An international star famous for bringing Yiddish music to the concert stage, Isa Kremer dedicated her career to performing and championing Yiddish folk songs.
Kremer was born Isabelle Yakovlevna Kremer in Belz, Bessarabia, but moved to Odessa when she was 12. She first gained notoriety at age 15 when she began publishing radical poetry that focused on Jewish poverty. Her writing caught the attention of newspaper editor Israel Heifetz, who encouraged her to study opera on account of her vocal skills. After studying several years with the singer Polonia Ronzi, Kremer debuted as Mimi in Puccini’s La Boheme in 1911 and briefly toured Russia as part of the Imperial Opera of Petrograd. She married Heifetz around 1912.
Listen to Isa Kremer's "A Lied von a Feigele" (Brunswick 40018, recorded c. December 1922)
She returned to Odessa in 1914 where she immersed herself in a literary circle that included the poet Chaim Nahman Bialik, who implored her to study Yiddish folk songs. Heifetz was imprisoned after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 while Kremer was on tour; the family lost their home and all possessions, and Kremer settled in Istanbul (then Constantinople). She was finally able to move her family to Poland in 1921 and eventually bribed officials to secure Heifetz’s release, who fled to Paris. The couple separated soon after. Heifetz was later imprisoned by Nazi Germany during WWII and died in a Belgium concentration camp.
Kremer continued touring throughout Russia and Europe during the late 1910s and early 1920s, performing a repertoire that now included songs in English, French, Russian, Polish, and Yiddish, among other languages. She made her U.S. debut in October 1922, appearing at Carnegie Hall to a rapturous audience. In November she recorded her first sides for the Brunswick label, including two numbers featured in her stage performances, “A Lied von a Feigele” and “Maseltof.” “Maseltof” serves as a showcase for Kremer’s vocal prowess: she easily navigates the song’s complex melody, tempo changes, and expansive range. She recorded regularly throughout the 1920s, cutting some 73 sides, and made several Vitaphone shorts in 1927 and 1929.
Listen to Isa Kremer's "Maseltof" in its entirety (Brunswick 40018, recorded c. December 1922)
Kremer returned to Europe and continued touring extensively throughout the 1920s before moving to New York in 1926. She made her one and only theatrical appearance in October 1932 when she performed in The Song of the Ghetto, an operetta by Alexander Olshanetzky with lyrics and music by Nathan Goldberg and Jacob Jacobs. Though the show failed, it produced one of Yiddish music’s most treasured compositions, “Mayn Shtetele Belz," which Kremer unfortunatley never recorded.
By 1938, Kremer had settled in Argentina where she regularly gave benefit concerts for victims of the Nazi regime. She married the psychiatrist Dr. Gregorio Bermann in 1940 and became further involved in leftist politics, which led to her being blacklisted by the Argentine government. She sang in Israel shortly after the nation’s founding in 1948, and continued touring Europe into the 1950s. She died of stomach cancer in Argentina in 1956.
Photograph of Isa Kremer from Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Iza_Kremer.jpg