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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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The Jewish Space

Since the Holocaust, there have appeared innumerable evocations of "vanished communities," eleventh-hour documentaries of the "last Jews" of Eastern Europe, and increasingly, Holocaust memorials. Those memorials, seen historically, also reflect shifts in sensibility, particularly as the children of survivors find their own voices. Art Spiegelman's Maus is but one example of what Gilad Melzer calls irreverent memory. He considers the problem of representing the Holocaust "properly" in relation to new generational sensibilities and the "Holocaust rock music" of such Israeli musicians as Yehuda Poliker.138 Today, Central and Eastern Europe are no longer the nowhere of an evacuated Yiddishland. Not only is there a modest renewal of Jewish life and communities and a major influx of Jewish tourists, but also "the 'Jewish space' in Europe . . . is increasingly attracting non-Jews," in the words of historian Diana Pinto.139 They are the primary audience in Europe for klezmer music, particularly as performed by American Jewish musicians, but also by bands with names like Klezgoyim. In the estimation of Alan Bern, the virtuosic accordionist in Brave Old World, some non-Jewish musicians perform klezmer music "better than Jewish musicians who count as leaders of the revival."140 If, as Liberman declared, old-time klezmorim "bridged the cultural abyss between the ghetto and the world," the neo- klezmers are filling a new kind of Jewish space, no less imagined than the topoi of ghetto and shtetl.141

A hero of the contemporary European klezmer scene is Giora Feidman. While the San Francisco Klezmorim are generally credited with being the first to record neo- klezmer music, in 1977, Feidman debuted his Jewish "soul music" in 1972 and issued his first klezmer album in 1973. "King of Klezmer in the world today," Feidman bases the purity of his performances of klezmer music not on scrupulous attention to reconstruction but to distilling the "essence" of what he calls "Jewish soul music."142 Born of a romantic mysticism, his etherial musical interpretations depend more on inspiration than fidelity to an authoritative musical "text." The preciousness of his performances is better suited to the concert stage and movie soundtrack, than to the dance floor or downtown club. While his fans embrace his music as a "universal language" and medium of international brotherhood, his critics object to his rarefied treatment of an earthy musical idiom. They object to his sensibility; liner notes for his early albums refer to "Jewish Folk Music" and "little worlds" (among them Fiddler on the Roof and contemporary Israel) and his repertoire draws from film scores as well as Hasidic Music Festivals and the music of Middle Eastern Jewish communities living in Israel.

"Maestro Feidman," as he is referred to on his albums and on The Giora Feidman Home Page, is not of the same cohort as the American neo-klezmers. Born in Argentina, Feidman immigrated to Israel in 1957 to accept the invitation to join the clarinet section of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. While he describes himself as a fourth-generation klezmer, it is precisely this yikhes (and his extraordinary talent as a classical musician) that authorizes his distillations and the bold claims he makes for them. His largest followings are in Germany and Israel, where relationships to the East European Jewish past are particularly fraught, whether as the legacy of Nazism or Zionism.

Groups like the Klezmer-Gesellschaft e.V, founded in Berlin in 1990 and their Klezmer Orchestra, established in 1995, are attracted to Feidman's celebration of klezmer music's universality because it gives them "permission" not only to play the music, but also to claim it: klezmorim, they explain, "usually were Jewish, but not necessarily. They usually played at Jewish celebrations-- but not only. And that was why they integrated into their repertoire the traditional music of their surroundings. The style of playing and the repertoire are characterized by both the tradition, vivid modifications, and new perceptions. That is exactly, what we now call klezmer music."143 The Klezmer-Gesellschaft was founded by musicians who took Feidman's workshops and Feidman is also a member of the society. He is an active teacher and has issued numerous instructional recordings and books.

In the United States, Balkanarama has created a slot for klezmer music in a list that includes Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, and The Roma (Gypsies). The topos of music as place, a site of imagined community, can be found in the instruction, "Welcome to the Republic of Balkanarama. Please surrender your passport at this time."144 The place is then--a dreamy chronotope of Jewish gypsies, fiddling their way from place to place, picking up the sounds around them, and fusing them into a zany foot-tapping musical icon pierced by the soulful cry of a fiddle or clarinet.145 The place is not now.

Moreover, the music, once it has been universalized, is no longer even Jewish--"Klezmer is not Jewish music," Feidman has said, explaining that "Everyone is born a singer. God gave to us an instrument of song, our body. This is klezmer."146 Nothing could be further from the sensibility of American neo-klezmers. Or, from those who remember hearing the old-timers, some of whom were young at the time and alternated playing Jewish and jazz gigs. The "indigenous music" of klezmorim, which Nat Hentoff defined as "improvising Yiddish musicians," reminded him of jazz, but with a critical difference: "the cadences, the timbres, the swirling rhythms went back to far different places and times than the jazz I also loved. It was more from these sounds than from any reading that my sense of the old country first began to be vivid."147 If the music took Nat Hentoff back to Minsk and Pinsk and offered David Krakauer a "musical home," it lets Don Byron "take you to a place you may have avoided and make you feel comfortable there."148 That place is out. It is on the edge. It is radical in the contradictory senses of rooted and extreme. Such are the fault lines of sensibility defined by klezmer music of the nineties.

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