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"Bar Mitzvah," dancing, and then Klezwoods at Atwoods!

Yesterday was one of those wonderful music-inflected days that I never seem to have unless I'm in major procrastination mode. We started the day by seeing the Boston premiere of a film newly-restored by the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis, Bar Mitzvah. The film, itself, is not a masterpiece. It is very much a menu film--string together the usual popular vaudeville song and dance with the audience's favorite themes (in this case, mom and Jewish identity), throw in a vaguely plausible plot and have fun! We did have fun. Set somewhere in eastern Europe, the film revolves around the impending Bar Mitzvah of the youngest son of Boris Thomashefsky's character. (Did I mention that this is the only known surviving film of Thomashefsky? Have I talked yet about what an amazing film presence he has? You would have to see this film just to enjoy, and finally start to understand, the phenomenon of Thomashefsky, grandfather of San Francisco's symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.)

So, the son wishes his mother, who perished on a trip to visit her mother in America ten years ago, were present at his Bar Mitzvah. Dad, in the meantime (Thomashefsky) has married a young blonde bombshell (clearly up to no good) in Warsaw. Sis is wooed, and then becomes engaged to a tap-dancing American suitor (as Hankus Netsky put it in the Q&A after the film, "this is a vaudeville piece—of course Americans know how to tap dance, and do!"). Looming over everything is the mother's portrait in the living room.

Needless to say, mayhem ensues, many songs are sung, the importance of mom and the importance of never forgetting that one is a Jew are emphasized frequently. This is, as I said, not a masterpiece of filmmaking, nor a masterpiece of filmmaking craft. It is an amazing snapshot of American perceptions of life in Europe in 1935, and a wonderful chance to see Thomashefsky and others—but especially, notably the only surviving chance to see Thomashefsky, strut their stuff.

Yiddish Dance in Arlington

Following the film, several of us dodged through streets closed off for a parade in Arlington to attend a dance at the Arlington Senior Center. The usual suspects: Dena Ressler (who arranged the gig), Dr. Netsky, and former KCB vocalist/excellent dance instructor Judy Bresler led about 50 of us through some basics of Yiddish dancing. Many of us usual suspects showed up—refugees from MIT's International Folk Dance crowd, professionals like storyteller/dance instructor Jacob Bloom, friends from Workmen's Circle, and others. A good time was had by all, although it is slowly sinking in that even I am getting some basic steps down now and am ready to experience, say, an "Intermediate" class. What the young folks from MIT feel ("advanced"?) I cannot say. More important is "where will a class be held next?" It has to be accessible via public transportation and has to accomodate 50 people or so. Time to get some grants, talk with local venues, and conspire.

Klezwoods at Atwoods

Finally, after pretending to grade papers all afternoon, I ran out to Atwoods Tavern, a Somerville establishment midway between Inman Square and Kendall Square, home to excellent local beer and some decent food, to catch the elusive "Klezwoods." I was lured by the claim on the tavern's website that the gig would begin at 8pm. Alas, it began at 9, a bit too close to my bedtime. But the time preceding was pleasantly filled by shmoozing with band-member Dr. Michael McLaughlin (also of Shirim, Naftule's Dream, and the Tufts professor in charge of that school's klezmer band).

Klezwoods was put together by Joe Kessler and McLaughlin a couple of years ago when the tavern decided that it would be kind of cool to have a "Klezmer Christmas" concert. The result fuses some of my favorite musicians from the local klezmer, balkan, and other music scenes, anchored by KCB drummer Grant Smith and including Shirim's Jim Gray, Hebrew College cantorial student Becky Wexler on clarinet, and several people I have not yet gotten to know. The result is that rare perfection, "bar klezmer," or perhaps more accurately, "bar music from the former Ottoman empire" because riffs ranged from Greek and Balkan melodies to Israeli music and klezmer, all interspersed with excellent soloes.

Knowing that I still have papers to grade, I rushed home after the first set. But this will pass. I am very excited about seeing the band again. This was my idea of an excellent evening, full of good music, unexpected connections, and great beer in a congenial pub. This is a regular gig for them, so keep an eye on the calendar, or on the "Boston Jewish Music Group" on Facebook, and let's crowd the pub up further next time.