Scanning a Subculture: Introduction to Klezmerology

Article excerpt

For five days right across christmas, 450 people, from toddlers to seniors, crowd a ramshackle Catskills hotel for Klezkamp, which celebrates its bar mitzvah year in 1997. From morning till the wee hours, these hardy souls take Yiddish culture courses and fill the halls and bedrooms with klezmer master classes and late night jam sessions. There are bands often-year-olds being coached in the dance tunes of past generations. Some two dozen Europeans have flown over to soak up traditions that used to flourish rather closer to their homes than Parksville, New York.

Klezkamp is the very visible tip of a klezmer iceberg. Over the last twenty years, the Jewish, and then the non-Jewish, world has noticed the rapid emergence of klezmer life. From a tentative start aimed at recreating musical texts that had fallen out of favor, young musicians created a "scene" that quickly matured into a sensibility about Jewish music and Jewish history. In the 1990s, the action expanded explosively into new conceptual and geographical territories, creating what I am brashly calling a subculture for want of a better word. In the amorphous, protean world of Jews and Jewophiles, klezmer occupies not just a niche, but a huge, shapeless sector inhabited by everyone from campus bands to Itzhak Perlman, from Berlin neophytes to street-smart Manhattanites. "Klezmer" is at your wedding, on public television, and on festival stages from Cracow to California, with bands cropping up across the Euro-American world broadly considered, including Australia and the Volga city of Samara. Yet there has been no time in this almost feverish expansion to stop for breath, to take stock of where klezmer has been and where it's heading.

In October of 1996, Wesleyan University sponsored the first-ever Klezmer Research Conference, a high-level gathering of performer/researchers and professors, I co-hosted with Hankus Netsky, a foundational figure in the klezmer movement and currently a Ph.D. student at Wesleyan. It was the first time major players-literally and conceptually-in klezmer culture got together for the sole purpose of talking about research and thinking collectively about future directions. For some, the chance to take a break from the rigors of the road and chat with their colleagues was much appreciated. The Editor of Judaism kindly offered to present selected conference papers in the following pages, a sampling of what happened at Wesleyan, preceded by an historical overview by Hankus Netsky.

The papers, given here close to their orally-presented versions, make clear just how wide we can open the umbrella term "klezmer." Robert Rothstein and Jim Loeffler take us on the search for a historic klezmer world. By concentrating on professional musicians' argot and even their New York labor union, these writers make it possible for us to imagine an actual klezmer culture of both Europe and America that flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Joel Rubin's recent research on the context of klezmer tunes in Israel underscores the complexity of a Jewish music culture that is both geographically and conceptually diffuse, with an age-old emphasis on local adaptation. Having come this far, the reader should be ready to appreciate the analysis of today's American klezmer culture by two prime proponents and participants, Frank London and Alicia Svigals, known for their work in a prominent band, The Klezmatics.

Missing from the conference, and hence from our survey here, is a representative or account of the swelling ranks of non-Jewish European klezmer musicians. By all accounts, Berlin is the city where one might have the most concentrated klezmer experience on a given weekend. Australia, Italy, and Sweden would have to be included. And it would be nice to hear the voices of eastern European Jewish musicians who, for a variety of reasons, have been coming to klezmer culture as part of a search for identity and hard currency in post-communist times. …