Review and Interview by Dave Thompson: “Music Bridging our Profane World to the Holiness of the World to Come”
I stumbled across The Witches of Lublin when I was browsing what had been nominated for the Audie Awards – saw that it had been co-written by Ellen Kushner (of Swordspoint fame) and featured Neil Gaiman as one of the actors. It was co-written by musicians Elizabeth Schwartz and Yale Strom. It’s beautiful and haunting — a heartbreaker of audio drama. I paid $6.95 for it, which is kind of pricey compared to other audio books and programs of much greater length available at Audible, but I’ve now listened to it twice, and it’s worth every cent.
It’s Poland, 1797, a difficult time and place for Jewish people, which makes it all the more dangerous for a small group of Jewish women doubling as “klezmer” musicians. Rivke is the daughter of a supposed Jewish mystic (the table used to rise when they sang together as a family), and she leads a band of her two unmarried daughters, and orphaned granddaughter. Women playing music in a crowd mixed with men is forbidden, but Rivke and her family need the money it brings in for the coming Passover. It doesn’t take long for word of their incredible music to spread, which makes things uncomfortable for the struggling women, and leads the story to it’s captivating, haunting climax.
The audio drama is just under an hour’s length. It’s jam packed with amazing music (courtesy of Yale Strom) and sound effects — but all of that goes toward enhancing the story, not detracting from it. This is in no small part to the performances — particularly Tovah Feldshuh as Rivke. I’ve already started searching for books she’s read, her voice was so mesmerizing. The rest of the cast does a great job supporting Feldshuh. As Sofia, Elizabeth Boskey’s stunning voice captures innocence, idealism, and naivete. Simon Jones gives real menace and privilege to Graf Sobiesky. Finally, Gaiman, who for many geeks is our icon of depth and charm, brings a certain weight to Bogdan’s role as the count’s uncommon son.
The second hour is made up by Yale Strom’s fantastic music (and brief asides/introductions about how the music fits into Jewish culture, as well as the drama itself) which his wife Elizabeth Schwartz sings on. It’s gorgeous music, and as a result, I’ve now seen Strom and Schwartz play live.
This is a first-rate production about culture and women, music and storytelling, magic and spirituality, the love between a family, and the love between two young people. It’s not terribly long, but it’s very much worth a couple hours of your time. So after listening to it, I wrote Ellen Kushner and asked if I could do an interview with her for it, and she got the whole gang together!
- Sue Zizza (Producer and Director)
- Ellen Kushner (Author)
- Elizabeth Schwartz (Author)
- Yale Strom (Author, Music Director & Violinist)
Dave Thompson: First of all, thank you so much to all of you for being willing to do this interview! The Witches of Lublin is an hour-long audio drama about a group of Jewish women who play Klezmer music in Poland in the late 18th century. Can you tell me what inspired it?
Elizabeth: Yale and I have been friends with, and great mutual fans of, Ellen and her partner, Delia Sherman, for years. It was Ellen who said, “You know, we should do something together.” Yale and I have worked in almost every medium except radio (okay, and painting), so we were excited to venture into this new territory with someone who knows that world like the back of her hand. We wanted our project to be told from a strong women’s point of view and of course, be full of great music. I remembered that Yale’s research had uncovered references in 18th Century Europe of Jewish women playing music in public, and that became the nucleus of our idea. And we did all this standing in the lobby of Ellen’s apartment, so when the muse hits, she really hits hard and fast!
Dave: Collaborations fascinate me – can you tell me what the experience was like working on this project? Had you all worked together before? How did this originate as an audio drama? What did the process for writing this look like?
Elizabeth: I think some of my first answer overlaps here. Yale and I have been working together for many years – at least as long as we’ve been married. Before we began this project with Ellen, Yale and I produced films, music and books together, which we still do, of course. Our collaboration with Ellen involved lots of cross-country travel (as she’s in New York and we’re in California), staying in each other’s guest rooms, and it really was fun because we all have so much admiration for each other. In terms of process, I’d confer first with Yale and then bang out a draft and email it to Ellen; she’d do the same and send it back to us. We each seemed to have complimentary strengths; once we really got underway, this was a happy and fruitful discovery. We got a commission from the Michigan Festival of Sacred Music to stage a live workshop of our earliest draft, and, subsequently, we had two readings in New York with some spectacular and generous actors, with writers and actors in the audiences, all of whom gave us excellent notes. Slowly but surely, we shaped the material until we had our working draft. This is the draft that Sue read and she gave us her notes for the final polish.
Ellen: Um, yeah. That. What Elizabeth said. I’ll just add that the reason we went with an audio drama was chiefly because of my experience in public radio. When we began the project, I had just moved back to New York City, after almost 20 years on WGBH in Boston, 10 of them as the host/producer of my own national public radio series, Sound & Spirit. I’d also done three award-winning Jewish holiday specials for public radio, so I had a pretty good sense of what the public radio system was looking for. Although everyone loves straight-up radio drama, it can be awfully hard for a station to place a random hour into its schedule. So the idea of a Passover special made lot of sense.
All three of us (the original authors) love storytelling – really it’s essentially what each of us does, from platforms as varied as filmmaking, interacting with concert audiences, and writing novels. So we started by wanting to tell a story that incorporated music and drama. And I had a pretty keen sense that public radio stations would want to air it! The fact that SueMedia then turned it into both a CD and a downloadable “audiobook” was something we’d only dreamed of. But such is the power of collaboration!
Dave: Sue, the cast that was put together for this was stellar – from Tovah Feldshuh and Elizabeth Boskey to Simon Jones and Neil Gaiman. What went into bringing this group of actors together – were there certain actors you had in mind for parts right from the beginning? Were there performances that surprised you?
Sue: Casting an audio drama is like putting together a choir. You need to have an overall sound you are hoping to achieve and then work to find the voices that will bring that sound together. In this choir you also need to be sure that each voice is unique and distinct to ensure clarity for the audience.
In the case of The Witches of Lublin, when we first started casting in the summer of 2010, Yale and Elizabeth suggested both Tovah for the play and later Miriam for The Devil’s Brides (our companion CD of music from the show, with narration) because they had recently worked with them. Tovah was also someone I had known from another audiobook project which my partner and our audio engineer, David Shinn, had worked on. I was aware of her wonderful range and ability to build a character in sound only. With Tovah in the lead I then had to find voices that would make (and keep) it clear to the audiences who was who as they came in and out of scenes.
I have been producing audio drama since 1987 and so was able to ask Simon Jones, Barbara Rosentblat, and Tim Jerome if they might like to participate. I also have worked with a lot of great character actors who we were able to get together for our crowd scenes in the markets and at the party. I even had a student of mine from NYU (a big fan of Simon Jones) volunteer to spend the day filling in backgrounds when we needed.
Also, since there had been workshops of the play before, Ellen, Yale, and Elizabeth suggested some audio actors they knew and had worked with, among them Anne Bobby, Sam Guncler, and Joanne Borts.
We also held auditions and invited many wonderful audio actors to come in and read and found Elizabeth Boskey, Yelena Schmulenson, Nick Sullivan and Joyce Feurring through this process.
Ellen is an old friend of Neil Gaiman, whom David and I had worked with years ago for Seeing Ear Theatre, so we were able to ask him to play opposite Simon, that made it easier for them to match each other’s accents and find the ‘royal’ attitude they need for the Graf and his son.
Dave: I was very much moved by how the characters kept true to their spirituality and culture, and yet — also breaking from some of those traditions and roles. Obviously, it was a difficult life for Jews in Poland in general — but these women are also Klezmer musicians, which makes them outsiders among their peers. Often we hear about cultures and/or religions as if they’re monolithic entities, when they’re really quite diverse. This felt incredibly honest and personal while embracing that diversity – what were the challenges of balancing all of that? How do you think that diversity affects the dominating cultures/religions?
Ellen: Yes! Thank you for noticing that: We worked hard not to present an idealized version of Old World Jewry in which everything was hunky-dory in “our little village of Anatevka” (which is so many people’s image of that life, from that time they saw Fiddler on the Roof), and the only Bad Guys were the Gentiles … Because the truth is, that to be a woman and an artist in any society can be a real balancing act. We were as interested in Rivke and her daughters’ struggles within the constraints of their own community, as in the Double Hazard that they, as members of that community, faced from the greater world.
As a writer, I took my direction both from a combo of my own instincts for what human beings are like, no matter what, and from Yale’s remarkable knowledge of the traditions and the period. So, over to him:
Yale: Jewish life in Poland until the partition of Poland in 1772 (finalized in 1795) was relatively good. At the time our story is set, Jewish life was more or less calm; however, Easter was always a period of instability and danger, because of the Medieval anti-Semitic myth of Blood Libel. Up until the 1790’s, Jews had been under the strict, and some might say, heavy, hand of the rabbis who set the tone for the Jewish communities. Even 150 years after the infamous Chmielincki pogroms and the false messiahs of Shabbatai Tsvi and Jacob Frank (who tore communities apart), the Jews sought social and intellectual release through music and the growing spiritual philosophy of Khasidism. One of the key components of Khasidism was (and remains) that the individual’s connection to God could be attained without being a Talmudic scholar, but rather, through prayer, song and even dance. The rise of Khasidism provided more opportunities for klezmorim to make a living. The klezmer’s social status with the community was fluid; some klezmers were so famous for their virtuosity they did not need a “day job”. But most were lower class and some, quite poor. They were respected for the essential role they played at weddings and other celebrations, however, their poverty and peripatetic lifestyle caused many in the community to look down on them. The status of women wasn’t low, but they had a specific role in daily Jewish life, and that was orthodox – there were no denominations like we know today. Modesty was expected. There were women who learned Torah and Talmud (not at a yeshiva but privately) but this was not the norm and there were even women musicians, which was even rarer, for two reasons: For the sake of modesty, women were not allowed to perform or sing in front of men (Jewish or gentile) and rape was a genuine danger for women traveling by themselves on the roads.
Elizabeth: One last word about the writing — sometimes it’s easy to have the characters serve your point of view, but then one can end up with very flat, two-dimensional archetypes. We wanted our characters to be fully realized and complex individuals, neither good nor bad. It wasn’t merely a question of what would be more compelling for the audience, but what would make our world of 18th-Century Lublin feel relatable and what would give the actors a foundation to build upon. We focused on each character’s arc and individual voice; under Sue’s direction, the actors brought them to life beautifully.
Dave: Elizabeth, the characters talk about the magic and spirituality of music – of how it’s able to bridge a gap between our profane world, and the coming holy one. As both a musician and a writer (and filmmaker!), how do you capture that kind of spirituality in your own art. And how do you keep it from being preachy?
Elizabeth: What an interesting question! Klezmer music historically was functional music from Jewish life, particularly for joyous occasions like weddings and brises [ritual circumcisions]— people often approach me at concerts to ask whether I’d ever consider performing at a wedding and of course I do it, there’s no greater way to honor my musical forebears. As a woman, I sometimes come up against the Orthodox ban on a woman’s singing, but those moments are always interesting to me as a student of human nature. I don’t question another person’s piety, but I have noticed that this ban is important for some, not at all for others. I’ve sung for Khasidim in Brooklyn, and in Israel had an experience with Haredim, who normally might have been expected to leave when they realized a woman would be singing, but instead came onstage and accompanied me (which really surprised everyone in the room). I’ve also been invited to break this ban of “Kol Ishah” (Hebrew: “voice of the woman”), which is a tremendous honor for me as a musician, a Jew and feminist. I perform frequently in Europe and particularly in Eastern Europe, where it’s impossible to ignore the black hole in the room: the Holocaust, and that I might be singing in a city where there was once a thriving Jewish population, now none. Sometimes in those circumstances, I close my eyes and imagine a chorus of voices behind me and I feel that I’m doing something necessary. I’m not there to lecture to the audience or make them feel guilty and for me, there’s no room to be maudlin. I want to show them what beauty they’ve missed and encourage them to want Jewish life and art back in their lives. If all that love touches them, there couldn’t possibly be anything more spiritual for me.
Yale: Music for me is the most available form of expression for all humans; we all have rhythm coming from our hearts and lungs and good or bad, we can all sing. It’s the most natural way to express ourselves and connect with others.
Dave: Yale, since this is a story about musicians, the music you wrote for this was probably just as important as any single character in the show. How did you approach this task? Did you have ideas for the songs before you started writing, during, or after? Also, I would now like to become a Hot Pstromi groupie. Any tips for how I can make this happen?
Yale: I began conducting my klezmer ethnographic research in Central and Eastern Europe in 1981 and since then, have probably been back more than 80 times. Whether I’m uncovering a rare and unknown gem of original music or composing my own, this research is always the foundation for what I do. For “The Witches of Lublin”, I first read some monographs of Jewish life in late-18th Century Poland that referenced music. Armed with this knowledge and my research, I began to compose. The best compliment I’ve gotten is that some people believe these are all original melodies from the period. Each melody I composed was for the specific scenes and the instrumentation for our characters was based on period-specific instruments. So for example, at the Sabbath scene, only voices and table-pounding would have been appropriate. I knew my creative parameters but sometimes, the musical needs did come before the action was written — for example, where there are references to tuning — and carrying — like the heavy tsimbl played by Sorele. There are three traditional melodies that I found in my archives that I arranged for the play; the rest is original. And we always need groupies! For an overview of all our CD’s, as well as our concert schedule, you can visit my own website,www.yalestrom.com, or our band’s website, www.hotpstromi.com.
Dave: Ellen, how was writing and working on this project different from your recent audiobooks of Swordspoint and Welcome to Bordertown (and the upcoming The Privilege of the Sword)? Was the now-legendary Basement Studio utilized at all?
Ellen: (laughing) All very different projects, Dave! Let’s see … Well, to begin with, Swordspointwas written only by me, and the new audiobook was originally going to be read only by me. For Witches, we needed a big studio to fit all the actors into: Sue really believes, and I agree with her, that people give their best performances when they’re playing in ensemble. But for my solo read, we used a private studio that Sue’s partner and engineer, David Shinn, had built in the basement of a private house in Brooklyn. It is tiny; there is literally not enough room to swing a cat in there! But one reader with one microphone, chair & music stands fits perfectly. However, once we decided to expand the Swordspoint project to an “illuminated” version with actors doing some of the scenes, we had to hire a bigger studio in Manhattan, to bring in all the voice talent. That was fun! As an author, it is a huge kick to hear talented actors bringing your words to life – I know Yale & Elizabeth felt that way about theWitches recording, as well. And in both cases, it was great to be able to sit in, as authors, on the recording, and get to have an opinion. It was all very carefully handled: actors need to be hearing from just one director! But in each case, Sue was incredibly respectful and careful to check in with us during sessions, and to pass on notes to the actors when it made a difference.
Welcome to Bordertown — the anthology I co-edited with Holly Black (for which we also both wrote stories) — is being done by Brilliance Audio out of town, but again, I’m a very lucky author/editor: I got to have input on choice of narrators, and also to read the introduction and some of the poems myself – that was done in a studio in Manhattan. And again, there was a level of collaboration unusual in this business: I convinced our producer, John Grace, to let me work with Drew Miller (of Boiled in Lead) to create original music for it, and … well, it’s coming out later in April, and you’ll see!
Dave: I listened to The Witches of Lublin via Audible, but it was originally created to be broadcast on radio. What can people do to get their radio stations to play it?
Sue: If they go to this page of our website they will find a letter they can send their local program directors – they just need to get to them as soon as possible, with the Passover broadcast Season starting around March 31st this year!
Dave: Are there any projects you all are working that we can be on the lookout for in the upcoming future?
Sue: Right now I’m working with Ellen on her books, but Yale and I are also hoping to get a project of his done, and I was just given a script that looks at artists from the WPA program. But, The Witches of Lublin is a wonderful perennial program that reaches out to so many communities – we have had stations play it for other times of the year than Passover, so I know I will be visiting with Rivke and her girls for many years to come.
Yale: I always have projects coming up. I’ve just finished a documentary about a Jewish survivor who was rescued by none other than Lord Josiah Wedgwood (of Jasperware fame), “A Letter to Wedgwood”, which is just starting the festival circuit. My bandmates and I are finishing a book for Scarecrow Press called “Shpil! The Art of Klezmer” and I’ve just begun workshops of a new dance-musical I’m co-creating at the La Jolla Playhouse. I’m in production on a new documentary film and we have an active performance schedule. Elizabeth always jokes (I think she’s joking) that if she didn’t work with me, she’d never see me. I know a lot about peripatetic klezmers.
Elizabeth: My performance schedule is (happily) pretty heavy right now and I’m working on some fiction and another script. My chapter on klezmer vocal technique for “Shpil!” was non-fiction, which I find a lot more challenging than inventing a family from 18th Century Poland. Yale… I wasn’t joking. I’ll be spending a good deal of time in New York this fall performing in a new production of Tony Kushner’s “A Dybbuk”.
Ellen: The paperback edition (with an insanely cool new cover) of Welcome to Bordertown is coming out on April 10th, to be followed shortly by Brilliance Audio’s production of the audio book, featuring me reading a few things, and original music by Drew Miller (of the iconic band Boiled in Lead), which I’ve been working with him on all month!
Right now Sue & I are in the studio, recording & producing The Privilege of the Sword audiobook for Neil Gaiman Presents; if all goes well, it will be released in June. I think there’s something else, but I forget — either that, or I’m not allowed to tell you! I must say that, in This Crazy Modern World, its almost a full-time job just getting out (or up online) promoting one’s work! Fortunately, I’m very gregarious; I could hang out all day on Facebook and Twitter and LiveJournal (and indeed, sometimes — shhhh! — I do)!
Dave: Thank you again so very much for doing this interview! I absolutely adored listening to The Witches of Lublin!
Dave Thompson is the host and co-editor of PodCastle, the fantasy fiction audio magazine. His own fiction has been published by Bull Spec and Apex Magazine, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @krylyr.