Folk Art PA

Master: Alexander Botwinik

Apprentice: Susan Lankin-Watts
Art Form: Yiddish Song

Alexander Botwinik and Susan Lankin-Watts completed a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Apprenticeship in Folk and Traditional Arts in Yiddish song. Yiddish is a 1000 year old language with roots in the Jewish religion. Music is an integral part of Jewish worship and Yiddish culture has produced a variety of songs, from lullabies to love songs, from mournful songs of loss and exile to the exuberant dance music of klezmer. There are three main genres of Yiddish song: traditional folksongs, art and theater songs, and children's songs. Yiddish music was traditionally played on string instruments such as violin and viola, the tsimbl (similar to a hammered dulcimer) and flute. Together, through a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Apprenticeship in Folk and Traditional Arts, Botwinik and Lankin-Watts worked on Yiddish language (grammar, vocabulary) and Lankin-Watts learned to perfect and master her command of the art of singing Yiddish songs, folk and traditional ones as well as contemporary songs.

Susan Lankin-Watts learned Eastern European Jewish folk music from her grandfather and mother who are, respectively, 2nd and 3rd generation klezmorim (musicians). They taught her to play through listening, repetition (practicing), and mimicking: "My aunt and auncles were all musicians as well and we would, as a family, play together on every occasion, even if the occasion was the delivery of the mail." For Lankin-Watts the focus of this apprenticeship was on the Yiddish language: "These sessions taught me how to pronounce and understand Yiddish better... Alex is a great teacher and an inspiring native speaker of this beautiful language which is the foundation and heart of our culture."

Alexander Botwinik is a native Yiddish speaker, a Yiddish instructor at the University of Pennsylvania, piano accompanist, and musical coach of Yiddish singers. He has been a music teacher and choir director, primarily in Jewish institutions in Montreal and the Philadelphia area for over 27 years. Like Lankin-Watts, Botwinik's love of Yiddish language and music also comes from his family: "My family and community grounded me in the folk speech, proverbs, stories, and sayings that are central to Jewish cultural tradition. My father instilled in me a love of Jewish music, exposing me to beautiful recordings of famous cantors and Yiddish singers."

Botwinik especially enjoyed working with Lankin-Watts because of her talent for singing and expression: "It was inspiring to experience when Susan brought fresh and new insight or approaches to several songs with her very pretty and expressive voice. An example was when she would hold a note longer or add a unique krekhts (a special Jewish expressive sigh), bringing out an even deeper meaning of the lyrics of the song. Her approach to the melodies and lyrics would bring a feeling reminiscent of the pain of thousands of years of Jewish suffering and struggle."