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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Multiple Temporalities

Emphasizing a continuity they have worked hard to achieve in the wake of genocide and cultural obsolescence, pioneers of the klezmer revival repeatedly delineate the chronology of the music they have recuperated, a process that plays memory against history and autobiography against musical reconstruction. While the scene has a relatively short history, less than three decades, telling that history is integral to it. The founding figures not only tunneled to the past through archives, but also sought out living bridges to the music as it was once played. They apprenticed themselves to the last exponents of the tradition. Their acts of recuperation, preservation, documentation, and renewal affirmed Isaac Bashevis Singer's apothegm, "There's a big difference between 'dead' and 'dying'," the motto of the Boston radio program The Yiddish Voice (WUNR, Brookline, Massachusetts).71

The founders of the scene have a keen sense of the peculiar temporality of the revival. Unlike subsequent generations, which have grown up with neo-klezmer music, the founding cohort lived through the rupture and the recovery, an experience that heightened their historical awareness. Short and fast, the history of the scene is remembered in detail by those directly involved in it. Long and slow, the history of the music that inspires it has left spotty evidence. Those who have made the scene have also had to excavate the music. Their sense of one is infused with their sense of the other. While a history of klezmer music like the one provided by Hankus Netsky is narrated forward, from the "beginning" to the present, it is understood backwards, from now to then. Younger musicians are forming their own sense of the music's temporality, as can be seen from the claim by Vurma, which models itself on "the pioneer group Klezmorim," that they are part of the second renaissance of klezmer. In an interview about ten years ago, about the time they disbanded, Kevin Linscott of The Klezmorim discouraged new groups from using his band's music as a model and encouraged them to go back to historical recordings.72

"Klezmer music," as it emerges from what is said and written and from the musical practices themselves, is an "initial shaping concept."73 It bears, as Williams puts it, the marks of its formation and its unresolved problems, both of which tend to be taken for granted. Hankus Netsky, in his essay in this issue, starts with the European background, immigration, and the recordings during the first decades of this century in the United States. He proceeds to the decline of klezmer music in the 1930s, the parodies of the early postwar period, the sentimentality of Jewish music of the 1960s, and the revival that began in the 1970s (he founded the Klezmer Conservatory Band in 1980) and blossomed in the decades following.

Memory of the revival and history of the music are not the same thing, though they tend to converge in accounts that reflect the experience of first generation klezmer revivalists and those who write about them. The founding narrative is stated in the starkest terms by Rogovoy, for whom klezmer is a phoenix rising from its own ashes. The music is marked "by its refusal to die" in the face of two assaults--the Holocaust and assimilation. The revival is the story of what happened to "Old World Klezmer," whose "sonorities . . . evoked the simple joys and sorrows of shtetl life," in the hands of postmodern musicians. At the same time, he documents the nuanced sense of klezmer history expressed by Svigals, who is quoted as saying, "Klezmer isn't the music of an extinct culture. . . . As contemporary living culture--as opposed to something extinct which has been curiously and artificially revived--Klezmer is different than it was twenty years ago, and still more different than it was forty, sixty, a hundred years ago."74 Rather than a bifurcated temporality--before and after the revival--a sense of differentiated historical layers is beginning to emerge.

As professional musicians become professional scholars, their historical vistas expand.75 Rubin looks beyond the United States to Israel. James Loeffler, in his contribution to this issue, looks beyond the "golden age" of the interwar recordings to the early period of mass immigration, during which the first Jewish musician's union in the United States was established (1889). He opens a window on the working conditions and performance culture of professional Jewish musicians during this era and considers their mobility. As the musicians discussed by Loeffler entered the larger marketplace of music, Jewish music became even more of a niche market and some musicians, in their rising success, left this music (and the Jewish musicians' union) behind.

It is during the period of mass immigration that the Yiddish theater came into its own, musicians began making recordings, and Yiddish folk song attracted increasing interest from scholars, artists, and publishers. Because these developments took place in the United States and in Europe, they did not precede immigration, but were coincident with it. It has been argued that the Yiddish theater and the instrumental music tradition as we know it from early commercial recordings flowered in the United States--performers and repertoire flowed across the Atlantic in both directions.76 Moreover, during the period Loeffler considers, musicians played not only for simkhes but also on a wide variety of political, ceremonial, and social occasions. His account offers an important corrective to the current image of old-time klezmer music as strictly party music.77

Loeffler's evidence suggests that specialization was a response to a shrinking market. As they were no longer in demand for so wide a range of events, those musicians who continued playing for Jewish audiences came to depend more heavily on simkhes for their living.78 They could do so because Jewish life-cycle celebrations-- primarily the wedding, but also the bar mitzvah--had become so much more elaborate. Those who still remember hearing the music before the revival associate it almost exclusively with simkhes. Many of today's klezmers and critics project this image of the music back to the middle ages. Rogovoy, for example, states that "Strictly defined, Klezmer is the Jewish instrumental music that was played by professional musicians in Eastern Europe for occasions such as weddings and bar mitzvahs--a tradition that dates back at least as far as the Middle Ages."79 As for weddings, the musical requirements were far more extensive than dance music and still are in Hasidic communities today. During the nineteenth century (and earlier), wedding festivities could extend over a three-week period and require musicians and a varied repertoire for a series of events. As for bar mitzvahs, in Eastern Europe they were generally low-key events, not the extravagant affairs they have become here.80

Complementing Loeffler's consideration of the working conditions of Jewish instrumentalists in the United States, Robert Rothstein, in his essay in this issue, attends to the occupational subculture of professional Jewish instrumentalists in Eastern Europe as revealed through their argot. He presents a little klezmer-talk from Sholem Aleichem's novel Stempenyu. In Joachim Neugroschel's 1979 English translation, the klezmorim sound like a couple of jazz hipsters rapping about chicks. The translator has substituted one musical argot (jazz) for another (klezmer), with the assumption that his readers in 1979 would recognize the lingo. Would the translation need to be updated for subsequent generations by substituting rap for jazz? If yes, something would be lost, for American exponents of the klezmer tradition not only played jazz. Many also referred to their bulgars, doinas, and freylakhs as Jewish jazz and many played both Jewish dance music and jazz on the same program.

Neugroschel's translation thus captures a musical convergence subsequent to the period represented in the novel, but meaningful to the later history of the music and to later readers. Many musicians have come to neo- klezmer music with formal training in classical music and jazz, and use what they know to create such new musical fusions as freestyle klezmer. Objections to the term Jewish jazz notwithstanding (Sapoznik quips that if klezmer is Jewish jazz, then jazz must be goyish klezmer), the relationship between the two musics suggests a history of reversals as much as revivals, with musicians moving from klezmer to jazz and back, while keeping both in play and creating new fusions.81

Future translations of Stempenyu may have to reckon with a new klezmer-loshn, the argot of the revival. Variations on the word klezmer (klez, neo-klezmer, klezmology, and klezmeroid) pepper discussions of the music. Band names play with even more possibilities: Klezmania!, Klezmatics, Klezical, Klezmechaye!, Klezmos, Klezmotones, Kleztet, KlezKanada, Klezmeydlekh. KlezKamp is the affectionate name of the Yiddish Folk Arts Institute established by Henry Sapoznik in 1984. The cyberhome of klezmer information is Ari Davidow's KlezShack. This terminology has no parallel in Yiddish, as evidenced by entry 285 (muziker [musician]) in Nahum Stutchkoff's monumental Thesaurus of the Yiddish Language (1950) and the 1913 "'Klesmer'sprache" lexicons of S. Weissenberg and Alfred Landau.82

There is no klezmer-loshn in Di vunderlikhe geshikhte fun r' shmelkele der klezmer, a little chapbook published in Warsaw in 1910) about eyn yidisher klezmer in the Prague ghetto in 1820. Reb Shmelkele, a famous artist on the fiddle and paragon of piety, played so well that "men hot gekent antshlofn vern fin siskayt" (one could fall asleep from sweetness). He was invited to play for the hoi polloi. Christian nobility treated him with great honor and even sent their carriages for him. At night, in the privacy of his home, he would play "Al Naharot Bavel" (By the Waters of Babylon) with such moralishkayt that he could rouse feeling in a stone. He was also handsome and humble. Not surprisingly, the tone of the chapbook is pious, not sardonic.

Note that the anonymous author specifies "Jewish" klezmer, but at no point does he refer to "klezmer" music. Nor does he play with ethnographic detail--there is no musician's argot--though he does endow Reb Shmelkele's performance with extraordinary, even divinely inspired, power. We do not find Reb Shmelkele playing at Jewish weddings, but at elegant balls and aristocratic mansions, the king's court and robber's den. These locales belong more to the world of the wonder tale than to the daily reality of Jewish instrumentalists, though klezmorim did perform for the nobility. While this story cannot be taken as a baseline for the history of klezmer music, it does reveal an historically specific musical sensibility that values emotive effect.83 This sensibility is allied with the sentimentality of melodrama, a popular genre of Yiddish theater in the period and even today in the Purim plays produced by Hasidic communities in New York.84

Klezmer music--the term, the category, the music, the sensibility--are not only contemporary, but new. Jewish instrumentalists before the revival characterized their music in a variety of ways, but klezmer music was not one of them, a point that Statman underscores when he says his band plays Hasidic, not klezmer, music. However, Statman had to pass through the klezmer revival to get to Hasidic music and once he got there he has been moving in new directions that are difficult to name.

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