Klezmer Music

Klezmer music finds new life in America in the late 1900s.

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Excerpted with permission from Discovering Jewish Music (Jewish Publication Society).

 Among the most exciting “new” developments in modern Jewish music has been the late 20th-century rediscovery of klezmer, folk music of the itinerant European Jewish musicians that traveled with them on their journey to the New World. As with Yiddish theater and other aspects of Ashkenazic culture dependent upon links to the “old country,” klezmer’s popularity faded with the cessation of massive immigration from Eastern Europe and the increasing socialization–and assimilation–of America’s Jews.

By the late 1960s, klezmer had become a distant memory, a relic of another era, stored on 78 RPM recordings in attics and basements of Jewish homes but replaced at weddings and other communal functions by the music of Israel and popular American repertoire. The children of the aging klezmorim [klezmer musicians] turned to American dance bands, classical music or, ironically, the folk repertory of America’s other ethnic communities. Young Jews flocked to Irish music, jazz, and American folk song.

Simple Question Leads to Klezmer Revival

But in 1973, while exploring the string band music of Appalachia, Henry Sapoznik was asked whether Jews had their own music. With this simple question, this son of a European-born cantor, a deliberate refugee from the Jewish music of his Lubavitch yeshivah [school] and the Catskill hotels where his family spent Passover vacations, now turned back to his own traditions. Beginning with a cache of old records at New York’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Sapoznik unearthed the vestiges of European klezmer music, already reinterpreted and transformed by American recording technology.

Sapoznik’s enthusiasm for his own music, which he saw now with different eyes, led him to additional research into klezmer music, funded by U.S. government grants. He met elderly Jews who had played in the klezmer ensembles of the 1920s and on some of the first klezmer recordings by companies like Columbia and RCA Victor. By 1979, Sapoznik had formed Kapelye to play a concert in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1981 the group, enhanced by clarinetist Andy Statman, Sapoznik’s own cantor father, and others, formed Der Yiddisher Caravan, a national touring show that performed cantorial selections, Yiddish theater songs, and klezmer music in concert venues across the United States. Coincidentally, others had also begun to delve into klezmer music.

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Marsha Bryan Edelman is professor of music and education at Gratz College. She also serves as director of the Tyson Music Department and coordinates the college's academic programs in Jewish music.

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