Klezmer America: Jewishness, Ethnicity, Modernity

By Slobin, Mark | Shofar, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Klezmer America: Jewishness, Ethnicity, Modernity


Slobin, Mark, Shofar


Klezmer America: Jewishness, Ethnicity, Modernity, by Jonathan Friedman. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. 408 pp. $34.50.

As a klezmerologist, I was initially delighted to see a distinguished literary scholar turn to "klezmer" as the title-worthy metaphor for a wide-ranging study of Jewish-American modernity and its impact on contemporary culture. But the more I turned the pages, the slighter the payoff. Briefly put, the book is a loose-jointed collection of essays, mainly based in literary studies, that struggles to deliver on the literally jazzy title. By the eleven-page Conclusion, which uses the word "klezmer" once, despite being titled "the klezmering of America," I began to wonder whether the author thought that an umbrella term might substitute for a tight trajectory.

It's hard to blame him. In my book on klezmer, I began with the figure of the expanding mushroom, taken from a children's story, which grows to accommodate all the forest animals seeking shelter. I compared the tale to the surprising way that the Yiddish word klezmer-professional instrumentalist-had spread by the 1990s to cover a wide variety of music, social, and personal pathways. So it's not surprising that the process plays on, but perhaps it also plays out. Freedman profiles scattered aspects of the musical history and current scene routinely referred to as "klezmer," but cannot reaUy foUow through when expanding to topics as diverse as Arthur Miller's marriage to Marilyn Monroe, Asian- and Latino-American novels, or the agonized fauxwhite hero of Philip Roth's The Human Stain. Freedman seems to know this, as he constantly undercuts his own narrative with qualifications, backpedaling and postponement of the punchline. To quote just a couple of examples, "to note these paraUels is not to stress the inevitability of the comparison" (p. 279), or " I should begin by saying that my real discomfort with the Jews-aswhite-folks argument lies not so much with the argument per se" (p. 29).

This ambivalence runs deep in Freedman's deployment of klezmer as a metaphor. Brandishing the surprising adjective "klezmerical," the peroration for the lengthy Introduction argues on behalf of the enduring and endearing Jewish talent for engaging in "a syncretic, hybridizing engagement" with American culture (p. 38). This is meant to serve as counterweight to what he sees as an alarming trend towards essentialism. But just a few pages earlier, he touts "klezmer revivalists and post-klezmer Radical Jewish Culture makers" as the ones who have "created new configurations from categories (black/white, Jewish/gentile, Western/Eastern) that have long seemed perdurable, fixed" (p. …

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