If you think you know what a Yiddish singing star looks like, think again. The new, hot name in the world of Yiddish musical performance is Anthony Russell, and he’s a 33-year-old, 6’1’’ African-American hipster from Oakland, California.

Russell, whose full stage name is Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell, is a Jew by choice, an opera singer by training, and a Yiddish singer by calling. Proving that you don’t need to have roots in the shtetls of Eastern Europe to connect deeply with mammeloshen, Russell is quickly gaining notice for his expressive interpretation of Yiddish folk songs and Hassidic niggunim (wordless melodies).

In a conversation with The Times of Israel at a San Francisco café, Russell good-naturedly admitted to a few drawbacks to his lack of an Ashkenazi background. For instance, his patter with audiences ends up a bit atypical. He can throw around a few Yiddish phrases, but “I won’t be getting up on stage and telling stories about my bubbe,” he said. “She didn’t speak Yiddish.”

‘I won’t be getting up on stage and telling stories about my bubbe’

Neither Yiddish nor Hebrew was heard in his home while he was growing up, but Russell, coming from a religious Christian (Baptist, and later Pentacostal) family, was well versed in the Bible. He was born in Texas and grew up a military brat during his younger years, regularly moving around the United States while his father was in the Navy. When he was seven, his family settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Russell, the eldest of four boys, developed “a pronounced interest in music.”

He learned an appreciation for classical music and basic music reading skills from his mother, who was a classical pianist before she had children, and he was always singing opera around the house. “My brothers used to constantly make fun of me,” he recalled. “But recently they’ve told me that they really admire my having totally stuck with my interest in music and made a career out of it.”

Russell, who was homeschooled from 6th grade on, describes himself as having been an autodidact. This applied to his early music education, but also to his deep interest in the Bible. “I really prided myself as a nine-or 10-year-old on having a working knowledge of all the people and events in the Tanach,” he said, using the Hebrew name for the Hebrew Bible, which he only learned many years later in the course of becoming a Jew.

A Yiddishe papa, Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell (Photo credit: Clara Rice)

A Yiddishe papa, Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell (Photo credit: Clara Rice)

“I would read the story about Hannah in the book of Samuel and would think that Samuel was the luckiest boy to get to live his life in the temple,” he recalled. “I really took everything to heart. I poured myself into these narratives, and I didn’t know why.”

Russell believes the reason became apparent when years later, at the age of 27, he attended his first Shabbat prayer service. “It was a bit alien until I got to the Amidah and the mention of the patriarchs and matriarchs. These people were real to me.”

Russell’s exploration of Judaism over the course of several years coincided with his attempts to build a career as a professional opera singer in San Francisco and New York, after having earned an undergraduate degree in music at Holy Names University in Oakland, CA.

When the words from Psalm 47 Russell sang to Abraham Lincoln in his role of a freed slave in the San Francisco Opera’s October 2007 world premiere of Phillip Glass’ “Appomattox,” were the exact same ones he heard during a Rosh Hashanah service he attended that fall, he took it as a sign that he was on the right track religiously.

After moving in with his boyfriend, Rabbi Michael Rothbaum (whom he had met on a blind date to a New York Mets baseball game), in Nyack, New York in 2009, Russell started going to a local Conservative synagogue and celebrating Jewish holidays. By the time he formally converted in January 2011, he had already been practicing Judaism — and peppering his speech with words like “Baruch Hashem,” “mammesh” and “daven”— for three years.

At the same time that Russell became a Jew, he also came to the realization that he wanted to be something other than an opera singer. He realized he felt more fulfilled singing the “Unetaneh tokef” prayer as a guest High Holiday cantorial soloist than he did singing opera. He started researching cantorial music, but decided it was not for him.

‘Hazzanut is like opera on crack. It’s not easy music’

Hazzanut is like opera on crack. It’s not easy music. It’s a tenor’s game,” he said right before demonstrating how his deep bass could not hit the requisite high notes.

Then, by chance, he heard a Yiddish song called “Dem Milners Trern” while watching the Coen brothers’ film, “A Serious Man.” “I was sure it was [famous African-American singer] Paul Robeson, because I knew that he had sung some Yiddish songs,” Russell said.

It turned out not to be Robeson, but rather Sidor Belarsky, a pre-eminent collector, disseminator and interpreter of classic cantorial music, Chassidic nigunim, Yiddish folk songs and Hebrew songs from Israel, who had originally been a leading basso with the Leningrad State Opera Company before immigrating to the US in 1930.

Russell had found a kindred spirit. “This music was perfect for my voice type. These songs really touched me.” He threw himself into researching Belarsky’s work, not all of which he has been able yet to track down, though he was able to acquire an old, beat-up copy of the Sidor Belarsky Songbook on Amazon.com.

Using whatever sheet music he could find, as well as online MP3 tracks and videos, Russell taught himself Belarsky’s repertoire (including the precise meaning of all of the Yiddish lyrics) and put together a recital program of nine songs. Not yet plugged in to the Yiddish music scene, he made cold calls to Jewish organizations asking if he could perform for them.

In January 2012, Itzik Gottesman, associate editor at the Yiddish Forward invited Russell to sing at an event at the Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center in the Bronx. There, Yiddish vaudevillian Shane Baker saw him and offered him a guest spot in his upcoming show at the JCC in Manhattan. The Huffington Post was covering that show — and the rest is history. Now, Russell is in demand for performances and collaborations with other musicians on both US coasts and in Canada. He dreams of going to Israel, where he has wanted to visit since he was a boy.

‘I found songs that were about me, even though people wouldn’t expect it’

Russell feels at home with Yiddish song. “I always want to bring a quality of vulnerability and sensitivity to my singing — and did I ever find that in Yiddish,” he said. “I found songs that were about me, even though people wouldn’t expect it.”

Russell believes that when he discovered Yiddish, he was no longer the person he was before. However, a new project he has embarked upon indicates that he is drawing upon his own roots to make a unique contribution to Yiddish song.

He is pairing Negro Spirituals and Yiddish folk songs, matching them up by melody and story and splicing their lines together in a sort of mashup that reflects both where Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell is coming from, and where he is going.