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Recreating Yiddish cabaret in Helsinki

by Simon Broughton

The discovery of forgotten archives, musicians from Helsinki, Berlin and New York bring the little-known Yiddish songs of Jac Weinstein to life and shed new light on Helsinki’s Jewish history.

The title of this new album and concert, Helsinki Yiddish Cabaret, will probably come as a surprise to most. We might expect Yiddish cabaret from Warsaw, Krakow, Vilnius… but Helsinki? “People in Finland were also surprised,” says Finnish Yiddish scholar Simo Muir, who is behind this project and its Helsinki premiere on 7 November 2022 as part of Etnosoi! Festival. “Also people in the Jewish community were very interested. The theatre was so packed somebody said there were probably more Jews in the Alexander Theatre than in the Helsinki synagogue.” 

The idea of recreating the world of Yiddish cabaret in Helsinki came from a chance meeting between Simo Muir and American singer Lorin Sklamberg, one of the best-known singers of the Jewish klezmer revival. He’s been a member of New York’s Klezmatics since they started in 1986 and is involved in Yiddish song performances around the world.

Simo Muir had discovered manuscripts in the cellar of a house that belonged to the Helsinki Jewish community in 2005, as it happens not far from the Alexander Theatre where they were once again to see the light of day… or night. He was vaguely aware of Jac Weinstein (1883-1976), a Helsinki-born Yiddish playwright and impresario, but had been told that all his material had been thrown away. What he now had his hands on were sketches, comic songs, satirical pieces and operettas that were mainly performed by the Idishe dramatishe gezelshaft in Helsingfors (Jewish Dramatic Society in Helsinki) which Weinstein established in 1922. Helsinki at this time was predominantly Swedish-speaking, as was Finland’s, very patriotic, national composer Sibelius


Jac Weinstein was a Helsinki-born Yiddish playwright and impresario. Photo: National Archives of Finland.


To record and perform the pieces, Muir assembled an international team of performers including Lorin Sklamberg and clarinettist Michael Winograd from New York, several Finnish musicians, including Roma violinist Maritza Lundberg, the three singers from Värttinä, and Yiddish vocalist Sasha Lurje, born in Latvia, living in Berlin. 

“We all had interesting roles,” says Winograd. “I was the music director, Simo was the project producer and Lorin was the artistic producer - and Sasha and Lorin were each other’s vocal producers. Seeing the two of them interact was great in a technical way. They complement each other very well.”

“Our starting point was to find the style,” Muir confesses. “It wasn’t klezmer and actually these people disliked klezmer, to them it was old-fashioned, rural and from the shtetl. People wanted to be modern and European. It was the age of Josephine Baker, who was very popular. It’s transnational material, not klezmer.”

Muir goes on to explain how Weinstein even wrote a sketch featuring two feisty old ladies complaining that nowadays the young people only like shimmy and jazz, not the stuff they grew up with. It’s true that it’s only the klezmer revival that has made the word and the music respectable. 

“I didn’t think of this as a klezmer band,” admits Winograd. “It’s more a theatre band, but I’m a klezmer musician to the core. Yet a band like this could have been in the pit at one of these shows.”


Specifically Finnish, Jewish, Yiddish culture

Several of the songs on the album come from the New Year’s Revue of 1930. What would an event like this be like? It was clearly for the community - the language was Yiddish - and it satirised events that had taken place in the last 12 months. One of the mournful but jokey songs is about the Jewish football team Stjärnan (The Star) losing a match to a Finnish team.


I was a star on the field today

I flung the ball far across the field

From behind came a thief, a goy [non-Jew]

And gave me a kick in my - oy,oy,oy, oy!


Another is a comical celebration of all the confectionary and clothing shops in central Helsinki where most of the Jewish community were employed. It’s like a roll-call of Jewish family names. Other songs are more serious, about the economic collapse of the rag trade and the increasing secularisation of society. The Yiddish-speaking community, who mainly originated in the Russian Empire, were very conservative compared to those around them, but gradually this started breaking down. One song talks about the Rabbi coming to close up a store on the Sabbath.


But as soon as the Rabbi went away

The Holy Shabbat came to an end.

I removed the lock and customers started to come in

And my wife sang among the jackets…


And then there’s the probably ironical shimmy about the brand-new, Western-style Rabbi, who isn’t as respected as the old fulsomely bearded ones from the east. 

The New Year’s Revue of 1930 was held in the Jewish Co-educational School Helsinki. Other events were held in the prestigious Balderin Sali, just off the Esplanade in Helsinki. “People would dress-up well, men with jackets and long tails, women with pearls,” says Muir. Jac Weinstein appears on the cover of the album at one of these events. He’s smartly dressed in a black jacket and tie, wearing glasses and smoking a cigar. A respected member of the community, certainly not revealing the subversive humour he had bubbling inside. 

The archival texts (in Yiddish transliterated into Latin script, not Hebrew letters) have no music attached. They were intended to go with existing tunes and that’s what’s happened here plus some melodies composed by Winograd and Sklamberg. The idea of these songs would be that the music would be known and popular, by Jewish or non-Jewish composers.

What gives this a particularly Finnish, and not just international flavour, is the use of a popular Finnish tune, ‘Ievan Polkka’ which perfectly fits the lyrics of ‘A idisher kvartet (A Jewish Quartet), a comic song about Jewish musicians. This also features Susan AhoMari Kaasinen and Karoliina Kantelinen, the three vocalists from the celebrated Finnish group Värttinä.

“What makes this Finnish is that it is Finnish,” says Winograd. “It is specifically Finnish, Jewish, Yiddish culture.” Värttinä also add their voices to ‘Chaim-Yankl’, a tragi-comic song sung by a woman left behind when her love goes to America, sung to a Swedish cabaret melody.

“I was starstruck when they first showed up. I’ve been a fan of Värttinä since I can’t remember when,” adds Winograd. “It was fun recording Yiddish with them - so different from Finnish. All of us schooling them in the vocals. And when they joined us a few months ago at the performance in Helsinki it was wonderful.”


Performing Yiddish Cabaret with Värttinä at the Etnosoi! Festival. Photo: Minna Hatinen


Three of the songs come from a 1930 operetta Milyonern (The Millionaires) which Weinstein wrote about a tailor who wins the lottery, adapted from a play by Sholem Aleichem. The music doesn’t survive so they’ve been composed by Lorin Sklamberg and Michael Winograd. In the opening song, written and sung by Lorin Sklamberg, he seems to enjoy being in the Russian army and getting away from the daily ‘rag trade’ routine. 


About rags of all sorts, we forget indeed.

We do not need to fight with customers, To fight, to fight.

Our boss, the angry one, Is only like a dream…

We sit on the horse and crack the whip.


By the time we get to the third song, they’re imagining they’re in the money and able to throw their sewing gear away and say that in life it’s not the brain that counts, but simply money. Muir says this is Weinstein making fun of the nouveau riche in the community. 

“These are some of my favourite tracks from the record,” says Winograd, “because they come from the same piece they hang together in a way the other pieces don’t and when we left the studio we were wondering if we should write music for the whole Millionaires production.”

One of the surprising instrumental sounds is that of the theremin, played by American keyboardist Rob Schwimmer. The theremin is an extraordinary electronic musical instrument played by waving your hands in the air and created by Russia’s Leon Theremin in 1919. It makes a slidey, soaring sound that has been used for eerie film scores. It’s unlikely it was used in any of Weinstein’s shows, but it was a novel instrument of the time and there was indeed a theremin concert in the Helsinki conservatoire in 1938. 


Jewish community in Helsinki’s past

One thing that makes this very different - and much more light-hearted - than other Jewish projects from the period is that there is no Holocaust. In Finland there were no anti-semitic laws and Weinstein’s Yiddish shows continued to some degree during the war. In 1941, when Finland joined Nazi Germany in the war against the Soviet Union, Finnish Jews found themselves in the surreal position of fighting in an alliance with their worst enemies, the Nazis. 

None of the surviving lyrics touch on the politics of the time or the fate of the Jews, but ‘Tif iz di nakht’ (Dark is the Night) is the song of a Finnish Jewish soldier on the Russian front. It’s sung to the tune of a beautiful Russian song of the same name that Simo Muir says became popular after the Moscow Armistice signed by Finland and the USSR in September 1944. 


Dark is the Night. I do not know what the future will hold,

When the sun will rise again: Maybe death, maybe life.

All around can be heard only the sound of the cannons.

All around is lamentation and eternal suffering.


Another of the darker songs, also from the 1930 revue, is called ‘Der idisher mark’ (The Jewish Market). Narinkka, is the Finnish name of the market, which in Russian means ‘at the market’. It’s where Russians and Jews came to sell second-hand clothes right in the centre of town. The song paints a grim picture of the clothing market which closed down around that time.


It has the smell of a dark ghetto, And of its iron fences

Of mockery, oppression, And suffering and fleeing - 

The Jewish market is its name.


“I was keen to include this song,” admits Muir, “because there’s a kind of complacency in Finland thinking that here everything was alright and there was no anti-Semitism. But songs like this prove that those sentiments were definitely around and it’s important to remind people of that.”

It’s a composition by Michael Winograd and starts with a sweetly melancholy clarinet melody with an arch shape, rising and falling in waltz time. Similarly the vocal melodies build up and then fall in arpeggios. The melodic shape of the song is striving and ultimately failing. 

“You take a look at the lyrics and you ask questions,” explains Winograd. ”How do you compose a song? You get into the atmosphere of it and read the lyrics. This required a heavier setting and a more pensive composition. It was written as a duet and we had two very strong singers.”

Winograd doesn’t miss the chance to give himself some lovely swirling accompaniments on clarinet supported by Rob Schwimmer on piano, adding just a little decoration but not too much to distract from the emotional power. It’s one of the strongest songs on the album. 

Ultimately the question is why revive this material? The Jewish community in Helsinki is no longer Yiddish speaking. But this is Helsinki’s past and the city’s history and one that can be enriched by spreading it to a wider audience through music like this. For anybody who’s interested, this music is surprising, moving and fun. Jac Weinstein, who virtually no one knew about previously, is an entertaining chronicler of Jewish life in Helsinki at its most crucial time.


Featured photo: Helsinki Yiddish Cabaret (photo: Rimma Lillemägi)