Aimée Horwich meets the queen of Yiddish music
WHEN Hilda Bronstein launched her career as a Yiddish singer and klezmer musician she did so with a certain degree of chutzpah.
"It was quite a chutzpahdik thing starting a singing career at the point I did," chuckled Hilda, who fronts the Klezmer band Chutzpah!
"And I like to think we play our music with plenty of chutzpah."
Hilda, was born and raised in Leytonstone, east London, to Polish parents.
Her father was from Warsaw and her mother from a small shtetl called Plinsk.
"I started singing in Yiddish as a child - I was that young I can't remember at what age," recalled Hilda, who refused to reveal her age.
"I'm old enough not to have started a new career!"
The mother-of-two owned a gramophone and picked up Yiddish songs while listening to vinyl records and attending the Yiddish theatre.
She explained: "My parents used to take me on he bus to the Yiddish theatre - that was probably the beginning of my musical education.
"And they spoke Yiddish at home, often when they didn't want me to understand what they were saying!
"So it was inevitable I was going to pick it up."
During her time at Leytonstone County High School for Girls, Hilda displayed exceptional musical capability.
She learned to play the violin and piano, all the time nurturing her voice through a Yiddish and classical repertoire.
"I used to sing as a child to the Jewish Blind Society," said Hilda.
"I learned to sing at school and I went to a singing teacher in Hampstead for a short time."
But by the time Hilda was ready to leave school, she had outgrown her penchant for Yiddish singing - not knowing this would later be rekindled - in favour of an interest in classical music.
She left school and joined the Royal College of Music where she received training from the likes of opera singer Ruth Packer.
And just months after graduating she was engaged to Michael - meaning music was put on the backburner.
"I brought up my son and daughter and was running our family," recalled the singer.
"I had a very chequered career - when the children were growing up I retrained at the Open University and then did an MA and PhD in literature at Royal Holloway."
The musician taught at local university colleges for more than a decade and her only musical engagement during those years was as part of a philharmonic choir.
But that all changed when Hilda took early retirement.
She said: "In 2003 I got a copy of the Jewish magazine Renaissance and saw an advert for a Yiddish event.
"My immediate thought was, 'Wow! Yiddish, does anybody still speak it?' - the reason l had lost interest in it in the first place was because I never thought I was going to be able to use it.
"I thought it was dead language."
Pursuing her initial interest Hilda attended the event, during which attendants could only speak Yiddish.
"I didn't understand very much," she smiled.
"But I was amazed by an elderly gentleman, Majer Bogdanski, who was singing at the event in Yiddish.
"He had the same Polish accent as my father had. It took me straight back to my childhood."
Hilda became an active member of the group, but was somewhat horrified when she realised every member must contribute in some way - be it reading a Yiddish poem or telling a story in Yiddish.
She continued: "I didn't know any Yiddish songs anymore, but I said I could probably sing a song if I could remember one - so I did.
"That was the first time I'd sung in Yiddish in too many years."
"It was amazing finding my voice again - the Yiddish touched something deep within me."
Hilda was immediately "hooked" and she did anything to keep it going.
"I took part in events at the Jewish Music Institute, including Ot Azoy, where you learn to read and write Yiddish, and I sang at Klezfest," she explained.
And soon Hilda's hobby was turning into much more, as she began to establish herself as a serious artist in Europe's Klezmer scene.
The singer added: "I met a husband and wife team, Merlin and Paulina Shepherd, at Klezfest and I made a CD with them in 2007.
"It was quite an ambitious thing to do, but I sent a demo to ARC Music and they instantly said they wanted to take it on.
"I was thrilled and totally incredulous."
The debut album, Yiddish Songs Old and New, received a warm response and continues to be played on Yiddish radio stations as far afield as the Czech Republic, America and Canada.
"People have told me they have heard me on radio," laughed Hilda. "It's slightly unreal but exiting - I just love the music, it means so much to me."
Among Hilda's achievements are winning the Mira Rafalowicz Prize for the 2008 Best Interpretation of Yiddish Song at the Jewish Music Festival in Amsterdam.
"My ambition was to get through the first round of auditions," recalled Hilda.
"I cried when I found out I had won, it was a big shock."
Hilda's undeniable connection with the Yiddish language is infectious and she reveals her mission is also to promote it being spoken.
She said: "Yiddish will be lost completely if people don't speak it, hear it or sing about it. Now, that would be tragic."
To deepen her understanding of the language and reconnect with her roots, Hilda travelled to Poland to explore the place where her parents and parents-in-law had lived.
"I visited where my mother had been born and brought up - there was nothing there but grass," she revealed.
"And in the Plinsk record offices I saw photographs of my grandparents and my grandmother's entry of death.
"I burst into tears. I couldn't believe something so ephemeral, this Camelot-like place my family had come from, became so real."
Hilda's second album Yiddish Songs With Chutzpah! released this month, is breaking boundaries because it fuses the usually very different Yiddish and Klezmer styles - something which was commonplace in Hilda's childhood.
"Once I started to sing in Yiddish I found that there seemed to be a divide between the klezmer scene and the Yiddish song scene," she explained.
"Singers accompanied themselves on the piano or guitar and klezmer groups played mostly without a singer but I remember as a child there was no such divide.
"And as I began to sing professionally I had a growing ambition to have a band of my own."
Hilda said that the additional instruments Chutzpah! provide - violin, clarinet, accordion, double bass and percussion - add colour and texture to the songs.
She added: "Holding the CD in my hands is a similar feeling to when I handed in my PhD. Each song is very deeply felt."
The musicians of Chutzpah! are Yair Schleider, Dave Shulman, Meg Hamilton, Paul Moylan and Ronen Kozokaro.
The 17-track CD includes A Yidishe Khasene, Bloye Nekht Fun Tel-Aviv, Geselekh and Makh Tsu Di Eygelekh.
The performer, who runs classes, workshops and hopes to one day perform in Israel, is already planning her next career move.
"I'm planning more workshops, teaching and trips abroad," she said.
"The most fulfilling thing is imparting this to other people so I'm happy to carry on what I'm doing, as long as it's in relation to Yiddish."
Yiddish Songs With Chutzpah! is released on August 31 and can be purchased from www.chiribim.com