Yiddish artist repurposes a 1916 Yiddish song that speaks to today.
Sveta Kundish and Daniel Kahn appear in the video about pandemics. Each takes off a mask when not singing. (Daniel Kahn)

Daniel Kahn has revived the Yiddish song “Mentshn-Fresser” (“Devourer of Mankind”) to comment on COVID-19.

Like so many other musical stage entertainers sidelined by the pandemic, Daniel Kahn has turned to YouTube.

Kahn, who launched his career while growing up in Farmington Hills, has developed a video centered on the Yiddish song “Mentshn-Fresser” (“Devourer of Mankind”), written by Solomon Small (Smulewitz) in 1916 to communicate the brutal environment brought about by tuberculosis. Kahn has revived the song to comment on COVID-19.

Kahn, working with a small group of singers and musicians, joins the new presentation with English subtitles and archival film footage. While the clothing can be recognized as vintage, the masks come across as age-ambiguous.

The recurrence of pandemics and the resulting common hardships and tragedies are dramatized to go along with the lyrics. “Microbes, bacilli, what do you want?” the song asks in its refrain, which punctuates descriptions of what communicable
diseases take.

“In making the video, we all are part of a community that sees in Yiddish culture, music and language a way, not only of engaging with the past, but also a way of engaging with the present and the future,” said Kahn, who has built a career based in Germany. 

“We look to these old songs to better understand our world today. There’s no nostalgia in singing this song, but there is a respect for the past and fierce yet playful engagement with the future.”

Yiddish artist repurposes a 1916 Yiddish song that speaks to today.
Original sheet music of “Mentshn-Fresser” shows a different spelling. Daniel Kahn

The idea for the video came during a Shabbat dinner shared by Kahn (vocals and drums) and his wife, Yeva Lapsker (videography), with Sveta Kundish (vocals) and Patrick Farrell (accordion and sound). After the initial filming, instrumental accompaniment was added by Christian Dawid (tuba, saxophone, clarinet) and Vivien Zeller (violin).

The setting for the video, a deserted farmhouse, was scouted by Lapsker, who built a dance career before working more closely with Kahn and his musical projects.

“We got the historical footage from available archives — online and free to use,” Kahn said. “My wife and I looked through dozens and dozens of [film clips to find] imagery that was fitting. Among the topics addressed specifically are influenza, polio, industrial exploitation and the scourge of war.”

Kahn points out that the song also addresses leadership problems in tackling the issues: 

“Great, deep graves are packed with corpses
A
nd the masters, the emperors, play their chess.”

Yiddish artist repurposes a 1916 Yiddish song that speaks to today.
Original sheet music of “Mentshn-Fresser” shows a different spelling. Daniel Kahn

Kahn, 41, whose core career commitment is the klezmer band Daniel Kahn & the Painted Bird, can look back on a professional highlight two years ago. He played the romantic interest in the first Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof, staged in New York under the direction of Joel Grey.

Kahn started acting when he was 12 as he appeared in plays presented by the Jewish Ensemble Theatre (JET), then in West Bloomfield. After studying theater and writing at the University of Michigan, he connected with Yiddish songs, started learning them and studied the language at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York.

As his video plays across the web, Kahn is living in quarantine with his wife, 9-month-old son and another couple. While formal concert dates are being scheduled for 2021, he gradually is arranging for some social distancing concerts near his home in Berlin. 

“Things are opening up slowly for performers, but it’s a very difficult new reality we’re dealing with,” he said. “Just days ago, I played the first public gig I had played in many, many months. It was outdoors in a churchyard in a small village for 40 or 50 people sitting on benches at a distance from each other.”

Although Kahn has some other small shows coming up, he keeps in mind that Germany is being very cautious in its opening process based on infection rates. If there are population segments with increasing cases, areas are shut down again.

Kahn explains that Germans wear masks without any of the political opposition as experienced in the United States.

“A mask, like a song, is a fairly simple object that doesn’t ever get old,” he said. “[Yiddish] songs function in the same way that these masks do. They are ways of creating a public space so people can interact and relate to each other and share ideas and thoughts. That’s a useful thing.”

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