restricted access 13. Klezmer in the New Germany: History, Identity, and Memory
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302 Chapter 13 Klezmer in the New Germany: History, Identity, and Memory Raysh Weiss The sound of traditional Klezmer music popularly evokes images of sage-­ looking, bearded men in long, dark coats; babushka-­ clad women; decrepit little houses dotting winding, narrow roads; and a host of other iconic trappings of a bygone era in eastern Europe. For many, Marc Chagall’s The Fiddler, perhaps the classic portrait of the klezmor—­ the itinerant Jewish musician—­ seeking spiritual refuge in his instrument, has become the singular nostalgic image of European Klezmer1 and the quaintly exotic and long-­ lost culture with which it is associated. Paradoxically, however, while the culture from which Klezmer sprang has been largely eradicated, leaving only meager nostalgic traces, the music itself lives on, but remarkably, in significant measure, it does so in the hands of people with no historical connection to that culture.2 Some of today’s most ardent proponents of traditional Klezmer music have not only never set foot in the small, exclusively Jewish settlements of eastern Europe, which were referred to by the term “shtetl,” they are not even Jewish. The performance of Klezmer music in postwar Germany offers a fascinating case study of how a certain cultural expression can be relocated, both spatially and temporally, and adopted by new practitioners as a means of engaging with a complicated past to offer a new interpretation of the present. This paper will examine how Klezmer music traveled from the quaint ethnic marketplaces of European Jewry to the political arena of a healing antifascist postwar Germany, and finally made its way to the capitalist global marketplace as a form of world music.3 In attempting to understand this multilayered musical phenomenon, questions of memory, authenticity, and identity will help to structure and define both Klezmer music and those who perform the increasingly elusive genre. Klezmer in the New Germany    303 The very genesis of Klezmer music is difficult, if not impossible, to trace. Due to the overwhelming number of European Klezmer musicians who perished in the Holocaust and the scarcity of both sound recordings and written notation, the material available for analysis is quite limited. Pioneering Soviet Jewish musicologist Moshe Beregovski is responsible for preserving arguably the most important collection of Klezmer music to survive World War II. But Beregovski’s work is, nevertheless, limited in scope, since it dates back only to the nineteenth century and centers on Soviet Jewish music. However, emerging research is gradually offering a new picture of German Klezmer music. MusicologistYale Strom’s findings reveal not only a pre-­ Enlightenment, small-­ town Germany, in which Jewish communities would habitually play Klezmer music at local simkhes (joyous occasions), but also an interesting overlap of Klezmer with the dawn of the Enlightenment.4 For example, in 1690, Rabbi Khayim Yair of Hesse formally forbade those in his community to hire klezmorim for their celebrations. A few years later in Fürth in 1707, Rabbi Elkhanan Kirchen compiled a book of Yiddish songs in which he refers to the Jewish musician as a klezmer.5 In neighboring Prague, we find several references to Klezmer throughout the eighteenth century .6 Geographic reconception—­ specifically a new picture of prewar, pre-­ Enlightenment Klezmer beyond merely the Pale of Settlement—­ already challenges the presiding notion that Klezmer remains trapped in a historically determined glass museum box, never to be touched again. Although Klezmer music seems to have been part of the small-­ town Jewish landscape in the area that would come to be called “Germany” beginning in the latter part of the nineteenth century, Klezmer musicians of that period constantly met with opposition, both externally, on the state level, and also internally, on the communal level. While on the one hand state officials banned the employment of Jewish musicians,7 on the other, Rabbis within the community itself habitually reprimanded community members who engaged in mixed-­ gender dancing and the playing of “frivolous” music, a situation that would, understandably, have discouraged widespread performance of Klezmer music.8 However, the real catalyst for the decline and almost virtual disappearance of German Klezmer music was the European Enlightenment’s overwhelmingly anti-­ shtetl attitude. In post-­ Enlightenment Germany, Jewish communal leaders were hopeful to replace the image of the downtrodden, folksy peasant Jew, humbly eking out a living against the backdrop of dusty merchant wagons and cramped Yeshivot, or study halls (the type of Jew who would stereotypically be associated with the Klezmer music of the shtetl) with the model of a...


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Subject Headings

  • Jews -- Germany -- History.
  • Germany -- Emigration and immigration.
  • Jews, German -- Foreign countries.
  • Jews, German, in literature.
  • Germany -- Civilization -- Jewish influences.
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