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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Heritage, Tradition, Orthodoxy

To better understand the terms of these debates, the musical practices with which they are associated, and the historical processes of their unfolding, I will explore three distinctions: feeling and ideology (Raymond Williams), tradition and ideology (Haim Soloveichik), and tradition and heritage. "Tradition," the opening number of Fiddler on the Roof, performs the distinction between tradition and heritage simply by making such a fuss over what is otherwise taken for granted. "Tradition" can no longer be assumed because it is under attack. When all is said and done Fiddler on the Roof is a performance of heritage, not tradition, because the Broadway musical offers the disappearing and gone a second life as an exhibition of itself. Heritage is coded at every level--diegesis (the narrative), mimesis (the representation), and the performance artifact itself.

Fiddler on the Roof is also a long way from contemporary orthodoxy, which Soloveitchik distinguishes from tradition. Though he focuses on the transformation of contemporary orthodoxy, his distinction between tradition and orthodoxy is relevant to a consideration of the klezmer phenomenon. "A traditional society has been transformed into an orthodox one" when what was a matter of course (what was once absorbed and habitual) has become subject to rules, formal teaching, and scrupulous attention to textual authority.33 The result is not "heritage," but a tendency toward stringency (humra).34 As a result, "performance is no longer, as in a traditional society, replication of what one has seen, but implementation of what one knows."35 This trend started in the mid-fifties "and by the mid-seventies was well on its way to being, if it had not already become, the dominant mode of religiosity."36 The result is what he calls "a performative spirituality, not unlike that of the arts, with all its unabating tension."37

Soloveitchik uses an explicitly musical metaphor, "For spiritual life is an attempt, as a great pianist once put it, to play music that is better than it can be played."38 Applied to klezmer music, the humra principle is most clearly expressed by Austrian-based Budowitz, an "ensemble of Klezmer veterans performing early Jewish repertoire and style on historical instruments."39 Taking their cue from the early music movement, they perform music that critics have described as "Very pure. The kind of music that enthralled Bartok and Kodaly."40

The shift that Soloveitchik describes--"the aspiration will be . . . more to purity of ideology than of impulse--is precisely the distinction that Williams makes between ideology and feeling.41 Gone is the yidishkayt that was "something deep in the bone," a Judaism whose essence "lay not in law or ritual, but in a social vision (yoysher) and a moral standard of conduct (mentshlikhkeyt)."42 He attributes the end of "self-evident Jewishness" to a "rupture in the traditional religious sensibilities" once rooted in what he calls the mimetic society.43

Stringent orthodoxy is not the only response to the end of "self-evident" Jewishness, though it could be said that what counts as self-evident Jewishness has come to an end more than once. What I have been calling heritage- -and klezmer music is in many ways a case in point--is a second outcome. Historians of European popular culture such as Peter Burke and E. P. Thompson have argued that pressures on "customary consciousness and customary usages" prompt the emergence of "folklore" at emerging divides between high and low culture, as the upper ranks collect "folklore" from the lower ranks.44 When the Haskala applied pressure on customary consciousness and practices, Jewish folklore emerged from the outtakes of reform.45 What had been rejected as tradition would eventually be embraced as heritage.

An ideological relationship to tradition among haredim as well as among the new klezmers arises from a ruptured past that "gave them free reign to create a familiar past of which the present was simply an extension."46 On their first album, East Side Wedding (1977), The Klezmorim explained that "To rediscover the unashamed passion and hysteria of authentic Jewish music, you have to journey to the limits of living memory," which they identified with the period of mass immigration and "neglected manuscripts and forgotten 78 rpm recordings."47 On their 1981 album, The Klezmorim Metropolis, they declared, "We are The Klezmorim. We play klezmer music. It's been underground for fifty years. Now it's back."48 Frank London has noted that The Klezmorim "never once mentioned Jews or being Jews. It was just klezmer, klezmer, klezmer" and added in a later interview, "For years, many of the klezmer bands hid behind the word 'klezmer' as a way of avoiding the 'Jewish' word."49 This is an astute observation.

The word Jewish does appear on The Klezmorim's first album, but strictly in an historical context. The "Jewishness" of their project is carried instead by the word Yiddish and the prominence of Yiddish terms, song titles, and lyrics. They are klezmers by affinity, rather than by descent or Jewish identification. Where bloodlines are absent--Hankus Netsky, Judy Bressler, Henry Sapoznik, and Giora Feidman identify with Jewish instrumentalists and Yiddish performers in their families-- affinities are invoked. Like their historical models, The Klezmorim explain, they started out playing in small bands, they improvise, they arrange their numbers communally and by ear, and they take pride in never playing a solo the same way twice.

In the absence of living models, particular importance is accorded texts (and in the case of klezmer music, records). Defining the relationship of contemporary performance to past models as best they can be reconstructed is an ongoing concern. As London commented, "Whenever we think we are being very now, very new, we find out what we have done is actually very traditional."50 The sense of newness in the old and oldness in the new is also conveyed in a band name like Brave Old World and characterizations like "Making old- world music new."51 Kapelye's first album was entitled Future and Past and carried the following dedication: "This album is dedicated to our families who have taught us that our future is our Jewish past."52

Anachronism is a productive principle, a musical aesthetic, which operates by unsettling temporal direction. There is no smooth continuity from yesterday's klezmorim to today's klezmers. There is no dramatic rupture, no simple sequence of life, death, and rebirth, as the term revival would imply. Instead, old and new are in a perpetually equivocal relationship. The future precedes the past, the new precedes the old, the revival precedes its historical models. While klezmer revival suggests the primacy of recovery, initially a copying of what can still be heard on old records and from elderly musicians, "it is the copying that originates," as Clifford Geertz has so aptly stated, even in the case of meticulous musical reconstructions.53

Klezmer musicians have felt a need to root present practice in a meaningful past, which is not the same as searching for roots, though for many the two come together. Even the term "roots music" conveys a sense of rootedness, rather than an exclusive claim to a singular origin. However much klezmer music offered clarinetist David Krakauer a "musical home," it was its fusion with jazz that gave his compositions what one reviewer characterized as "a thoroughly contemporary sensibility," no doubt because that fusion did not produce melting-pot music or a soft universalism or easy affirmation of a singular ethnic identity.54 A sense of rootedness does not require musical monogamy.

While orthodoxy and heritage do not by any means exhaust the possible outcomes of rupture, they do force us to rethink any easy opposition between conservative and radical, tradition and innovation, custom and ideology. As Thompson notes for his period, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, "So far from having the steady permanence suggested by the word 'tradition', custom was a field of change and contest, an arena in which opposing interests made conflicting claims . . . it is an arena of conflictual elements, which requires some compelling pressure--as, for example, nationalism or prevalent religious orthodoxy or class consciousness--to take form as 'system'."55 Not only religious orthodoxy but also the klezmer revival have taken form as system. Indeed, the klezmer revival is an example of what Neil Rosenberg, in his taxonomy of music revivals, calls a named-system revival--others include Balkan, old-time fiddling, blues, and bluegrass.56 System in this context signals the shift from tradition to ideology.

What can be learned in this regard from the fate of East European Jewish instrumental music among Hasidim and haredim in America and Israel? While an earlier American generation considered even kosher versions of swing and jazz "alien to a 'Jewish rejoicing' (yidishe simche)," their children and grandchildren were open to rock beat and to kosher rock, that is, to rock with acceptable lyrics, a shift that Soloveitchik attributes to the embourgeoisement of American-born haredim.57 Hoping to find klezmer music still going strong and without interruption among those who seem to hew to tradition most vigorously, Joel Rubin turned to haredim in Israel, the subject of his essay in this issue. He offers several reasons for why he did not find what he expected, including the low status of professional musicians in haredi society and the rabbinical ban in the 1860s on instrumental music in Eretz Israel. In other words, Rubin found himself exploring music within a religious community, not a music scene. This is not to say that a religious music scene does not exist, whether here or in Israel, but only that klezmer music as such is not its focus.58 According to Rubin, Hasidic and haredi communities in Israel are not part of the new klezmer scene, though there is some musical traffic and Rubin himself is something of a bridge between the two worlds. Those worlds are separated by more than music.

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