They were regarded with disdain, but you couldn’t have a Jewish wedding without them. And when the Holocaust seemed to silence every joyful song, it looked like it was the end of the klezmer musician, too. But klezmer music is the ultimate comeback kid, and its musicians have been bouncing back for more than 400 years.
After the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, Chazal placed several restrictions on listening to music. Yet, there are times when we are commanded to be joyful, such as on Purim or at another seudas mitzvah, as well as times when we are commanded to make others joyful, with the prime example being the mitzvah to gladden the bride and groom at their wedding. Therefore, Jewish music never completely died out.
During the early Middle Ages, Jewish singers and musicians in Central Europe were lumped together with dancers and wedding jesters (badchanim) and given the general moniker leyts – which meant public entertainer, but still carried overtones from its earlier meaning, a clown or scoffer. They took a small step up the social ladder in 1558 when Prague’s Jewish musicians were given permission to form their own guild, but being a musician remained a less than prestigious job for centuries.
The first time we find the word “klezmer” – which is thought to be derived from the Hebrew words kli (vessel or instrument) and zemer (song or music) – is in a Krakow manuscript dated 1595, where the term was used to describe a musician. “Klezmer” wasn’t used to describe the actual music until the 1900s; until then the music the klezmorim played was just generally described as Jewish music.
When the early klezmer musicians had to choose a mascot for their new guild, they chose the musical instrument that has been associated with Jewish music for centuries: the fidl, also known as the fiddle or violin. This was because a klezmer band was often led by the man who played the first violin, a position that was usually passed down from father to son, or to son-in-law. The other instruments in the early ensembles were usually a cimbalom (hammered dulcimer), a contra violin, a bass or cello, and a wooden flute. The clarinet made its first appearance in a klezmer band in the early 1800s. Also around this time the frame drum was introduced. Brass instruments became part of the band when 19th-century Jewish soldiers returned home; some of them had played in military bands during their army service and they incorporated the sound into their klezmer ensembles.
One thing klezmer instruments usually had in common was their portability. Jewish musicians didn’t play in concert halls; they played wherever there was work and they needed to be able to easily transport their instruments from job to job. Throughout the centuries, the musicians’ main source of livelihood came from weddings, but they would also be invited to play at celebrations for Purim, Chanukah and Rosh Chodesh, as well as on Chol Hamoed Sukkos and Pesach.
Chassidic rebbes would also invite klezmer musicians to play at their courts and some even had their own private group of musicians. Several Chassidic rebbes were themselves musically gifted, such as Chabad’s Baal HaTanya and the rebbes of Modzitz, and their niggunim added a deeply spiritual dimension to the Jewish music repertoire.
Music With a Kretch
Because klezmer musicians usually didn’t write down their compositions – instead they simply passed them down from father to son – only a small portion of the original klezmer repertoire has come down to us. Therefore, much of the music’s early history has been lost.
The music’s roots, of course, go back to Eretz Yisrael and Middle Eastern modes that later found their way into the synagogue ritual music sung by the chazzan. Perhaps that’s why the violin and the clarinet – the two instruments that can best imitate the human voice – have always been the dominant instruments in a klezmer ensemble. No other instruments can capture the laugh or the kretch (sob) that is so often heard in a klezmer song.
But by the time klezmer began to develop as a distinct musical art form, the exile had taken the Jewish people far away from their homeland and it was often non-Jews who were calling the tune. For instance, in Prague, Jewish musicians could only play at Jewish events. In some Bohemian towns the Jews could only play “quiet” instruments, like the fiddle and flute, and were forbidden to play loud drums or horns. Sometimes, they were restricted to certain hours of the day, as well.
Yet there were other places and times where Jewish bands played at non-Jewish gatherings, and as the musicians traveled about they began to absorb influences from the surrounding cultures. The Jewish hora, for instance, has its roots in the popular Romanian circle dance that also found its way into the folk culture of Moldavia, Bulgaria, and Turkey. Poland added the mazurka to the klezmer repertoire, while the sher, which is Yiddish for scissors and resembles the American square dance, can be traced back to a 16th-century Germany dance, according to ethnomusicologist Moshe Beregovski.
One group that had a particularly strong influence on klezmer musicians were the Gypsies, or the Romani. After the Turks were expelled from Hungary in 1699, some Jewish musicians from southern Poland settled there and began to collaborate with Gypsy musicians. Gypsy ensembles often consisted of many of the same instruments, including the all-important violin, and their music could be lively or sad, like the klezmer repertoire. Sometimes, if a klezmer band had an engagement and one of the regulars couldn’t make it, the Jews would recruit a Gypsy musician to fill the ranks and usually no one knew the difference. Indeed, Romani musicians were so familiar with the songs that after the Holocaust – during which it’s estimated that about 90 percent of Europe’s klezmer musicians were murdered – it was often Gypsy musicians who recalled the old Jewish music and passed it on to a new generation of musicians.
Klezmer Comes to America
When Eastern European Jews arrived in America during the late 1800s and early1900s, they brought along their Yiddish culture, but many of them also came with a desire to become Americanized as quickly as possible. Therefore, even though there were klezmer musicians such as the clarinetists Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras and bandleader Abe Schwartz who performed live and in the recording studio, popular tastes were changing. Indeed, by the time Moshe Beregovski gave the music a name – klezmerishe musik – in his 1938 book Yiddishe Instrumentalishe Folksmuzik, the music was considered old-fashioned, a relic of a pogrom-filled past that many people wanted to forget. As for the poor klezmer musician, unlike the “muzikant,” he was considered to be an illiterate musician who couldn’t read a single note of music, playing instead by ear.
While some klezmerishe musik would still be played at weddings and other family celebrations, to please the older generation, much more popular were the songs written in the 1930s and 1940s by Jewish musicians like Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Jerome Kern. Hebrew folk songs, including the 1920s classic Hava Nagila, also became popular. There were echoes of klezmer in Swing-era hits like Bei Mir Bistu Schein and And the Angels Sing, based upon the klezmer song Der Shtiller Bulgar (The Quiet Bulgar), but when Swing went out of fashion in the 1950s it looked like the last gasps of klezmer were going to expire with it. After all, the destruction of Jewish life and culture during the Holocaust had been so complete it seemed unthinkable that any part of the culture would ever be revived.
But then came the 1970s, a time when many Jewish youth – the grandchildren of the Jewish immigrants who first arrived on American shores – began to explore their Jewish heritage. While the journey of some led them to explore religion and become baalei teshuvah, for others the path led back to secular Yiddish culture, including traditional Jewish music.
According to legend, the new interest in klezmer began when Jewish banjo player Henry “Hank” Sapoznik was once playing bluegrass with Appalachian fiddler Tommy Jarrell and Jarrell asked him, “Don’t you people got none of your own music?” The question sent Sapoznik on a quest to seek out still-living klezmer musicians as well as old ‘78 recordings from the early years of the century. He then formed his own ensemble, Kapelye, that recreated klezmer music from the 1920s.
Those early efforts were followed by the efforts of musicians like Andy Statman and Yale Strom in the United States and Giora Feidman in Israel. By the 1980s, Beregovski’s klezmerishe musik had been shortened to just “klezmer” and groups like the Klezmorim, the Klezmatics and a host of other ensembles were popularizing klezmer throughout the world.
By the 1990s, klezmer concerts and festivals were being held in the former Jewish quarters of Krakow, Prague, Berlin and other cities whose Jewish populations had been murdered during the Holocaust. Often, the klezmer groups’ musicians weren’t Jewish and they played primarily to non-Jewish audiences. In Ruth Ellen Gruber’s book Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe, she described some Jewish reactions to this “Judenfrei” revival of klezmer: “kitsch that perpetrates offenses reminiscent of blackface minstrel shows.”
Others have objected to the fact that klezmer is now being fused with just about every musical genre under the sun, from bluegrass to electronica to reggae to Norwegian folk music. Can there be anything authentic left in this musical soup?
For many of today’s klezmer musicians, authenticity isn’t the point. In the Internet Age, when everyone’s culture is at the fingertips of everyone else, cultural borrowings and transformations are both positive and the norm. Besides, they would say, klezmer has always absorbed influences from its surrounding culture and so today’s fusions are nothing new.
But Bob Cohen of Di Naye Kapelye (The New Band) is a klezmer traditionalist who disagrees. Indeed, on his band’s website he explains why he doesn’t use the word klezmer to describe his music. “Today klezmer seems to mean just about anything vaguely Jewish with a clarinet … In Di Naye Kapelye, we prefer to tell folks we play Jewish music. Old Jewish music.”
The klezmorim of pre-war Europe would understand.