Wild, Edgy… and Yiddish?

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Annette Ezekiel Kogan of the band Golem is making Yiddish hot with her punk-klezmer music.
Listen to her music: http://jdubrecords.org/artists.php?id=11#media_tab

Annette Ezekiel Kogan is the visionary leader of the New York band Golem in addition to supplying the vocals and accordion to the punk-klezmer music. That’s right, punk-klezmer, and if you want to see a crowd go wild on the dance floor, check out a Golem concert. Annette also speaks five—yes, five—languages, but her heart belongs to singing Yiddish. Find out why…

You’ve said that you make your music to preserve a piece of Jewish history (more specifically, the stories/experiences of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants). Why is that important to you?

My grandfather immigrated to the United States from Ukraine, so that history is important to me because it is my history. It’s also the history of a lot of American Jews of my generation since so many came over from Ukraine and Russia through Ellis Island at that timea lot of our grandparents and great grandparents. I was interested in the history of my family from a very early age, and my husband emigrated from Ukraine in 1992, so through him I became intimately familiar with the contemporary Jewish-Ukrainian immigrant story.

When most people hear about “preservation,” they think libraries and museums. How is it different to preserve a heritage on the dance floor?

My purpose in forming Golem was to do a type of living preservation that was not about libraries and museums. I want to preserve the language and culture of Yiddish Eastern Europe by bringing it to life rather than hanging it up like an artifact. I’m a big fan of libraries and museums, but there are different ways to preserve culture; I like to make people feel it in their bones as they dance.

Who taught you Yiddish, and did you learn it to be able to use it in your music or because you were interested in keeping it alive?

I learned Yiddish on my own. It was my grandfather’s native language, but as is typical of his generation, he didn’t speak it to my mother so I didn’t learn it from him. I was always interested in Eastern European culture and the Yiddish language, a very rich and unique language both to speak and to read. When I started playing Eastern European music, I played Russian and Ukrainian songs. However, I wanted to sing songs that felt like they were mine; and when I started singing in Yiddish, that’s exactly what I feltlike these songs were mine and I was home.

You’ve been praised for doing a fabulous job of teaching this generation of young Jews that Yiddish language is pretty steamy. Also, do you use this lingo in the bedroom (you don’t have to answer)?

Of course I use Yiddish in the bedroom; I’m not a phony. I highly recommend it :) Most American Jews (and a lot of non-Jews) know a few Yiddish words that feel schmaltzy (see, I have to resort to a Yiddish word!). When people think of Yiddish, they don’t usually think of sexy, steamy, hot stuff. But the Yiddish language has all of that… it’s shockingly edgy. The curses in Yiddish are so complex, they’re an art form in themselves. My mission is definitely to bring the sexy back to Yiddish. It’s “the language of the home” and that means, yes, food, but also sex, love, cursing, etc.

I read an interview during which you talked about the impact of the Yiddish quote “Children go away and grandchildren come back.” I like that. What does that quote mean to you?

In Yiddish (just for the flavor of the words), it’s “Di kinder geyen avek un di eyneklekh kumen tsurik.” For me, it epitomizes the immigrant experience, probably for any ethnicity, but definitely for Jews. The first generation (the immigrant) is just trying to figure out life in America, how to get by. The immigrant’s children want to fit in, to be American, not to be different, and they tend to push away the immigrant experience and culture. By the time the grandchildren come along, they don’t feel any pressure to be American; they were born here and they totally fit in. So it’s the grandchildren who start wondering about their past and where their grandparents came from and what they brought with them and left behind. That’s what I feel is the attitude of my generation of American Jews.

You ended up marrying a Ukrainian Jew who you met at one of your concerts. Does he feed you material?

He didn’t pick me up at show; we were introduced by a mutual friend, a Jewish musician in Berlin. We did meet for the first time after a Golem show. I didn’t marry him for the material, if that’s what you’re asking, but the way he tells stories is an art form and, of course, I absorb them like a sponge.

One of my favorite lines from any song is from your song “Mirror, Mirror”: “God, why did you make me so beautiful and put me in a dump?” I understand it was based on a relative who said it while living in the Ukraine. What happened to her? Did she get out of the dump?

Actually, my grandfather’s cousin, the first one in the family to come over and then send for all the rest, said that at age 90 when interviewed by my great uncle. She came to America, struggled, worked really hard, and brought the rest of the family over. Her sons had a famous restaurant in Washington, DC, called Paul Young’s; all the politicians went there, and JFK had his pre-inaugural dinner there. Mama Young was always in the kitchen making her famous rugelach, and politicians would ask for her to come out and say hello.

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