Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman was born in Vienna, Austria, but she was raised in pre-war Chernovitz, Romania, one of the centers of Yiddish intellectual culture. She survived the Holocaust in the ghetto in Chernovitz and came to the United States in 1951. Active as a teacher and songwriter, she also began to write poetry and gained a reputation as one of America's premier Yiddish poets. Many of her songs cover a wide range of subjects from subway musicians, to personal reminiscences, to descriptions of street life in her hometown, the Bronx. The renaissance of klezmer music in the United States allowed her large repertoire of traditional and original material to be performed by many artists including Theodore Bikel, Adrienne Cooper, and Michael Alpert.
Schaechter-Gottesman has been acclaimed as one of the great living unaccompanied ballad singers as well. She takes great pride in her work with children, writing songs especially for them and performing frequently for young audiences. In 1998, she was inducted into the People's Hall of Fame by the organization City Lore based in New York City.
NEA: First of all, congratulations on your Heritage Fellowship. I was wondering if you could tell me how you felt when you heard the news that you had received it.
MS. SCHAECHTER-GOTTESMAN: I was surprised. I didn't expect anything. I was amazed and really very happily surprised.
NEA: Describe your earliest memories of singing and writing songs in Yiddish?
MS. SCHAECHTER-GOTTESMAN: I was born into a singing family. I didn't think too much about it, I just did it. Singing and songs were my first school. My mother was a great singer and knew many songs, and she was recorded in Yiddish, German, Ukrainian, and many other languages We spoke many languages because we come from a province that changed many times. It's been part of Austria, Romania, Russia.
I didn't write any songs in the beginning. I just sang. In fact, I didn't like it if my mother changed any words or got new inspirations. I was very critical as a child. If she left something out or put in something new, I didn't approve. When I start to write myself, I realized that it was her creativity.
NEA: What makes a Yiddish song authentic?
MS. SCHAECHTER-GOTTESMAN: If it's in Yiddish, it's already Yiddish culture. It doesn't have to have any particular content. We sing about work, about dreams, about love, about almost everything. The language itself is the culture. The content is only part of it.
NEA: When did you start writing your own songs?
MS. SCHAECHTER-GOTTESMAN: That started when I became a teacher in the Yiddish school where my children went in the afternoons after public school. I wrote music plays for the holidays. This is what I started with, the musical plays that I did with children. The songs came much later, when my children were grown and I got out of the schools and was on my own. I wrote for myself. They came when I was working or driving, doing things that were rhythmic –- the movement brought up a memory and the poetry.
I don't force it. If a melody springs up and then a melody sentence, I can go on to write a song. But I have to be inspired. I don't sit down and say I want to write a song. It just has to come.
NEA: What would you say are your favorite motifs? What are your favorite kinds of songs?
MS. SCHAECHTER-GOTTESMAN: I love the love songs, which my mother sang. She especially loved the sad songs and always cried when she sang. I don't cry but I still love the sad, melancholy songs or songs and ballads describing a tragedy. I also like the poetry ones of set to music with love or longing themes.
During the Roosevelt era there were a lot of songs with social themes - about the factories, the shops, very poor conditions - which were very good in that day and time. We've moved away from that. Our people don't work anymore in the poor shops - other people do. They make the songs, I guess. I'm not so in favor of the national themes. I don't like songs that are especially written for a hymn or for a specific occasions. I like the more poetic, lyrical songs.
NEA: What are the challenges to carrying on the Yiddish musical traditions?
MS. SCHAECHTER-GOTTESMAN: They used to teach it in the Yiddish schools, but now in the suburbs they have only Sunday schools, where it's taught just once a week, which is very little. I don't know how much the kids learn there. Some of the teachers have studied with me or with others like me. But it's not as natural as it was for us, the old time teachers, who were born with the language and with the culture.
NEA: I read that you also have written songs about subway musicians and street life.
MS. SCHAECHTER-GOTTESMAN: I really feel inspired while traveling to or on subway, or by car, or when I'm working. I always carry a pad of paper and sometimes a tape recorder. This is what makes me want to sing - the city is full of movement and full of happenings. I wrote the song "The Saxophone Player" in the subway station. This is one of my later songs. I saw this man, a saxophone player on the steps going down to the subway. Nobody listens to him really, but his song goes high above everybody. It is very touching. Teresa Silver sings this song and this is the song about the city and subway life.
NEA: To wrap up, what special skills do you think it takes to sing well? What makes a good Yiddish singer?
MS. SCHAECHTER-GOTTESMAN: It takes soul, a feeling. Our singing is not a technically learned study - it's just plain soul singing. You sing out your joys, your longings. Instead of psychotherapy we have singing.