“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.
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.”
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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.
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.”
Vol XXI, No. 1, p.16 (January 2011) © derbay.org
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.
"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."
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.
What is 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.
"If 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 travel through."
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 offered.
Julie Egger of Red Hot Chachkas' favorite klezmer musicians: Brave Old World, Budowitz, Klezmatics.
Learn more: Visit KlezCalifornia for traditional klezmer events at www.klezcalifornia.org.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.
"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 their students.
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 dancing.'"
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 Hora.
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 intention.
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 is it.
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..
It’s 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 Yiddish accent.
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.
“This 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.”
Compiled 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.
Some 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.
The 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!”
Several 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.”
Thus began 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.
Along 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 JCC’s.
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.
The 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).
With 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 motives.
“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 Jewish identity.
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 Hebrew.
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.
When 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 dead."
Responded Egger, "Do I look dead?'"
Egger, 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.
KlezCalifornia 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."
Those 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.
This 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."
Helping 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]."
In 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.
"The dance tradition got corrupted," says Weintraub. "Israeli dance became the default way of dancing Jewishly. But there has been a conscious revival."
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."
After 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 birthright.
"We're so 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."
KlezCalifornia's 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.
BERKELEY - 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.
Julie 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.
Demonstrating 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."
"Yiddish 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."
Although 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.
The 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.
Over 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.
Martin 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.
It 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
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.
"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."
Another 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 Hitler win."
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.
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 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 art.
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.