The Arty Semite

The Secret History of Women's Klezmer

By Jon Kalish

A new radio drama titled “The Witches of Lublin” is being offered to public radio stations as a Passover special. Written by Ellen Kushner, Elizabeth Schwartz and Yale Strom, the hour-long production features original klezmer music by Strom and the handiwork of Long Island-based audio drama producer Sue Zizza. The cast includes the prolific audiobook narrator Barbara Rosenblat, author Neil Gaiman and Tovah Feldshuh as the protagonist Rivka, a 18th-century klezmer musician who is a single mom, a weaver of lace and a Talmudic scholar to boot.

Ilene Winn-Lederer

“We definitely approached the story from a feminist point of view,” said Schwartz, who also sings in the radio drama. She has collaborated with her klezmer musician husband Strom on films, books and musical projects since the mid-1990s.

As the story unfolds, listeners learn that Rivka and her two daughters, Leah and Sorele, have a reputation as some of the best klezmer musicians in Poland. Enter the anti-Semitic Count, who commands the women to perform at a celebration in honor of his son. It’s an untenable choice because women performing in public would be scandalous in the world of 18th-century observant Jews. But declining to perform might trigger a pogrom against the entire Jewish community of Lublin.

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