When former Secretary of State Colin Powell was growing up in the South Bronx, he learned Yiddish. For a black teenager working at a baby equipment store in a Jewish neighborhood, speaking the native tongue was essential to communicate with the customers. There’s even a rumor that he sang Yiddish songs.
Less than 50 years before, those same Yiddish songs were popularized by another famous black man, Paul Robeson. This year, the 15th annual “A World of Jewish Culture at Piccolo Spoleto” will pay tribute to Robeson’s Americanization of Jewish folk music with a presentation and live performance from singer and Citadel grad Morris Robinson on June 3.
Martin Perlmutter, one of the event organizers and director of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston, believes “A World of Jewish Culture” is a reminder of Charleston’s rich — and diverse — roots.
“The black and Jewish communities have a long history together in the South,” he said. “We’ve both been here a really long time and gained significant alliances. This is a way to highlight the happy connection.”
Charleston was once a mercantile city with the largest Jewish population in the U.S., and it’s home to one of the nation’s oldest synagogues, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim.
Jonathan Karp, the executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society and associate professor of history at the State University of New York College at Binghamton, will deliver a presentation on Robeson.
“Robeson was a phenomenally talented man: college football star, successful film and stage actor and singer of enormous emotional impact,” Karp said. “He was able to impress and win over segments of the American population that had been closed off to black performers before.”
Robeson could sing in at least 12 languages. He was the first black man to star in a Broadway play, Othello, 1943. His politics were decidely left-leaning and anti-imperialist, which got him blacklisted during the McCarthy hearings and which prompted the U.S. government to revoked his passport during the Cold War.
“He’s sort of an interesting character because he believed many social values were embedded in Jewish culture,” Perlmutter said.
Karp’s presentation will explore why Jewish music was so important to Robeson and why his performance meant so much to his audience.
“For them, Paul Robeson represented an ideal of America that many of these Jews and immigrants could identify with very strongly,” he said.
As for the addition of Morris Robinson, an All-Southern Conference standout football player-turned-bass singer?
“It’s a wonderful addition to my own conception, which was just to play recorded music,” Karp said. “Paul Robeson’s music and spirit continue to be inspiring. I would encourage those younger audience members who don’t know about him to come out and experience his music from someone closer to their age.”
The World of Jewish Culture series is sponsored by the Yaschik/Arnold Jewish Studies Program at College of Charleston and the Herzman-Fishman Foundation.