Anthony Russell was using a Jewish text to express an African American experience. Now, that’s his career.
A few years ago, Anthony Russell, a 37-year-old professional singer based in Oakland, Calif., chose a new faith and a new name. He converted from Christianity to Judaism, and he became Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell.
It felt like a perfect fit. “The older I become, the more I become myself,” he said.
But when he Googled “Mordechai Tzvi,” Russell saw images of elderly men with black hats and long beards, the sort of people you might find in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“Nobody who had my name looked anything like me,” he said.
For Russell, this observation was nothing new. As an African American Jew, Russell is used to being the only black man in a room. But as a singer, he has grown into his name: He now sings in Yiddish.
In learning a new religion and culture, he’s discovered deep and unexpected connections between his black roots and this nearly dead language of European Jews.
Russell’s winding journey to Yiddish music began in California when he was a teenager, raised as a Christian. He had always felt a special fondness for the Old Testament, but his deepest devotion was to singing.