Wiesel Wows Em at the Y
The singing of songs from his childhood and youth, complete with Zamir choir and orchestral accompaniment, is not the usual content one expects of an evening with Elie Wiesel. Perhaps an erudite historical analysis or a plea for a more humane world attitude…but melodies, each from a time long gone? This was a different event.
Presented at the 92Y in Manhattan, this was a very different kind of evening for Elie Wiesel – a unique event, he assured his audience. “This concert does not represent a late life career change,” promising that he would continue to teach and lecture. Wiesel began with a familiar melody that was to serve a thread, sung three times throughout the concert, weaving together melodies of memory and experience. V’Taher Libanu, (And Purify Our Hearts) sung at several emotional points of the evening, was an integral part of the songs he would sing, calling all of the melodies “a gift to my grandchild.”
Songs of “Shabbas“ recalled Shabbat generally and specific memories of 1943 and his mid war visit with the Visnikov Rebbe. An extraordinary recollection of the reports given by the Rebbe’s nephew who, having escaped from Auschwitz, told of experiences beyond the comprehension of his listeners. Even as the warnings were heard they were not well heeded. “Hungarians” said Wiesel “knew nothing about Hurwitz.” For many who listened on that momentous Shabbat Shira, the escapee’s tales were the first crack opening the window to the horrors unfolding across Europe.
Recalling images of his grandfather, his mother, and the Europe of his childhood, Wiesel presented a range of traditional Yiddish songs including Roshinkes mit Mandlen (Raisins and Almonds) Oyfm Pripetshik (At the Fireplace) and VenIch Vol Gehat Koiech (If I Only Had Strength.) For some, the melodies jogged memories, for some the songs were historic descriptions (the 92Y provided full translations). Az Moshiach Vet Kumen (When the Messiah Comes) bridged childhood and its end.
Wiesel recalled the Holocaust with the deeply emotional words of Maimonides Ani Maamin (I Believe and Es Brent!(It is Burning) describes the finality not only of a burning village, but of a Jewish reality no longer existing. “Singing in Yiddish is delightful. These are songs that are a cry from the history of a people.” His renditions were simple and straight forward. He made not pretense of cantorial or operatic aspirations. These were melodies without a singer’s standard devices or vocal hooks. This was singing that involved not only the ear, but managed to bypass many 21st century guard rails and reached for the heart. While the level of Yiddish literacy required for full understanding may have been out of the reach of many, the rapt audience could almost envision the experiences of which Wiesel sang, could stand with the viewer on a hillside mourning the loss of home and share with the “widow of Zion” the sadness of bereavement.
“The world is in danger,” said Wiesel. “All of the people, not only the Jewish people…. Is it possible to stand by with arms folded and do nothing?” he queried – challenged his listeners, While the performance was in many ways “other worldly,” Wiesel’s expression of concern were clearly of the immediate and future of this very real world.
The post concert reception was a true paying of homage to the elderly scholar. Many who greeted him, some senior citizens or nearly so, recalled Wiesel’s personal influence on their own or family members’ lives. Photographs were signed, sincere words of recollection exchanged and additional memories made.