The Grammy-winning  Klezmatics and the Yiddish community chorus, A Besere Velt, come together in a concert featuring lyrics by Woody Guthrie and Yiddish folk songs.

There’s a lot more to Yiddish than knowing the meanings of chutzpah, schlock and glitz. Yiddish even has a connection with Woody Guthrie.

Audiences will see that at the concert "Stand Up, Sing Out!'', which brings together a Grammy Award winning klezmer band, The Klezmatics, and the world’s largest Yiddish chorus, A Besere Velt (A Better World).

Like Guthrie, the Boston-based Yiddish chorus uses song to tell stories of people’s struggles and dreams and to keep alive history and heritage. And like chorus members, Guthrie was inspired by Yiddish and the Jewish immigrant experience, which he came to know while living in the Jewish community of Coney Island, near his mother-in-law, the Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt. During that time, he wrote hundreds of lyrics, which became the starting point for Grammy Award winning songs written by The Klezmatics.

"We tell the immigrant story and this connection with Woody Guthrie is very poignant to us,'' said Judy Ehrlich of Sharon, a six-year chorus member. "We share messages of taking a stand and believing in the power of even one person to make the world better, as our name suggests.''

The concert, Dec. 4 at Somerville Theatre, celebrates the 10th anniversary of A Besere Velt and the 20th of The Klezmatics. The two groups will perform together as well as separately.

Generations ago, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia spoke Yiddish at home and in their communities. Now, it is no longer the language of daily life, although it is kept alive through institutions like Boston Workmen’s Circle in Brookline, which started the Yiddish community chorus and offers Yiddish language classes, lectures, conversation groups and community sings.

And in the years since the National Yiddish Book Center opened in 1980 in Amherst, interest has grown in Yiddish literature, theater, music and language.

As a child, Ehrlich heard her grandparents speak Yiddish and attended a summer camp where she sang Yiddish folk songs and learned about Yiddish culture. A financial manager and mother of two, Ehrlich leads the chorus’s soprano section and sings in its mini-ensemble.

"Singing these songs reclaims a bit of my past and enables me to honor the memories of my grandparents,'' said Ehrlich, 50.

The melodies reflect the influences of music from Jewish rituals and Eastern Europe, and the lyrics tell the story of daily life. "Vacht Oyf!'' ("Wake Up!'') is a rousing anthem about sweatshop workers uniting for better working conditions, while "Shlof Mayn Kind'' ("Sleep My Child'') is a beautiful lullaby of a mother yearning for her immigrant husband to send money so she and her child can join him in America.

"In some ways, the lyrics are universal because they’re about hardships and dreams,'' said chorus director and founder Lisa Gallatin, who has arranged the folk songs into four- and six-part harmonies. "In the music are the stories of immigrants who stood up for equality and workers’ rights and spoke out against bigotry and hatred of all kinds. It inspires us to work for a more just and humane world.''

This vision of a better world and the connection to secular Judaism draw to the chorus many people who have no exposure to Yiddish, Gallatin said.

The 85-member Yiddish chorus, which performs about a dozen times a year, also embraces other musical influences, having performed with groups who sing spirituals and Arabic music. Similarly, The Klezmatics are known for their creative approach to klezmer music, which originated in Eastern Europe as Jewish wedding music.

"The Klezmatics are widely recognized as being among the most innovative of klezmer bands, taking this very traditional form and infusing it with all sorts of influences,'' Gallatin said.

After Nora Guthrie discovered her father’s unpublished lyrics from his Coney Island years, she contacted the Klezmatics to turn them into song. The results are two recordings: "Happy Joyous Hanukkah,'' released in 2004, and "Wonder Wheel,'' which won a 2006 Grammy for Best Contemporary World Music Album.

Nora Guthrie will speak at the concert and be honored, along with Mark Erlich of Jamaica Plain, a prominent labor leader (no relation to Judy Ehrlich), and Sylvia Rothchild of Chestnut Hill, a writer who is the chorus’s oldest member and the author of an award-winning biography of the Yiddish poet I.L. Peretz.
The Patriot Ledger