The Yiddish language originated in the 900s and peaked in the early 1940s with around 11 million speakers, primarily in Europe’s Ashkenazi Jewish communities. But of the six million Jewish people murdered by the Nazis during World War II, 85 percent of them were Yiddish speakers. Just as the worldwide Jewish population has not yet fully rebounded from that extraordinary loss of life, neither has Yiddish; in 2014 UNESCO labeled it endangered, and as a daily language it continues to languish, at least outside ultra-orthodox communities.
The klezmer revival that began in the 1970s carried Yiddish to new ears, and in 2000 four musicians from Montreal’s vibrant postrock and experimental-music community built on that foundation, convening as Black Ox Orkestar and producing two darkly powerful acoustic Yiddish-language albums. Overlapping in membership with Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band, Sackville, and other groups, Black Ox Orkestar aimed to explore their Jewish heritage, especially the musical and cultural traditions of the Jewish diaspora, combining influences from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Pressure from outside commitments broke up the band after 2006’s Nisht Azoy. Godspeed and Mt. Zion bassist Thierry Amar became a studio producer; violinist Jessica Moss (also a member of Mt. Zion) established a solo career; clarinetist and guitarist Gabriel Levine (from Sackville) leaned into his work as a teacher of performance and cultural theory; and vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Scott Levine Gilmore (Mt. Zion), the group’s main composer, became a human-rights attorney in Washington, D.C.
Black Ox Orkestar reunited in 2020 after coming together for a group interview with the magazine Jewish Currents. The new Everything Returns (recorded with Greg Norman at Electrical Audio and released by the group’s old label, Constellation) mixes Black Ox Orkestar’s classic sounds with a heavier dose of jazz and the dark, piano-driven music of singer-songwriters such as Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave. Their storytelling and their arrangements of folk instrumentals arise from Jewish diasporic traditions, but the material is also a product of today’s tumultuous sociopolitical climate, with its progressive uprisings (the Black Lives Matter movement) and its atavistic regressions (the rise of neofascism). The band see things through the lens of Gilmore’s human-rights work: “Perpetual Peace” recalls his great-grandfather’s flight from religious persecution in tsarist Russia and invokes the refugee experience in all times and places, a theme that also emerges on songs such as “Mizrakh Mi Ma’arav” and “Viderkol.” The title of the latter is the Yiddish word for “echo,” and it weighs the hope of finding familiarity and comfort against heart-wrenching displacement. Though Yiddish remains Black Ox Orkestar’s primary language, the richly textured instrumentation and broader musical palette of Everything Returns are sure to draw new listeners, no matter what they speak—its message of strength, compassion, and defiance is universal.
Black Ox Orkestar’s Everything Returns is available through Bandcamp.