August 21, 2023 | Performance

Dos Reydeleh Dreyt Zikh – “The Wheel Keeps Turning”

By Stewart Figa

Professionally, one of the best moments of my summer this year was performing a concert for the Chicago YIVO society at the Skokie Public Library back in June. The Chicago YIVO society always presents a summer festival series of individual performances or lectures, and I have been doing my concerts for YIVO since 1990. That was the year when I moved back to Chicago from New York City to start my cantorial career after having had done five seasons of Yiddish theater productions. Those productions started in Manhattan at the historic Town Hall Theater on 43rd Street and subsequently went on to tour in Los Angeles, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Toronto. I got to co-star in these shows with an array of notable older Yiddish actors, singers, and comedians from the pre-war golden age of Yiddish theatre and film which had loyal audiences on three continents.

Cantor Figa in Der Yiddisher Tsigaynerkeh

Cantor Figa in “Der Yiddisher Tsigaynerkeh” (The Jewish Gypsy”) at New York’s Town Hall in 1983

At one time every major city in the U.S. had a local YIVO society and Chicago maintains one to this day, and in fact is going strong. YIVO (Institute for Jewish Research, (or Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut) is an important scholarly organization founded in 1925 in Vilna, Lithuania, now based in New York City, dedicated to the preservation and study of the history, culture, and language of Eastern European Jewry.

I named my concert after the song that that started the show with; “Dos Reydele Dreyt Zikh” “The Wheel Keeps Turning”, and old Yiddish cabaret song that set up the theme of the Jewish experience that has its ups and down throughout history. My repertoire of Yiddish songs has steadily increased over the years and besides always trying to learn the standards and favorites, I keep an eye on what people are doing in the Yiddish performance world now. For example, Daniel Kahn, the Berlin based Jewish-American singer-songwriter, klezmer and actor is a cutting-edge Yiddish artist. He has been called a “Klezmer-Yiddish-Punk Rocker”. A few years ago, he translated Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” into a highly literate and poetic Yiddish version. On YouTube, his performance of “Hallelujah” sponsored by The Forverts, has had nearly 2.5 million views. I had great satisfaction and pleasure covering his version in my concert.

Daniel Kahn

Daniel Kahn and his Yiddish translation of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”; on YouTube it has had 2.4M Views.


Eleanor Reissa, a notable Yiddish actress whom I worked with when were both 20 something, did a Yiddish translation of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” which appropriated and added to my concert. The translation is “Vu Di Vilde Khayes Zennen”, and the audience saw slides of the revered children’s book as I read it in Yiddish.

Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Thing Are"

Check out Eleanor’s website to learn about the excellent book she wrote “The Letters Project” about her parents’ experiences during the war and her journey discovering some secrets that she never knew about.

Adding to the moment of the day of the concert for me was performing in the wonderful auditorium of the Skokie Public Library. Somewhat nostalgic for me, this was my childhood library where I spent many hours looking through the stacks and studying during my schooldays. The wheel keeps turning, and that day I made a “full circle”.

The Wheels Keep Turning

Stewart Figa


Cantor Stewart Figa has served at Temple Har Zion since 1998.