A mid-5762 "State of Klezmer" Address
This is a delayed, and somewhat scattered "State of Klezmer." I would apologize, but for the fact that the notion that I have some need to make an annual statement in this regard is a custom only a year old. The second year of a new custom deserves leeway.
The initial subject of this article was to be a question peripherally raised by Ruth Ellen Gruber in her marvellous new book, Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe,. (I do want to make sure to take this opportunity to extoll the virtues of the book. It is a delightful, thoughtful, insightful, and provocative look at the new Jewish culture phenomena in Europe, a land now largely bereft of Jews.) I do want to write about the book, but while waiting, you can read an existing review by Arnold Ages.
That initial question had to do with non-Jews playing klezmer. It's the sort of question that has no useful context. Zev Feldman, for instance, has pointed out that klezmer bands of a hundred or two hundred years ago were often comprised of gypsies as well as Jews. The reverse was also true. Things haven't changed so much today, although Jewish presence in Europe is sparse; gypsy presence is also less than it was. In the United States, I am happy to report that most klezmer bands contain ... musicians, many of whom follow the time-honored custom of being familiar with more than one cultural musical repertoire.
That still leaves some real questions and real issues. In the section of her book dealing with klezmer, Gruber brings up the idea of non-Jews playing klezmer in the context of the current klezmer craze in Germany in which bands of German, non-Jewish youth, play something klezmer-derived. Sometimes the result sounds Jewish. That is eerie in a land when the parents or grandparents of these children may have helped kill the former Jewish inhabitants--Jews who, it might be noted (as Gruber does note) were generally put off by klezmer, and for whom it signified something alien to German Jewish culture. Sometimes the music played today is wonderful, but has little to do with sounding Jewish--it is a fusion of many different musics, something entertaining, and interesting, but is not, ultimately, Jewish music. Even when the music feels authentic, though, the issue lies squarely with the fact that these German klezmorim are descendents of a nation that killed millions of Jews. There are no comfortable, and probably no generalizable answers as regards performing music that speaks to one, vs. music appropriation, in such a situation. As a reviewer, I try to listen and to write about what sounds good. As a Jew, that often feels odd and I'm sure that ambivalence comes out in at least some reviews.
The problem isn't just one of genocide. The Holocaust didn't just kill people, it killed a culture in transition. Judaism in the first half of the 20th century was wrestling on all fronts with the question of what it meant to be Jewish in the modern world. In the wake of the genocide of European Jewry, that question seemed irrelevant, maybe worse for over a generation. To those European Jews who survived, the question became, instead, "how do Jews survive?"
My interest in klezmer is only partly derived from the music. The music was a Jewish signifier at a time when the mainstream signifiers, Zionism and Halakha (Jewish Law) repelled me. For a while, for some of us, klezmer represented a part of Jewish European cultural past and Jewish pride which spoke of Jewish immigrants to America and to their struggles for social justice here. To us, it was (and is) a music redolent with the sweat of Jewish socialists and union organizers, of a form of Yiddishkeit--European-born, American-grown working class Jewish culture. (This was certainly not true for all people who love klezmer, or who play it for a living, but I am among those for whom these issues were very important.) Today, as I have written for years, the klezmer revival is long over. While many American Jews will never manage to embrace both Debbie Friedman and that energetic, noisy klezmer, klezmer is almost as much a part of the American Jewish establishment as Friedman's music. Klezmer, by itself, no longer speaks to the edges, or to "Jewish alternative". From a signifier of Jewish alternative-ness, it has become a safe signifier representing "Jewish" in the large, overall mix of America and Jewish and everything else washed together and in which a new generation of American Jews attempt to frame who they are, and what the Jewish part means. In that context, it may have no more meaning (or as much meaning) as wearing a magen david.
There are new edges. They range in diversity from Michael Alpert doing a new form of old-form Jewish rap as he recreates the role of badchan, or wedding jester, at Brave Old World concerts, streaming the day's events and controversies in Yiddish, framing new music for the concert hall as a tangible reminder of whence we came. Another edge comes from Jamie Saft making his work Jewish by dabbing Haftorah chanting (weekly reading from the Prophets, that accompanies the Sabbath Torah reading) at the beginnings and ends of his own music, or from Gary Lucas twisting synagogue prayers and melodies from his youth. A third edge comes from the tensions in a popular Tzadik recording group when the compositions of two of the group's non-Jews are accepted for a new release, but not those of the group's one composer who is Jewish. His don't sound "Jewish" enough to the producer. All of these move into ambiguous territory; none are necessarily "meaningful" in a Jewish context.
There are more tuneful Jewish music edges, as well. The work of Josh Waletzky, for instance, with it's incredibly powerful blend of new Yiddish poetry about the politics, events, and the joy of being in this here and now, with traditional-sounding, beautiful music is a prime example. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe has brought numerous holders of Jewish folk and dance traditions, from German Goldenstayn and Arkady Gendler to light. There is also the growing popularity of Yiddish folk dancing, a generation after the music, klezmer, became popular and new again.
As I write this, I am inspired by having just finished reading a relatively new fiction, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and was even listed on the National Yiddish Book Center's "Top 100 Jewish fiction" list. It is not an especially Jewish book, nor was it written for a Jewish audience. Yet it reminded me very much Anne Michael's Fugitive Pieces, another award winner and best-seller, and in some way, also Art Spiegelman's Maus All are about the Holocaust. All are at a generation's remove, not only from the Holocaust, but from a world in which Jewish culture defined most of who a Jew was, even most of who an American Jew was. All represent a triumph over the Holocaust as that spirit of working out what it means to be Jewish is taken up again, this time, in a new century, and starting to resemble something as different from the world of Jewish Poland as the period prior to the Holocaust, as the many streams of Jewish "Haskalah" (Enlightenment) created Socialists and Zionists, Secularists, Assimilationists, Hasidim, and Mitnagdim (traditionalists, "opponents" of Hasidism), all wrestling with themselves, and with one another.
And maybe that's how I close the loop on this year's essay. A generation ago American Jews were confronting assimilation as an either/or issue. Each ideology represented itself as the one true salvation of Judaism, and the one true way to live one's life. In this country, how was one to be both American and Jewish? How was one to ensure that "Jewish" remained a part of one's own life, and that of one's children when one felt ambiguous about "Jewish", what it meant, and what could/should be passed on? I'm very convinced that any solutions that are Jewishly-relevant will rely on the extent to which people know Jewish religion and culture, and especially Jewish languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, klezmer, and chicken soup. But I think that the answers, for most of us, are no longer binary: yes or no to this ideology or that. We live in a world in which our identities are constructed not from one cloth, but from many. This year, I find myself asking, again, "what does it mean to live as a Jew? what music do we hear? what music do we make as Jews? What music do we make as Jews taking up the question of living in today's world as Jews, but as Americans and as spiritual beings (or not) as cultural and political people engaging a world of cultures and influences?"
And as usual, it is to that question, as well as to the beloved and widening stream of different musics that intersect or cross, or come near at some point, that this site is dedicated.
--Notes by Ari Davidow, 10 Feb 02
Comments and responses
Have a comment about this essay? Want to add your own experiences? Send me e-mail for posting, and help turn this into a conversation.
From: Susan Lerner firstname.lastname@example.org
"klezmer is almost as much a part of the American Jewish establishment as Friedman's music. Klezmer, by itself, no longer speaks to the edges, or to "Jewish alternative". From a signifier of Jewish alternative-ness, it has become a safe signifier representing "Jewish" in the large, overall mix of America and Jewish and everything else washed together and in which a new generation of American Jews attempt to frame who they are, and what the Jewish part means. In that context, it may have no more meaning (or as much meaning) as wearing a magen david."
Well, maybe in di alte heymen of Boston and NYC that might be true, but out here on the Left Coast, not quite so simple. We're still fighting the "it ain't only your bubbe's music" fight. I'd say that "old-fashioned" klezmer (you know, the bar mitzvah band variety of not-really-klezmer 2nd Ave. favorites that got chopped up, mixed in with a freilach or 2 and passed around as "klezmer") is what the mainstream Jewish community (and the media) perceive as representing "Jewish". And producing the new Jewish music is still not the easy sell it should be, witness your aside in your Klezmer Calendar write-up of last week-end's BOW concert.
So, yes - the revival isn't a "revival" anymore, it's an established movement. But I think we still have a way to go before klezmer is the standard. All too often, Jewish programmers still downplay it or neglect to program it at all, at least out here in La-La Land. Heaven forbid that you try and get any of the mainstream entertainment companies (or their big name bosses and stars) involved. Spiritual/religious Judaism (particularly if it's sephardic): ok, klezmer/Yiddish: embarassing - STILL! Oy feh, a person could get depressed...
In fact, the really cutting edge young new Jewish music sneaks in and out of LA with nary a mention in the Jewish press (such as it is) or comment in the mainstream/alternative weekly press either. I'm thinking of The New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars coming and going at a rock club venue before I knew they were in town (believe me, I would have gone!). It will be interesting to see if Hip-Hop Hoodios get any more attention, given the Latin slant.
But I am tremendously excited about the amount of new Yiddish song that is being written and the wonderful quality. Josh Waletzky's CD was the music I played most frequently in the days immediately following September 11. Those songs are firmly planted in my brain to rerun at will. I find myself humming them in the car, in walks by the beach, etc. Chava Alberstein's songs, not just the ones on The Well but also the ones on her new CD, are terrific (dos iz nayes?). Dave Wall and Marilyn Lerner's new CD is coming out soon (next month I heard, on Traditional Crossroads) and I love it. Beyle Gottesman continues to compose. All very, very good and important.
So, the music keeps on growing, evolving, enchanting and some of our audience is growing, evolving and being enchanted. Now, how do we reach the rest? Well, we just keep wailing away, confident in the ability of the wonderful music to move people along.
As to the rest of what you say, take, take. I've been giving copies of Kavalier and Clay as gifts for a year now. In addition to being a terrific read, it is about exactly that intangible sense of "Jewishness" that we American Jews struggle with. One of the few recent books that I, my writer husband and our 24-year-old daughter, found utterly compelling. None of us could put it down.
I picked up Ruth Gruber's book a few weeks ago and am really looking forward to reading it on the long plane ride I've got coming up this week.
Yasher koyekh for your good thinking/writing, Ari!
From: Leonard Koenick email@example.com
Date: Wed, 13 Feb 2002
Here are some random thoughts/comments.
On Germans playing Klezmer. An additional irony. I can't remember who from Brave Old World said this but it was something like Germany is now the only country in which BOW can play an entire concert using only Yiddish and the audience can all understand the words. Probably not completely true as Yiddish contains many Hebrew and religious phrases and words.
On non-Jews playing Klezmer. Without a Jewish connection, I don't think it can grow or survive. What I mean by that is that while many Klezmer musicians of past generations may have been areligious at best, even they most likely had some connection and remembrances that came directly or indirectly from the religious, the prayers, and synagogue music. While an entire band without those connections can create something accurately like Klezmer, in the longer view, I don't see how it continue without some of that more direct connection. For example, a tune like "Fun Tashlich." Doesn't the title given it by the composer signify something that would not be known otherwise?
I don't know how these thoughts relate to other forms of folk tradition such as Cajun or Zydeco or Old Timey, etc.
I was a bit surprised to see that you felt it necessary to explain what a Haftorah was. Why select that one out of the other references that may require a bit of knowledge?
Finally, again,, thanks for your efforts on our behalf.
[I'm not sure why] I felt that explaining the Haftorah was important--it was a carryover from the original review of Saft's album. The rationale there was that the review would not be read only by Jews, and that (sadly, but what influenced me most) I wasn't sure I could count on all Jewish readers of the article knowing what it was. I could reasonably expect readers of the site to learn, or to find out, about Jewish music-related terms. I don't know if that's true for non-music-related terms, and I'm not sure yet whether I want to demand that people find out for themselves, or not, yet.
I should also add that I don't think that the "non-Jews playing klezmer" has anything to do with klezmer as music. Most of the non-Jewish groups playing klezmer as a concert music in Germany, for instance, have evolved it and mixed it with other forms. Since it has no connection to Jewish ritual, there isn't much to tie it to anything Jewish--it will last as long as people enjoy working with those rhythms and melodies.
In a Jewish context, klezmer, or wedding music, will surely evolve, but based on what audiences want to hear, not on the religious affiliation of the musicians. I don't see any connection between religion and ability to play klezmer in a way that sounds Jewish. To the contrary, I can name several bands where the players who most clearly "get" the music are the non-Jews, not the Jews.
From: "Leonard Koenick" firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for your thoughts. Here are more of mine although I really should be working.
My concern is not based on Klezmer as music; it certainly is regardless of who may be playing it; some good and some bad. My concern and belief is that it is essentially Jewish based and if it loses that, it will lose something important.
I, too, know many non-Jewish musicians who play and create wonderful Klezmer music, value them, and don't at all mean to diminish their contributions. But I am reluctant to take the music or on an even more basic level, Jewishness, out of the religious context and history. I don't consider myself frum or even close to it but it makes me apprehensive when we try to divorce things Jewish or being Jewish from that extremely long line of religious thought and history.
Trying to put it another way, yes the music will "sound Jewish;" most cultural traditional music can be accurately copied and even created and improved but my thoughts go to for how long will it maintain its Jewish character.
From: Judy email@example.com
Date: Tue, 19 Feb 2002
As a non-Jew married to a Jew, and as a musician in a klezmer band in my small city, I find your commentary very thought provoking. As a second-generation German-American, I, too, am uncomfortable with the proliferation of German bands playing klezmer music - for the same reasons as you've pointed out - their forebears wiped out a people and a culture and it's just...weird, to put it mildly.
I enjoy many types of music, and profess NO true ties to anything 'cultural' or 'historical' in the music I listen to or play - I wasn't around for Glenn Miller and Bing Crosby, and I enjoy the music. I'm not from West Virginia, yet true American roots music brings a smile to my face. Much as klezmer does - to me, it's another thread in a great American tapestry.
Having said THAT, however, I truly feel that in order for klezmer music to continue, to grow, and to thrive, it MUST keep its roots in the Jewish community - the music is more than just a 'good dance beat' and 'clever lyrics' - it's from the heart and soul of a people whose history is painful and glorious. I'm happy to have discovered klezmer music over a decade ago - and I enjoy it blended with other styles as well as in its purest form.
Our small city has many ethnic festivals throughout the summer - Juneteenth, Greek Fest, Oktoberfest, Latin Fest, Irish Fest, and Klezfest - they're all opportunities for people to share their culture with the community at large - very few of the organizers of these other festivals are natives of the lands whose cultures they represent, yet they're tied to those communities through foods and music, and sometimes language. Klezmer music can't be homogenized and still survive - it can be pushed and sweetened and morphed out of the 19th century into this one, but it still needs its roots in the culture from which it sprang.
ps - to Susan in LA - try www.kcrw.com - it's a Santa Monica NPR station that has a World Music show from 9AM to noon - I've heard them play klezmer music on the air - and perhaps you can get them to keep klezmer music 'talked about'!