Adventures in the Klezmer Trade
When I was little I divided my afterschool time between Bach violin concertos and weekly classes at the local Workmen’s Circle school, where we were taught, somewhat eccentrically, Yiddish and socialism, while the rest of the Jewish world was studying Hebrew and preparing for their bar/bas mitzvahs. I couldn’t have imagined then, a presumed future doctor of some sort, that eventually those elements would coalesce into a career that would take me around the world, and that I’d get to witness and even assist at the miraculous rebirth of Yiddish culture in our day. And that some pretty weird things would happen along the way.
At the Workmen’sCircle we were taught Yiddish folksongs, chestnuts which our teachers hoped would help innocculate us against assimilation. One day as a teenager though, I heard something that compelled and excited the musician in me: clarinetist Andy Statman bringing the old Jewish instrumental music now called klezmer back into the light of day. The complexity, beauty, mystery and power of the music gripped me. When I graduated college in 1985 I answered an ad placed by a musician looking to form a klezmer group; we soon became the Klezmatics. As I struggled to decipher how the musicians on the old 78s made those mysterious sounds – like a cantor singing, like Yiddish without words, sounds that sounded so Jewish – our career started unexpectedly taking off.
Looking back I can see that although Yiddish culture seemed sparse around the world at the time, and some thought my career choice a little unrealistic, the world was in fact pregnant with Yiddish culture, still hidden but ripe and ready to emerge again everywhere we turned, among Jews and non-Jews too.
Emblematic was the time when, exploring the countryside after a concert tour of Scotland, I found myself at an inn where the thickly-accented proprietor suddenly burst into Yiddish, exclaiming that it had been decades since he’d had the chance to speak the language! He’d picked it up fifty years earlier as the only non-Jewish worker in an Edinburgh tannery. That was the beginning of a long trail of Yiddish speakers in the strangest places.
In Cracow the Klezmatics played at the newly minted Festival of Jewish Culture. We were already accustomed to the oddness of playing in Germany, where our international career had, strangely enough, gotten its start, and where a curious philo-semitism was putting klezmer at the top of the charts. But we weren’t prepared for our feelings in Poland, which welcomed us warmly but also seemed a vast Jewish graveyard. Stranger still was the wild, even obsessive enthusiasm of the audiences there. After the shows we attended festival-sponsored socials where we found a subculture of young people who studied Yiddish and listened to our CDs... including a group of women who smoked pipes. Why pipes? Because, they said, Jewish women in Poland before the war smoked pipes...in other words, because it was cool!
Then there were the Jewish audiences...In Budapest Jews were just beginning to legally practise Judaism. After our show, a teenage boy came backstage to tell us it was the first time in his life he felt good about being Jewish. Wow... something was afoot in the world if Yiddish and klezmer were supplying ethnic pride the way Hebrew and Zionism had when we were growing up.
The klezmer craze spread from old world to new, and the desire welled up in many of us to take the old and make of it something new. We wrote music and collaborated across disciplines; I was thrilled to work, with the group and alone, with artists ranging from Itzhak Perlman to Led Zeppelin to Tony Kushner. People seemed inspired by the new stuff. In Chicago, a woman said our CD had brought her mother out of a coma (no kidding!)
The mostly secular klezmer world feels far removed from the Hasidic sphere, but something novel is going on there too. I’ve recorded for Hasidic singers like Avraham Fried who say they were surprised to discover secular Jews who can play with Jewish soul. The Hasidic instrumental tradition didn’t make it across the Atlantic; here instrument playing came to be looked down upon while singing was elevated. So some of us are now in the interesting position of bringing older Hasidic music (a basis for much klezmer repertoire) back to modern-day Hasidim.
My all-women band Mikveh formed in 1998 when several of us revivalists, including the late singer Adrienne Cooper, had decided we wanted to do songs that would be especially meaningful to women. Sadly, tragically, last year we lost Adrienne, the greatest Yiddish singer of our time.
Mikveh's first gig was at playwright Eve Ensler’s V-Day at Madison Square Garden, a celebrity reading of her Vagina Monologues which included Brooke Shields, Oprah Winfrey, Glenn Close, lots of other wildly famous women... and us, the klezmers! Who knew?
Papercut by Diane Palley