Singing (in Yiddish) for a better world

Lisa Gallatin leads singers in "Der Yid Der Shmid" last month in Brookline. A Besere Velt is the largest Yiddish chorus in the world.

Lisa Gallatin leads singers in "Der Yid Der Shmid" last month in Brookline. A Besere Velt is the largest Yiddish chorus in the world. (Jodi Hilton for the Boston globe)

BROOKLINE – They meet every Saturday on the third floor of the Goldman Family Residence Center, 80 singers in all, to rehearse the rich four-to-six-part harmonies of Eastern Europe. Together they make up the largest Yiddish chorus in the world.

STAND UP SING OUT: A BESERE VELT WITH THE KLEZMATICS At: Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $35, $50, and $100 at 800-838-3006 or

On a recent afternoon A Besere Velt (A Better World) was rehearsing for a concert that will take place Thursday at Somerville Theatre with the Klezmatics, a world-renowned New York klezmer band. Lisa Gallatin led the chorus like a Broadway director, flailing her hands and flitting across the room between the altos and sopranos.

“Sit on the edge of your seat, feet flat on the floor, back straight!” commanded Gallatin, of Arlington, who was recruited to lead the group 11 years ago while working as a union organizer and directing a picket-line singing group. She pulled out a pitch pipe, gave an assured blow, then taught the group new stanzas to “Bread and Roses” and ironed out a few wrinkles in “Der Yid Der Shmid.”

Many of the songs mirror traditional Eastern European melodies, with lyrics about the labor movement, daily life, social justice, and hope. The song “Vacht Oyf” (Wake Up), for example, written by Jewish factory worker David Edelstat, calls for workers to rise up against poor working conditions.

“The music describes the hardships and dreams of an immigrant generation,” said Gallatin, “from mournful lullabies to rousing workers’ anthems to songs of unity that make you feel like clapping along.”

The chorus began singing in 1997 under the auspices of the Boston Workmen’s Circle, a branch of the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, which was started in 1892 by a handful of Jewish sweatshop workers in lower Manhattan. Today the choir includes members from kids to university faculty.

Daniel Albert-Rozenberg, an 11-year-old sixth-grader at the International School of Boston, learned about the chorus at Sunday school. “Yiddish is the language of my grandparents and singing Yiddish songs is the way I express myself as a Jew,” he said. “It’s the language of the lullaby that my parents used to sing me to sleep with.”

Thursday’s concert will honor three people who represent key elements of the Workmen’s Circle: Mark Erlich of Jamaica Plain (representing the labor movement), the executive secretary-treasurer of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters whose grandfather led an organization of Jewish workers in Eastern Europe and Russia; Sylvia Rothchild of Chestnut Hill (Jewish identity), a choir member and writer who was among the first to edit oral histories of Holocaust survivors; and Nora Guthrie (arts and culture), folk singer Woody Guthrie’s daughter.

A few years ago, Nora Guthrie, a singer-songwriter who lives in New York, discovered song lyrics of her father’s that were never put to music. She approached the Klezmatics, who produced two recordings and were subsequently awarded the 2006 Grammy for best contemporary world music album.

“Mostly it was my grandmother’s voice that really introduced us to Yiddish songs,” said Guthrie. “She would often put us to sleep at night – first telling us the stories behind the songs, then singing them in Yiddish. I had no idea at the time that many of these songs were her own.”

Choir member Norman Berman, 60, a Boston lawyer whose parents were Holocaust survivors, grew up speaking Yiddish with his mother. One of his favorite songs is “Vilne,” about the town in Lithuania where his mother lived. She was one of its few survivors.

“When we sing it,” said Berman, “I think about my mother being there as a teenager, imagining the promise of the future.”

Susan Chaityn Lebovits can be reached at [email protected].

© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.

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