How A Black, Baptist-Raised Man Became A Popular Yiddish Singer

Jun 6, 2013

Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell is not your traditional Yiddish singer in more ways than one.
Credit Courtesy of Temple Israel

This weekend in downtown Miami, Temple Israel is hosting a concert of Yiddish folk music. Nothing unusual there. Except -- the singer is black and grew up going to church.

This is the story of how a blind date, the opera and a Coen Brothers movie turned a guy named Anthony Russell into Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell.

Russell’s deep, melodic voice was what got him a start in the opera business, but it was also what was boxing him in.

“There’s a limited profile to what a bass does. The bass is usually the soprano’s father, the bass is a villain, the bass is a king. I think in the opera it was very difficult to find anything that I could relate to,” Russell said.

Russell’s dad is a military man, his mom a concert pianist. He was initially raised Baptist in San Francisco then later as a Pentecostal. Russell got his music degree from a small Catholic college where he was taught mostly by nuns.

Faith and music were huge parts of Russell’s childhood. But it wasn’t until he was an adult that Russell bumped into Judaism.  “I ended up, it just so happens on a blind date with a rabbi.”

The two fell in love and Russell converted. But it would still be a little while before Russell took on Yiddish folk music. His opera career was going pretty well. He had recently debuted with the San Francisco Opera in Philip Glass’s Appomatox.

But once he moved to New York City, he had trouble landing a good gig. Russell started questing whether opera was really what he wanted to do anymore. He tried to remember the last time he felt a meaningful connection to music.

Russell recalled singing during a high holiday service in Woodstock, New York for a group of 1,200 people. As he sang, Russell says he had the strangest feeling, “like lifting out of myself.”

“When I was done, I kind of like opened one eye and saw this tent full of people," Russell said. "Then I could ever so slightly hear somebody sobbing. I thought, that was a time when I had a really meaningful relationship with singing and with the audience.”

So Russell went looking around for more Jewish music that spoke to him. He remembered a song that had struck a chord with him from the movie “A Serious Man” by the Coen Brothers. The singer was a man named Sidor Belarsky, another opera-turned-Yiddish singer who had published a book of Yiddish art songs.

“With Yiddish music, I was able to find these perfect, short narratives from the lives of different kinds of people.  In that way I was able to become more myself both as a person and a singer through this music than I did as a singer in the opera,” he said.

Now Russell travels the country performing those songs. On Sunday, he’ll be in downtown Miami, singing at Temple Israel Sunday, June 9th from 4 to 6 PM. Ticket information can be found here.