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KlezKanada '99

Wednesday: Kurt Bjorling, "Who What When Where Why Klezmer?"

Wednesday: Zev Feldman, "Coming to terms with sacred and secular sources"

Thursday: Adrienne Cooper, "Itsik Manger"

Friday: German Goldenshtyn interview: From Bessarabia to America

other klezmer articles on the Internet

[Note that these are rough notes taken as the talk was given. If there are mistakes, they are my misunderstandings and mistranscriptions. Nonetheless, I hope that this provides some flavor of a wonderful interview. I am hopeful that shortly I will be able to add real audio versions of the instrumental breaks. Most of the session consisted of Michael Alpert interviewing German Goldenstyn in Yiddish, and then translating Goldenshtyn's answers. On the stage were Hankus Netsky, accordion; Steve Greenman, violin; Michael Alpert, accordion, second violin; German Gorenshteyn, clarinet; Jeff Warschauer, mandolin, Stu Brotman, drum (small bass drum w/cymbal, pook? pyk?), and Zev Feldman who did not play. Goldenstyn's first name is pronounced with a hard "g", as in "gevalt" or "Gehrman," not like the country. ari, 8/20/99]

Interview with a Bessarabian Klezmer, German Goldenstyn

interview translated and moderated by Michael Alpert

We are talking about Bessarabia and Podolya. Podolya being the region of the southwestern Ukraine that runs along the Moldovian and Romanian borders. The music that German plays is a kind of border music, a Jewish Tex-Mex, "Uk-Mold". Today's Moldavia corresponds roughly to Bessarabia.

German: I was born in Bessarabia, in a stetl called "Atac" (Ah-tatch). When I was born there, it belonged to Romania. In 1940 it became part of the Soviet Union, when Moldavia was incorporated into the Soviet Union. This is on the border between Moldavia and Ukraine. There is a river there, Dniester (sp?), and that forms the border between the countries.

The shtetl Atac was not big, about a thousand Jews. And, today there is one single Jew. Many people from my area were killed during the war. Jews spread out and were dispersed from there and went all over the world--Israel, Canada, and like me, to the United States.

When the war started, I was 7 years old. When the war started they drove us into a concentration camp. This was located in the town of Bershadt in the Ukraine. It was the Romanian government that drove us out, along with the Germans. Not much time went by my father died, and a day later my mother died. So I lost my parents within two days. Four of us kids remained. We had to get through life on our own. You know the Yiddish song, "Papirosn," (buy cigarettes / save an orphan from death) that was us--I used to sell cigarettes, matches. In 1943 a delegation came from the Romanian Red Cross, and the delegation gathered up a number of the orphans and they sent us to Romania. First we were in the town of Iasi (pronounced, "Yash"), as the front came closer, they took us off to Bucharest. There was an orphanage with 500 Jewish kids there. When the war was over, the Soviet government sent us back from where we came from, which was now in the Soviet Union, and that's how I ended up in an orphanage in Odessa. I was there until 1946, with two brothers. The 4th was elsewhere; we didn't know where.

There was a special school, it was a military school, but there was a military music school (Alpert notes that Gorenshtyn uses the term "klezmer," even to refer to these musicians). One day a colonel came and he came to select kids to study at that school. He chose from the whole school he picked ten kids. Of course a lot of kids wanted to go. We had a competition, auditions. Who could better sing, and my brother and I were lucky enough to end up as two of those ten children.

I had a teacher who was Pyotr Jocobitch Blueshteyn, he was a Jew! He was a very fine musician. Maybe he wasn't literally a klezmer, but he also worked in Yiddish theatre. When there was a performance on Sundays, he would take me to the performance with him. Those were wonderful Yiddish plays. I used to sit with him in the pit and I loved the music that was played there. Something got into me from there and I loved it.

When I ended school they sent me to a military orchestra. I was 15 years old. Within that orchestra there were older klezmorim who were very good musicians who had been playing many years and they used to play weddings. It was in the town of Belz, not to be confused with "my shtetele Belz". This was a town in Moldavia. Most of these musicians I am talking about were Moldavian (i.e., part of the greater Romananian cultural group. Alpert). We used to rehearse every day and I learned quite a lot of pieces from them. And even at our rehearsals at our military orchestras, if they had to go play a wedding, they would rehearse a few wedding tunes. At that point I started to compile a book of tunes. I used to write them down because your mind is not a computer.

And I served that way in military orchestras for 10 years, from school, through completing my military service. I am telling you the whole story so you'll know how I got into this whole musical family.

When I got out of the army, I went back to the town that in Russian is called [?], and in Yiddish is called Molov. This is right across the Dieste River from Atac.

When I got there I could only play a little of what was required. And I started to work in a factory as a lathe operator. I studied in a technical college in Kiev to learn this trade. I became a mechanical engineer. But I couldn't make a living from that. Those engineers and machinists don't earn a lot of money in the USSR.

So I had the good luck to go to a jewish wedding where there were older Jewish musicians playing and one of them said, "you look interested in what you're doing," and "do you know music," and I say, "Yeah I can play." So the guy hands me the clairnet and says, "here, play something." I remember. We're going to play those tunes.

[band plays German's audition tune]

That is the first tune I played at a Jewish wedding. The way you just clapped for me now, people clapped for me then (laughter and more clapping). And from that day on, I was a member of that band.

I became a member of that band. When I started to play weddings, there were not a lot of musicians around. Not a lot of time had passed since the end of the war. This was the only band in the whole Molov region. We played in Molov and in all the towns of the region. Lots of little towns that had significant Jewish populations still. There were 10,000 Jews in Molov after the war. There are only 400 now. [In Poland, in 1968, there were 3-5000 Jews. This is one town. Alpert]

What can I tell you about weddings? These were poor weddings often, not like weddings here. In addition to Jewish weddings, we playing Moldavian, Ukraininan weddings. If you want to know what I 'm talking about by the word "poor," of course, Jews had it a bit better than other people, but by "other people," I don't want to call them ... , maybe it's not nice to call them .... We used to drink from the same glass. There used to be one glass for everybody. There would be a keg or a bottle at the end of the table, I would make a "l'chaim" and drink, then the next person would make a "l'chaim" and drink. Here [referring to the settings at lunch at KlezKanada] I come to lunch and every place has two or three forks and there are four glasses and I don't know what to do with them.

Each shtetl had weddings in its own way. Different a bit from place to place. For example, the town of Kapaygra, which was about 80 km from Molov, We used to take the train there, get there at midnight, arrived 2am, but the station was 5 or 6km from town. Sometimes they would send a wagon or some kind of vehicle to take us into town from the station. They needed us, that's why they sent the vehicle. At the end of the night it was a little different. We had to walk.

In order that people wouldn't forget that they were invited to the wedding, we'd go from house to house and play under the window, a freylakhs or a bulgar, and the master or mistress (balabuste) of the house would come out in his or her underwear--this was 3am--they'd pay us something nice and we'd go on to the next house. Maybe we were being paid to go play somewhere else.

There were so many peole on the list that we spent all night going from house to house to remind people of the wedding that night. That's how they did it in Kapaygra.

In Lucinez there was a concentration of Jews at one time, too. It was the opposite. At the end of the wedding, we had to take all the guests home, one by one. The whole wedding would go out into the streets, so we would take each person home and play for them and play lively things so people would dance and have a good time and then we'd take people home and we'd play one more dance and they'd pay us again.

In the old days, the musicians had to pay whoever was holding the wedding, in order to come play the wedding, or put down a deposit, whereas these days it's the opposite. This would assure whoever was putting on the wedding that the klezmorim would show up. We used to earn money by playing requests. When the cultural level rose in Moldavia and Ukraine, things changed, and the ones holding the wedding would pay us.

You might ask yourselves, if we had to pay, what did we get from the wedding? Jews find a way to get by. They used to salute people, in Yiddish, 'oyzrufen', a mazl tov. The oldest one of us was the badkhn. He played a drum like this, He would say "the khasn and kalle should have a long life and have 10 or 15 kids ..." he knew all the people in town, and everyone knew us, too. We'd go from person to person starting with the bride and groom and the parents of the bride and groom and we'd play pieces for them and they would pay us. that's how we made our money. We didn't play long for each one. We needed to move on. And this was our living, we weren't doing this for fun. And so we earned our bread. After we finished doing that we'd set up in a corner and play for dancing and for each dance we would be played.

I want to play you a tune that I know from Kapaygra.

[band plays a couple of tunes]

Were there chuppes used? [Michael asks] There were chuppes, but they weren't legal. Jewish weddings took place mostly on Shabbes, at night. Some people used to do in the morning, too. The chuppes we used to do in someone's apartment, we'd close the windows and doors so no one should hear and we'd bring the rabbi and do it in secret. Since we had to do it on the sly, naturally there were no musicians there.

What was the makeup of the band? When i started to play there was no amplification. There wasn't even electricity. We used to play by gas or kerosene lamps. Later on, as the years went by, people started playing electric guitars with the wires and cables and everything. At the beginning, when I started to play in the mid-1950s, I used to play clarinet or sax, there was a trombone, there was a Moldavian who could play and he would put out all the lamps with his playing--this is absolutely true! We would ask him to play a little more quietly so the lights would stay on. There was a trumpet, accordion, and you know, a poyker (drummer--that bass drum with the cymbal on top), and a fiddler--an older Jewish guy. That was pretty much it. There were six or seven of us.

If we had to play for a difficult wedding which lasted 10 or 15 hours, or at Moldavian weddings we had to play from one morning to the next, so we used to take extra people so we could spell each other, trade off. If the wedding was inside--in a house or in a club or a restaurant, we didn't need as many people.

Here you have special catering halls to hold weddings. there we didn't have that. We used to set up a tent, a big tent, put tables together--bang them together from boards, and whatever chairs we could find. In more recent years we had them in restaurants and clubs.

Once we played a wedding, I remember it as if it were yesterday, in a goyish village. There was such a big tent, this was maybe five times as big as the gym we played in last night. The entire village was in this wedding. People used to drive their cars and trucks in. And we had to play in such a way that people at the other end could still hear us, and we didn't have microphones at such a time.

You can see what an easy life klezmers had. So whoever thinks musicians had an easy life.... I've often said, if you want to be a klezmer, if you want to learn klezmer life, you have to live this.

Zev Feldman: Did you play the same things for Jews and for non-Jews?

There were the same things, but a few things were specific, say, to Jewish weddings. For example, you know the tune, "ot azoy ot azoy," we would take the mother of the bride, mother of the groom, and seat them on two chairs back to back, and play "ot azoy".

Zev (following up): Did you also play Jewish tunes for non-Jews. (In explanation to audience: "German has a book with many freilakhs and shers, so I am asking if he played those tunes for non-Jews....")

There are things that were played for many different weddings, but some things were specific to Jewish weddings, but somethings could be played at all weddings, including Jewish weddings. A waltz could be played at any wedding. The Moldavians loved to dance to Jewish dances, and Jews loved to dance to Moldavian.

[They play a dance tune]

Hankus: Was there a difference in a style between Jewish and non-Jewish tunes, or did Jewish musicians played non-Jewish tunes in a Jewish style?

Of course. Every band has its own way of playing. We had to play loud enough to be heard 10 villages away. The Jews played slower, you should hear every word, and they didn't yell.

[more music!]

Do Jewish klezmorim in the Soviet Union play only in the small villages, or were they also in large towns?

In my area, I played in Chernovitz, Belz, Kishinev, and many different places, not to mention the small towns. Whenever we would travel a long way, it was only to play Jewish weddings.

Martin Schwartz asks: how often did it happen that a gentile you were playing for would request a Jewish piece, or did they have specific Jewish pieces that they requested?

That did indeed used to happen. you know why? In the town where I grew up, Jews grew up with non-Jews. I knew at least one non-Jew who could daven better than a lot of non-Jews. He grew up with Jewish kids and heard Jewish kids davening.... When the kids used to go to the rebbe for cheder, this kid probably went with them. People used to ask for tunes like "Mein Shtetele Belz."

[band plays "avinu malkeynu", I'm not sure why this tune at this point; audience sings along]

[Hankus jumps in and says that people wouldn't know the words to this tune; they just love this tune and play it in many places. He points out that people would play half hours of freylakhs at Italian weddings, so this mingling also happened here.]

Yosi Weiss (referring to the piece just played): was this a piece of davening?

Michael Alpert: no, this was an example of a request

German: Yes, this is a piece from davening

Jeff Warschauer: Do non-Jews know this is prayer?

Yosi: Do people think of this as a Jewish tune, or as an example of davening?

German: This is what people requested.

Michael: What did they call it?

German: Avinu malkeynu!

[I think that what German was saying is that yes, non-Jews knew that this was a Jewish prayer, not just any melody, and that they requested it specifically. Whether this was because the tune is so moving, or because they attached significance to the words, we did not ascertain at this time. German was saying, "hey, they knew it was a prayer and they wanted to hear it," others were asking variations of, "but did they request it as a prayer, or as a melody."]

Jeff: How often was there a badkhn at Jewish weddings?

German: Ours wasn't the greatest badkhn in the world. He was really the master of ceremonies. In my time, we didn't need a badkhn, we needed someone to run the wedding and collect the money.

Did people speak Yiddish in Moldavia even until the time you left?

[Alpert translating loosely] Yiddish was spoken maybe only in shul. Most people in the streets spoke Ukrainian and Russian. But, for example, if you go to German's home, he and his wife speak Yiddish together much fo the time.

German: You know why so many of us former immigrants speak Yiddish a lot? Because we can't learn English!

How long did they go from house to house? [earlier custom described at beginning of interview]

By the time I left, there were not many Jews left in a town like Kapaygara (came to US in 1994). in the last fewyears, we really didn't play there any more.

Did you play the melodies separately, or were medleys created where tunes were interwoven with each other?


Michael: Let's play an example of something like that.

[a short and it is over]

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