Jews of European origin tend to think of their roots in the “old country”—if they think of them at all—with nostalgia for a sweet bygone era of people speaking in cutesy Yiddish, wandering around a picturesquely poverty-stricken farming village the way the characters do in Fiddler in the Roof, eating various smoked meats. In fact, the world of 19th–century and 20th–century Jewry in Europe was an extraordinarily complicated, jangly, emotionally fraught, tragic, and soon-to-be-tragic-on-an-unimaginable-scale place and moment in time. This was a historical moment during which a beleaguered, tormented, bedraggled people with no social capital but their connection to an ancient peoplehood and faith made their mark on the world in an almost unimaginably bold cultural ferment.
This hit home, and hard, for me last night in the concert hall at the Kennedy Center, when the remarkable non-profit group Pro Musica Hebraica presented a most unusual evening. The sole performer was Evgeny Kissin, the 42-year-old Jew born in Soviet Russia universally considered one of the greatest living pianists. Kissin played pieces by three almost entirely forgotten Russian-Jewish composers—Mikhail Milner (1886-1953), Alexander Veprik (1899-1958), and Alexander Krein (1881-1953)—as well as a sonata by the far-better known Swiss-born Jew Ernest Bloch (who spent his adult life in the United States and died in Portland in 1959).
That Kissin played magnificently wasn’t surprising. What was surprising was this: Kissin paused twice to recite, entirely from memory and in Yiddish, 11 poems, many of them lengthy—a set by the original “Jewish intellectual,” I.L. Peretz, and the other set by the great modern Hebraist Haim Bialik (who, I only learned last night, also wrote in Yiddish). In a demonstration of the fact that a showman is a showman no matter the medium, Kissin declaimed them in a deep, rich voice with the plummy fervor of a Thomashefsky.
This interweaving of music and poetry was emotionally overwhelming, because what they share was an astonishing lack of sentimentality—and a startling modernity.
There was no yeidel-deedle-deidel charm here, limited sweetness, little light. These were anxious musical pieces and anxious poems, startlingly self-aware and sophisticated. Through both melody and verse, there ran that indelible Jewish blend of skeptical irony and pained humor. But what proved so devastating was how they (and the music especially) seemed to herald in their frightening dissonances and determined lack of satisfying resolution the destruction soon to come. The poems are shot through with an image of nature relentlessly moving on while people stumble about in the dark as death hovers over them, ever-present.
And yet, at the time these musical pieces were written, 1924 and 1930 and 1935, there was an emerging light out of the most profound darkness. By the time the Shoah began, there were anywhere between 400,000 and 600,000 Jews living in Palestine, and there would have been far more had the British not slammed the gates shut. The powerlessness evoked by these works of art—a powerlessness that would lead to one of history’s greatest catastrophes and crimes—was being challenged by a new vision of Jewish self-sufficiency and strength.
That too was evoked last night, in the very person of the performer. As Charles Krauthammer, who runs Pro Musica Hebraica with his wife Robyn, noted, the “performance carries particular poignancy because on December 7, in a dramatic defiance of attempts to isolate and ostracize Israeli artists and musicians, Mr. Kissin took Israeli citizenship as a show of unshakable personal solidarity.” Last night marked Evgeny Kissin’s first public appearance in the United States—as an Israeli. Kissin’s triumph at the Kennedy Center last night was a bold, defiant, and life-giving one: Try what you will. We are here. We are still here. We are flourishing.