InterviewI am attracted to Yiddish because of some irrational feeling

After unmuting her hidden Jewish roots, Polish singer amplifies them in Yiddish punk

On a new album dropping on April 20 to mark the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Maria Ka takes cues from electronica for songs inspired by feminism and anti-establishmentarianism

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • Polish Yiddish singer-songwriter Maria Ka in concert. (Iwona Wojdowska)
    Polish Yiddish singer-songwriter Maria Ka in concert. (Iwona Wojdowska)
  • Polish Yiddish singer-songwriter Maria Ka. (Photo: Maria Ostrowska/Effects: Maria Ka)
    Polish Yiddish singer-songwriter Maria Ka. (Photo: Maria Ostrowska/Effects: Maria Ka)
  • Polish Yiddish singer-songwriter Maria Ka. (Photo: Maria Ostrowska/Effects: Maria Ka)
    Polish Yiddish singer-songwriter Maria Ka. (Photo: Maria Ostrowska/Effects: Maria Ka)

Polish singer-songwriter Maria Ka is focused on the present and future as she forges a new idiosyncratic global Jewish music scene — in millennium-old Yiddish.

Influenced by psychedelic rock, punk and artists such as Björk, The Dead Weather and The Kills, Ka has stepped firmly away from the Klezmer scene of yore.

“I was attracted to Yiddish because of some irrational feeling. I just felt that this was the language for me,” Ka told The Times of Israel.

In the grand tradition of punk anti-establishment, her fourth and latest album, Der Hemshekh (The Continuation), highlights the biographies of “invisible women” who were erased from the mainstream historical record. Five of the 10 songs are original compositions. The album drops on April 20, to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Though she sings in mamaloshen today, Ka (full last name Kawska) did not know Yiddish until she studied it as part of her double master’s degree program in psychology and Jewish studies at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, which she completed in 2011.

“I also studied Hebrew as part of the program, but Yiddish was so much easier for me to learn. It just clicked,” she said.

“But it was for cultural reasons. I am not religious in any way,” she added.

Ka, 36, explained in a recent interview from Gdansk, her home for the last 11 years, that she was drawn to Jewish studies as a way of exploring “the secret” of her Jewish background.

The singer-songwriter is among many young Poles discovering that they have long-hidden Jewish ancestry.

“My Jewish background is unclear. The Jewish roots in our family were covered by silence as a way of omitting trauma. But I was able to find out about some Jewish family members on my father’s side who were killed in the war. I explored archives and did genealogical research, but it was difficult due to lack of documentation,” Ka said.

As a feminist, Ka was not pleased that women’s history and viewpoints were not part of her Jewish studies at the university. To counter this, she focused her award-winning thesis on women — characters and actresses — of the interwar golden era of Jewish cinematography in Poland.

Ka’s fascination with interwar period Polish cinema continued. In 2018, she released an album she made with a colleague that recreated the lost soundtrack for a 1924 film starring the great Polish Jewish mother-daughter acting team Esther- Rachel Kaminska and Ida Kaminska.

This strong connection with interwar theater and cinema has even carried over to Ka’s on-stage and on-screen appearance. On a day-to-day basis, her look is very low-key. But onstage and in her music videos, she presents colorfully and dramatically.

“I’ve analyzed this, and I think it is because of my connection with the interwar avant-garde. I think it is also because I resonate with musicians who are very performative,” she said.

Ka performs solo while playing keyboards and a looper. She also appears with an oboist and drummer. The band practices at the New Synagogue in Gdansk, which is located just 10 minutes from Ka’s home. The synagogue and community center was built in 1927 and survived WWII.

“The synagogue was a music school in Soviet times due to its genius acoustics,” she said.

Ka is also a lecturer on Jewish culture, Yiddish, and women in the Jewish world at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Sopot, Poland, and other venues.

“Among the things I speak about are the absence of women in public space, and how women are underrepresented in all facets of the musical world,” she said.

Not coincidentally, Ka began recording her latest album, “Der Hemshech,” during the 2020 protests against the Polish top court’s near-complete ban on abortion.

“I took part in the public protests, and we shot a video clip during one of the protests in Warsaw. The situation was very real for me. A friend of mine could not get an abortion even though the fetus she was carrying was malformed. It was very traumatizing,” Ka said.

There is no question that Ka is motivated by serious issues, but her music can also be fun. One example is “Bingo,” about multiple identities. Its video, with many different versions of Ka’s face concurrently bopping around the screen, is a blast.

Ka broke her own rule about not singing traditional Yiddish folk songs by recording the upbeat “Dzhankoye,” which reflects the pride of Jewish peasants on a collective farm on the Crimean peninsula. She made this exception in support of Ukraine following the Russian invasion in February 2022.

Ka is the winner of two Bubbe Awards, described in Tablet by Rokhl Kafrissen as “the closest thing we have to the Grammys for new Yiddish and Jewish music.” The first, in 2021, was for “Krankheyt” (Illness) from her “Di arumike velt” (The New Reality) album.

She received the second award in 2022 for “Ven es regnt” (When It Rains) from her “Di shaykhesn” (The Links) album. In that song, she speaks about her desire to live forever among the natural elements “without cities speeding with noise.”

For Ka, speaking and working in Yiddish is not about ethnography or an academic exercise in preserving a language that lost the majority of its nearly 11 million speakers in the Holocaust. For her, being a singer-songwriter is first and foremost about being immersed in the contemporary social context.

“I am trying to step forward in the way we think about the language,” she said.

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