The joy of oy! Yiddish is thriving in the Bay Area
“It might be under the radar, but Yiddish is absolutely thriving in the Bay Area,” says Judy Kunofsky, founder and executive director of KlezCalifornia, a 9-year-old organization dedicated to celebrating klezmer, Yiddish and the cultural heritage of Eastern European Jews. The “Gele Pages,” the organization’s yellow pages for Yiddish events and groups in the community, consisted of eight pages in its first edition in 2003, recalls Kunofsky. Now the resource guide has 48 pages.
“People look at it and say ‘I had no idea there was this much going on,’” says Kunofsky, whom other Yiddish enthusiasts point to as a dynamo on the local scene.
Kunofsky, for example, grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and attended a Yiddish school on Sundays, but after her parents stopped making her go, she “didn’t speak or read a word of Yiddish for about 35 years.”
She found her way back through a love of klezmer music, first on the East Coast at an annual family camp, and then in the Bay Area, when she realized how much interest there was in Eastern European arts and culture — despite no formal network to harness it. Jewish Community Library director Howard Freedman helped her get the organization off the ground.
Today, KlezCalifornia provides a roadmap to the growing scene via its website and newsletters, and also sponsors occasional festivals for Yiddish enthusiasts — be they musicians or dancers or people who just want to learn how to say more than “shmendrick” and “shmuck.” A board of directors and advisory council are made up of a veritable who’s-who in the local Yiddish landscape.
To Harvey Varga, 61, speaking Yiddish is as much about connecting to his past as ensuring its future. The son of Holocaust survivors, he grew up in Williamsburg and Borough Park, Brooklyn, where “Yiddish was not only our language, it was our culture,” says Varga, now an Oakland resident. “There’s great joy for me in going back to Borough Park, where I can go into a store on 13th Avenue and I know the owners, who are Hassidim. And though they frown upon the fact that I’m not Orthodox, we can relate because we can speak freely and joke; we’re on the same side. There’s a commonality created by shared language and roots that’s really unlike anything else.”
Varga has become known on the Bay Area’s Yiddish scene for his performance workshop, “100 Yiddish Words the Average Puerto Rican New Yorker Knows and You Should Be Ashamed If You Don’t.” He put it on at KlezCalifornia’s 10th annual Yiddish Culture Festival at the JCC of San Francisco in February, and has helped with Yiddish-themed nights at Moishe House San Francisco. He thinks young people are returning to the language because they need to “fill in their Jewish identity.”
“It adds substance. It’s not just being a gastronomical Jew. And the expressions are a gold mine,” Varga says. “But in addition to the entertainment value, there’s just so much wisdom built into the language. There are words that express the essence of a feeling, of a conversation, much better than I could in English.”
Varga and his wife, who is Israeli, are teaching their two young children both Hebrew and Yiddish. “That’s who I am,” says Varga. “I’m Chaim more than I’m Harvey.”
For Karen Bergen, it was the culture — specifically, a love of Yiddish music — that served as her entry point for wanting to know more about both the language and her ancestry.
The Sunnyvale resident was one of the first members of the Yiddish Choristers, a choir directed by Lotti Solomon in the ’80s, now a 25- to 30-person group organized through the Oshman Family JCC. When Solomon decided to step down and Bergen took the helm, she decided it was finally time to learn to speak the language used in the songs she was singing.
“My grandma Anna was the only one in my family who spoke Yiddish, and she had no one to speak it with — my dad didn’t speak it, so that was that,” says Bergen. “But here I was at a point where I had 30 years of listening to Yiddish music and singing Yiddish songs, where I was familiar with some vocabulary … I wanted to really understand the peculiarities of the language.”
For the past two years, she’s been studying with a casual conversation group at a friend’s home, where, she says, she’s been taken with “the bawdiness of the language, the hidden meanings of things.”
Learn, dance, sing, nosh and shmooze at Simcha Sunday
Simcha Sunday seems to have all the bases covered this year.
For its 17th annual festival of everything Jewish, the Sonoma County JCC is reaching back to the Old Country (with a Yiddish theme), connecting to Israel (with Middle Eastern food from Amba), and also keeping it local and organic (with free ice cream from the Straus Family Creamery).
There might even be bonus points for anyone who uses “chazzer,” “hummus” and “mint chocolate chip” in the same sentence.
Celebrants at last year’s Simcha Sunday enjoy performances.
“We’re definitely infusing Simcha Sunday with Yiddishkeit,” said the JCC’s Karen Gould, director of the event, who expects this year’s festival to beat last year’s attendance of 500 — maybe by even 200 to 250 people.
Whatever the number, Gould said, “the bottom line is the positive impact that we see: more Jews in Sonoma County relinking to Judaism in some way, be it through a synagogue or the JCC or other Jewish programs that are offered in the community.”
The festival takes place Feb. 27 at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building, the second straight year it is being held indoors.
A $5 admission charge (free for kids 12 and younger) includes a full lineup of events. The Harmonia Schvesters, a local accordion and guitar duo, will entertain with Israeli and Yiddish tunes, and song leader Ben Kramarz is going to lead a PJ Library program for preschoolers by bringing children’s books to life.
Other event highlights include a free kids’ Yiddish program led by klezmer icon Gerry Tenney, a lot of Judaica by local artists, Jewish agencies offering information about themselves, much more than a bissel of food available for purchase — and, not to be overlooked, free 4-ounce scoops of Straus ice cream, made in West Marin.
But this year’s festival will go to the next level, Gould said, with breakout workshops run by KlezCalifornia. Featuring music and education, the workshops are divided into three sessions; each costs extra to attend.
Certainly the most intriguingly titled is “110 Yiddish Words the Average Puerto Rican New Yorker Knows and You Should Be Ashamed If You Don’t.” The session is being run by Harvey Varga of Oakland, a 60-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., native who says Yiddish is his first language.
“My father never learned to speak English very well, but I started learning it from the TV,” Varga said. “As I started to learn it, though, my Yiddish started waning, and when my father saw that, he insisted we put an end to speaking English at home. So that was that, but my mom did speak English to me on the sly.”
Varga has taught Yiddish for 20 years, and he has taught this particular class twice before. He calls it “a combination of information, entertainment and identity” — but will he really be able to cram 110 words plus shtick into 90 minutes?
“I try to go as fast as I can,” he said. “But each time I’ve taught it before I’ve only gotten up to 80 or 90 words. But people stick around afterward to milk me for the rest of them.”
There won’t be too much sticking-around time on Feb. 27, for right after Varga’s workshop, the final session is set to begin. It’s a huge dance party, with acclaimed East Bay trio Veretski Pass playing Ukrainian-centric klezmer, and local dance teacher Bruce Bierman leading the proper steps.
This year’s event also will include a challah-baking contest — accompanied by a challah-tasting, of course.
Then again, attendees may already be filled up on the bagels, kugel and other foods the JCC will be selling, or the various Israeli offerings from Amba, a popular kosher-vegetarian restaurant in Oakland.
“The food was definitely a big hit last year,” Gould said. “And this year we’re going to have even more.”
Simcha Sunday runs from 12 to 5:30 p.m. Feb. 27 at the Veterans Memorial Building, 1351 Maple Ave., Santa Rosa. $5 admission, kids 12 and younger free. KlezCalifornia sessions cost extra. Tickets, schedule and more information: http://www.jccsoco.org, http://www.klezcalifornia.org or (707) 528-4222.
The Klezmer Shul That Transcends Tradition
How can religious music devoid of language serve as a unifying force in a world divided by doctrine? This question led Veretski Pass, a unique klezmer trio, to create a new body of Jewish religious music titled The Klezmer Shul. Premiering in Jewish venues in Alameda (Feb. 8), Berkeley (Feb. 10), and Palo Alto (Feb. 14), the 45-minute, four movement instrumental suite — a pioneering attempt to fuse the spiritual essence of Jewish cantorial music with a modern instrumental aesthetic — intends to transmit the emotional power of traditional synagogue singing without the use of words..
Although The Klezmer Shul will debut in religious venues, it is also intended to serve as a purely musical, extra-religious experience. In his grant proposal for the work, Stu Brotman, a Berkeley-based founding member of Veretski Pass, muses, “By its very lack of text, this service may be acceptable to a broad spectrum of religious and non-religious Jews, as well as to a general audience attracted to the music as pure concert music ... It is our hope that the music created will provide an emotional experience derived from, but not specific to, devotional music, and that it will take its place in concert literature suitable for religious services and general programming.”
The group specializes in a collage of “Old Country Music” that blends Carpathian, Jewish, Romanian, and Ottoman styles. Brotman, who plays string bass, basy(bass from the Polish Carpathians), baraban (Carpathian bass drum), tilinca(Romanian/Hungarian shepherd’s flute) and trombone; and his fellow musicians, Cookie Segelstein on violin, violin scordatura, viola; and Joshua Horowitz on 19th-century Budowitz button accordion, and tsimbl (Jewish hammered dulcimer) have spent the last six years touring North America and Europe with their unique blend of traditional, newly arranged, and newly composed klezmer music. Acutely aware of the forces that divide and conquer — the trio is named for the multicultural Eastern European birthplace of Segelstein’s father, who was a Holocaust survivor — the group attempts to transcend religious and secular division by uniting audiences in celebration and reverence.
While The Klezmer Shul is rooted in Jewish liturgical melodic principles and emotional intonations, it also incorporates jazz, avant garde, classical, klezmer, and folk elements. Whether this musical melting pot can fulfill its lofty goals, the vital spirit of klezmer will certainly make for a moving, perhaps thrilling experience. Be sure to stick around for the post-performance discussion, which at KlezCalifornia’s Yiddish Culture Festival (Feb. 14 in Palo Alto) will transition into a traditional klezmer dance party. That should make for a Valentine’s Day like no other.
Jason Victor Serinus writes about music for Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, San Francisco Magazine, Muso, Carnegie Hall Playbill, East Bay Express, East Bay Monthly, San Francisco Examiner, Bay Area Reporter, hometheaterhifi.com, and other publications.
Concerts, Classes and Culture
Palo Alto congregation hosts Yiddish Culture Festival on Presidents' Day weekend
Yiddish may be commonly thought of as declining, but Judith Kunofsky doesn't agree. Locally, Kunofsky sees both Yiddish language and culture as alive and thriving, along with klezmer music.
"The Bay Area has 22 klezmer bands and 16 Yiddish clubs," says Kunofsky, who is executive director and treasurer of the Berkeley nonprofit group KlezCalifornia. On the weekend of Feb. 12, she's bringing many luminaries of Yiddish culture to Palo Alto as part of the Yiddish Culture Festival at Congregation Etz Chayim.
A highlight of the weekend is a Saturday-night concert and dance party focusing on the often emotional, often danceable klezmer music. Featured performers will include trumpeter Frank London of the Klezmatics; New York-based singer and actor Eleanor Reissa, who has toured with her one-woman show, "Hip, Heymish and Hot"; and Berlin clarinetist Christian Dawid, who has been active in a klezmer revival in Europe.
Audience members will also get to join in after the 8 p.m. concert, when Steve Weintraub leads Yiddish dancing starting at 10 p.m.
It all seems true to Kunofsky's intention, which is not merely to keep Yiddish culture alive. "We show people that Yiddish culture is fun and interesting and that's why they should participate."
True to Jewish traditional values, the festival places a huge emphasis on education. Along with concerts, the festival focuses on community involvement, with various teachers offering classes in music, history and language.
Reissa will lead master classes and workshops for aspiring singers and actors. Offerings also include a course called "Yiddish Expressions for the 21st Century," taught by Jon Levitow, who teaches Yiddish at Stanford University. Bay Area Yiddish teacher Harvey Varga will also lead a course called "110 Yiddish Words the Average Puerto Rican New Yorker Knows and You Should Be Ashamed If You Don't."
Weintraub will teach a class on how to lead Yiddish dance, and for instrumentalists, music workshops on klezmer technique and theory will be held. Teachers include London, Dawid and accordionist Joshua Horowitz, who also plays the tsimbl (a hammered dulcimer).
On Sunday night, Horowitz will take part in another concert, joining Cookie Segelstein on violin and viola, and Stu Brotman on cello and tilinca (a Romanian wooden flute). Their klezmer trio, Veretski Pass, will perform an original work, "The Klezmer Shul," which combines modern classical, jazz and avant-garde sensibilities with a Yiddish flavor. The performance will be followed by an interactive discussion and Yiddish dancing.
According to Stanford University's website for its Yiddish program, the language has been spoken by Jews in many countries for centuries and remains the main language of certain ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic communities. Levitow says that 85 percent of the world's Yiddish speakers were murdered in the Holocaust but estimates that there are close to a million people around the world who can speak the language today.
"The numbers are not looking good, but then again prognosticators for the future of Yiddish have been pessimistic for a couple of hundred years, preceding the renaissance of Yiddish literature, so take anyone's predictions with a grain of salt," Varga says.
Levitow says he teaches Yiddish simply because he loves it. "It's a beautiful and expressive language, with a modern literature that flourished for about a hundred years but that can be compared in depth and sensitivity to the great literatures of the world," he said. "Yiddish is made of German, Polish, Russian, old French and Hebrew; it was shaped by traditional Jewish religious culture and by modern European history — it's seven classes in one."
Since its inception in 2003, the Yiddish Culture Festival has migrated from San Francisco to the East Bay, and now to the Peninsula. The organizers expect at least 300 participants from many parts of the West Coast.
"We are building a warm, open, vibrant community to enjoy Yiddish culture," Kunofsky said. "It touches the soul and brings generations together."
What: The Yiddish Culture Festival, featuring classes and concerts on Yiddish culture, klezmer music and Yiddish dancing
Where: Congregation Etz Chayim, 4161 Alma St., Palo Alto
When: Friday, Feb. 12, through Monday, Feb. 15
Cost: Prices for different activities vary, including $15-$25 for single workshops and $10-$20 for concert admission.
Love language? So try Yiddish
Yiddish isn't a dead language yet, contrary to popular belief, and if you want to learn more about it, KlezCalifornia in Palo Alto is producing the Yiddish Culture Festival next month. Also as part of the festival will be a new work that has its world premier in Berkeley on Feb. 10. In addition to the expected klezmer music and dancing workshops, there will be 59 workshops over three days from Feb. 12-Feb. 15. Here are some of the highlights:
Readings by Naomi Seidman of self-authored epitaphs/poems, including Sholom Aleichem's and Anna Margolin's.
A lecture about learning how they learned the language, whether from the family or various secular or Orthodox schools.
Yiddish Words and Expressions for the Twenty-First Century:
How modern words and computer language can be translated into Yiddish.
A 45-minute, four-movement instrumental suite by klezmer trio Veretski Pass (Cookie Segelstein, Joshua Horowitz and Stu Brotman). The Feb. 10 world premiere will be at Congregation Netivot Shalom, 1316 University Ave., Berkeley, (510) 549-9447. No advance booking. At the festival, it will be performed at Congregation Etz Chayim, 4161 Alma St., Palo Alto.
Go to any world music festival, even some mainstream music festivals, and
you're likely to hear a lively klezmer band playing celebratory tunes
to an audience of varying races and nationalities. Sometimes the fun
sounds even will elicit traditional Yiddish dancing.
klezmer? It is a musical genre generally associated with European Jews
that goes back centuries. It is commonly played at weddings and other
Jewish celebrations, but more people want to hear klezmer as
entertainment, says Judy Kunofky, president of KlezCalifornia, formed
to preserve Yiddish culture and music.
"We've found that it's
very popular," she says. "People love it and love dancing to it."
Typical instruments used to play klezmer include a clarinet, accordion,
piano and trombone.
Julie Egger of the Red Hot Chachkas klezmer band puts it another way.
people don't really know klezmer, they think of 'Fiddler on the
Roof'-type stuff and that is not really klezmer," she says. "In
traditional klezmer there was gypsy influence, Middle Eastern influence
and Russian influence. They would pick up music from places they would
But it is hard to pinpoint exactly what the
sound is. There are 22 Bay Area klezmer bands, according to KlezCalifornia's Gele (Yellow) Pages, and none will tell you they are
exactly like one another. For example, California Klezmer plays Yiddish
and "Yinglish" versions of rock-and-roll songs while the Davis Klezmer
Orchestra goes more traditional with their Romanian renditions and
Israeli dances. You may even catch the Red Hot Chachkas and Kugelplex
at a local nightclub. Whoever you catch, you're likely to do some
toe-tapping and even get in on the traditional Yiddish dancing if it is
Julie Egger of Red Hot Chachkas' favorite klezmer musicians: Brave Old World, Budowitz, Klezmatics.
Mark your calendar for the KlezCalifornia Yiddish Culture Festival from
Feb. 12 to 15 at 4161 Alma St. in Palo Alto with includes klezmer
music, dancing, Yiddish workshops and children's programs. 415-789-7679.
Bruce Bierman, © j. (March 14, 2008)
"Yiddish dance? What's that?" That's what most people ask me when I tell
them I lead Yiddish dance for workshops, simchas and festivals around
the Bay Area.
And who can blame them? After World War II, Yiddish dance was almost
wiped off the map, along with the shtetls in Eastern Europe that danced
them. With many of our grandparents yearning to shed their immigrant
past, and with the great push to link the community exclusively to
Israeli culture and education, Yiddish dance, by the 1960s, was almost
completely stuck in the tar pits of nostalgia and relegated to Jerome
Robbin's choreography for "Fiddler on the Roof."
Until recently, I had studied, taught, choreographed and performed
dances from many different world traditions — except my own. Besides
knowing a few classic Israeli folk dances, I was completely illiterate.
I became more curious about Jewish dance after reading Martin Buber's
"Tales of the Hasidim" and coming across stories of dancing rabbis and
For example, there was Rabbi Hayyim of Kosov, who was dancing one day in
front of his students. "His face aflame, every step spoke sublime
meaning and then ... KABOOM! He falls over a bench and the bench falls
on his toe. His students rush to his side and ask if he's OK. He replies
as he rubs his sore toe, 'I'd be a lot better if I hadn't stopped
I liked this philosophy and wanted to know more, so I headed to my
nearby Chabad storefront synagogue. After all, there was a picture of a
dancing Chassid above the door.
It was Simchat Torah; shul was jammed with men and boys shuffling around
and around the bimah. Someone passed me the weighty Torah and told me
to dance. The rebbetzin, women and girls were in a circle doing the
And the rebbe? He was red-faced and shikkered, performing headstands and
summersaults. He was, in Buber's word, aflame. It might have seemed
like a madhouse to some, but never had I seen dancing with so much
Not long after my first visit to Chabad, I heard about a weekend of
Yiddish culture sponsored by KlezCalifornia at the JCC in Berkeley.
There were workshops in klezmer music, singing, storytelling and Yiddish
dance. Yiddish dance? What's that?
Fortunately, my first teacher was Jewish dance master Steve Weintraub.
"The feet are the roots," he explained. "They keep the beat. The arms
and hands are fluid and free to express themselves."
Another tip he told us: "Yiddish dance is not about the fancy footwork.
It's about the interesting patterns you make on the dance floor."
I wasn't sure what he meant until I saw him in action at the final
klezmer dance party. As the band broke loose, all eyes were on our
fearless leader. Weintraub led a crowd of about 200 people into endless
circles within circles, changing directions, creating all kinds of
geometrical patterns on the floor, inviting all to stomp, clap and enter
into the center to shayne, or show their stuff — and leaving everyone
breathless, laughing and begging for more. By the end of the night I was
drenched, and my life had changed. I had found my dance.
With a newfound passion, I turned my focus to learning more about the
rich treasures of Jewish dance that go as far back as Miriam dancing at
the shores of the Red Sea. From the ancient dances of the Yemen Jews to
the mystical folk dances of the Chassids, from the spunky Yiddish dances
of the Ashkenazi to the free-spirited and elegant Israeli folk dances
of modern Israel — one thing became clear to me. Jews dance!
Still, it's Yiddish dance that makes me and others laugh for some
reason. No one has to worry about getting any steps "right." The dances
are all improvised on the spot with a few basic steps — just follow the
leader! You dance with community, but you bring your unique self into
the circle to shayne. If there is a meaning behind Yiddish dance, that
So with great pleasure, I am happy to announce that Yiddish dance is
back and looking marvelous — thanks in part to the tireless fieldwork of
Yiddish cultural historians such as Michael Alpert and Zev Feldman and
to my own master teachers, Steve Weintruab, Deborah Strauss, Felix
Fibich and Julie Egger. Their burning passion to pass on Yiddish dance
and culture to the next generation is a gift of spirit, spunk and joy
that can never be extinguished.
I hope to see you all out on the dance floor to experience this new ...
er ... old dance come alive again.
Bruce Bierman is artistic director of the Jewish Dance Theatre,
now in residency at JCC East Bay. To learn about upcoming Yiddish dance
events, contact him at Jewishdance@yahoo.com..
Now, Bay Area Jews can let their fingers do the shpatsirin
dan pine, © j., (Friday March 30, 2007)
yellow and has 20 pages of listings. But don’t expect to find plumbers,
body shops or pizza parlors in the new Gele Pages. Everything has a
The Gele Pages
(“gele” is Yiddish for “yellow”) is a project of KlezCalifornia, the
Bay Area’s annual Yiddish culture and klezmer festival. With so much
Yiddishkeit available locally, the group’s brain trust hit on the idea
of a comprehensive resource guide.
is 20 pages of people who are world class experts on all things
involving Yiddish culture,” said KlezCalifornia co-founder Judy
Kunofsky, ”and all right here in the Bay Area.”
largely by Kunofsky’s colleague Howard Freedman, the Gele Pages
features the whole megillah: listings of klezmer bands, Yiddish
language classes, lecturers, dance and music teachers, artisans, youth
programs, Yiddish choruses and more.
of the names are well known locally, such as singer Gerry Tenney,
Cantor Richard Kaplan, professor Steven Zipperstein, storyteller Joel
Ben Izzy and poet/translator Marcia Falk. Also included are area JCC’s,
colleges and other institutions that offer Yiddish programming.
idea of the Gele Pages emerged out of KlezCalifornia’s growing list of
professional contacts. Kunofsky recalls sitting around the kitchen
table last year with colleagues when they had a “Eureka!” moment.
“I said, ‘We’ll call it the Yiddish Culture Resource Guide.’
Icek Mozes, a native Yiddish speaker, said ‘Feh! That’s not a name. We’ll call it the Gele Pages.’”
Kunofsky swears he actually said “feh!”
years ago, she and her family attended KlezCamp back in upstate New
York. The Yiddish immersion experience there stirred her Jewish heart.
“I hadn’t read or spoken a word of Yiddish in 25 years at that point,”
she recalls. “I felt so much at home [at KlezCamp] that I said, ‘I bet
I can still read it.”
Kunofksy’s tsutshepenish (“obsession”) with the language. She soon
launched a small Yiddish reading club with her husband, Mitchell. Not
only did she regain her fluency in short order, she also became
convinced the Bay Area would be the perfect place for an intensive
Yiddish event similar to KlezCamp.
with violinist Julie Egger (leader of the klezmer band Red Hot
Chachkas), Kunofsky launched KlezCalifornia. It started out as a
five-day string of workshops held at San Francisco’s Jewish Community
High School in 2003 and 2004. The last three years, the event has
traveled around the Bay Area, bringing in huge crowds at the various
Those KlezCalifornia crowds
make up the logical target audience for the Gele Pages. Kunofsky has
amassed an email list topping 800 names, all of which get a pitch.
It shouldn’t be a hard sell.
Gele Pages goes for a bissela gelt (about $3 a copy) and can even be
downloaded free on the Internet (although it wouldn’t be very gele).
a worldwide Yiddish revival in full swing, Kunofsky is glad she can
help contribute in her small way, both with KKlezCaliforniaand the Gele
Pages. Her Yiddish activism turns out to have much more personal
“For me it’s a religious
feeling,” she says. “I never feel closer to Judaism and God than I do
when I’m reading or singing Yiddish. I associate it with my deepest
Even if the Gele
Pages made the New York Times Bestseller list, Kunofsky realizes that
Yiddish is unlikely to become a widespread living language like modern
But that doesn’t mean she won’t speak Yiddish every chance she gets.
“I’ll say ‘kine horah’ at the drop of a hat,” she said.
The Gele Pages are available for sale at $3 each. For more information go to the KlezCalifornia Web site, www.klezcalifornia.org.
Yiddishkeit alive, well and coming to the South Bay
dan pine, © j., (Friday April 14, 2006)
violinist Julie Egger gave a klezmer demonstration to students at Palo
Alto's Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School recently, one child raised his
hand with a question. "Why are we doing Yiddish?" he asked. "It's
Responded Egger, "Do I look dead?'"
like the Yiddishkeit she loves, is very much alive and coming to the
South Bay for the annual KlezCalifornia, a two-day celebration of
Yiddish culture and klezmer music running April 29 and 30.
is part concert, part workshop, part free-for-all, as attendees join in
as much as the visiting scholars and entertainers. "We're trying to
touch all areas," adds Egger, who organized the event. "We have music
classes, culture classes, teen and children classes."
classes cover everything from brush-up-your-Yiddish sessions to fiddle
workshops to a clinic on Jewish hip-hop led by Tim Barsky (of "Bright
River" fame). Performers include the klezmer trio Varetski Pass and
Yiddish theater diva Chayale Ash.
is the event's first time in the South Bay. We're trying to touch all
areas," says Egger, "to keep building community in Yiddish culture."
that along is dance teacher Steve Weintraub, making his third
appearance at KlezCalifornia. He specializes in the freilach and the
sher, two dances that always get the crowd going.
"There's a joyous dignity I associate with Yiddish dance," he says. "You don't want to look like a vilde chaya [wild animal]."
recent times, when people thought of Jewish wedding dances, they
thought of "Hava Negillah" and not of the traditional Ashkenazi dances
of the Old Country.
tradition got corrupted," says Weintraub. "Israeli dance became the
default way of dancing Jewishly. But there has been a conscious
The same is true for
Yiddish literature. Gabriella Safran is a professor of Slavic languages
at Stanford, and a Yiddish literature scholar. At KlezCalifornia, she
will hold a workshop on Yiddish literature, focusing on a short story
by S. Ansky, author of "The Dybbuk."
her class, Safran hopes to join others in music and merrymaking. It's
all part of Eggers' mission to bring Jews back to their cultural
Americanized," she says. "People forget where they come from. They
think if you're affiliated with a temple that's the only way to stay
Jewish, but it's the culture that brings us back."
concert and dance party takes place 8 p.m. Saturday, April 29, at
Cubberly Center Auditorium, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. The
classes and workshops take place 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Sunday, April 30,
at Kehillah Jewish High School, 3900 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. Tickets:
$5-$25. Information: (415) 789-7679 or online at klezcalifornia.org.
Klezmer event tunes in to culture: Music, lectures and dance celebrate Yiddish tradition
- Musicians of all ages jammed, studied and danced to klezmer over the
weekend at KlezCalifornia, a celebration of Yiddish culture and music
and Yiddishkayt in general.
The third annual event, held this
year at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center, began with a
concert and dance party Saturday night to the sounds of California
Klezmer -- Red-Hot Chachkas All-Stars and Veretski Pass, attended by
about 300 people.
More than 150 people showed up Sunday for a series of lectures and master classes that culminated in a jam session and dance.
Egger, violinist with the Red-Hot Chachkas, talked about the importance
of klezmer in her personal journey from child in a secular Jewish
household in New York state to mother of two in California. Egger's
family knew Yiddish but never taught her, she said.
She sees herself today as a kind of "missionary" of Yiddish culture, "trying to make Yiddish cool for the younger generation."
"Jewish music is not just 'Hava Nagila,'" she said, lamenting a lack of awareness of Jewish culture and music.
on her violin, she compared the major and minor scales of classical
music to the klezmer scale and the "tension" it builds.
"I don't think you have to be Jewish to get that," she said. "I think this kind of sound touches a lot of people really deeply."
dancing and klezmer, a lot of it comes from suffering," Egger said.
"Jews have suffered -- hit me some more -- that's part of our heritage."
secular, the music has a spiritual dimension, with lilting sounds that
evoke prayer and can produce a spiritual trance that Egger likened to
that of Sufi dancing.
"I know someone who converted to Judaism because of klezmer music," she said.
history of Jewish secular music goes back to the year 70 A.D., when the
Romans destroyed the second temple in Jerusalem and the rabbis
subsequently banned music in synagogues, leaving musicians to play at
weddings and in the home. Klezmer -- the word is an amalgam of two
Hebrew words that mean, roughly, instruments of song -- goes back at
least as far as the 16th century in Eastern Europe.
The 1700s to
the late 19th century were klezmer's heyday, said Josh Horowitz,who
plays button accordion for Veretski Pass. "That's where a lot of the
repertoire came from."
In this country, klezmer thrived on the
East Coast, with a "gap" in its evolution in the 1930s and 1940s due to
the Holocaust, Egger said. Also, many musicians crossed over to big
band and other musical genres. Jewish schools favored Hebrew to the
detriment of Yiddish, Egger said.
Klezmer has undergone a revival on the West Coast since the 1970s.
The fiddle is klezmer's principal instrument, backed up by other strings, a variety of winds and the tsimbl, a kind of dulcimer.
the years, klezmer borrowed -- and gave -- to other ethnic music of
Eastern Europe and the Balkans, including Roma. These days, there is
electronic klezmer and all kinds of other derivatives, which Egger said
is OK with her as long as it connects young Jews with the music.
Schwartz is a professor of Middle Eastern studies at UC Berkeley whom
Horowitz describes as a "major mentor" of the current klezmer revival.
In a lecture on musicology that delved into the history of the Russian
and Ottoman empires, Schwartz talked about common origins of Greek and
klezmer music, playing recordings, some almost 100 years old, of Greek
versions of klezmer tunes and klezmer versions of Greek tunes as well
as more recent New World recordings.
Celebrate Yiddish culture with klezmer music
Jeff Kaliss, © The Chronicle, THE ARTS, Friday, September 16, 2005
was in Petaluma that Julie Egger, a violinist raised in a secular
Jewish household on New York's Long Island, committed herself to the
effervescent Jewish folk music known as klezmer.
that moment in 1994, Egger, 47, has been sharing her appreciation of
her cultural and musical roots through KlezCalifornia, the organization
she co-founded in 2002. The group hosts its third annual festival of
klezmer music and Yiddish culture this weekend in Berkele
translated from Hebrew, the historic and liturgical language of the
Jews, means "song-vessel," enjoyed a renaissance as a musical genre
beginning with the so-called "Klezmer Revival" of the 1970s. Among the
promulgators of this movement were the Berkeley ensemble the Klezmorim
and New York archivist and instrumentalist Henry Sapoznik. They at
first drew on early 20th century recordings of what had been called
Jewish music, with instrumental configurations imported by immigrants
from Eastern Europe, including violin, clarinet, piano, cymbalom or
xylophone and bass.
The scales and ornamentations of the
players reflected kinships with Turkish, gypsy and Eastern European
folk music, as well as with the chanting of Jewish cantors. Mused upon
in dreamy glides called doinas and danced in the lively rhythms of the
hora and the freylekh (literally "happy"), klezmer emerged as an exotic
world music transcending geographic, ethnic and generational boundaries.
Inevitably, klezmer absorbed elements from other contemporary genres
and was in turn adopted and recorded by African American jazz
clarinetist Don Byron and by Israeli classical violinist Itzhak
When Egger took up the violin at age 7 in
the New York public schools, "no one thought of (the instrument) as
anything but classical," she said.
Her parents spoke Yiddish,
the German-related language of Europe's Ashkenazi Jews, but didn't feel
the need to pass the language or the formal aspects of the Jewish
religion on to Egger or her siblings. Still, "we heard Jewish music at
affairs, and we knew all the dances."
Egger met her Chicago-bred
Jewish husband, Alan Weiler, after relocating to the West Coast in
1989. They lived in the East Bay before moving to Marin.
first five years of living in California, I didn't even play music,"
Egger laments. "I was busy getting married, getting pregnant, buying
and living in a house, and raising two children." She also served as a
special-education teacher, in Hayward and later in the Lagunitas School
Gradually, her violin made its way out of its case
and back onto her shoulder, and she decided to take a leave of absence
from her teaching duties "to just play music. ... It was a midlife
She retrieved her classical repertoire, "but also
found myself playing everything I could -- jazz improv and some
klezmer, playing in five or six different groups, trying to find 'it.' "
Her search took her and daughters Sarah and Hannah, then 6 and 4, to
KlezKamp West, staged at Walker Creek Ranch in Petaluma in 1998. The
event was modeled by klezmer pioneer Henry Sapoznik on KlezKamps he'd
begun in New York's Catskill Mountains during the Klezmer Revival.
Egger describes the events as "a reason to bring old-timers together
with new-timers so the music could be passed on in a way that it had
been passed on in Europe, where there aren't family dynasties anymore."
Among the results of the Nazi Holocaust, Egger points out, was the
interruption of the flow of Jewish popular music until its
revitalization three decades later.
For Egger, KlezKamp felt
like she was finally home. Although she'd heard Jewish music as a
child, and had hired members of the Klezmer Conservatory Band for her
wedding, "I never thought it was what I would do. But it was the
marriage of the two most important things in my life besides my family:
my Judaism and my music."
The importance of all three has been
symbiotically strengthened since. Egger and Weiler, a Fairfax software
developer, are faithful attendees, with their children, of Gan HaLev,
the Jewish congregation of the San Geronimo Valley. Sarah, now 13, was
recently bas mitvahed, and her mother wants her and her younger sister
"to have the Hebrew, to know the Torah stories, because I didn't have
much of that."
Every year Egger attends a one-week
Yiddish-language immersion program in Los Angeles and tests the results
back home in Lagunitas. ("My daughters will shout, 'English, Mom!' --
but they understand everything I say.")
Egger teaches violin
and has recorded with her klezmer band, the Red Hot Chachkas, who'll
open for Veretski Pass on Saturday. Her daughters both play a little
As Egger continues to enhance both her musical and her
language skills, she's come to appreciate the interconnections, which
she and a host of presenters will showcase at this weekend's
"A lot of the melodies are based on
Hasidic nigunim (deeply spiritual chants), and they come also from the
inflections of Yiddish," Egger says. "When you hear Yiddish spoken,
there's a sense of a suffering. And when you hear the catch on the
violin or clarinet, that comes from the catch in the cantor's voice.
It's like a cry."
KlezCalifornia was organized in 2002 to
educate the public about Jewish culture, and to help people hone their
knowledge of music, language, history, dance, literature and folk arts
as they pertain to Jewish culture. It plans to spread its klezmer
celebrations to other sites at other times of the year, aiming for Palo
Alto in April and possibly Marin. "We're trying to go to all the Jewish
community centers," she says.
Does Egger perceive any varieties of yiddishkayt, or Jewishness, around the Bay Area?
The stereotypical Berkeley Jew, described by Egger with a chuckle, "is
progressive, liberal. The men have beards, they're old hippies; they're
trying to have their kids have this progressive education but they're
still connected somewhat to their Jewish roots and to healing the
Jews in Marin, she continues, "are like, 'Is today my
day to be Jewish?' Whereas in New York, you're just Jewish! So my
original goal with KlezCalifornia was to make sure my kids grew up with
the kind of yiddishkayt which I'd grown up with, but in Marin County."
goal is "to make sure that people don't think Yiddish is about being
dead," Egger emphasizes. "A lot of people associate Yiddish with the
Holocaust, and we've got to move beyond the Holocaust, which doesn't
mean we don't have to remember it and make sure it doesn't happen
again. If we let Yiddish die and we let klezmer die, then we really let
Klezmer weekend celebrates Yiddish culture
Egger didn't have to journey to any fabled land of milk and honey to
find her Jewish roots. Instead, the Long Island-bred violinist moved to
Northern California, where in 2002 she co-founded KlezCalifornia, to
share the celebration of her heritage.
This weekend, at the
Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center, KlezCalifornia hosts its
third annual celebration of Yiddish culture and of klezmer, the popular
music of the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews of Europe. In addition to
a Saturday night concert and dancing to the band Veretski Pass, the
event will include Sunday classes in the Yiddish language and workshops
in Yiddish music, theater and literature.
Klezmer is a
translation of the Hebrew "song-vessel,'' but the term has become
familiar in connection with a musical genre only since the so-called
"Klezmer Revival" of the 1970s. Among the young Jewish promulgators of
this movement were Berkeley's ensemble the Klezmorim and New York
archivist and instrumentalist Henry Sapoznik. They at first drew on
early 20th Century recordings of what had been called Jewish music,
with instrumental configurations imported by immigrants from Eastern
Europe, including violin, clarinet, piano, cymbalom or xylophone and
The scales and ornamentations of the players reflected
kinships with Turkish, gypsy and Eastern European folk music, as well
as with the chanting of Jewish cantors. Mused upon in dreamy glides
called doinas and danced in the lively rhythms of the hora and the
freylekh (literally "happy"), klezmer emerged as an exotic world music
transcending geographic, ethnic and generational boundaries.
Inevitably, klezmer absorbed elements from other contemporary genres
and was in turn adopted and recorded by African American jazz
clarinetist Don Byron and by Israeli classical violinist Itzhak Perlman.
When Egger first took up the violin, at age 7 in the New York public
schools, "no one thought of (the instrument) as anything but classical."
Like many left-wing Jews, her parents spoke Yiddish but didn't feel the
need to pass the language or the formal aspects of the Jewish religion
on to Egger or her siblings. Still, "we heard Jewish music at affairs,
and we knew all the dances."
Egger met her Chicago-bred Jewish
husband, Alan Weiler, after relocating to Oakland in 1989 and taking a
post as a special education teacher in Hayward.
"The first five
years of living in California, I didn't even play music," Egger
laments. "I was busy getting married, getting pregnant, buying and
living in a house, and raising two children." The couple relocated to
West Marin after Egger started work with the Lagunitas School District.
Gradually, her violin made its way out of its case and back onto her
shoulder, and she decided to take a leave of absence from her teaching
duties "to just play music. . . it was a mid-life crisis thing."
She retrieved her classical repertoire, but also found herself "playing
everything I could, jazz improv, and some klezmer, playing in five or
six different groups, trying to find 'it'."
Her search took her
and daughters Sarah and Hannah, then 6 and 4, to KlezKamp West, staged
at Walker Creek Ranch in Petaluma in 1998. The event was modeled by
Sapoznik on KlezKamps he'd begun in New York's Catskill Mountains
during the Klezmer Revival.
Egger describes the Kamps as "a
reason to bring old-timers together with new-timers, so the music could
be passed on in a way that it had been passed on in Europe, where there
aren't family dynasties any more." Among the results of the Nazi
Holocaust, Egger points out, was the interruption of the flow of Jewish
popular music until its revitalization three decades later.
Egger, KlezKamp felt like "I was finally home." Although she'd heard
Jewish music as a child, and had hired members of the Klezmer
Conservatory Band for her wedding, "I never thought it was what I would
do. But it was the marriage of the two most important things in my
life, besides my family: my Judaism and my music."
importance of all three has been symbiotically strengthened since.
Egger and Weiler, a Fairfax software developer, are faithful attendees,
with their children, of Gan HaLev, the Jewish congregation of the San
Geronimo Valley. Sarah, now 13, was recently bas mitvahed, and her
mother wants her and her younger sister "to have the Hebrew, to know
the Torah stories, because I didn't have much of that."
Egger teaches violin and has recorded with her klezmer band, The Red
Hot Chachkas, who'll open for Veretski Pass on Saturday. Her daughters
both play a little klezmer.
As Egger continues to inhance both
her musical and her language skills, she's come to appreciate the
interconnections, which she and a host of presenters will showcase this
"A lot of the melodies are based on Hasidic nigunim (deeply spiritual
chants) and they come also from the inflections of Yiddish," Egger
explains. "When you hear Yiddish spoken, there's a sense of a
suffering. And when you hear the catch on the violin or clarinet, that
comes from the catch in the cantor's voice. It's like a cry."
Does Egger perceive any varieties of yiddishkayt, or Jewishness, around the Bay Area?
Jews in Marin, she's found, "are like, 'Is today my day to be Jewish?'"
The stereotypical Berkeley Jew, described by Egger with a chuckle, "is
progressive, liberal, the men have beards, they're old hippies, they're
trying to have their kids have this progressive education but they're
still connected somewhat to their Jewish roots and to healing the
Yiddishkeit West: KlezCalifornia offers full immersion in klezmer music and culture
klezmer, a little says a lot. At my first klezmer camp this past
summer, we all sang the nign to learn its melody and rhythm before we
attempted to play—with no printed music. In later sessions we learned
the embellishments—or the deeper emotions behind the words—which
included vibrato, krekhtsn (“moans,” or ghost notes played with the
third or fourth finger), trills, and short downward slides. And we
learned where to place them—always keeping the pulse, always going
somewhere, always with a purpose.
We were instructed to play a
phrase and pay attention to how it made us feel. In one short phrase, a
string player can play legato, staccato, and marcato (“just like Jewish
life,” instructor Michael Alpert remarked). And these melodic
phrases—not the rhythm—drive the music. When necessary, Alpert, who is
a leading scholar of Eastern European Jewish dance, invited us to lay
our fiddles down and dance in a circle moving forward, in and out,
feeling the important notes, bringing it all inside of our bodies.
Our goal was not to play a simple, trite tune but to make the music infinitely deep.
first annual KlezCalifornia, a celebration of klezmer music and all
things Yiddish, was held in San Francisco between June 22–27. From
Sunday evening to Friday afternoon, musicians and nonmusicians, Jewish
or not, participated in such classes as Rhythm and Jews, Creative
Interpretation and Arranging for Singers and Instrumentalists, From
Nigunim to New Jewish Music, Fidl-Kapelye, Yiddish language, the
Enchanted Journey: Yiddishland in Song—just to name a few—all taught by
renowned musicians and scholars who, it was made certain, are also
While the adults immersed themselves in a
week of intensive learning and discovery, their under-teenage children
were kept busy and amused in the klezmer camp’s children’s program,
which included music, language, drama, dance, and traditional arts and
Every day, from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., we studied while
playing, singing, and dancing. Between the morning and afternoon
sessions we noshed and schmoozed, educating each other further from our
own experiences and discovering how we all got to be there. And the
evenings were full, as well, with either a concert, a song and dance
party, or the final night’s performance at which we all demonstrated
what we had learned.
KlezCalifornia is the product of five years
of hard work for codirectors Julie Egger and Judy Kunofsky. Egger, a
native New Yorker, was reared in a not-so- religious-but-cultural
Jewish family. Trained as a classical violinist, she discovered that
klezmer offered her a way to bring her childhood memories and her
musical talent together. After participating in two sessions of
KlezKamp: The Yiddish Folk Arts Program on the East Coast, she was
determined to bring Yiddishkeit to the San Francisco Bay Area and
joined with Kunofsky to produce KlezCalifornia. Egger’s passion for
klezmer was one story among many, many stories from Jews, observant
and/or cultural, half-Jews, gentiles, folk musicians, classical
musicians, jazz musicians—all of whom were fascinated by this age-old
My own story is that of a
classical violist, daughter of an ethnically Jewish father and a
Polish, once-Catholic mother. Always feeling like a Jew in a gentile
setting and a gentile in a Jewish setting, I’ve tried to find ways to
feel my whole self whatever the setting. During KlezCalifornia, I
learned that klezmer, reputed to be a rather insular musical
expression, is (like Yiddish) the product of many cultures—the main
influence, besides the strong link with the Roma, coming from the
gentile cultures of Eastern Europe. The klezmorim of the 19th century
performed for any audience that had the money to pay, so they had to
learn the songs and dances of their non-Jewish neighbors, the
Ukrainians, Romanians, Russians, Poles, or whoever else lived in the
region. And Jews and non-Jews played all this music together. This
history and the expressiveness of klezmer speaks to me fully.
But now to learn how to play it! Oy!
morning all the student musicians—on strings, winds, accordions, and so
on—joined teachers Michael Alpert, Deborah Strauss, Jeff Warschauer,
Stu Brotman, and Kurt Bjorling for lectures, discussions, debates, and
demonstrations on what the program’s brochure described as “how to make
klezmer rhythm cook while letting the melody breathe.”
during the entire week did we learn from a printed piece of music. We
learned the old way, although in a more urgent, intensive setting.
First we sang, then we danced, then we’d sing again, then we’d play—and
over and over in all three musical expressions until we felt it and
could then play it. We filled our bodies and our minds with the soul of
klezmer and listened intently to the world’s best klezmer musicians
display their years of study. Each morning was more fascinating than
the previous one, and the analysis more rigorous. And each morning
would bring us closer to embellishing, undulating, speeding up, slowing
down, lengthening, and shortening our notes and phrases while always
maintaining that all-important pulse, so that others could dance a
bulgarish, hora, or sher.
In fact, we were encouraged to “dance on our instrument,” but as Alpert clarified, with “restrained exuberance.”
a coffee break (and, of course, more schmoozing), the string players
headed off for Fidl-Kapelye—or fiddle band—taught by Deborah Strauss,
one of the finest performers of traditional Jewish violin. Strauss
studied classical violin at Rutgers University and then ethnomusicology
at the University of Chicago. She has been studying, performing, and
teaching klezmer since 1985. Her style is traditional and mesmerizing,
reminding me of the violin music of Heinrich Biber. Each bow stroke or
phrase imparts a specific emotion while connecting the audience to
Eastern European Jewish history.
In our first session Strauss
introduced us to a nign, a wordless melody, by writing out the
syllables on the chalkboard, “ay day ya ba bay bum…” These syllables
were our bowing marks. There is a common Yiddish saying: di fidl redt
verter (the fiddle speaks words).
the end of the week, the Fidl-Kapelye was the last to perform at the
student concert. We had rehearsed our roles in playing melody,
countermelody, sekund (double-stop chords in varying, syncopated
rhythms), bass lines, and a particularly evocative transitional viola
drone I created for myself in class. We invited the codirectors of
KlezCalifornia to come and sit on the stage while we played. While a
student brought each of them a bouquet of flowers, other more muscular
students lifted them up in their chairs.
Fidl-Kapelye continued to play, while our fellow students in the
audience unpacked their clarinets, accordions, and mandolins and played
with us. The entire musical student body, led by the teachers, started
one melody, then another, while everyone else danced, parading behind
the still-raised KlezCalifornia directors. It was amazing! The room was
transformed into a shtetl during a wedding celebration, and my fellow
students, teachers, and I were transformed into a 19th-century kapelye.
just kept going and going from one tune to the next, playing all that
we had learned during the week. The feeling was deep in a discovery of
individuality and communality—from old to young, Jew and non-Jew,
musician and nonmusician, in a revival of an almost extinct
tradition—all caught up in a wondrous celebration of life. And I want
to do it again and again.