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"Klezmer Music"
The story of the invention and evolution of a term to describe the role of traditional music in a changing culture
How the evolution of its meaning in the United States reflects traditional melting pot theory, return to tradition, radicalism and reaction

by Ari Davidow

Late-Nineteenth Century Jewish Instrumental Music in Europe
Early recorded Klezmer Music in America, 1900 – 1930
Jewish Music of the 1950s
The "Klezmer Revival" and the invention of "Klezmer Music"
Use of "Klezmer" in the 1990s


When I first became interested in klezmer music in the early 1980s, I was excited by the music, and by the cultural scene in which it was being played. It didn't occur to me that this music that friends were reviving, and which spoke to me vividly as "Jewish Soul Music" had not even had a name, had certainly not been called "Klezmer Music" until quite recently.

I first noticed that something was awry a few years ago when I realized that the term "klezmer" had evolved just since I became involved. Where once it had referred to a specific music played for specific purposes, now it was standing in for "Jewish". I began to explore the music, its name, and its cultural context.

I also realized that the term was invented, and its meaning changed, also as a reaction to the way that Jewish community changed. The closed society (closed in the sense that members had few options to move to other communities) of Eastern European Jewry is significantly different from today's American society in which people seldom wholly belong to any one culture. Today, we are "self-made" in the sense that we pick and choose bits and pieces from dozens of cultures[1], rather than find ourselves restricted to one, all-encompassing culture.

At the same time, klezmer music has roots in both tradition and in change. The music often resembles the Cantorial voice, and that tradition is purported to go back to the tunes sung by the High Priests in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem thousands of years ago.[2] On the other hand, traditional klezmer music is also an amalgam of music from all over the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, and continuing through Poland and Russia and the Ukraine. Klezmer is fusion music, and change is part of its tradition.

The word, "klezmer" is generally explained as a combination of two words from Hebrew: "klei" (instruments of) and "zemer" (music). A recent column from the main surviving Yiddish weekly newspaper, the Forward[3], tells the story thus:

... Why should "musical instruments" have come to designate metonymically the musicians who play them? This has to do, I think, with the fact that the Hebrew word k'li, in its sense of "vessel" or "container," has a long history of being used metaphorically for a person, starting with the prophet Jeremiah's comparison of the people of Judah to a k'li rek, an "empty pot," for being unable to resist the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.... Klezmer ... has the Hebrew plural.... This is not really surprising when one reflects that, in traditional Eastern European Jewish music, musicians rarely gave solo performances. A klezmer almost always played as part of a group of klezmorim.... Klezmorim most often played at weddings, [b]ut they could be hired for any happy occasion—many of you probably know the song, sung to the melody of "Old King Cole," about the chasidic rebbe Elimeylekh, who, when he was very freylekh, sent first for two fiddlers; then for two peyklers or drummers and finally for two tsimblers. In the end they all got so drunk that the drummers played the fiddles like tsimblen and the tsimblen like fiddles and di lustike klezmorim mit fiesher unter orim, "the jolly klezmorim, a bottle beneath each arm," made music until dawn.

"Klezmorim" (klezmer musicians) had a name and a bad reputation going back centuries. To be a "klezmer" was to be the lowest type of musician, a near-social outcast (sometimes, absolutely a social outcast) of dubious morals. This poor reputation is reflected in folklore going far back, then was novelized by Shalom Aleichem in his book, Stempenyu.

In a recent question on the "jewish-music" mailing list, in which one participant asked for comments on the "rumor" that klezmorim had not always been respectable. Wolf Krakowski described the musician's status most colorfully, and accurately[4]

[It was] maybe a half step above a thief and a street-walker but lower than a shoemaker or a wheel-greaser. They, at least, had the ability to earn a steady wage (however low)and did not have to rely essentially on tips.

Willie Epstein, one of the last of the older, pre-Revival klezmorim, told me, at our first meeting, in 1996[5], that in his family, they were good musicians--not "klezmorim"--and that they made a good living playing non-Jewish functions and jazz or theatre music. Even during his band's initial heyday during the 1960s, when they were the band for Hasidic weddings, they were "musikantn," (skilled musicians), not klezmorim. He was quite amused by the turn the term had taken, and its newly respectable cachet as "person who plays traditional Jewish instrumental music." Today's klezmorim are often conservatory-trained. With popular klezmer albums headed by classical violin star Itzhak Perlman, the status of the "klezmer," today, is quite high, both musically and socially.

The music was not considered valuable, either. Despite the fact that it was ubiquitous and essential to traditional Jewish life, as Jeffrey Wallach notes:

Klezmer music has suffered from generally low prestige within the spectrum of Jewish music, somewhat analogous to that of jazz at one time within American music. Thus, until recently, even Jewish music research has generally ignored this music. (p. 37)

Yet, it was klezmer music, not Yiddish or Sephardic folk music, nor Cantorial chant, nor Israeli Middle East Fusion music that caught the imaginations of thousands of revivalists in the 1970s. I think that the reasons for this have as much to do with the ease with which someone who doesn't speak any Jewish languages can approach instrumental music, as well as to exciting music.

As I explore the evolution of this term, "klezmer", I will also be exploring the multitude of communities and influences that make up modern ethnic identity--in this case, modern Jewish-American[6] ethnic identity. I will also approach klezmer as one of a plethora of what Mark Slobin (2000) calls "microsystems" that make up modern personal identity in the United States.

Late-Nineteenth Century Jewish Instrumental Music in Europe

Although there were many cultural differences between Jews of different regions, by the late 19th century, it could be said that Jewish dance music

[was] basically uniform over most of the areas of Jewish settlement within the Russian empire, including Eastern Ukraine, Belorussia (Belarus), Lithuania, Eastern Poland, and Bessarabia (Moldavia, Moldova). The available material is significant for the Jews under Czarist rule, for the Kingdom of Romania, as well as Austrian Bucovina and Galicia, who together constituted the large majority of Eastern Europe's Jews during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (Feldman 1994:1)

The music was heavily influenced by the Greek and Ottoman traders who traveled deep into Romania under the Ottomans. This Romanian influence was such that our one surviving source[7] of multiple European recordings in the early 1900s was a band called the "Belf Romanian Orchestra." Jeffrey Wallach, in his 1997 article, makes a convincing case that the band was Ukrainian, and that the word "Romanian" was for marketing purposes.). Feldman (1994:1) notes that klezmorim formed a low-status caste--it wasn't just an occupation that one casually picked up. In addition, klezmorim often played with Roma musicians, such that a specific "kapelye" (band) could consist of Jews and non-Jews. Accompanying the band was the wedding jester, the badkhn, who might be a failed rabbi or other person from higher on the social scale. In smaller settlements, the town barber might also work part time as a klezmer. But Feldman also notes[8] that "the most famous and skilled klezmorim came almost exclusively from the full-time professional caste rather than from part-time artisans." Indeed, the best of the klezmorim might lead musical groups, and eventually make their way, playing for the local landowners, into the Christian community. Josh Horowitz has done considerable research on the original klezmer superstar, Michael Joseph Gusikov[9], who played an early form of the xylophone or tsimbl. At the age of 26 he toured European capitals, and even captivated the German composer of Jewish ancestry, Felix Mendelssohn, who wrote about it to his mother in 1836.

This music that had no particular name, did have specific repertoire. As I noted above, Feldman found that it was relatively homogenous throughout Jewish villages in Eastern and Central Europe. But, having said that, the musicians also played non-Jewish repertoire, just as musicians today would include popular songs from the culture at large in their wedding dances. Feldman (1994, also cited by Slobin, 2000) describes the enlarging circles of repertoire thus:

  1. Core: Dances and non-dance specific to, or originated within, the Jewish community. If one believes early Jewish musicologist A. Z. Idelsohn[10], then they go back to the tunes sung in the Temple during Biblical times.

  2. Transitional, or "Orientalized" repertoire: Dances and non-dance tunes that were often composed by Jews, but whose origins were understood to be non-Jewish

  3. Co-territorial repertoire: Songs played by klezmorim for Jews, and at times, for non-Jews. Remember that musicians were low-caste, hung together, and played at each other's gigs a lot[11].

  4. Cosmopolitan: Dances of Western and Central European origin played for Jews and non-Jews.

The most obvious issue noted here is that, even though there was a core Jewish repertoire, it was only part of the repertoire that a klezmer would be expected to play. In fact, that may be why there was no term, "klezmer music" at this time--the klezmorim played a wide variety of music (Slobin, 2000:6). In common with many cultures, Jewish wedding music extended beyond traditional tunes to music that people simply liked to dance to. It is also worth noting that while klezmorim were low-caste members of the Jewish community, some did achieve fame outside the Jewish community, and the klezmer families took great pride in their history as musicians. Horowitz[12], commenting on the various terms for "musician," in Yiddish-speaking, and related cultures, and other issues relating to klezmerlushn (klezmer language--the jargon of Jewish musicians) writes:

    The words for musician in German-based languages are:

  1. Kunstler (meaning artist, used only for higher art music, and not traditionally used to refer to function musicians, e.g. wedding and party musicians)

  2. Musiker (meaning generally musician, usually referring to art music musicians, but not restricted to that definition. It is a respectful term for a musician and has no negative connotations

  3. Klinger (lit. sounder. This is a Rotwelsh, or Klezmer-lushn, which was the secret language of the professional caste of musicians who developed a jargon which could be understood among themselves but not by outsiders. The reason for this was primarily to be able to communicate internal matters in social situations where there was no privacy. The jargon concentrates most of its vocabulary on money, sex, police matters and violence, as well as details of the trade).

    Variations on Klinger which still mean Musikant were Klingfetzer or klingenfetzer (lit. sound frazzler) or Klingelbink, an onomatopoetic term.

  4. Klezmer--I have a feeling, but no definite proof, that this word comes out of the milieu of Klezmer-lushn. Socially, its widest use was probably among musicians themselves, including Gypsy musicians (who often knew Yiddish as well as Klezmer-lushn) as it fulfils the Rotwelsh/Klezmer-lushn purpose. But more tellingly, the jargon uses formative principles in its construction which are typical to Rotwelsh/Klezmer-lushn [explanation of principles removed]

  5. There were also terms referring to specific instrumentalists, like Klappzimmerer for tsimbl players and knutsher for accordionists, etc.

A key to understanding what term would be used in which context is to observe the social surroundings of the musicians in question. For example, a musician at a wedding in Bessarabia would be called by his Gypsy colleagues, either lautar, the Romanian term for the professional functional musician, or klezmer.... As you noticed, the term in the US was negatively received in the earlier part of the century, but like I said, I think when it was used internally among the caste of professional musicians in Eastern Europe, because it had no negative connotations, or rather, because the entire argot of klezmer-lushn was self-deprecating and secretive by nature, it's meaning was like blacks calling other niggers to each other. So the use of the same term by members of the upper classes would have a different flavor to it than the same term used by the musicians themselves....

Concluding this brief survey of terms, and of the life of klezmorim before their arrival in America, it is worth noting that the instant European society became open to them, klezmorim migrated outward and upward with the same speed as did their counterparts in the intellectual community:

By 1900, Beregovski tells us, ... [u]pward mobility struck the klezmorim themselves; they wrote away for classical etudes to gentrify their fiddling. Their sons moved into the emerging Russian conservatories as soon as Jews were allowed access to higher-class musicianship and career hopes, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Before long, a figure like Mischa Elman, from a klezmer lineage, could become an international virtuoso and recording artist. But even as far back as the 1830s, before his early death, Mikhail Guzikov had toured Europe as an eastern klezmer star, impressing no less a listener than Felix Mendelssohn. Klezmorim, in short, were city-minded musical ambassadors, carrying tunes and styles across a vast network of Jewish culture that stretched from the Ottoman borderlands to the bourgeois bulwarks of Central Europe. They combined the restlessness and spiritual spark of a dybbuk (a displaced soul seeking a body) with the cozy, gossipy communality of traditional small-town and emerging big-city life. (Slobin 2000:68)

This information about European klezmorim and European klezmer music is especially important, because for many years the assumption was that the 78s from which early klezmer revivalists learned their music, directly represented this tradition. Work in recent years has uncovered additional music and traditions related to this period. But the combination of the physical destruction of the communities during World War II, and the move away from traditional life which had begun in the mid-1800s in Germany, means that we just don't have many records, nor do we have many survivors to question. The collapse of the former Soviet Union, has facilitated a new wave of discovered practitioners of relatively traditional Jewish music, such as the Bessarabian klezmer musician, German Goldenstyn[13].

It also needs to be noted that there was an earlier period of several hundreds years of Jewish community life in Poland, governed by a Jewish "Council of the Four Lands" which formed a center of Jewish culture unmatched, it was said, since the days of the Temple. Beginning with the revolt by Ukrainians against Poland in the 17th century, attacks on the community began to cause its decline. This accelerated after the partition of Poland at the end of the 18th century put millions of Jews in territory controlled by Russia, itself a country that had refused Jews entry, and did its best to keep those it had now inherited inside a "Pale of Settlement." Jewish life in the Austrian-controlled and Prussian-controlled parts of Poland was different. Indeed, Austrian Jews, "Galicians[14]," were the fun-loving, assimilated Jews by comparison. Indeed, while traditional Jewish life was just beginning to crumble in Eastern Europe, in Western Europe Jewish social life was quite formal and so assimilated. A traditional wedding with badkhn (wedding jester) and klezmorim was worthy of comment, even nostalgia:

[Here] is the account from the pen of a French tourist, of a Jewish marriage celebrated not long ago in Alsatia. Here we see the "Marshaliks" who have so long disappeared from our weddings, still amusing the guests with their improvised discourses abounding in surprising twists of thought; the costumes, so singular and of such venerable antiquity, defy the universal supremacy of French fashion, and the man of the world from Paris who witnesses and reports the scene, tells us that he could not help fancying that he sat at a table with hosts that had risen straight out of the grave of the preceding century.[15]

Needless to say, Jews were happy to leave what was then called the Pale of Settlement, and, as conditions got even worse, with the pogroms in 1881, the trickle became a rush. The new country of choice? Die goldene medine--the golden land, America.

Early recorded Klezmer Music in America, 1900 – 1930

It has never been clear to me that Jews who arrived in the United States stuck with music from the Old World. It is clear, in fact, from James Loeffler's work (1997, 1998), that there was far less call for klezmorim in New York than would be expected given the Jewish population, and this fits with the many contemporaneous accounts of the eagerness with which immigrants adopted the customs of the new country as their own with industrious rapidity. Freed to be active in everything from radical politics to the worst of laissez faire capitalism, the new immigrants did their best to be over-represented in all camps. Indeed, the writings of Social Democrat, former radical, and formative, long-time editor of the Forverts, Abe Cahan, show a strong belief that nothing was so corrosive to tradition as America[16].

At the same time, (Slobin 2000:7) notes that music was a factor that unified the Jewish community:

"Particularly crucial to understanding European klezmer is this: while klezmorim were somewhat separated from mainstream Jewish community life, ... their music reflected and even helped foster the strong integration of Ashkenazic[17] culture across all sorts of internal fault lines. Especially in the 19th century, the eastern Ashkenzim split into ideological camps over issues of modernization, assimilation, and types of religious affiliation, but they shared a certain aesthetic outlook when it came to music-making.....

So, Jews in America, all of whom had shared a common music in Europe, many of whom presumably continued to listen to the music, fueled an ethnic recording boom, and klezmer musicians were there recording not just Jewish material, but Greek, Turkish, Romanian material, and more.

Several things need to be noted about these early recordings. First, they were limited to about 3 minutes long, so out went the extended pieces. Second, not all music sold well, or played well on the recording equipment of the time, so not all aspects of Jewish instrumental music from Europe were represented. It is only recently that scholars such as Zev Feldman and Josh Horowitz have unearthed not just new songs from Eastern Europe, but a significantly broader repertoire[18].

In America, the repertoire changed. Feldman (1994) notes that most of the old core dance repertoire fell away as those dances associated with religious life became less relevant to the new immigrants. It was the dances from the transitional repertoire, that which was not only associated with religious events in the old country (even though it came to be played at American Jewish weddings almost exclusively), associated with the secular, proletarian "southern" Jews of Romania, that became popular[19].

The concentration of the majority of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in one city (New York) certainly aided in the propagation of these new genres of klezmer music. Between the First World War and the 1950s this new repertoire evolved principally in New York and came to constitute the American repertoire of klezmer music. For the American-born generations, especially after World War II, the bulgarish and the bulgarish-freylakhs hybrids were the only genres of klezmer music had any currency, hence they have retroactively shaped the American conception of the nature of klezmer dance music. (Feldman, 1994, p. 30)

It is worth noting, however, that there were other Jewish dance traditions, and recent research, primarily by Hankus Netsky (see Slobin, 2000) has unearthed a wide variety of repertoires, not all of which reduced to the bulgar, brought by klezmer families to the cities where they landed, from their home towns in Europe.

So, what was klezmer called during those early years? The music disc manufacturers referred to it as "Jewish music" or "Jewish instrumental music." It wasn't until 1937, that pioneering ethnomusicologist Moshe Beregovski, writing in the then Soviet Union, wrote an article, "Jewish Instrumental Folk music" in which he talking about klezmorim, but also about "klezmer music." (Slobin, 1982, plus numerous lectures and e-mails) It is likely to be a subtle difference, but to Beregovski, "klezmer music" seemed to mean "music played by klezmorim", whereas the Klezmer Revival meaning is best explained by a something revivalist Kurt Bjorling is fond of stating, "I'm not a klezmer. If I were, I'd be playing the ‘Macarena' at weddings." (cited by Slobin, 2000). What Kurt is saying (as I understand him), is "I am not a traditional klezmer, in that I play only traditional klezmer music." As I noted in the introduction, change, especially incorporating local popular melodies, is an important part of the klezmer tradition.

In New York, at the turn of the century, phonographs are still new, and the marketing of music is very new. Various ethnic musics, including Jewish music, are quite popular. The music has to be called "Jewish" music, of course. It's the music of Jews--what else would you call it?

At the same time, klezmorim were being transformed by the instrumentation in American, and by the making of phonograph records:

Many brought over typical European instruments such as the tsimbl (hammered dulcimer), harmonica (small accordion), or valve trombone. But by the 1920s the instrumentation had fallen more in line with typical American vaudeville bands of the time.

[M]any klezmer disks seem to have exotic titles. In many cases, these were thought up in the office of the record company just prior to the release date.... The physical limitation of 78 RPM records imposed a three to four minute time limit on dance tunes that, when played live, were often sequenced in medleys that went on for half an hour or more. (Netsky 6-7)

These recordings defined the "traditional" music that would be discovered by Klezmer Revivalists 50 years later. "Jewish" music, from a period when "Jewish" meant that portion of a homogenous repertoire from an Eastern European Jewish community that had just begun to amplify cultural changes, from fundamentalism to anarchism and socialism to new forms of traditionalism to Zionism to secularism and further, but for which music was still something held in common.

Jewish Music of the 1950s

In his article on the bulgar, Feldman notes that, after changing significantly in the early part of the 20th century America, the core klezmer repertoire here, didn't change for two generations. He considers this lack of change unusual, and offers no explanation. I would suggest that it was a response to the specific assimilation pattern of the American Jewish community.

The original community from which people had emigrated no longer existed in Europe. Americans, on the other hand, were busy assimilating and becoming Americans. The music now signified "Jewish", and most specifically, "Yiddishkeit" (the Yiddish term for "Jewishness," the sense and sensibility of traditional Jewish culture).

This isn't to say that there was no change in American Yiddish culture overall. Satirists such as Mickey Katz melded Yiddish words onto Yiddish theatre tunes[20] or onto traditional Yiddish and American folk tunes. This "Yinglish" was especially popular. There were even hits, such as "Bei mir bist du shein," from the Benny Goodman Orchestra.

To speak "Yinglish" was popular on two levels. Yiddish, was after all, "Jewish-loshn," the Jewish language[21]. But mixing it with English demonstrated a mastery of American language and mores.

More recent writers have also noted, that change was occurring in the remaining traditional Jewish communities, primarily in the Hasidic communities. By the 1960s they were incorporating pop sounds, and were moving away from the traditional "core" repertoire. While bands such as Rudy Tepel's Orchestra and the Epstein Brothers reigned in those communities during the 1960s, also popular were Sy Kushner's Mark 3 Orchestra, a band that incorporated electronic organ, as well as influences from Israeli pop.

But for most American Jews during that period, between assimilation here, the Holocaust in Europe, and the founding of the State of Israel, Jewish identity changed direction radically. Klezmer didn't just stay static, it nearly disappeared.

Notably, two outsider songs were incorporated into the traditional Jewish wedding repertoire during this period. One was "Hava Nagila," from Israel--the Israeli hora is a newly-created dance with no particular connection to the Romania hora. The other is the rise of "Miserlou[22]," a dance that was adapted from traditional Greek dances in 1945 and has since become a vital, "core" part of American Jewish wedding dancing.

For most Jews growing up "American" in the 1950s and 1960s, that music was passé, and represented an old-fashioned, stale idea of Jewish culture. For many, Israel and young Jew's perception of Israeli culture were the new paradigms of Jewish identity. In synagogue and in Hebrew School, and certainly throughout mainstream Jewish culture, even religion sometimes seemed to have been replaced by the relief afforded by the establishment of Israel. Some went so far as to consider the Holocaust, the murder of 6 million Jews, plus equally significant portions of the Rom, homosexuals, political dissidents, the disabled, and other non-Aryan populations, during WWII, as the price Jews paid for the miracle of Israel.

Even while the Jewish Eastern European experience was being thoroughly assimilated into America in "Fiddler on the Roof" (1964), and while Theo Bikel, now much identified with Yiddish folk music was singing folk songs from around the world, including in his first album, folk songs of Israel, other currents were flowing[23].

The "Klezmer Revival" and the invention of "Klezmer Music"

At the time of his bar mitzvah, Henry Sapoznik wanted nothing more than a rock 'n' roll band. His parents insisted on klezmer. He was mortified. Then, years later, he was studying traditional Appalachian music with Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham in North Carolina. The subject of Jews came up. Eventually, one of the musicians asked:

"Hank, don't your people got none of your own music?"

Until this moment I hadn't thought about it quite that way. Well, of course we had our own music: the khazones I sang with my father when I was a kid; the zmires we sang in yeshiva or at one of the Lubavitcher rebbe's tishn; the numerous melodies sung with gusto during Passover. There was the popular Israeli music, which I deeply loathed, and of course the music I remembered from my many years at the Catskills hotels and from my Bar Mitzvah. But where were the Jewish Tommys and Freds? Where was my traditional music? I didn't know, but I meant to find out. (Sapoznick 181)

Sapoznick wasn't alone. By the early 1970s musicians around the country were exploring traditional Jewish music. Klezmer, as gleaned from dusty, scratchy 78s, caught their imaginations. The first klezmer revival band, "The Klezmorim" claimed the formerly-derogatory term for the musicians as their own. Yet, on their first album, the music was "authentic Yiddish music".

Naming the music after the musicians who played it is generally credited to pioneering Russian Jewish ethnomusicologist Moshe Beregovski. In his 1937 article, "Jewish Instrumental Folk Music," he first differentiated the music as "Jewish instrumental (klezmer) music." Everyone with whom I have spoken agrees that it was Zev Feldman who introduced the term to the American audience[24]:

As far as I can see the history of the usage goes from Beregovski's Yiddish (klezmerishe muzik), to Stutchevsky's Hebrew (muzika klezmerit) to my English "klezmer music". I am not aware of anyone using the term in English before me, although it is possible that someone who knew Hebrew and knew the Israeli ethnomusicologists might have adopted it as a translation from Hebrew. Yakov Mazor and Andre Haidu use the term now in Hebrew, but when they wrote their articles in the 1970s they spoke only of the "Meron tunes," as muzika klezmerit did not have much currency in Israel. Giora Feidman avoided it completely. I have checked this with Martin Schwartz and Mark Slobin, who did not use the term independently. I note that the first Klezmorim album does not have the term, while the second uses it once, but not in the title. So between 1976 and 1978 they appeared to have learned it, although I don't think they quite knew what it meant. I met them in Berkeley in 1976, and I was using it then, as several people can testify.

...[B]y putting a name to the repertoire and style, the whole issue of Yiddish instrumental music could be reified, and hence dealt with more easily as a separate entity in the world.

And that's the point. As Sapoznik noted in his story, there were now several competing Jewish musics, nor was klezmer music necessarily the music played at Jewish weddings, unless one wishes to extend the definition of "klezmer" to include "Stairway to Heaven" or other American pop and jazz songs. The publication, in 1980, of an album by Feldman and Andy Statman was to prove among the most influential of the early recordings. But the album's title, "Jewish Klezmer Music[25]," was to prove even more influential.

For most revivalists, it was the music that was exciting. It also formed a connection to the Yiddish culture that their parents or grandparents had experienced. Frank London writes of that heady period:

There seemed to be an unquenchable thirst for Yiddish music, as if it could fill the void created when American Jews divested themselves of their ethnicity in order to assimilate into the mass culture. Much of our work was playing weddings for young Jews who, in the wake of Roots and the rise of identity politics, were seeking to redefine their own cultural and religious heritage. They were alienated aesthetically and politically from an American-Jewish tradition that seemed overly schmaltzy, dominated by Israeli culture and ideas, and unrelated to the rest of their lives. This "klezmer music" played by people to whom they could relate, perfectly fit the bill. (London 41)

Alicia Svigals (1998:44), the leading fiddler of the revival, articulates an American-Jewish culture that speaks to me, personally. She discusses three paths taken by Jews who have rejected the assimilationism of the second generation, and also reject an Israel-centered alternative. She specifically speaks of two paths that are important to "Jews who identify with the progressive left," and who are looking for a way of being Jewish that is still them, possessing "feminist, gay-positive, and other new-left values.[26]" One path is a new age Judaism, which seeks to preserve much of traditional Jewish religious culture, but often seems to be lacking in "Yiddishkeit," meaning both the specific European Jewish culture, but also, more generally, lacking a feel for earlier Jewish culture, period. Yiddishists, on the other hand, discard religious observance, but seek to preserve and to renew Eastern European Yiddish culture, language, and music. There is a third group that is more fundamentalist and focuses on traditional Jewish Eastern European culture--it is the Jewish "born again" movement (in Jewish terms, khozrei tshuva, people who are "returning to the answer").

To Svigals, it is the secularists for have been most involved in the klezmer revival, and they are responsible not only for "KlezKamp" (an annual weeklong retreat focusing on Yiddish culture and on klezmer music) and similar gatherings, and have been responsible for the growth of the National Yiddish Book Center, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research's summer Yiddish course, and numerous other Yiddish-related phenomena. Svigals also talks about being on the edge by choosing Yiddish culture in this time and place, of being part of a politically progressive minority, and of feeling commonality between the Yiddish and klezmer revival communities, and the gay and lesbian Jewish community.

One of the most interesting new developments in the Yiddishist movement and the klezmer revival is a move towards a kind of twenty-something, in-your-face radicalism, which carries the banner of Yiddish culture as a symbol of unapologetic Jewish pride a la "Queer Nation." (1998:48)

This also seems to imply that the klezmer "tradition" is as much construct as tradition. Christina Baade, herself a non-Jew who plays in a klezmer band, writes: "Revivalists are inventing klezmer history, klezmer authenticity, and even a new notion of Jewish identity linked to the performance of this art form." (Baade: 208)

Use of "Klezmer" in the 1990s

Today, virtually every Jewish community boasts at least a klezmer band or few who play Jewish weddings in the style first described by the revivalists of the 1970s and 1980s. The tradition has been further deepened by years of research, and especially by transmission at KlezKamp, KlezKanada, and similar gatherings.

For people who rejoice in this music, the revival was successful. It's over. The patient is healthy again[27]. Still, the modern Jewish wedding band would not be confused with those of 100 years ago. Not only do we have the songs that were added in the 1950s, but current bands do continue to include Israeli folk tunes, as well as popular standards ranging from "Stairway to Heaven" to Andy Statman's haunting "Flatbush Waltz." Songs from Yiddish theatre repertoire are also quite popular, as are some Yiddish folk songs, and a growing repertoire from other world Jewish communities.

The edge is elsewhere, now. The term, "klezmer music," first used on an American recording only 20 years ago to clarify a specific Jewish instrumental style, has become quite generalized. It has come to stand in for "Jewish" in ways that introduce their own edges. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett quotes Frank London as noting: "For many years, many of the klezmer bands hid behind the word 'klezmer' as a way of avoiding the 'Jewish' word." (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 1998-1: 55). London, himself, writes:

[C]ollege-age people ... are as familiar with Yiddish music and culture as I am with the rock and roll and hippiedom of my youth. They feel comfortable radically reinterpreting their identity: writers create queer Jewish 'zines and thrash bands deconstruct holiday songs. I worked with a writer whose poetry used the word "klezmer" as a metaphor, a symbol as rich and intoxicating as "jazz" was for the beats. Yiddish culture has become one very strong, visible component of our postfeminist, postmodern artistic/musical/cultural/political environment.

I would go further. Starting in the late 1990s, I began noticing descriptions of bands that had "klezmer" influences, along with their rap, funk, rock, and whatever influences. Upon listening, I would realize that "klezmer" had come to stand in for any Jewish music. To many, it appears that "klezmer" does provide a comfortable way of saying "Jewish," but sometimes it appears to be confusion, or the common desire to associated new sounds with the familiar.

For example, one label insisted upon: "Davka redefines klezmer with a fascinating synthesis of Middle Eastern, Western Classical and Jazz influences." (I should note in Davka's defense, that, they do record the occasional klezmer tune, and at least one member also plays in a local klezmer band. But, as the band members agree, Davka is not a klezmer band to anyone but their former label.)

I think that part of what has happened is that most people in the United States no longer live in a single culture. To call someone "Jewish" or "American", or both, is only to scratch at a very vague cultural description of the many puzzle pieces that make up an individual in our society. Most of us are far closer to, say, "Jewish, American skateboarding, hip-hopping, environmental studies students from Connecticut who never miss an episode of 'The Simpsons'." Use of the term "Jewish" isn't just too general, but also too inclusive. It implies far more community knowledge and heritage that exist for many people, and far more cultural specificity (even moreso when one considers the many different Jewish cultures represented in the United States) than a person might want. That, coupled in many cases with ignorance of the traditional Jewish culture to begin with, makes "klezmer" a much, much better term. It implies "Jewish", but it also specifies a very distinct Jewish trope: that which has to do with music. Problematically, it doesn't necessarily specify klezmer music in such cases.

The quest for identity continues, sometimes in terms that are familiar with the issues I first experienced and wrote about fifteen years ago when I began writing about klezmer music. The main difference, I think, is that increasingly, parts of identity are defined by consumer items. As the NY Times reported in 1997[28], "Jews in their twenties are flocking to Yiddish-language classes and buying klezmer CD's at the city's trendiest record stores. They are searching for usable alternatives to religious orthodoxy and Zionism as the center of Jewish identity."

But, neither do all of those constructing bits and pieces of identity discover klezmer. Posting to the Jewish-music mailing list[29], author Seth Rogovoy noted that in the liner notes of a recent jazz album desribed a piece "dedicated to Yiddish-American clarinetist/composer Dave Tarras, who, on moving to America in 1921, pioneered an entirely new genre of music." Rogovoy noted that the musician avoided the word "klezmer" (something, admittedly, that Tarras, himself, might have done). One of the list regulars responded that the word "Jewish" had also been omitted.


As we have seen, the term "klezmer music" provides a fascinating look at one community's culture, as it changed over 100 years. When we consider traditional Jewish culture in Eastern Europe as late as the nineteenth century, there are klezmorim, Jewish musicians, the lowest of people to fulfil that occupation, but the music itself has no label and needs none. By the time Jews arrive in the United States, the music can be described as "Jewish music," and the musicians still know that a certain repertoire is relevant for Jewish weddings and cultural celebrations. As the Jews who arrived from Eastern Europe prior to WWII assimilated, the music changed, and served as much to mark nostalgia, and to mark the community's successful integration into American society.

Then the music was rediscovered, and became not only a revival, but an important cultural component of an attempt to redefine what it meant to be Jewish. Indeed, it is most appropriate that the term, "klezmer," first applied to Jewish instrumental folk music in 1937 by the first Jewish ethnomusicologist to transcribe it, Moshe Beregovski, should be adopted by the revivalists as the term to describe the music they were reviving.

Over time, however, the term has become generalized, both to describe any Jewish music, and as a symbol of "Jewish." I do not believe that the term is used to hide from Jewish identity. Rather, I believe that it is used because modern identify is constructed of so many pieces. Putting together such a puzzle, "klezmer" substitutes not for Jewish, but rather, it states, "klezmer music is the part of Jewish culture that describes how I primarily relate to 'Jewish'". And, as such, this use of klezmer typifies new constructs of identity, as experienced in the first part of the 21st century.

There are also some happy endings. The formerly despised "klezmer" is now a respected musician, and klezmer music has become an object of scholarly study.

As for the edges of Jewish music? For that, I listen to recordings often primarily from the "Radical Jewish Culture" scene in New York. That music is seldom klezmer, and seldom commercial music. But that's where the edges are. For me, the fact that Jewish avant garde music can incorporate so many Jewish-derived traditions (along with the rest of the world) is an exciting part of the essential, never-end grappling with Jewish identity. Identity, like klezmer music, is an area where change is traditional.


Alpert, Michael. 1999. "Interview with Bessarabian Klezmer, German Goldenstyn," at KlezKanada, August 1999, as transcribed from my notes at the time, on the web at (last modified 10 Mar 2000).

Baade, Christina L. 1998. "Jewzak and Heavy Shtetl: Constructing Ethnic Identity and Asserting Authenticity in the New-Klezmer Movement," in Monatshefte, Vol. 90, No. 2, 1998.

Feldman, Walter Zev. 1994. "Bulgareasca/Bulgarish/Bulgar: The Transformation of a Klezmer Dance Genre" in Ethnomusicology, V. 38, No. 1, Winter 1994

Feldman, Walter Zev. 2000. "Music of the European Klezmer," liner notes for Khevrisa/European Klezmer Music (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Folkways)

Horowitz, Joshua. 2000. Liner notes for Budowitz/Wedding without a Bride (Paris: Buda Musique)

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. 1998-I "Sounds of Sensibility," " in Judaism, No. 185, V. 47, No. 1, Winter 1998.

_____. 1998-II. Destination Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Loeffler, James. 1997. A Gilgul fun a Nign: Jewish Musicians in New York, 1881-1945. BA Graduate Dissertation. Harvard Judaica Collection Student Research Papers No. 3

Loeffler, James. 1998. "Di Rusishe Progresiv Muzikal Yunyon No. 1 fun Amerike: The First Klezmer Union in America" in Judaism, No. 185, V. 47, No. 1, Winter 1998.

London, Frank. 1998. "An Insider's View: How We Traveled from Obscurity to the Klezmer Establishment in Twenty Years" in Judaism, No. 185, V. 47, No. 1, Winter 1998.

Netsky, Hankus. 1998. "An Overview of Klezmer Music and its Development in the U.S." in Judaism, No. 185, V. 47, No. 1, Winter 1998.

Rogovoy, Seth, 2000. The Essential Klezmer. (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books).

Sapoznik, Henry. 2000. Klezmer: Jewish Music from Old World to Our World. New York: Schirmer Books.

Slobin, Mark. 1982 Old Jewish Folk Music: The Collections and Writings of Moshe Beregovski. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. (Recently reprinted, apparently from the same plates, different cover: Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000)

Slobin, Mark. 1998. "Scanning a Subculture: Introduction to Klezmerology," ." in Judaism, No. 185, V. 47, No. 1, Winter 1998.

Slobin, Mark. 2000. Fiddler on the Move: Exploring the Klezmer World. New York: Oxford University Press.,

Wollock, Jeffrey. 1997 "European Recordings of Jewish Instrumental Folk Music, 1911 – 1914" in ARSC Journal, Vol. 28, No. 1, Spring 1997.

Zaagsma, Gerben. 1998 "The Klezmorim of Prague" in Groniek. Historisch Tijdschrift 143/32 (December 1998) 223-230. English available via the web only, at

[1] I am not convinced that the consumerism that causes most people to choose to be cultural clones necessarily contradicts this idea. Rather, I'd say that the idea that our culture is not something received; that it is substantially different from that of our parents, and even more remote from that of our grandparents, is most telling. This difference lies not just in the changes represented by the telegraph or the internet or antibiotics, but rather in the idea that our personal cultures contain fragments from dozens or hundreds of societies--many invented recently as marketing constructs (think "Pokemon")--from around the world. [return]

[2] Per lectures at the Third Annual Jewish Music Conference in London, June 2000, One of the early shibboleths of Jewish Music studies was the insistence that Jewish Cantorial Music is derived from music of the Temple. See, for instance, the work of A. Z. Idelsohn. [return]

[3] Forward: September 22, 2000, Column: "On Language" by Philologos, "They made it out of "K'ley". [return]

[4] Krakowski, Wolf, "Re: Klezmer status," message to the Jewish-Music mailing list, 30 Oct 2000. [return]

[5] Late July 1996, San Francisco, at a reception for the American premiere of a movie about the Epstein Brothers band, "A Tickle in the Heart." [return]

[6] I don't have a comfortable term for that large part of the American Jewish community that considers itself both American and Jewish, ranging from highly traditional ("Orthodox") to secular; from Zionist to assimilated; vs. the very different communities of haredim (ultra-Orthodox, Hasidim) who, sociologically, are still very much more tied to the times and places their communities originated. Just as haredim do not participate in most American public life, nor American Jewish public life, so they are not part of this paper. Neither can they be said to be "searching for Jewish identity". Theirs is, they feel, very much as it has been since Mt. Sinai. It is neither mutable, nor in need of mutation. Indeed, most haredim would consider the term "American" of legal relevance only; of no social or cultural relevance whatsoever. They are "Jewish." [return]

[7] It is entirely possible that new recordings have been unearthed in recent years, though. [return]

[8] And here I believe that he is using the term "klezmorim" to refer to all musicians, and is not making the class distinctions, described by several terms which indicate the musician's status, as discussed by Josh Horowitz, in the following paragraphs. [return]

[9] This work is used in Sapoznik (2000: 1 - 5). [return]

[10] Beregovski (In Slobin 1982:24) notes: "At the 'exile' of the Jews from the 'Holy Land,' the fragments of the Jewish people carried 'Jewish music' with them into the lands of exile. The task of Idelsohn and other bourgeois nationalist researchers is to find the true, authentic, ancient Jewish music preserved since biblical times and to renew it and establish it in our days." Idelsohn is regarded as the founding father of modern Jewish studies, despite Beregovski's disparagement. [return]

[11] There were also Jewish guilds in some? many? large cities--it has been the subject of considerable debate--competing with Christian musicians for gigs. See, for instance, Zaagsma, 1998 writing about Prague, or Loeffler 1997, 1998 writing about the first Klezmer Union in New York. [return]

[12] E-mail to the author, 4 Jun 1999. [return

[13] See for a summary of a 1999 interview with Goldenstyn by Michael Alpert. [return]

[14] In Yiddish, "Galitzeeyaners"; not to be confused with those from the Spanish area of Galicia, where Jews remained unwelcome from 1492 until Franco began turning a blind eye to refugees from Europe in the late 1930s. [return]

[15] Joseph Perles, "Jewish Marriage in Post-Biblical Times: A Study in Archeology," in Hebrew Characteristics: Miscellaneous Papers from the German (New York: American Jewish Publication Society, 1875), 68. Essay first published in 1860. Cited in Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998-1:161. [return]

[16] In Cahan's books, immigrants quickly shed their religious and cultural ways. See, for instance, his novelette, The Imported Bridgegroom. Although a strong public proponent of cultural assimilation, his fiction makes it clear that he felt considerable ambivalence. [return]

[17] Ashkenazic: relating to Eastern and Central European Jewish culture, from the Hebrew and Yiddish term for Germany, "Ashkenaz", from which many Jews migrated East during the persecutions of the Crusades. [return]

[18] See, for instance, the liner notes to recent albums by Budowitz and Khevrisa (2000) [return]

[19] So, while it is not clear to me that, what type of dancing attracted her when Emma Goldman complained that "if I can't dance I don't want your revolution," it is clear that if she was referring to klezmer music, she likely wanted to dance the Bulgar. I am also the source of the deliberate mis-quote, "If I can't dance klezmer, I don't want your revolution," which was part of the original KlezmerShack website in 1995, 1996. The mis-quote has spread. [return]

[20] Although not germane to this paper, it should be noted that New York's Second Avenue was home to a flourishing, vibrant Yiddish Theatre until the mid-twentieth century; songs from that theatre are considered part of the essential repertoire of many current "klezmer" bands. [return]

[21] Recognition by the Jewish community that there were other Jewish languages, or Jewish culture other than that of Eastern and Central Europe was not common during this period. As late as the 1970s, Golda Meir, then prime minister of Israel, a country where the war between Hebrew and Yiddish had been vicious, with Hebrew victorious, could, nonetheless say, "A Jew who doesn't speak Yiddish isn't really a Jew." [return]

[22] The story of the dance, "Miserlou," is available on the web at [return]

[23] Bob Dylan, spoofing the Jewish folk satire movement, singing "Hava Nagila" to the tune of "Mockingbird" could be said to symbolize the rejection of the older Jewish culture by a new generation of Jews (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 1998-2 68), just as he also symbolized the new folk traditions that, a decade later, helped fuel a search for "authentic" Jewish folk traditions. [return]

[24] Feldman, Walter Zev, private e-mail to the author, 8 Jan 2001. [return]

[25] I should note, as an aside, that today, as Kirshenblatt-Gimblett notes in 1998-I, this label is often shortened to "klezmer" or "klez." In a conversation at KlezKanada in 1999, Michael Alpert, himself among the most influential and talented of the revivalists told me his version of Feldman's story, and then confided to the effect, that, he couldn't stand leaving off the word "music." That was nothing compared to the special disdain he felt towards people who used the term "klez." The KlezmerShack no longer uses the term, "klez"! [return]

[26] This is also noted by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, who writes: "While stringent orthodoxy is one outcome of the tension between tradition and ideology, the klezmer revival is another." (1998-2: 50) [return]

[27] I'm fond of writing these words in review after review of recordings of well-played, now thoroughly familiar and predictable music, myself. [return]

[28] cited in Rogovoy, p. 7. [return]

[29] Rogovoy, Seth, "tribute to Dave Tarras by Dave Douglas", e-mail to the Jewish-Music mailing list, 24 Oct, 2000; to which a response was made by Itzik Gottesman on the same date. [return]

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