But when he Googled “Mordechai Tzvi,” Russell saw images of elderly men with black hats and long beards, the sort of people you might find in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“Nobody who had my name looked anything like me,” he said.
For Russell, this observation was nothing new. As an African American Jew, Russell is used to being the only black man in a room. But as a singer, he has grown into his name: He now sings in Yiddish.
In learning a new religion and culture, he’s discovered deep and unexpected connections between his black roots and this nearly dead language of European Jews.
Russell’s winding journey to Yiddish music began in California when he was a teenager, raised as a Christian. He had always felt a special fondness for the Old Testament, but his deepest devotion was to singing.
At 17, his resonant bass voice impressed the judges of a classical singing competition, and he went home with $500. He figured he’d found his calling.
For more than a decade after college, he chased a career as an operatic bass singer. But he was troubled by one consistent criticism: He sounded too vulnerable. “Tenors get to be vulnerable, because they’re in love with sopranos,” Russell said wryly. “But basses are very rarely supposed to be.”
He remembers one conductor saying: “Don’t sing like that. You don’t get to have those kinds of feelings.”
Wondering what else he could do with a classically trained voice, Russell happened upon the answer in a movie theater.
He went to the movies with his Jewish boyfriend — a rabbi, in fact, ordained at the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York.
They saw the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man,” and when the Yiddish song “Dem Milners Trern” played during the film, Russell was stunned.
Sidor Belarsky’s voice was low and operatic, but it also seemed vulnerable. “It was singing so sensitively,” Russell said. “I felt like I was listening to myself.”
Russell ultimately married his boyfriend. He visited Israel and learned Yiddish. In 2010, he converted to Judaism.
This year, he will release an album called “Convergence,” which brings together his emotional side, his black roots and his new religion.
The album posed new creative challenges for Russell, as well as for the band he collaborated with, the Berkeley klezmer trio Veretski Pass.
Cookie Segelstein, a classically trained violinist in the band, was skeptical at first that such diverse styles could coexist on a single record. “We couldn’t just use our normal bag of tricks,” she said.
But Segelstein realized that Russell came to Jewish music with an unusual enthusiasm. “He’s way more religious than we are,” Segelstein said. What’s more, he listened to klezmer with fresh ears. “There’s so much more wonder in it for him,” she said.
“Convergence” allowed Russell to highlight melodic similarities between black music and Jewish music. “For me, Yiddish is immensely alive as a catalyst for expressing modern ideas,” he said.
For example, one African American lullaby, “All the Pretty Little Horses,” sounded remarkably like a lullaby known in Israel as “Numi Numi.” Russell juxtaposed them in a song.
Another track intertwines a Jewish prayer, “Av Harachamim,” set to an Eastern European melody, with the African American spiritual “Rockin’ in Jerusalem.”
Russell is not the first musician to make connections between these cultures. American Jews have often looked to African American music for inspiration. “They borrowed from it, they repackaged it, they profited from it,” said Jeffrey Melnick, a professor at the University of Massachusetts who has studied Black-Jewish relations.
Several popular black musicians also drew on Jewish traditions. Johnny Mathis recorded “Kol Nidre,” one of the most sacred Jewish prayers. Ethel Waters sang in Hebrew “Eli, Eli.” “Go Down, Moses” draws a parallel between Jews enslaved in Egypt and blacks enslaved in the United States. Written by African Americans, it’s now commonly sung by Jews during Passover seders.
Russell inherited this history of cultural exchange. But he emphasized that the musical connections don’t always come easily. “I did a lot of work in order to find melodies that scanned very closely to each other,” Russell said. “My work is to sit with these melodies and these texts, and by hand, to kind of knit them together until the seams are invisible.”
Some listeners hear a political statement in Russell’s songs. “He embodies a really important possibility for black people and Jewish people to be in shared spaces again,” Melnick said.
Josh Horowitz, Segelstein’s husband and a fellow member of Veretski Pass, recalled making a similar comment to Russell. “You could really be the poster child of interfaith, and inter-everything,” he told him. “A black, gay convert to Judaism, expressing that in music.”
At first, Russell didn’t want to be seen as a symbol. Yiddish music, for him, was personal before it was political. But he has recently started to embrace the idea that his own journey can inspire a broader, more diverse picture of Judaism.
Russell will soon move to Massachusetts with his husband, who was recently invited to lead a synagogue in the city of Acton. Russell hasn’t yet decided what role he’ll play as a rabbi’s partner.
Whatever happens, he intends to stay true to his distinctive voice. That, after all, helped lead him to Judaism in the first place.
In 2007, well before his conversion, Russell was cast in the role of a freed slave in “Appomattox,” a Civil War opera by Philip Glass. After the liberation of Richmond, his character sang to Abraham Lincoln from Psalm 47, a Jewish text from the Old Testament.
“I was using a Jewish text to express an African American experience,” he said. Now, that’s his career.