant.
A popular column that appears occasionally in the Forward points out the Jewish connections of famous non-Jews. Recent installments have included Louis Armstrong (who’s connection to the Karnofsky family has been documented on this website) and Olympic gold medalist swimmer Katie Ledecky.
If and when that column addresses Herbie Hancock it must extensively cover the Jewish sacred service Hancock and several of his contemporaries recorded in 1967, Hear O Israel: A Sabbath Service in Jazz. The piece was composed by Jonathan Klein, a rabbi’s son from the Boston area who went on to teach at the Berklee School of Music (from which he recently retired) and to compose music for film and television.
Though Klein was undoubtedly enthused to have his piece recorded by Herbie Hancock, he was dissatisfied with the end result (for issues he mostly attributes to himself). He revised and rerecorded the work for the Milken Archive in 1992, 25 years later, but he retained some successful parts from the original recording and merged the two into a best-of-both-worlds scenario. The excerpt included here features a piano solo by Herbie Hancock, supported by bassist Ron Carter and drummer Grady Tate, which part way through segues to the 1992 recording made by Klein and his Berklee colleagues. Jonathan Klein and Hear O Israel were also featured in a recent Milken Archive podcast (linked below).
Sholom Secunda is known primarily for his work in the Yiddish theater, especially the most popular Yiddish language song of all time, Bay mir bistu sheyn. In reality, he was highly capable and educated composer whose work extended well beyond the parochial world of Second Avenue.
Discovered amongst the composer’s papers in the course of the Milken Archive’s research was an unpublished manuscript for a concerto based on traditional biblical cantillations motifs for the High Holy Days. Titled Fantasy in C Minor for Violin and Orchestra: "Nusḥa'ot" or Concerto of the Cantillations, it was recorded for the Milken Archive by the renowned virtuoso Elmar Oliveira.
Title: Fantasy in C Minor for Violin and Orchestra: "Nusḥa'ot"
Composition: Fantasy in C Minor for Violin and Orchestra: "Nusḥa'ot"
Volume: 11—Symphonic Visions
Undoubtedly one of the most important composers in the Milken Archive, as well as in the history of American Jewish music, Max Helfman influenced an entire generation of composers and artists through his work at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute. Known for his many liturgical settings and choral works, Helfman also composed two art songs on poems by Hannah Szenesh, the young Israeli paratrooper who voluntarily parachuted behind enemy lines in an effort to rescue Hungarian Jews being deported to Auschwitz. Ashrei haggafrur (Blessed Is the Match) illuminates the intensity of her commitment to that cause, for which she died.
Helfman was known to be equally intense. Composer Jack Gottlieb studied with Helfman at the Brandeis camp, and later recalled in a Milken Archive oral history: "Helfman was a very passionate man. He sometimes got carried away with himself. If you look at some portraits of him it looks as if he's possessed. He was a demon."
Moishe Oysher was celebrated as a gifted singer and exciting stage and film performer. Born in Bessarabia to a family that boasted six generations of cantors, his services and concerts at the First Rumanian Synagogue on New York’s Lower East Side drew considerable crowds.
Among his most famous numbers was Amar Rabbi, Elazar, an exciting, Near Eastern-tinged display of vocal acrobatics to a text that relates a moral teaching of rabbi Eleazar ben Shammua. It is interpreted on the recording included here by Benzion Miller, a preeminent cantorial voice of the present era and heir to the throne of Moshe Kousevitsky at Young Israel Beth-El of Boro Park (formely Temple Beth El) in Brooklyn.
During Joseph Achron’s time in New York he wrote incidental music to a stage adaptation of Shalom Aleichem’s Stempenyu the Fiddler put on by Maurice Schwarz’s Yiddish Art Theater. After the production concluded, Achron reworked the material as a concert suite for violin and piano.
Excerpted here from Stempenyu Suite is the final movement, “Freilechs,” a frenetic and fiery piece that reflects the Paganini-like possession that the Stempenyu character possesses in Aleichem’s story.
Max Helfman’s Di naye hagode is indisputably his most significant achievement as a composer. Based on Itzik Fefer’s epic Yiddish poem about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising—Di shotns fun varshever geto, it is presented as a "new narrative" for a post-Holocaust world. As Neil Levin notes, "it emphasizes solemn celebration of Jewish heroism over the centuries-old perception of Jews as helpless, submissive victims—over whose fate future generations agonize. And it proposes that a fitting memorial is perpetual outrage at the perpetrators rather than mourning for the murdered resisters."
Excerpted here is "Riboino shel oilom," essentially a plea to the "Master of the Universe" to explain the dramatic absence of Jewish life:
O Father in Heaven, can it really be that in this city of desolation
our people once lived and worked and bargained and played with their children?
Itsik Fefer was one of the most prominent poets of the Stalin era, a member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (lead by Solomon Mikhoels), and among the group of poets killed on what is now known as the Night of the Murdered Poets.
*The notes to the individual tracks included here contain portions excerpted from the program notes written by Neil W. Levin expressly for the Milken Archive.