KlezmerShack 10th Anniversary finale: KCB Revival/Mini Jewish Music Fest, Mar 25-26, 2006
When the KlezmerShack's 10th anniversary started, one dream was the idea of a Jewish Music Festival here in Boston. By hook and by crook, I wanted to encourage Jewish music appearing in local clubs—why shouldn't the world celebrate our music the way that we Jews tend to flock to events featuring African music's of dozens of flavors, or this or that Celtic music? To some extent, I succeeded. The KlezmerShack co-sponsored concerts that included a startling range of music, from the traditional klezmer of di bostoner klezmer; the pyrotechnics of klezmer fiddle revivalist Alicia Svigals; the wonderful Yiddish duo of Pete Rushefsky and Becky Kaplan—proof that voice and tsimbl belong together like gefilte fish and horseradish, or borsht and sour cream; to the new klezmer jazz and new Yiddish songwriting of Khevre on to the Workmen's Circle Chorus and the amazingly uncategorizable San Francisco vocal trio, Charming Hostess.
But I wanted a festival, too. Susan Tovsky and Barrie Keller, at the Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center in Newton agreed. Hankus Netsky was a willing co-conspirator, even as we decided that this was the chance to bring his band, the one that helped kick off the klezmer revival over 25 years ago, and to pull in some of the amazing people who had participated over the years. Lisa Gallatin at the Workmen's Circle thought it would be great and immediately volunteered workshops in Yiddish and singing. All we needed was money to pay for the amazing festival we saw in our heads.
This is where I learned how little I know the local community. I had a few names, and called people, starting with Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP). But I didn't call enough, and I didn't have so much time, and I didn't follow through often enough, and I didn't know many people starting out. Getting people to contribute to something you believe in takes time. The cause has to be something that people can get behind, but after that, it's all about relationships and I did precious little relationship building.
There were some barriers. To my surprise, the idea of funding a Jewish Music festival seemed entirely alien to the CJP. It isn't as though the CJP funds no music: this year I saw concerts featuring bands from Israel in celebration of Israel Independence Day, and attended a wonderful concert by HaZamir, the area's wonderful Jewish Music chorus. But the once-everyday Jewish music, Ashkenazic, Sephardic, or whatever, represented by the Jewish cultures here in Boston were absent. It isn't just the CJP of course. In recent years there have been concerts to raise funds to support the Argentinian Jewish community. There will be cantors singing nusach and cantors singing shlock. There will be orchestral works. But you'd never know that Argentina is home to one of the most amazing klezmer-jazz performing duos to tour internationally, Klezmer en buenos aires, or a host of other local bands playing Jewish music of all sorts. Not in Boston, not yet.
And then there was the venue. There were two reasons we chose the JCC. First, I consciously wanted to avoid the syndrome where if we hold an event at a local synagogue, nobody but synagogue members would attend. Surely, I thought, the JCC would be a neutral, but Jewish venue. Hah! The CJP kept telling me that they already funding the CJP, so why should our event need additional funds? Didn't the JCC already have money for this? (They did, and contributed generously.) Then there were the donors who suggested a plethora of non-Jewish venues, but were unwilling to fund the JCC. Of all the travails in trying to fundraise, the possibility that Boston Jews are unwilling to fund Jewish cultural events that take place in Jewish venues was the least expected. I think that some of that had to do with the newness of the idea, the fact that I was unknown, and that venue was an easy excuse. But as a ready excuse, it is a sad commentary on a community described by the recently updated and reissued "Jews of Boston" as having avoided much of the early Jewish fractional community strife (primarily by not having a settled community until the 19th century). If nothing else, perhaps the community needed and needs this event if only to find how much we all have in common.
In the end, Norton Sherman came through with some critical funding from a last-minute appeal from Barrie Keller. And we got a couple of names of people who were ready to help plan a next event, provided we got started in time to do real planning and relationship building. The JCC folks: Susan Tovsky and Barrie Keller were amazing. Susan was always several steps ahead of me with effective publicity, ensuring, for instance, that we got mentioned with a picture on the Boston Globe's calendar section. Barrie kept finding ways to make things work well. And Hankus, with band manager Jim Guttmann was the Barrie equivalent on the band side. When we needed to rethink things to make something work, it seldom took more than a few minutes to come up with a better plan that worked. When you can work with people this good, and this much fun to work with, a good event is inevitable.
The lack of budget limited the alumnae that we could bring in for the reunion. It also limited the number of workshops we could offer: most were volunteer efforts with contributions from everyone from Hankus, Deborah Strauss, Jeff Warschauer, and Workmen's Circle volunteers. There was a lot of nervousness about the workshops. I had originally envisioned a whole day, maybe a whole weekend of workshops. We winnowed it down to two sets of sessions on Sunday afternoon and dropped the kids program. The problem, in part, was that the JCC staff knew how to publicize theatrical and concert events, but this was new territory, and it wasn't clear to anyone whether people would come out for klezmer any more, much less, that they would come out for workshops about Jewish music or Yiddish or talk. It wasn't even clear how we staffed such events or what the volunteers should be doing. We did it anyway.
As is obvious from the previous write-ups about the event, both the concerts and the workshops were crowded, sold-out (except for the talking events: the "Taste of Yiddish" and my own panel about the future of Yiddish, both of which were comfortably full, but not stuffed).
About my own panel, I felt like a bit of a poseur. To me, what matters is the multiplicity of living and changing Jewish cultures. It matters to me not just that the klezmer revival succeeded, but that it opened to door to consider a panoply of Jewish cultures, not just the Yiddish shmaltz spooned off the top of eastern European Jewish culture. That is all well and good, but my co-panelists were involved specifically in living Yiddish culture. Hankus spoke eloquently to the lack of scholarship on Yiddish culture in this country, pointing out that there was no book-length scholarly work about popular Jewish culture more recent than 1924, except for some recent books about the klezmer revival. What happened in between? Clearly nothing that has concerned Jewish Studies departments so far. Michael spoke about how we speak of Jewish culture as consisting of people who create music based on secular culture: about Matisyahu or Debbie Friedman—but don't appear to care about our own roots in Ashkenazic (he could have said the same about Sephardic culture as well). All spoke about how even the way we speak Hebrew has changed. When did it become only okay to say, "Sha-BAT" instead of "SHAbes"?
It was also at this panel that I realized how much Jeff Warschauer and Deborah Strauss aren't just proponents of Yiddish culture as a revival, but form a bridge between the living, evolving, and variegated Hasidic and Haredi Yiddish-speaking cultures, and the more generally secular society in which I live. It's something very much apparent in their most recent CD, Rejoicing, but for the first time I had a context in which to describe their work.
For an hour discussion, the questions from the audience were excellent, and my co-panelists were, as usual, brilliant. It's something that I want to do again, but perhaps in a context where there is more time to talk. In fairness, I should mention that the idea for the panel grew out of the deep pleasure that Michael Alpert and I have had in discussing these issues together over the years. This event seemed to offer some confirmation that we aren't the only ones who enjoy the discussion.
I don't want to talk much about the concert. I have let too much time elapse, and my memory is somewhat hazy. As I introduced the band, I wanted to talk about how much they have meant to me over the decades. When I first moved back to the United States from Israel, klezmer was a subject of no interest. I had heard Giora Feidman and seen him perform, and had no great need for further nostalgia. I had picked up early CDs by the Klezmorim and Kapelye and been seriously disappointed. My good friend Jeff Brody was in a local klezmer band, Hotzeplotz, that I loved to watch live—it was Jeff who introduced me to Andy Statman's "Flatbush Waltz", still one of my favorite tunes, and watching people interact with Hotzeplotz on the streets of Santa Cruz was special. But it wasn't until the day that I found both Zev Feldman's and Andy Statman's album, and this orange-colored, strangely formal disk called "Yiddish Renaissance" that it sunk in how powerful and fun and alive klezmer music was.
A few years later, I moved up to San Francisco and KCB came to town, performing at a local synagogue. There was dancing in the aisles—something that was far less familiar then. Frank London climbed to the top of the sanctuary cupola for one of the trumpet numbers. Judy Bressler was amazing. I was still thinking about that concert where I wrote about the band in a 1986 online article for The WELL, was one of the first things I wrote about Jewish music for an online audience.
A few more years passed and I started the KlezmerShack (then, "Ari Davidow's Klezmer pages," so named as to distinguish them from everyone else's klezmer pages—surely, everyone on the web would have klezmer pages). The impetus for the website was an article for the Whole Earth Review about "six essential klezmer albums". One of them, of course, was Yiddishe Renaissance," but there had been many albums since—almost immediately I reviewed the band's seventh(?) album, "Live. Charlie Berg, KCB's first drummer and at the time, only equalled by the amazing David Licht of the Klezmatics, sent me his article on how to be a klezmer drummer. It was the first article hosted on the KlezmerShack by someone other than me.
I still remember the first time I saw KCB as a Boston resident, at a wonderful outdoor concert at a local museum. I remember honeymooning to the then-current KCB album, "Dance me to the end of love. There have been other Boston bands and klezmorim who have been important parts of my life, but the KCB has been there firstest with the mostest for over 25 years. I can't believe I got to introduce them onstage. And my old friend Charlie Berg was there right on stage, alongside current drummer Grant Smith, making this the Doobie Brothers of klezmer bands.
I do remember the person who spent some time during the intermission letting me know that he had only come to hear Rosalie Gerut, who had been prevented from attending by sickness. But he didn't leave early. Few did, despite the fact that the concert was three hours long. It was the first time I had seen KCB without a female vocalist, and I did miss that aspect of the band's music. But I've seen the band that way, to my intense pleasure, dozens of times. I've never seen them before with two drummers (and the drum solo? I'd give up a long listen to Kreutzman and Hart for a recording of this one). I've never seen the band with three banjos—including Hankus' brother, Steve (klezmer banjo???) or five fiddles. Other people have already mentioned how smokin' Alpert's vocals were, and how he couldn't stop dancing around on the stage, even while singing or playing fiddle. The bass duo with Jim Guttmann and Andy Blickenderfer was another high point. Evan Harlan's piece gave a chance to realize how many musicians involved in the band over the years have also been part of both Boston's traditional music and avant garde music scenes. Jeff and Deborah's pieces were as good as I have seen them—I have run out of superlatives. Ilene Stahl couldn't stop. Robin Miller's flute doina was as good that night as ever. Even better. It was amazing to see Marvin Weinberger and Charlie and Gary Bohan alongside the more recent members. Hankus was extraordinary. Everyone was extraordinary, but differently extraordinary. At times it was like listening to several small ensembles backed by one of the tightest, most experienced, most joyous, and biggest of klezmer bands around.
So, we're going to do it again. We have a tentative date for a Jewish Music festival at the JCC of March 17-18, 2007, and Brave Old World is going to appear. If all goes well, we'll spill this event over to encompass events at Hebrew College and the Workmen's Circle and at least one college campus. Of course, the expanded festival will happen only if I (or someone more capable) does the fundraising and organizing. If you are interested in helping out, do drop me a line. See ya'll then.