As a youngster in Calgary, she was the Yiddish valedictorian of her high school. As a theater major in Edmonton, she was "the first Jewish Medea." Later, she became known across Canada as a character in a popular prime-time drama.
Now Theresa Tova is Canada's reigning diva of Yiddish song, and she's on her way to Los Angeles.
Tova will bring her smoky contralto to Gindi Auditorium at the University of Judaism on Dec. 24 in a concert that will culminate the California Institute for Yiddish Culture and Language's sixth annual Winter Yiddish Intensive, "The Art of Yiddish," this year subtitled "Knights, Mystics, Partisans & Scribes: Heroes of the Yiddish World."
While not well known on the West Coast, Tova has a following on the East Coast, across Canada and in Yiddish and jazz circles. About 15 years ago, she began singing Yiddish standards such as "Belz," "Papirosn," and "Sheyn vi di Levone" infused with jazz syncopations and a sensuality that turns nostalgic reminiscences into walks down a dark street, and love songs into pillow talk.
"She lends a whole new image to Yiddish music," said the institute's director, Miriam Koral.
Tova, 50, was born in Paris, the daughter of Polish Jews. Her father's family survived World War II after fleeing to Russia, while her mother, who lost her entire family, fought with the Polish partisans.
The family moved to Canada when Tova was a baby, and she grew up in Calgary, whose Jewish community was large enough to support three synagogues and two Jewish day schools. Yiddish was her mama loshen, and she attended the Yiddish day school in town. She then studied acting at the University of Alberta.
"I didn't know I had a Jewish accent until they told me," Tova told The Journal.
Her greatest visibility as an actor came as a regular on the Canadian series "E.N.G.," a newsroom drama that ran from 1989 to 1994. It was during this time that Tova started performing as a cabaret singer.
She had a steady gig at a Toronto gay bar and, just for fun, would sometimes sing a Tin Pan Alley song in Yiddish. One night, a representative of a Jewish gay and lesbian group recruited her to sing for the local Holocaust Remembrance Committee.
"The next thing I know, I have these five Jewish matrons with bouffant hair sitting there in the gay bar checking me out," Tova said. After that, she became a frequent performer at events for Jewish organizations.
In her performances, Tova mines the realism and grit of Yiddish lyrics. "I love the sexiness, the earthiness of this music; I love the stories," she said.
Her live performances and two CDs also include Yiddish translations of American standards such as "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" and "Night and Day," cabaret favorites in English, and, recently, a contemporary song by New York poet Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman, "Der Saksafon Shpiler," about a sax player on a subway platform.
Tova has been criticized for giving the classic Yiddish tunes too much of her own sassy personality and musical stamp, but she replies that she's applying her actor's skills to the material.
"That's the way I hear it in 2005," she said. "Are we just historical preservers, or do we want to keep this language, God forbid, alive?"
Besides, she suggests, other people who first heard these songs as youngsters are willing to come along for her ride. When they hear the jazz beat, Tova said, "those old [folks] are sitting there saying, 'Hey, this is a sexy tune!'"
Well acquainted with the Jew's outsider status in society and acting roles far removed from her own experience, Tova uses Yiddish music to be Jewish and to be, well, Tova.
"I can stand on a stage 60 years [after the Holocaust] and announce who I am ... we ain't hiding any more," she said. "To be able to come back to this music and back to who I am is such a joy."
Theresa Tova and the Strauss/Warschauer Duo will perform Saturday, Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. at the University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. $40. For tickets, call (310) 745-1190.
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