ARTS January 24th, 2016

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Jazz singer glories in Yiddish music a month after giving birth

Davisville's Milman tackles lost Soviet folk melodies important to her family in special performance

Jazz chanteuse Sophie Milman named her one-month-old daughter, Talia, in honour of her great-grandmother, Tania Nuzman, who survived the chaos of Russia during the Second World War..

Which explains why the 32-year-old Davisviller could not pass up the opportunity to perform in Yiddish Glory on Jan. 27 at the Richmond Hill Centre for Performing Arts.

The show presents rediscovered songs, written by Yiddish-speaking Jews of Ukraine, from the Ukrainian National Library. Milman was informed of the music by Anna Shternshis, a professor at the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.

Immediately, the Russian folk tunes brought Milman back to her Russian roots, but with two children under the age of three, getting back into vocal shape posed a new dilemma.

“This definitely fell under the bin of extremely interesting,” Milman admits in an early January phone call. “It’s challenging, and the timing couldn’t have been more crazy — to do this a few weeks after delivering a baby.”

Still family is important both future and past. She shares her history while soothing her newborn to sleep, and keeping a watchful eye on her toddler, Jacob.

There’s a motherly resonance to her voice, and the reflection on what her grandparents went through as Ukrainian Jews during the war.

“I just couldn’t say no, given my background and given the nature of the project. It was just a perfect fit.”

Russia’s role during the war, Milman says, is something a lot of Canadians are not aware of, especially the Ukrainian Jews who fought on the front lines.

“The Soviet Union used all of its technology, manpower – everything – to exhaust the Germans, at a huge cost,” Milman says. “I don’t find that gets recognition here. I think we’re still stuck in a Cold War mentality.”

Her grandfather, Alex Milman, was 17 and fresh out of high school when he was drafted into the army. A few weeks after his graduation, the Germans invaded Ukraine, and he was given the role of paramedic.

“(He) went to the front with a paramedic kit which consisted of a needle, thread and a bottle of vodka, to sew up people in the field,” she says.

Her other grandfather, Yakov Nuzman, was a railway engineer and was given a role of authority in transporting army supplies and goods across the far reaches of the USSR.

Both grandmothers escaped east, only to return home to find family members and friends who did not evacuate, perished.

“Russia’s involvement was extremely complicated,” she admits. “The thinking behind the strategies was not necessarily to limit casualties. But not a lot of people knew that at the time. People were still taken in by Stalinism.”

Not all the songs shared in Yiddish Glory are based on the triumphs the Jewish people had during the hard times, Milman assures, as the anguish some went through is reflected in the melodies.

As for future projects, the Juno Award-winner says she is content with playing mom. She doesn’t rule out a future album, one to follow 2011’s In The Moonlight, as she says she’s compiling a list of songs to cover.

“I think about (returning to the studio) all the time, but I take my role as a mom very, very seriously,” she says. “The idea of recording and touring aggressively – leaving my kids – is something that’s very difficult for me to reconcile.”