Jewish World Review March 6, 2000 / 29 Adar 1, 5760

Is Klezmer Music Good for the Jews?

By Sanford Pinsker

ANNOUNCE A KLEZMER CONCERT and they will come, especially the they who represent the Jewish community’s hipper element. After all, klezmer music is “in,” its fun, and for many, this brand of soul music becomes a way of identifying with Jewishness itself. What, in short, could be better? But if it is true that many young adults show encouraging signs of living fuller, richer Jewish lives, it is also true (alas) that many remain disaffected.

Might klezmer music serve as an entry point for the latter, a way of bringing them dancing and humming back to the fold?

Econophone I think not, however much I hasten to point out that I was a fan of klezmer music long before its current wave of popularity. Nor are my worries designed with ethnic one-upsmanship in mind. Rather, it’s that I see the klezmer rage as yet another example of Jewishness on the cheap, one that bears the same relationship to Jewish music as “Fiddler on the Roof” did to Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye stories. And as such, I am hardly sanguine about the long-term prospects either of klezmer music itself (trends are, well, trends or of its one-time fans moving on to savor the richer, more complicated rhythms of cantorial music. In short, klezmer music strikes me as yet another version of Yiddish nostalgia that at once falsifies the past and leads to a dead end.

Granted, one of the singular virtues of popular music is that one needs little more equipment than ears to listen and toes to tap. Klezmer is hardly an exception in this regard. For most fans, its origins lie buried in the Old Country where grandfathers--or great-grandfathers--presumably heard the tunes at weddings or other communal celebrations. But few klezmer mavens could tell you what “klezmer” means or what its status in the Jewish world was. So, let me provide a bit of introduction: Klezmer is a Yiddish version of two Hebrew words, klei and zemer--meaning “vessel of melody.” Contemporary rabbis may smile at the large number of their congregants who can’t get enough klezmer music, but this was decidedly not the case in the eastern Europe of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Then, rabbis dismissed klezmer music as frivolous, and often as worse.

Trakdata Moreover, the very notion of a klezmer concert--whether held at a Jewish community center or at New York City’s Town Hall--would have struck the Yiddish-speaking world as a contradiction in terms. Klezmerim were itinerant musicians, and as such, they did not command wide respect, however much their music provided, in the title of a recent documentary about the Epstein brothers, an occasional “Tickle in the Heart.” Here, tickle may well be the operative word, because klezmer music is, almost by design, a limited art form. There is, in short, only so many variations in its repertoire, and only so much musical depth that its folk instruments--fiddle, flute, bass, baraban (drum) and tsimbl (dulcimer) in the eighteenth century; and clarinet, trumpet, and tuba--added in the nineteenth century--can produce. In short, a hour’s worth of klezmer music goes a long way.

Still, and still. . . Haven’t I cast a unnecessarily haughty eye on a phenomenon that many Jews simply enjoy? And how, then, am I different from those Yiddishists who look down their learned noses at anything not sanctified by YIVO, the Yiddish Scientific Institute. Put another way, what’s so wrong with living expressions of Yiddish culture as opposed to deep study in an scholarly archive. My answer, once again, is that few connections are made--and even fewer links forged--between an evening’s entertainment and the ethos that created it. At its best, klezmer music was a way for the Jewish and non-Jewish world to share a social situation--to combine art and economics in folk melodies that spoke simultaneously to the particular and the universal.

Something of that spirit continues when klezmer groups share billing with jazz musicians, although anyone with ears quickly realizes that jazz is first-rate art and klezmer music a very distant second. But, here, I have no problem whatsoever, for all of us--black and white, Jewish and non-Jewish--need more occasions to meet in displays of joy rather than of angry, separatist shouting. It’s just that these events, worthy as they may be, have nothing to say about communal Jewish life.

The problem, as I see it, is to not so lavishly overpraise--or overexpose--klezmer music until it becomes something it never was, but rather to see it in a larger Jewish context, one that not only pays an unsentimentalized attention to the contours and rhythms of pre-Holocaust world, but also to the much older traditions of how cantors and congregants made a joyful noise unto the L-rd -- in psalms, prayers, and an evolving liturgy. That’s the real story of Jewish music. The lullabies and love songs, wedding dances and Yiddish film scores that, taken together, now travel as klezmer music are but a side excursion. Moreover, it does no dishonor to klezmer music to say that. .

JWR contributor Sanford Pinsker is Shadek Professor of Humanities at Franklin and Marshall College. He writes widely about Jewish literature and culture. Comment by clicking here.


© 2000 Sanford Pinsker