Thinking about 'New Jewish Content'

Just recently I added a new category to the KlezmerShack's review listings, "New Yiddish Music". It is something that I have considered for several years, and have debated around in my mind for a long time. This wasn't just a bureaucratic reorg. I'm hoping that this attempt at categorization will spark some discussion.

To get that moving, let me try to set down a few thoughts.

Why not call it "New Jewish Music?"

At first, the section was going to be called "New Jewish Music," the term preferred by Brave Old World. That's what I have called this music for years, while I mulled over who belonged in the category, why, and when would I get around to making the change. But. I have two basic problems with this label. First, 'new Jewish music" is a marketing label that seems to be applied to just about anything that is new that has Jewish content of some form or another. When I saw that term applied to a Debbie Friedman sound-alike on, I realized that this may already be too broad a term to be useful.

My second objection is deeper. I don't think that Brave Old World's new music is necessarily Jewish. No. That is incorrect. The music is "asli" Jewish--Michael Alpert's transformation of the role of the badkhn into a modern narrator/jokester/commentator comes directly from yiddishkeit. If Michael sang in a language other than Yiddish (and this really includes the band's few English pieces), it just isn't the same. And the roots of all of the music the band plays are Jewish. But, it is decontextualized "Jewish" to a degree. This isn't Jewish music that is a natural part of Jewish community life as klezmer was for Ashkenazic Jews of another time and place. That time and place is gone, so I am speaking no great insight here. One of the reasons the band stresses that this is "new" Jewish music is that the band recognizes that separation and is actively attempting to create a new form of music that is derived from klezmer and other Ashkenazic sources, whose words are primarily in Yiddish, or inflected by Yiddish, yet which fits the time and circumstance--the concert hall--in which the band performs as a Jewish band, today.

It is also one of the ironies of this particular new "Jewish" music that the practitioners, whose nominal religious identification is not necessarily Jewish. Rather, it is their cultural identity--not their religion or birth culture--which is immersed in creating and dancing spiritually with a particular form of Yiddish culture, secularized and separated from its religious context. This is ironic, but then, consider that for most of us in America, the mosaic of cultural identities that describes who we are is vigorously kept separate from religious identity. The main exception to this separation occurs among the religious fundamentalists of our time. Religious fundamentalists do not do new music that fits into the category I will be describing.

But not so fast. There is more here than I've outlined yet. For me, the word "Jewish" immediately implies a lifetime of wrestling with a larger question of what it means to be Jewish. Over time I have concluded that if "Jewish" refers to a culture that is transmitted from generation to generation, culture isn't enough. If we are referring to an implied continuity with Jewish history, then this is not a term that is separable from either cultural or religious contexts. In that sense, the fundamentalists and I are in agreement. So, I have trouble referring to new music based on Ashkenazic music, words, and cultural mores--but separate from the religious roots of same, as "Jewish". By analogy, "klezmer", the starting point for much of this new music can easily be viewed as separate from the implication of "Jewishness" among practitioners in much the same way that "blues" is derived from African-American culture, but does not imply personal membership in that culture. That "klezmer" was a stand-in, among some Jewish edge cultures for "Jewish" for many years (I think this applies now only to some mainstream Jewish cultures) is one of the ironies and contradictions of looking at the specifics of a given culture at a given time.

I also had to consider that "Jewish" applies to a broader range of cultures than are derived from klezmer or Yiddishkeit. If one considers the variety of and multiplicity of Jewish cultures extant, then the idea of claiming new music based on one specific culture among many smacks a bit of blindness. It begs absurd questions, like "can new Sephardic music also be 'new Jewish music?' or 'What on earth is wrong with labeling new Jewish spiritual music after the style of Debbie Friedman, new Jewish music?'

How interested are Jews in this "New Jewish Music"?

Here's another set of incomplete bits and pieces of cultural fact. While "klezmer" is a popular term for a revived and transmogrified Jewish musical form, "klezmer," itself, no longer implies being on the edge of hip or cool. In fact, I have a long paper on how the term "klezmer" had become a stand-in for "Jewish", that I may never put online, because I don't think it is true any more. Rather, in an age where every second synagogue boasts a klezmer band, "klezmer" is no less identified with mainstream Judaism than "Jewish".

There is considerable irony in this, of course. Just because klezmer is ubiquitous in the mainstream Jewish world doesn't mean that most Jews listen to, or identify with klezmer. Rather it means that among those Jews on the edges of Jewish life (either on the edge due to general disengagement, or because of participation in the general search for new Jewish identity and cultural expression), "klezmer" no longer signifies "Jewish" in a personal mosaic which includes "Jewish" among dozens of other identities. As an aside--there appears to be no general edge Jewish arts or culture that fit that bill. Lip service is paid to "Radical Jewish music," but much of that is neither radical nor particularly Jewish. (Some is both radical and Jewish.) Rather, kaballah, or references to kitsch Judaica of the '50s, or responses to antisemitism and news of Israel remain more culturally compelling.

For radical Jews, there appears, currently, to be no identification with any sort of radical Jewish culture. Check out jewsweek, or jewschool, or other Jewish weblogs. Not much going on in this particular sphere.

New Yiddish Music

So, what we've got is a fascinating period in which there are lots of Jews doing interesting things culturally. Most don't happen to be connected to Judaism or Jewish identity. And we have some amazing music that is based on Ashkenazic Yiddish culture that is being ignored by the people who one would think would be most fascinated by same. Yiddish dancing instruction many not be enough to bridge this gap.

This music is not being created in a vacuum. There is an explosive core of incredibly talented people, imbued with a largely secular Yiddish culture and history, who are creating exciting new art and music. It isn't klezmer any more, even though klezmer gatherings, along with yiddishist gatherings are the main public air holes. In a manner perhaps similar to what happened in St. Petersburg 100 years ago when Jewish musicians attempted to created a new classical music drawing upon Jewish sources, there are people around the world forging something new. Creating this new category is an attempt to draw attention specifically to that work.

When you listen to Brave Old World, or Mikveh, or the Flying Bulgars, or the Klezmatics, or the new songs of Josh Waletzky, you realize that there is something very new here, indelibly based on Yiddish culture as it is developing in the United States (primarily in the United States, but not always so--the Flying Bulgars are Canadian, and there are exciting things happening in Germany and Argentina, to name just a couple of additional points). It is new Jewish music, to be sure, but even more, it is new Yiddish music, and that's the term I'm going to work with for now.

Comments? Questions? This doesn't have to be my rant only--join in.

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