You Say Basya, I Say Batya, It’s all Great Music

by Brian on January 12, 2011

in Music,Reviews

Basya Schechter in Jerusalem (photo: Warren Burstein)

Basya Schechter has long been one of my favorite Jewish musicians. Whether with her seven piece band, Pharaoh’s Daughter, or stripped down (metaphorically, please) in an acoustic show, Schechter offers an intriguing mashup of ethnically tinged Shabbat zemirot, Ladino love songs, and wistful Yiddish poetry. Her playlist ranges from neo-Klezmer to Egyptian-tinged Middle Eastern rhythms.

Schechter performed last week at a house concert in Baka. It was an intimate setting – some 50 people in the living room of Bob Trachtenberg and Ruth Mason – with just Schehcter and her guitar virtuoso partner Eyal Maoz on stage.

Given the small space, before the concert, Schechter and I started casually chatting. “I love your music,” I said. “But what’s up with the name ‘Basya?’ Why not Batya with a ‘t?’” I asked referring to the modern Hebrew pronunciation that’s standard in Israel.

“You have no idea how many times I’ve been asked that,” Schechter sighed. I could see I’d hit a sore spot. “But my name is Basya. It’s always been Basya!”

If you know a little about Schechter’s background, the name makes more sense. The “s” sound used for the Hebrew letter “tav” indicates that the speaker comes from an Ashkenazi, often ultra-Orthodox Hassidic background. And, indeed, that’s how Schechter grew up: in a large Yiddish-speaking family from Brooklyn where she was only exposed to boys and popular music in her late teens.

Shechter is now the black sheep, so to speak, of her extended clan. Dressed for the concert in a short mini-shirt/skirt and tight black leggings, she left the Orthodox fold many years ago to pursue a secular music career, one that doesn’t fit so neatly into the traditional role of a shomer mitzvot Jewish matriarch. She plays in the Friday night band at Bnei Jeshurun, a Conservative synagogue in New York; has seven CDs out, some solo, others with Pharaoh’s Daughter; and learned to strum the oud and saz while hitchhiking through Africa and Turkey. referred to her band this way: “Have you ever wondered what would happen if Pink Floyd and PJ Harvey crossed paths in a cafe in Israel and subsequently took a road trip to South Africa? What if they met up with Radiohead in Morocco along the way?”

One of her haredi brothers (Schechter has seven siblings in Israel) only recently mustered up the courage to listen to some of her CDs and was shocked. As Schechter told the audience, “Wow, Basya, he said. Your music is more Jewish than the stuff I listen to!”

Hence, sticking with “Basya,” the way it’s always been pronounced, symbolizes Schechter’s achievement in blending the music of her roots with the contemporary arrangements and melodies she writes. She never abandoned tradition entirely; many (perhaps including her brother, now) would even say she’s enhanced it, making it accessible to an entirely different population that’s open to the past without feeling obliged to adopt any more than a musical lifestyle.

“So what’s your Hebrew name?” Schechter playfully asked me.

“Ariel,” I replied cautiously.

“That’s a great name,” she said. “You should use it. Maybe you’ll get even more readers!”

“But my name is Brian. It’s always been Brian. That’s how people have known me since I was born.”

“Same with Basya,” she smiled back.

My talk with Basya was reported this week on the Israelity blog.

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