The Klezmatics' performance of Aliza Greenblatt's work, set to music by Woody Guthrie
Jewish contributions to American music have long been recognized, with the list of well-known songwriters featuring Broadway composers and lyricists like Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein, and Stephen Sondheim. A less well-known contributor was Aliza Greenblatt, the poet and songwriter whose work inspired some of the songs of her famous son-in-law, Woody Guthrie, and grandson, Arlo Guthrie.
Born in Bessarabia in 1885, Greenblatt settled in Philadelphia in 1900, where she worked in the garment industry. In 1900, she married fellow immigrant Isidore Greenblatt; the couple's daughter Marjorie later married Woody Guthrie. While raising her five children, Greenblatt also became active in Zionist causes. After the 1917 Balfour Declaration, she founded the Atlantic City branch of the Zionist Organization of America; later she was active in Hadassah and the Jewish National Fund. She also served as national president of Pioneer Women (now Na'amat).
Between 1935 and 1966, Greenblatt published five volumes of Yiddish poetry and an autobiography, Baym Fentster fun a Lebn [At the Window of a Life]. She died in New York in 1975. Although European Yiddish culture was all but destroyed by the Second World War, Greenblatt's work was widely published during her lifetime in Yiddish newspapers across the United States and in Israel.
In her later years, Greenblatt lived across the street from the Guthries in the heart of Brooklyn's Jewish community. In an attempt to make peace with Isidore, who was unhappy that Marjorie had married a non-Jew, Woody Guthrie began studying Judaism and sent his son Arlo to a Hebrew tutor. Arlo later set some of Greenblatt's works to music. These, along with Jewish-themed songs written by Woody Guthrie, were performed for the first time by The Klezmatics in a December 20, 2003, performance at New York City's 92nd Street Y entitled "Holy Ground: The Jewish Songs of Woody Guthrie." The songs were released on a CD, Happy Joyous Hanukkah, the following year. On December 4, 2008, Woody Guthrie's daughter, Nora Guthrie, was honored at "Stand Up, Sing Out," a benefit concert for the Boston Workmen's Circle featuring anniversary performances by The Klezmatics and A Besere Velt (A Better World), the largest Yiddish Chorus in the world.
To learn more about Aliza Greenblatt, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.
Sources: Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 552-553; The Forward, 12 December 2003; The Jewish Week (New York), 19 December 2003; Moment, October 2004; www.klezmatics.com/shop_happyjoyous.php.