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American Klezmer

American Klezmer: Its Roots and Offshoots

Edited by Mark Slobin
Copyright Date: 2002
Edition: 1
Pages: 252
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  • Book Info
    American Klezmer
    Book Description:

    Klezmer,the Yiddish word for a folk instrumental musician, has come to mean a person, a style, and a scene. This musical subculture came to the United States with the late-nineteenth-century Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Although it had declined in popularity by the middle of the twentieth century, this lively music is now enjoying recognition among music fans of all stripes. Today, klezmer flourishes in the United States and abroad in the world music and accompany Jewish celebrations. The outstanding essays collected in this volume investigate American klezmer: its roots, its evolution, and its spirited revitalization. The contributors toAmerican Klezmerinclude every kind of authority on the subject--from academics to leading musicians--and they offer a wide range of perspectives on the musical, social, and cultural history of klezmer in American life. The first half of this volume concentrates on the early history of klezmer, using folkloric sources, records of early musicians unions, and interviews with the last of the immigrant musicians. The second part of the collection examines the klezmer "revival" that began in the 1970s. Several of these essays were written by the leaders of this movement, or draw on interviews with them, and give firsthand accounts of how klezmer is transmitted and how its practitioners maintain a balance between preservation and innovation.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93565-5
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    What we now routinely callklezmerin the United States—“Do you play klezmer?” “There’s a new klezmer album out”—is a truly American construct in three ways: the word sidesteps aesthetic and political issues, it standardizes a music system as a brand name, and it overrides history in the cause of contemporary coherence. Record bin marketing and labeling has come to klezmer only very recently; the term was not used in earlier social and commercial contexts. History lurks behind much of contemporary klezmer, even while the past is recreated in the service of present-day interests. The wordklezmercomes...


    • CHAPTER 1 American Klezmer: A Brief History
      (pp. 13-23)

      The termklezmer(or in Hebrew,kle zemer, “vessels of song”) has had many incarnations over the years, having been variously used to designate biblical-era Temple musicians, medieval minstrels, and eastern European virtuosi. It was in twentieth-century America, however, thatklezmerunderwent its most radical transformation, from a pejorative used to demean the talents and lifestyles of Jewish wedding musicians, to a catchall phrase for a rapidly evolving contemporary musical culture.¹

      The music now known asklezmertook root in the United States during the period of heaviest eastern European Jewish immigration, between 1880 and 1924, although there were traces...

    • CHAPTER 2 Klezmer-loshn: The Language of Jewish Folk Musicians
      (pp. 24-34)

      In 1888, Sholem Aleichem publishedStempenyu, a novel about a Berdichev violinist of the same name.¹ In chapter 3, Stempenyu and his klezmerkapelyearrive at a wedding, where he notices an attractive young woman. The following conversation ensues (in Joachim Neugroschel’s translation):

      “Who’s the chick next to the frau-to-be?” asked Stempeniu in musician’s lingo, staring at lovely Rachel. “Hey, Rakhmiel!” he said to one of the swollen-cheeked apprentices. “Go and check her out, but snappy man, snappy!”

      Rakhmiel quickly came back with a clear answer: “That’s no chick, man, she’s already hitched. Dig, she’s Isaak-Naphtali’s daughter-in-law, and she comes...

    • CHAPTER 3 Di Rusishe Progresiv Muzikal Yunyon No. 1 fun Amerike: The First Klezmer Union in America
      (pp. 35-51)

      In his 1902 play,The Kreutzer Sonata, Yiddish playwright Jacob Gordin presents an intriguing scenario: two klezmorim, Efroym Fidler and son Gregor, emigrate to New York. The son goes on to become a successful classical musician and teacher, while the father struggles to make a living from music and complains bitterly of restrictions on his craft: “I, an old klezmer, must stand for an examination to see whether I’m a decent musician. And if I’m good enough as a musician, I still have to bring in twenty-five dollars in order to be allowed to work as a klezmer. And, worst...

    • CHAPTER 4 The Klezmer in Jewish Philadelphia, 1915–70
      (pp. 52-72)

      In the recently emerging literature on klezmer culture and history, little documentation of the background and repertoire of Jewish dance musicians in “provincial” American communities has been produced. Several major factors have contributed to this neglect: the paucity of studies focusing on Jewish communities outside of New York (a trend that is now finally changing), the general lack of interest in klezmer music from the older generation of Jewish music studies scholars who have routinely dismissed it as lacking in “Jewish content” (i.e., religious content), and the seeming lack of interest on the part of surviving musicians, many of whom...

    • CHAPTER 5 “All My Life a Musician”: Ben Bazyler, a European Klezmer in America
      (pp. 73-83)

      The klezmer tradition suffered major discontinuity after World War II, owing to the near destruction of eastern European Jewry in the Holocaust and to the changes wrought by assimilation and acculturation on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as to the increasing importance of Israeli culture in shaping Jewish cultural identity worldwide. As a result, postwar musicians and scholars pursuing the study of klezmer music have mainly been compelled to turn to commercial recordings of the music—in large part, 78 rpm records made during the first four decades of this century—as a primary aural source, rather than...

    • CHAPTER 6 Bulgărească/Bulgarish/Bulgar The Transformation of a Klezmer Dance Genre
      (pp. 84-124)

      Like Jews in many parts of the world, the Jews of eastern Europe had families whose hereditary occupation was the performance of music. However, unlike any Jewish group that has been documented in the twentieth century, the hereditary Jewish musicians of eastern Europe, calledklezmorim(singular,klezmer) performed an instrumental repertoire that included musical genres not shared by the co-territorial musicians. The klezmer repertoire included both dance and nondance genres. The dance genres as they appear in both the European and American notated documents and recordings display a remarkable uniformity over a very wide geographical area. While there probably was...


    • CHAPTER 7 Sounds of Sensibility
      (pp. 129-173)

      Today’s klezmer scene, while it affirms a degree of musical continuity with the past, is in fact the result of an experience of rupture. Reviewing The Klezmorim’s first album,East Side Wedding, which appeared in 1977, Nat Hentoff commented, “For years now, I had thought theklezmorimto be nearly extinct. Oh, some old players must still be boldly wailing in some dwindling Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, but surely they are the last of their line.” When he heard them, he recalled, “I would close my eyes and grin at the ghosts of my clan in Minsk and Pinsk.” Now, he...

    • CHAPTER 8 KlezKamp and the Rise of Yiddish Cultural Literacy
      (pp. 174-186)

      At the outset of the klezmer renewal in 1976, an arm of the American Jewish Congress, called the Martin Steinberg Center, received a federal grant under President Carter’s CETA program to fund the study of Jewish culture. As musicians, filmmakers, writers, poets, painters, puppeteers, and playwrights made their way to the old carriage house on East 85th Street that housed it, the center became a short-lived oasis for young Jews seeking self-expression and Jewish continuity through the arts.

      For me, CETA was a dream come true of research, documentation, and study in the largely uncharted field of klezmer music. But...

    • CHAPTER 9 Newish, Not Jewish: A Tale of Two Bands
      (pp. 187-205)

      Following a successful tour in Germany, Brave Old World accordionist and musical director Alan Bern returned home to find the following e-mail message regarding the band’s upcoming concert at a Toronto synagogue.

      We have heard that your repertoire has become too serious and artistic, and there are deep concerns in our congregation that your music will not be what we expect from klezmer. Please assure us that there will be plenty of opportunity for the audience to dance and sing along during the concert, or we will be forced to cancel the contract.¹

      Conflict simmers beneath the social contract that...

    • CHAPTER 10 An Insider’s View: How We Traveled from Obscurity to the Klezmer Establishment in Twenty Years
      (pp. 206-210)

      I first became actively aware of Jewish music around 1970. Majoring in African American trumpet at the New England Conservatory of Music, I was part of a larger scene loosely centered around Ran Blake’s Third Stream Music Department. We studied a mixture of classical and jazz, as well as lots of other stuff—pop, folk, and ethnic musics—while developing a practical philosophy that still guides my own musical life and that of many of my peers. The idea is that one can study and assimilate the elements ofanymusical style, form, or tradition by ear. You listen over...

    • CHAPTER 11 Why We Do This Anyway: Klezmer as Jewish Youth Subculture
      (pp. 211-220)

      In this chapter, I expand on some of the points Frank London has made, in his overview of the revival, regarding the variety of motivations for “reviving” klezmer among performers and audiences. I also offer my own understanding of why we’re doing this to begin with. I look at the phenomenon of the klezmer revival from a sociological point of view, in the context of some larger trends in American Jewish life that have been emerging over the past two decades, and I’ll speak not as a scholar presenting research (which I’m not) but as one of the participants in...

  6. Sources
    (pp. 221-232)
  7. Contributors
    (pp. 233-234)
  8. Index
    (pp. 235-245)
  9. Back Matter
    (pp. 246-246)