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2003 Strings

YIDDISHKEIT WEST: KlezCalifornia offers full immersion in klezmer music and culture

by Marsha Gonick

Reproduced by permission from Strings Magazine, January 2004, Issue 115, © 2004 String Letter Publishing. All rights reserved.
String Letter Publishing, P.O. Box 767, San Anselmo CA 94979 | (415) 485-6946 | Fax (415)

In 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.

The 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 excellent teachers.

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 crafts.

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 Yiddishkeitto 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 art.

Restrained Exuberance

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!

Every 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.”

Not once 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.”

After 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).

Step into a Shtetl

At 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.

Meanwhile, the 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.

And we couldn’t stop.

We 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.