Sounds of Sensibility

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

Appeared in "Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought"; Issue No. 185. Vol. 47, no. 1 (Winter 1998), special issues on klezmer music, pp. 49-788.

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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, in 1977, Nat Hentoff commented that "For years now, I had thought the klezmorim to 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 "would close his eyes and grin at the ghosts of my clan in Minsk and Pinsk." Now, he continued, a new generation has "taken up and merrily revivified this heritage."1 At the time, Hentoff heard the past. Years later, Lev Liberman, who co-founded The Klezmorim in 1975, would look back and see harbingers of the future: "I'd like to think that the current klezmer revival had its origins in our early experiments with tight ensemble playing, improvisation, klezmer/jazz fusions, neo-klezmer composition, street music, world beat, and New Vaudeville."2

In the hiatus between the old and the new players can be found keys to changes of sensibility that have made today's scene possible. Whatever their ostensible subject, the essays in this issue sound the sensibilities specific to the klezmer phenomenon of the last twenty-five years. They show "klezmer music" to be a powerful index of what Raymond Williams has called changing structures of feeling. Williams distinguishes feeling ("meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt") from ideology ("formally held and systematic beliefs"), noting that they are of course interrelated in practice: "Methodologically, then, a 'structure of feeling' is a cultural hypothesis, actually derived from attempts to understand such elements [affective elements of consciousness and relationships] and their connection in a generation or period, and needing always to be returned, interactively, to such evidence."3 The essays gathered here provide rich evidence of just such "affective elements of consciousness" and their historical location.

My essay explores the historical formation of the klezmer phenomenon in terms of changing structures of feeling. I begin by considering arguments over terminology--not only the term klezmer, but also the word revival--and how these debates situate klezmer music within a larger musical landscape. I then relate the klezmer phenomenon to what Haim Soloveitchik has called the end of self-evident Jewishness.4 While stringent orthodoxy is one outcome of the tension between tradition and ideology, the klezmer revival is another. There follows an analysis of the fault lines of sensibility in the period immediately preceding the klezmer revival. While the popularity of old-time Jewish wedding music declined and an incipient heritage orientation to it can be detected within the Jewish music world of the time, this music was notably absent from the folk song and music revivals of the fifties and sixties. To better understand this absence, I contrast the musical sensibilities of Theodore Bikel, an international folk singer who specialized in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian songs, and Mickey Katz, who performed English-Yiddish comedy and musical parodies for a largely Jewish audience. Seen not as a musical wasteland, but as a plenum of shifting sensibilities, the fifties and sixties hold clues to the emergence of the klezmer revival in the seventies, its efflorescence in the nineties, and its changing character in the United States and in the "Jewish space" of Europe today.5

  The Klezmer Phenomenon

What to call this scene and how to characterize the music are matters of ongoing debate. As Williams writes of keywords more generally, the term klezmer is tangled up with the phenomenon it is being used to discuss.6 While klezmer music, klezmer musicians, and klezmer revival are commonly heard terms, Andy Statman recently said that the music he plays is not klezmer but Hasidic, and Giora Feidman has declared that "Klezmer is not Jewish music."7 Some take issue with the term revival. Vurma Klezmer Orkester, a young Swedish band, insist on two revivals, not one, and see themselves as part of the "second renaissance" of the music, the first one having occurred in the late seventies.8 Others reject the term revival. Either they argue that Jewish instrumental music never "died" or they insist that what today's musicians are doing is not revival, but something utterly contemporary.

Most would agree with Frank London, in his essay in this issue, that "klezmer . . . has gone from an underused term to being overgeneralized." In 1981, before klezmer music was an established category, the jacket for The Klezmorim Metropolis carried the following instruction: "File under: Folk or Jazz."9 Since then klezmer music has become not only an identifiable genre, but also a highly differentiated phenomenon. It is now not possible to speak generally of a klezmer revival, a klezmer scene, or a Jewish music scene as if there was a single entity. "Klezmer" or "klez" (it is not even necessary to specify "music") circulates within a vast musical landscape. Part of the success of the music in today's popular music market stems from the strategic placement of the music. As Joel Lewis notes in his review of a Klezmatics concert in 1995, they play "the Ashkenazic Jewish folk music known as klezmer" but "have a broad enough appeal to fit equally into the programs of folk, jazz and world music festivals."10 They aren't "trapped inside a musical 'shtetl.'"11

Not only is klezmer one of several kinds of Jewish music on a Sunday morning music show that features "Israeli/Jewish/Klezmer/Yiddish" music,12 Klezmer has also become a kind of "world music." The Klezmatics describes itself as "the planet's radical Jewish roots band," Klezmos plays "World Klez music," and Rubinchik's Orkestyr features "Old-World Beat" (a pun on Old World and world beat).13 The music of Brave Old World has been described as "world-Jewish." Ben Brussell identifies the format of Klezmania! (San Francisco) as "definitive world music." In order to tell the many klezmer bands apart, musicians and critics identify ever more eclectic and specific musical alignments and orientations. The Cayuga Klezmer Revival band characterizes its style variously as "folk/roots/electric/acoustic/" and "jazz, rock, swing, folk ska, and reggae" and identifies its repertoire as "a mixture of traditional Eastern-European tunes, Ladino, Israeli, and original tunes."14 The British group Souls of Fire performs "klezmer-roots-worldbeat-dance." HaLaila calls its music "tribal Jewish funk, or depending on our mood, 'acid klez.'"

Objections to the term notwithstanding, "revival" speaks to a rupture of cultural transmission in postwar America. During the early fifties, while playing in Las Vegas, Mickey Katz was approached by a Texan who asked him to play some "Jew music": "I haven't heard me a good frailach since my bar mitzvah down in Waco," the Texan explained. Katz complied and "played him some Jewish jazz."15 By the seventies, the "Texan Hebrew" would have been able to hear those freylekhs again and then some. During the intervening years, however, many stellar performers of the music he remembers from his bar mitzvah party were no longer active or had passed away. Nor had the music been enshrined as heritage in the way that many other musics were.16 Indeed, performers like Henry Sapoznik came to the Jewish instrumental tradition through other heritage musics, in his case Appalachian, while others started from Balkan heritage music. As Robert Cantwell has argued, "many kinds of music that at other periods had been commercially performed and recorded, such as blues, old-time, and bluegrass music-- music of chiefly southern or southeastern rural origin-- came to be regarded as folk music and enjoyed a revival on that basis, to be followed in the next decade by Irish ceili, Klezmer, and other ethnic musics."17 It was only a matter of time, in Hankus Netsky's view, before Jewish instrumental music would reemerge: "Archaic things come back. . . . The blues came back. . . . And the same thing eventually happened when our generation came of age and said, 'Wait a minute. What happened? Where's our folk music?'"18

Sapoznik's now legendary account of his career is a vivid case in point. While the Texan Jew would fondly remember the "Jew music" of his bar mitzvah in the thirties, Sapoznik remembers hating the music at his bar mitzvah in the sixties:

My parents had hired one of the top New York City klezmer clarinetists to play at the reception. So there he was on the bandstand blowing some of the best bulgars in the business and all I wanted to do was to crawl into the nearest, deepest hole.

"Can't this guy play anything modern?" the bar mitzvah kvetshed. At that point all my life had been spent in the presence of this music. I made no distinction between the hasidic nigunim we sang on the schoolbus going to Lubavitch yeshiva or the klezmer and Yiddish music ubiquitously heard at the Catskill hotels where we sang during Passover. I thought everybody had a cantor father who wandered around the house softly humming the High Holidays liturgy to himself.19

Sapoznik's parents had paid for klezmer, but he wanted rock'n'roll. His sense of rupture pointed not to the music but to interest in it: "The music was patiently waiting for us to hear it again." Meanwhile, Sapoznik played rock'n'roll, made his way through the folk song revival (Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Bob Dylan), and "soon found myself getting into more traditional kinds of music: Irish, New England Contradances, but mainly Appalachian string band music." In the mid-seventies, Sapoznik was visiting Tommy Jarrell, a senior Southern string musician, when Jarrell, observing that many Jews were interested in old-time music, asked Sapoznik: "Hank, don't your people got none of your own music?" Sapoznik was stunned. He headed back to New York, consulted with his grandfather, who was the same age as Jarrell, and began the search for his "own music."20

I use the term "heritage music" to distinguish between music that is part and parcel of a way of life and music that has been singled out for preservation, protection, enshrinement, and revival--in a word, heritage music. Heritage music, as it emerges from Hentoff's account of hearing The Klezmorim for the first time, verges on necromancy--literally a conjuring up of the dead. "Heritage," as I have argued elsewhere, is a mode of cultural production that gives the disappearing and gone a second life as an exhibit of itself.21 In 1977, Hentoff wrote of a new generation of musicians revivifying-- literally, giving new life to--a nearly extinct musical "heritage." At the same time, he distanced himself from "heritage" when he conceded that although Liberman was "director of music and arts at the Judah Magnes Museum in Berkeley, California . . . he and his colleagues do not play as if they are in a museum."22

It is significant, however, that two pioneering klezmer figures, Liberman and Sapoznik, found support for their early efforts in the context of Jewish arts institutions--Sapoznik was project director of the Jewish music research project at the Martin Steinberg Center for Jewish Arts of the American Jewish Congress from 1977 to 1979, thanks to government support in the form of SETA grants. This is the period during which folk arts became recognized as a division or funding category or priority within government agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts (1974), the New York State Council for the Arts (1980), and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress (1976). The Smithsonian Institution, which had established the American Folklife Festival in 1967, featured Jews at their bicentennial festival in 1976.23 Situated in these agencies and in state arts councils, professionally trained folklorists and ethnomusicologists curated, evaluated, and otherwise guided increasingly sophisticated heritage programs in the public sector. The Klezmer Conservatory Band was incubated at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where Hankus Netsky taught and eventually chaired the Jazz Studies department.

Almost twenty years later, Seth Rogovoy, who is writing a book on the klezmer revival, would praise the "downtown jazz artists who don't approach it [klezmer music] as a fossilized object of ethnomusicological interest but as a living form worthy of updating and experimentation."24 The formulation "living form" is less an affirmation of continuity than a statement of aesthetic orientation. It suggests a musical point of departure rather than an historical destination.

The klezmer revival accommodates not only historical and aesthetic orientations, but also religious ones. Describing a recent concert by the David Krakauer Trio, Rogovoy writes that "A standing-room-only crowd jammed the pews and aisles of St. James Church on Tuesday night to worship at the altar of klezmer."25 As a metaphor for the enthusiasm of fans, "worship at the altar of klezmer" suggests that listening to the music is (or is like) a religious experience. Such metaphors are reminders that the term revival has historically been associated with religious revivals.26 Revivalist carries the sense of renewed attention and new presentation (an orientation to the past), while revitalist--Hasidism has been characterized as a revitalist movement--suggests new life or vigor (a program for the future).27 The distinction between revivalist and revitalist tends to blur, and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably with each other, and with renewal. Both are often associated with youth and countercultures, as is klezmer. While it would be going too far to call them youth movements, Hasidism, and for that matter the Haskala, attracted youthful followers during the early period of their formation.

Both professional and amateur bands often characterize the spirit of their performances in terms of a religious experience--not the sedate murmurings of polite synagogues but something more akin to ecstatic possession or altered states of consciousness. The Klezmatic's most recent album is titled Possession.28 Appropriately enough, tracks 9 through 17 are from the score created by the Klezmatics for Tony Kushner's adaptation of Sh. An-ski's A Dybbuk, a play about the transmigration of a soul--Kushner himself, in the liner notes, characterizes the music as "so full of August Mystery."29 Musicians and those who write about them speak of madness, wildness, frenzy, hysteria, and passion. Call it the youthful enthusiasm of devoted aficionados. Here again there are religious connotations: the etymology of enthusiasm is inspiration and the primary meaning of inspiration is "a divine influence or manifestation that qualifies a person to receive and communicate sacred revelation."30 Divine inspiration is a redundancy.

Some bands have adopted names (and record titles) that invoke a generally spiritual or religious sensibility or refer more specifically to Judaism or Hasidism and its musical repertoire, to mention only Frank London's Hasidic New Wave project, Farbrangen Fiddlers, Souls of Fire, Thread of Blue, and Burnt Offering. Some of these bands are associated with synagogues. Others are not. In the case of Souls of Fire, a British band, none of the members is Jewish. Giora Feidman, who debuted his Jewish "soul music" in 1972 and his records of this music in 1973, has used album titles such as The Dance of Joy and The Magic of Klezmer. In claiming to distill the essence of "Jewish soul music" and to universalize it, Feidman expresses a romantic mysticism reminiscent of the fin-de-sicle Orientalism of Martin Buber and his circle.31 Since his religious awakening, Andy Statman insists that what is now called klezmer music was always religiously mandated and cites its role in the fulfillment of the mitzvah of simkhe on the occasion of a wedding. This is the reason he gives for calling the music he plays today Hasidic, rather than klezmer, though one critic has characterized it as "a sort of Jewish/new-age fusion."32

Arguments over what to call the phenomenon and how to characterize the music were once dominated by the experience of rupture and recovery. The debates have intensified and their character has changed as the musical formation called (or not called) klezmer expands, diversifies, and matures.

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