An Unexpected Yiddish Balladeer

December 20, 2010 | By

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Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was an African-American singer, actor, and activist who sang the songs of his ancestors–and ours.

Robeson learned Hebrew from his father, a Christian preacher, and he became captivated by the Jewish stories and hymns he heard in childhood, several of which had been adapted by blacks in the American South. In Robeson’s professional life, Jewish songs accounted for some of his most popular numbers, including “Hassidic Chant (Kaddish)” and “Zog Nit Keynmol (Song of the Warsaw Ghetto).”

Later in life, Robeson used his popularity to affect social change, fighting for the integration of major league baseball, lobbying against South African apartheid, and supporting unions in America.

He also campaigned for the rights of Russian Jews while on tour in the USSR in 1949, and met with the Jewish writer and activist Itzik Feffer in Moscow. Soon after, Feffer was assassinated by the government–an event which spurred Robeson to perform Yiddish songs in his Russian concerts, in spite of a warning by the Soviet government not to get involved.

If anyone ever crafted their sadness into art, it was Robeson–a mournful and beautiful voice haunted by his own people’s history, and the history of other peoples.

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