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Non-Jews, Klezmer, and Anti-Semitism in Germany

Klezmer in Germany is a strange place. It's very popular music, played primarily by non-Jews in a country that killed virtually all of its Jews in the middle of the last century. The fact that the music is played by non-Jews is understandable: German Jews weren't big on klezmer prior to the Holocaust (although from Mahler to Weill to the Comedian Harmonists, Jews were certainly part of German music in all of its forms). Current German Jews, many of them emigrants from the former Soviet Union, aren't much more crazy about it. Ruth Gruber, among others, has written extensively about the phenomenon in her wonderful book, "Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe". Heiko Lehmann (currently in Sukke, among other collaborations) gave a lovely background lecture years ago, Klezmer in Germany/Germans and Klezmer: Reparation or Contribution at WOMEX, in Berlin, in 2000.

Things get even stickier between the preservationists, who insist that true klezmer is what they have resurrected from, say, old American klezmer '78s (think of how many weirdnesses that criterion raises) and those for whom klezmer, like blues or jazz or classical music is one influence in something new that they are creating. Sometimes the results, preservationalist or new, do sound more like cooptation and exploitation than interesting music. Sometimes, both the old and new are simply wonderful on their own terms.

So it's messy. Some of this decontextualized German klezmer belongs to a new and interesting context that may be very much in keeping with klezmer traditions, or may be new, wonderful music. (For an old take on an earlier version of this problem, listen to the Bonzo Dog Band song, "Can Blue Men Play the Whites".) I've reviewed many albums here on the KlezmerShack, including, most recently, albums by Sukke and Khuppe that are among my recent klezmer favorites.

Still, there is also a cesspool of people slinging accusations of "antisemitism" taking the place of music criticism (sometimes non-Jews accusing other non-Jews of same—remember, "klezmer in Germany" is not a phenomenon that involves a majority of German Jews to a great degree). Since there has been at least one recent scholarly article that could justly be described as "the cesspool calling the holding pond putrid" (it's not pretty), I asked some of my friends playing klezmer in Germany what they might refer folks to (in addition to Ruth Gruber's book) to get a sense of what is actually happening.

The book is 'Klaus mit der Fiedel, Heike mit dem Bass' (nice play on 'Yidl mitn fidl' in the title) Philo Verlagsgesellschaft Berlin/Wien 2003, by Aaron Eckstaedt. The book is described as "a very careful study of the German klezmer phenomenon, ... it's based on interviews with musicians who perform Yiddish music here, from amateur to professional, Jewish and not Jewish. Eckstaedt can actually talk about the people involved, because they talk to him."

The book is in German. It may well be worth translating. Certainly this is a subject of interest to many of us beyond the German-reading public. In the meantime, when reading articles on the subject it is very, very important to vett the author. In this subject, as in most subjects, just because someone writes a scholarly article doesn't make the article scholarly, or removed from the author's personal, passionate, and not-necessarily-connected-to-the-objective-world investment in the subject.

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