"Shir-Heaven" is the name of Lisa Wanamaker's second album, and if you know Hebrew you realize it's a pun: Shir is the Hebrew word for "song."
Wanamaker is a singer of Jewish songs whose work was once described by Mario Casseta, music director for KPFK-FM (90.7), as "the greatest thing since sliced challah."
On Sunday night, she sang a new Yiddish love song in the 1996 American Jewish Song Festival at Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Encino. On Wednesday night, she will present a program of Jewish songs in Hebrew, Yiddish, English and Ladino, a language of Sephardic Jews, at the University of Judaism on Mulholland Drive.
She's taken a decidedly roundabout route to becoming an interpreter of Jewish music: She started out as a dancer.
Born in Los Angeles, Wanamaker was enrolled in a dance class at age 3 by her mother, an actress who used the name Basha Slobodkin when she did Yiddish theater and the name Edith Young when she did English-language plays. She eventually studied at the London School of Contemporary Dance, the Toronto Dance Theatre and the Jerusalem Group of Contemporary Dance in Israel.
She threw herself into a folk dance scene that thrived in Los Angeles from the late 1970s through the mid-'80s, and dancing led to singing. In 1980 one of Wanamaker's friends was getting married and wanted a song from the folk-dance repertoire performed at her wedding.
Wanamaker said she'd do it. "I had to audition for her and her future mother-in-law," Wanamaker recalled.
Wanamaker was encouraged to record by a Dutch friend whom she met at a Brandeis University dance camp. He arranged for her to travel to the Netherlands, where in 1994 she recorded a double album of Jewish songs, "Shirim," on the Syncoop label.
Today, some of Wanamaker's songs are plaintive Yiddish standards, such as "Oyfn Pripechik." That's a story song from the shtetl, one of the small Jewish towns of Eastern Europe, about a rabbi teaching his students the Hebrew alphabet. "He's trying to explain to them that it's not just letters, this alphabet. It's the pain and tears of our people," she said. "He tells them, 'May you find comfort in this alphabet.' "
She plans her concert this week with "Zol Zayn," a Yiddish song written early in the century during a time of anti-Semitic pogroms, when many young people dreamed of Palestine and a new life in a Jewish state.
"It's a hope and freedom song," she said. She will sing it on a darkened stage, lit by a single spotlight. "I want to catch people," she said. "It can take your breath away."