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American Klezmer

Its Roots and Offshoots

Mark Slobin

Publication Year: 2002

Klezmer, the Yiddish word for a folk instrumental musician, has come to mean a person, a style, and a scene. This musical subculture came to the United States with the late-nineteenth-century Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Although it had declined in popularity by the middle of the twentieth century, this lively music is now enjoying recognition among music fans of all stripes. Today, klezmer flourishes in the United States and abroad in the world music and accompany Jewish celebrations. The outstanding essays collected in this volume investigate American klezmer: its roots, its evolution, and its spirited revitalization.

The contributors to American Klezmer include every kind of authority on the subject--from academics to leading musicians--and they offer a wide range of perspectives on the musical, social, and cultural history of klezmer in American life. The first half of this volume concentrates on the early history of klezmer, using folkloric sources, records of early musicians unions, and interviews with the last of the immigrant musicians. The second part of the collection examines the klezmer "revival" that began in the 1970s. Several of these essays were written by the leaders of this movement, or draw on interviews with them, and give firsthand accounts of how klezmer is transmitted and how its practitioners maintain a balance between preservation and innovation.

Published by: University of California Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-viii

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pp. 1-8

What we now routinely call klezmer in the United States—“Do you play klezmer?” “There’s a new klezmer album out”—is a truly American construct in three ways: the word sidesteps aesthetic and political issues, it standardizes a music system as a brand name, and it overrides history in the cause of contemporary coherence. ...

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Part One: Roots

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pp. 9-12

One definition for roots in the Oxford English Dictionary is surprisingly apt for klezmer: “the permanent underground stock of a plant from which the stems or leaves are periodically produced.” ...

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1. American Klezmer: A Brief History

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pp. 13-23

The term klezmer (or in Hebrew, kle zemer, “vessels of song”) has had many incarnations over the years, having been variously used to designate biblical-era Temple musicians, medieval minstrels, and eastern European virtuosi. It was in twentieth-century America, however, that klezmer underwent its most radical transformation, ...

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2. Klezmer-loshn: The Language of Jewish Folk Musicians

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pp. 24-34

In 1888, Sholem Aleichem published Stempenyu, a novel about a Berdichev violinist of the same name.1 In chapter 3, Stempenyu and his klezmer kapelye arrive at a wedding, where he notices an attractive young woman. The following conversation ensues (in Joachim Neugroschel’s translation): ...

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3. Di Rusishe Progresiv Muzikal Yunyon No. 1 fun Amerike: The First Klezmer Union in America

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pp. 35-51

In his 1902 play, The Kreutzer Sonata, Yiddish playwright Jacob Gordin presents an intriguing scenario: two klezmorim, Efroym Fidler and son Gregor, emigrate to New York. The son goes on to become a successful classical musician and teacher, while the father struggles to make a living from music and complains bitterly of restrictions on his craft: ...

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4. The Klezmer in Jewish Philadelphia, 1915–70

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pp. 52-72

In the recently emerging literature on klezmer culture and history, little documentation of the background and repertoire of Jewish dance musicians in “provincial” American communities has been produced. Several major factors have contributed to this neglect: the paucity of studies focusing on Jewish communities outside of New York ...

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5. “All My Life a Musician”: Ben Bazyler, a European Klezmer in America

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pp. 73-83

The klezmer tradition suffered major discontinuity after World War II, owing to the near destruction of eastern European Jewry in the Holocaust and to the changes wrought by assimilation and acculturation on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as to the increasing importance of Israeli culture in shaping Jewish cultural identity worldwide. ...

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6. Bulgărească/Bulgarish/Bulgar: The Transformation of a Klezmer Dance Genre

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pp. 84-124

Like Jews in many parts of the world, the Jews of eastern Europe had families whose hereditary occupation was the performance of music. However, unlike any Jewish group that has been documented in the twentieth century, the hereditary Jewish musicians of eastern Europe, called klezmorim (singular, klezmer) ...

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Part Two: Offshoots

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pp. 125-128

One definition in the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary tells us that offshoot once meant “anything conceived of as springing or proceeding from a main stock.” ...

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7. Sounds of Sensibility

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pp. 129-173

Today’s klezmer scene, while it affirms a degree of musical continuity with the past, is in fact the result of an experience of rupture. Reviewing The Klezmorim’s first album, East Side Wedding, which appeared in 1977, Nat Hentoff commented, “For years now, I had thought the klezmorim to be nearly extinct. ...

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8. KlezKamp and the Rise of Yiddish Cultural Literacy

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pp. 174-186

At the outset of the klezmer renewal in 1976, an arm of the American Jewish Congress, called the Martin Steinberg Center, received a federal grant under President Carter’s CETA program to fund the study of Jewish culture. As musicians, filmmakers, writers, poets, painters, puppeteers, and playwrights made their way to the old carriage house ...

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9. Newish, Not Jewish: A Tale of Two Bands

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pp. 187-205

Following a successful tour in Germany, Brave Old World accordionist and musical director Alan Bern returned home to find the following e-mail message regarding the band’s upcoming concert at a Toronto synagogue. ..

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10. An Insider’s View: How We Traveled from Obscurity to the Klezmer Establishment in Twenty Years

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pp. 206-210

I first became actively aware of Jewish music around 1970. Majoring in African American trumpet at the New England Conservatory of Music, I was part of a larger scene loosely centered around Ran Blake’s Third Stream Music Department. We studied a mixture of classical and jazz, as well as lots of other stuff— ...

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11. Why We Do This Anyway: Klezmer as Jewish Youth Subculture

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pp. 211-220

In this chapter, I expand on some of the points Frank London has made, in his overview of the revival, regarding the variety of motivations for “reviving” klezmer among performers and audiences. I also offer my own understanding of why we’re doing this to begin with. ...


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pp. 221-232


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pp. 233-234


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pp. 235-245

Production Notes

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p. 255-255

E-ISBN-13: 9780520935655
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520227170

Page Count: 252
Publication Year: 2002