Kosher Queen Regina gets her kitsch on

Jewish Telegraph, August 2004

REGINA Specktor may be the new darling of the New York music scene, yet she is still down to earth and proud of her religion.
Russian-born Regina, who has just released her third album, Soviet Kitsch (Shoplifter Records), has revealed to the Jewish Telegraph how she won’t eat non-kosher.
Her family moved to the Bronx in New York when Regina was nine.
She said: ‘‘Russia was a very antisemitic place. It was stamped in your passport that you were Jewish. Jews stuck together because of this, and pretty much most of my family’s friends were Jews . . . because everyone was in the same place emotionally.’’
But she adds: ‘‘When we came to America it was very normal to be a practicing Jew, it was safe and legal to go to synagogue, and so, of course, we began exploring all of that.’’
Regina, 24, started her music education with classical piano lessons as a six-year-old. But the family had to sell the piano before they emigrated to America.
Once settled in her new country, she would practise on an out-of-tune piano in the basement of their local synagogue.
By good fortune, Regina found piano teacher Sonia Vargas, a professor at the Manhattan School of Music. Sonia was married to Samuel Marder, an acclaimed violinist with the New York Philharmonic.
The couple had invited Regina’s family for lunch and a free concert. After playing with their four cats and two dogs, Regina asked Sonia, ‘Will you be my teacher’.
Despite the Spektor family having no money for lessons, Sonia immediately agreed.
In 1998, Regina attended the SUNY Purchase College where she was inspired by the school’s art scene. Many of the students were associated with the Lower East Side Anti-Folk scene.
Regina played her earliest New York shows at the Sidewalk Cafe.
Since graduating from Purchase in 2001, Regina has played hundreds of shows around New York. She has also performed in France and Switzerland.
Regina teamed up with jazz bassist Chris Kuffner to record her first collection of songs, dubbed 11:11 three years ago.
At the end of that year, Joe Mendelson, co-owner of the Living Room, invited her to use his studio.
The resulting CD, Songs, saw her appeal spread around the world.
Last autumn, Regina’s star rose further when Julian Cassablanca invited her to open for The Strokes on their US tour. She puts the meeting with The Strokes down to the fact that ‘‘NYC is a little town; you get to know everyone after a while’’.
Kings of Leon, who were also on the bill, made Regina an honourary ‘Followill’ (their family name) and took her on tour in Europe.
Regina — who describes herself as ‘‘an American Jew who came from Russia’’ — recorded Post Modern Girls & Old Fashion Men, which appeared as the B-side to The Strokes’ Reptilia single.
Soviet Kitsch was produced by Gordon Raphael, who also works with The Strokes.
Regina says her Judaism is a ‘‘very big part of my life. I consider myself a Zionist as well. I am very proud and aware of it and thankful to be able to live freely.’’
She adds that when the family moved to New York, she attended SAR — a modern Orthodox yeshiva in Riverdale for boys and girls.
‘‘I learned Hebrew and the holidays. I still keep kosher and some of the holidays, but I am not very Orthodox at all.
‘‘I guess I pick and choose which parts of the tradition I follow, but I always appreciate the fact that I have a choice — and that I had the opportunity to learn.’’
Regina stayed at the yeshiva for two years before attending a secular high school in New Jersey.
Of Israel, Regina says: ‘‘I absolutely fell in love with Israel. I felt so at home. The sh*t that goes down there with the everyday terrorism breaks my heart, I’m totally with the people of Israel. Israel is so beautiful.’’
She first went to Israel when she was 16 as part of a Nesiya Institute arts scholarship. As the group hiked in the desert, Regina would make up songs.
‘‘Some kids would always try to hike next to me and ask me to sing particular songs that I had made up,’’ she recalls.
‘‘So I started trying to remember them. By the end of the trip, all these kids were telling me that I had to write songs.’’

Jewish Telegraph deputy editor and arts editor. Email with your Jewish arts stories