Back in 1973 I was a student at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It was to be the only year of college that I would complete, and it started auspiciously with me editing a multilingual (usually, primarily Hebrew, Spanish, English, with isolated letters and articles in whatever) student magazine. In an early editorial I mused on the music of Kinky Friedman and his Texas Jewboys, and what would happen if they toured Israel. Meir Lansky had just been kicked out, if I remember correctly, and Bob Dylan had pondered settling on Kibbutz (a story I covered back in 1972), but had moved on before any kibbutz had decided to accept him. So, the idea of the author of "Ride 'Em Jewboy" and "They Don't Make Jews Like Jesus Anymore" coming to tour the relatively conservative (musically speaking) audiences of Israel was intriguing. It was even more fun as I had recently figured out the Israeli party system which almost guaranteed that Israel's leftist parties--including the communists--would likely find themselves clamoring to give this unique Kahane supporter every honor (Kahane had just moved to Israel, so the full implications of this hadn't sunk in), while the right would be opposed. The respective rationales had something to do with hippies being on the left, and the right being forced to oppose anyone who had a song with the words,
went into my local house of god
just chosen folks on the nod
barukh ata adonai
what the hell you doing back there boy
you need a ticket and a tie
to zip your prayers on through
we reserve the right to refuse services to you....
I was thinking about Kinky a few weeks ago when I traveled down to Connecticut to see Chava Alberstein and The Klezmatics perform together at a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Israel's founding. Alberstein did her usual "this is what I perform at Israeli celebrations" set of "good old Israel" songs (or is that an exclusive Arik Einstein franchise? At any rate, her initial Israeli reputation rested on beautifully sung songs by Israel's best songwriters about the beauty of Israel and its people). The Klezmatics did a smoking dance set, which is their usual, "entertain people and get 'em dancing" set. It was an interesting, if also contrasting set, and the audience seemed to really enjoy both.
Part of what brought these particular artists together at this particular time, though, was that they had just recorded an album together--new songs written by Alberstein, set to older Yiddish poetry. And, clearly, they were still having a tremendous amount of fun performing together and exploring what they could do. Alberstein, who had been good, but a bit anonymous for her own set, was animated and excited and clearly having as much fun as she has had in a long time. The Klezmatics were no less animated. The music, which came across as a sort of Yiddish-Israeli La Negresses Vertes, was outstanding. The lyrics, to the best of my ability to understand them, were incredibly good. They weren't simplistic kids songs or old political stuff. These songs sounded complex and current enough to be new folk songs, much the way that Josh Waletzky's material tends to find itself being widely covered--in fact, it is represents a major portion of the new Yiddish songwriting being performed live today. Come September, when the new album is released, he won't be quite so alone.
Now, American audiences are a reasonably easy mix with this sort of material. It's true that most American Jews, especially those of my generation or younger (and excepting the ultra-orthodox who wouldn't come near this sort of event) know, at best, either Hebrew or Yiddish, and mostly, assuming they know either, it's Hebrew. Yiddish, for most of them, is old-fashioned. At the same time, for many of us who love klezmer, one of the reasons we love klezmer, and one of the reasons we are learning Yiddish, is because it is the language of a socialist, non-religious, non-Zionist tradition.
What this all means is that, even though Alberstein is known here (and in Israel) for both her Israeli material and for her Yiddish folk albums, people aren't going to be sure what to expect. And there could be some interesting cultural shifts as people who know Alberstein's Hebrew material adjust to the Klezmatics, and vice versa for fans of the Klezmatics. But, at the same time, the American Jewish community has stretched a lot in recent years. People have rediscovered Yiddish and become aware of the many Sephardic traditions; there is even growing awareness, at least on an intellectual basis, of entirely different Jewish traditions such as those of the Ethiopian Jewish Community, or that of the Bukharians or Central Asian Mountain Jews from the former Soviet Union. So, when these folks do a short tour upon releasing the album, it is reasonable to expect critics to notice how incredibly tuneful and exciting the new material is, and for concerts to attract lots of positive attention.
That's true of America, but one wonders. What about Israel? Could these musicians even appear in Israel?
The cultural wars in Israel have been much fiercer. Not only are Israelis polarized between hiloni (secular) and haredi (ultra-orthodox), but there have also been the linguistic wars. Israelis are proud of turning Hebrew into a modern language. A generation ago, Yiddish was despised as representative of that weak Diaspora culture that Israeli culture supplanted, just as the Israeli Uzi ben Gibor was the prototype for the modern Jew. This generation, considerably more diverse than the last, mostly doesn't even know from Yiddish, at all. The major exception is the huge wave of emigrants from the former Soviet Union, some of whom know Yiddish--but do even they use it today in Israel?
So, in Israel, there has not only been no klezmer revival (Israeli klezmer is basically an uninteresting variant of simple chasidic wedding music), there has been no Yiddish revival; there isn't even the question of whether there is something there that anyone would consider exploring the revival of. And, while Israelis love American artists, they especially love American artists like Prince and the Beastie Boys and the best of commercial American dance music and pop. Israelis who have heard of the klezmer revival may be countable on one or two hands.
At the same time, this is not the same as being a closed society. These are not the Israelis I knew 20 and 30 years ago, who clapped politely at concerts when the lights dimmed as each song ended, and clapped again when the lights came back on and the next song began. These are the Israelis whose representative, this very year, won the Eurovision song contest. Said representative, coincidentally, is a transsexual. We more provincial Americans not only don't know from Eurovision, we freak out at the sexual ambiguity of a Michael Jackson.
So, how would Israelis react to the Klezmatics music? I dunno. When I started writing this article, my first thoughts were that Israelis wouldn't have a clue--they wouldn't attend, and those that did attend wouldn't get it. I was feeling pretty superior. But I think I was wrong. I think Israelis would get into it big time. Even more fun, I could see Israelis kicking off their own klezmer revival once they've heard the Klezmatics perform up close. I can see a Yiddish comeback in the Holy Land. And the thought of Chava and the Klezmatics jamming with Poliker and Friends of Natasha and the Ethnix and Natural Gathering is kind of exciting in return. Can you imagine the next collaboration with that incredible mix of Israeli musical influences finally also including klez?
A wishy washy speculation by Ari Davidow, 7/12/98