Review: Ed Sanders – Yiddish Speaking Socialists Of The Lower East Side

Ed Sanders - Yiddish Speaking SocialistsI picture Sanders sat alone in a small room, illuminated by dim candlelight. Draped over his hands is an instrument he invented called a “Pulse Lyre”: half-gloves worn over the thumbs and two most immediate fingers, activated by pressing finger and thumb together. Sanders, a microphone and his story. Over 18 minutes, he recounts the journey of the Eastern European Jews who escaped from Siberia to New York, where the dreams of a new life were churned through persistent adversity – days spent in sweatshops, nights spent worrying about extortionate rent prices – and buoyed by the growing momentum of socialist sentiment in New York’s lower East Side (political discussions in local cafes, incremental progress in the quest for worker rights, the triumphant election of Meyer London).

Here’s my advice. Listen once to absorb the story, and then listen again to admire Sanders’ manner of telling it. Poetic sensations blossom over the slow, organ-like plod of the Pulse Lyre, as his voice rises gently in recounting the moments of good fortune and relief (the gulps of fresh air at dusk after a day spent inhaling particles of fabric in the sweatshops). When the setup is as minimal as it is here, tiny tilts in tonality amount to cinematic sways in mood. I feel the rushes of optimism swooping up through my stomach; equally, I feel dread pressing into my chest as the tide takes a turn for the worse. The passages of musicality are interspersed by sections of flat speech, like a narrator stepping in at the side of the stage to offer recaps and historical context, swooping like a bird between the timeline at large and the individuals stranded within it.

At points, the sudden vacation of the Pulse Lyre heralds moments of bleakness and solemnity. Sanders’ voice droops as he tells of how socialism fractured at the turn of the 1920s, his words flecked with poignant, almost mournful echo. I hear personal emotion bleeding through the cloth of factual account, and amidst the tribulation of the narrative itself is Sanders’ own battle: between the retelling of the story and the inhibitive tug of melancholy and empathy.