Isabel Frey: Millenial Bundist

Labor of Love

Listening Post 319. In May 2019, Isabel Frey, a singer of Yiddish revolutionary songs, landed her biggest gig yet, not in a concert hall but atop a van in central Vienna at the regular Thursday demonstration protesting the presence of the far-right Freedom Party in Austria’s ruling coalition. For the occasion, she took a pre-World War I song condemning the tsarist police, adapted the Yiddish lyrics into German and called for the fall of H.C. Strache, Freedom Party chairman and the nation’s Vice Chancellor. Frey’s song was acclaimed as the anthem of the protests, and two weeks later Strache was caught in a corruption scandal, quickly resigned and the government collapsed. It was a pivotal moment for the Vienna-born singer, who had spent several years molding her secular Jewish identity: While studying in Amsterdam she became active in various social justice movements and discovered Yiddish songs, along with the history of the Jewish Labor Bund, which flourished as a socialist party and cultural force in early twentieth-century Russia, Poland and Lithuania. Many old Bundist songs appealed to her because they addressed issues—oppression, working conditions, immigration, women’s rights—still relevant today. Frey’s identity and music merge in Millenial Bundist, her debut album: Sixteen songs, some tweaked with added lyrics, delivered in a dulcet voice fit for stage or street. Songs range from the advocacy of Arbetlose Marsch (March of the Unemployed, video 1) and Ale Vayber Megn Shtimen (All Women Can Vote, video 2) to personal stories like Di Grine Kuzine (The Green Cousin, video 3) and Kinder Yorn (Childhood Years, video 4). Her protest chant, the Yiddish-German fusion Daloy Politsey – Nieder mit H.C. (Down With the Police – Down With H.C., video 5) not only put her in the middle of Austria’s national dialog, it also launched a second career. After her prescient appearance she was elected to the Vienna City Council. Seems she has found her voice twice over. (Bestei Unterhaltung)

Historical note: The Jewish Labor Bund was founded in 1897 as a democratic socialist party to unite Jewish workers, defend their civil rights and oppose anti-Semitism in the Russian Empire. After the Russian Revolution, the Bund continued to operate in independent Poland and Lithuania—and through emigration it also influenced the American labor movement. Bundism was one of three political philosophies that competed for Jewish allegiance in early twentieth century Eastern Europe—and the only option that did not envision emigration (Zionism) or assimilation (communism).

Isabel Frey: Millenial Bundist
Isabel Frey: Lead vocals, guitar
Moritz Weiss: Bass clarinet, backing vocals
Cristi Iorga: Guitar, backing vocals
Esther Wratschko: Piano
Daniele Giaramita: Trombone
Markus Gruber: Drums
Angelika Hudler: Violin
Benjy Fox-Rosen: Upright bass

 

March of the Unemployed / Arbetlose Marsch / אַרבעטלאָזער מאַרש
Original Yiddish lyrics and music: Mordechai Gebirtig, 1877-1942/new German adaptation: Isabel Frey

(From the Yiddish and German lyrics)
One, two, three, four/We are the unemployed
For months we haven’t heard/The sound of the hammer in the factory
Tools are lying, cold and forgotten/The rust is eating away at them
So we roam around the streets/Like the rich, doing nothing!

One, two, three, four/We are the unemployed
Without clothes, without a home/Our bed consists of soil
If someone has something to eat/We share every bite
Just like the rich drink wine/We down water.

One, two, three, four/We are the unemployed
Toiled hard for many years/And created more and more
Houses, palaces, cities and countries/For a bunch of wastrels!
What is our reward for this?/Hunger, misery and unemployment

One, two, three, four/We are the unemployed
Haven’t gotten paid for weeks/The fridge is empty, the apartment cold
And we don’t get any jobs/While the machines rust away
So we march proudly through the streets/As if we were on the board of directors.

One, two, three, four/We are the unemployed
Without a shirt and without a roof/The street is our sleeping place,
But we share what we have/Even if it is from the dumpster
Let the “Bobos” have their wine/Water tastes just as good 

One, two, three, four/We are the unemployed
Toiling hard until retirement/Only for a hunger-wage
Houses, palaces, entire countries/Belong to the wasteful class
They’re not rich because of their hard work/But because of our working sweat.

One, two, three, four/We march hand in hand
While the unemployment rate rises/And the welfare state crumbles
We dream of a world/Without wage work and without money
Without borders, without military/And without any unemployed

One, two, three, four/So now we march
Unemployed, step by step/And sing a song to ourselves
About a land, a new world/Where free people live
No hand is unemployed/In this new, free land

 

All Women Can Vote / Ale Vayber Megn Shtimen / אלע ווייבר מעגן שטימען
Original Yiddish lyrics and music: Rubin Doctor (1882-1940)/Additional English lyrics: Isabel Frey
From the album notes: A theater song by Russian-American composer Rubin Doctor, written in 1920 about the ratification of the 19th amendment granting American women the right to vote. While Doctor originally wrote in a sarcastic tone, Yiddish singer Clara Gold adapted it slightly to be more feminist. In her version she changed “megn” (can) to “mizn” (must). Inspired by Gold’s feminist version, Frey added lines in Yiddish that were not audible from the recordings and added an English verse reflecting on women’s suffrage 100 years later.

(From the Yiddish and English lyrics)
I am a big friend of women/I swear to you by my life!
I thank all men today/Who gave them
Equal rights to vote, nice/Fine for every woman
The right to vote, and to be equal/The time has already come!

So all women must vote/For each election that will come
A congressman, a president/Now lies in womens’ hands
A woman does not sell her vote for cash/Rejoice, men, it’s all right
You’ve already waited for a long time/That your women can vote.

Rukhele will be a captain/And Khantshe will be a major
Jenny will be a diplomat/And Yente a Goldwyn-Mayer
Women will have every job/Which gives out information
They will toil hard for us/For our liberation!

Because all women must vote …

And now 100 years have passed/And see where it has brought us:
Women on boards of companies/In parliaments and start-ups
But what have wealthy women done/For care-workers and migrants?
It’s time to change our strategy/And join to fight all tyrants!

Because all women must vote …

 

The Green Cousin / Di Grine Kuzine / די גרינע קוזינע
Lyrics and music: Abe Schwartz (1881-1963)
Album notes: One of the most popular songs of Jewish immigrant life in America tells the story of a new immigrant who suffered under the precarious working conditions. When asked how she is doing, she replies “Columbus’ land shall burn“. Since America has become the global superpower, singing this line is particularly satisfying today.

(From the Yiddish lyrics)
A cousin came to me/She was as beautiful as gold, the greenhorn
Her cheeks were like red oranges/Her feet just begging for a dance

Hair like finely-wooven silk/Teeth like turned pearls
Eyes like the blue sky in spring/Lips just like cherries

She didn’t walk, only jumped/She didn’t talk, only sang
She was always lively and happy/This is how my cousin was

And so many years passed/And my cousin became worn-out
She collected “paydays” for weeks/Until nothing was left of her

Today when I meet my cousin/And ask her: “How are you, green one”?
She replies with a crooked face/“Columbus’ land shall burn!”

 

Childhood Years / Kinder Yorn / קינדר יאָרן
Lyrics and music: Mordechai Gebirtig, 1877-1942
One of his best-known works, the song is particularly sad considering Gebirtig’s fate: He was deported to the Krakow Ghetto by the Nazis and shot in the street by an SS officer in 1942.

(From the Yiddish lyrics)
Childhood years, sweet childhood years/Forever will you stay awake in my memories
When I think about your time/I feel so much regret and grieving
Oh, how fast have I become old.

I still see the house in front of me/Where I was born and raised
My cradle also, I see it there/Still standing in the same place
Like a dream it has all passed.

And my mother, ah, I loved her so much/Even though she made me go to school
Every pinch from her hand/I still remember so well
Though I haven’t got any marks left

I still see you, Feygele, you beauty/I kiss your red cheeks once more
Your eyes are full with grace/They penetrate my heart
I had thought you would someday be mine

Childhood years, sweet, beautiful flowers/You will never come back to me again
Old and sad years/Cold, gloomy years
Took your beautiful place

Childhood years, I lost you/My faithful mother I also lost
Nothing left of the house/Feygele is also gone
Oh, how fast have I become old.

 

Down With the Police / Daloy Politsey / דאָלוי פּאָליציי — Nieder mit H.C. – Down With H.C.
A German-Yiddish rewriting of the anti-tsarist protest song Daloy Politsey, which was sung (or rather shouted) at many Bundist rallies. Inspired by this tradition, Frey wrote her own couplets for the weekly anti-government Thursday demonstrations (Donnerstagsdemos) against Austria’s right-wing coalition. The song “Nieder mit HC” refers to H.C. Strache, head of far-right nationalist party, and became the hymn of the protest movement. The day the coalition collapsed because of a corruption scandal, May 18, 2019, she sang this song at a demonstration of 5,000 people. The voices of the protesters at the end of the song are from an original recording of that day.

(From the Yiddish and German lyrics)
In every street you go/You hear rumblings
Men, women and children/Are talking about strikes

Brothers, enough of your drudgery/Enough of borrowing and lending
We’re going on strike/Brothers, let us free ourselves!

Brothers and sisters, let us join hands/
Let’s break down little Tsar Nikolai’s walls!

Hey, hey, down with the police!/Down with the Russian ruling class!
Brothers and sisters, let’s forgo formalities/Let’s shorten little Nikolai’s years!

Yesterday he was driving a little wagon full of trash/Today he’s become a capitalist!
Brothers and sisters, let’s all get together/Let’s bury little Nikolai with his mother!
Cossacks and gendarmes, get down off your horses/The Russian Tsar is already dead and buried!

Brothers and sisters, let us join Hands/Let’s drive this right-wing government out of our country!

Hey, Hey, down with HC/And down with the new ÖVP (Austrian Peoples’ Party)
Get out on the street, despite snow and rain/Because it is Thursday again!

Protesting together against “black” and “blue”/We neither want German-nationalist fraternities nor social cuts!
Brothers and sisters, it’s not too late/Let’s fight racism with solidarity!

Together we can topple this right-wing government/And perhaps also shorten our working hours along the way.
We don’t want any borders or security apparatus/And especially not a proto-fascist-ethno-nationalist-state!

 


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