Klezmer Music

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

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Back to Europe

Kapelye became the first klezmer band to tour Europe, appearing in Britain, France, Switzerland, Belgium, and Germany (playing one of its best-received concerts in a Berlin mansion that had been used as a Gestapo headquarters during the Second World War). Klezmer had returned to its roots, completing a cycle and launching a rebirth whose popularity in Europe continues unabated--though largely among non-Jewish audiences and with newly formed bands including or entirely comprised of non-Jewish players.

Meanwhile, across America, klezmer bands flourished wherever there were Jews: in Chicago and Philadelphia and San Francisco; but also in Boulder, Colorado; Montpelier, Vermont; and New Orleans, Louisiana. Klezmer appealed to a wide cross-section of audiences: gray-haired grandparents who remembered the klezmer bands of their distant youth; their grandchildren for whom Yiddish culture had no special appeal; and the friends of those grandchildren who came from the ethnic communities in whose music the Jewish musicians of the 1960s had once sought refuge, and who now welcomed a reborn tradition into their midst.

Klezmer as an Amalgamation of Cultures

From its inception in Europe, klezmer had always reflected a unique amalgamation of the music of the Jewish community with the music of the surrounding culture. Klezmorimplaying at Jewish celebrations and at non-Jewish festivities alike had contributed to a cross-pollination between Jewish and gentile cultures, enriching both. Like the Hasidic community, which eagerly embraced the potential of any melody to bring greater glory to the Creator, klezmer musicians adapted a wide variety of tunes to serve their purposes. This exchange continued in America, with Jewish musicians borrowing jazz and other styles, and crossing over, adapting Jewish tunes to the diverse marketplace of American cultural ideas. Ziggy Elman (nee Henry Finkleman, 1914-1968) turned the "Odessa Bulgar" into the swing era's "The Angels Sing," while "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen" by Sholom Secunda (1894-1974) was equally successful (on both sides of the Atlantic) as a Yiddish-language favorite and as an American pop success sung by the Andrews Sisters (albeit with English lyrics).

Klezmer music, whether in Europe or in America, at the turn of the 20th century or the 21st or the 18th, has done what Jewish music has done since it was born in the Middle East at the beginning of recorded time: It has adapted the music of the larger, surrounding culture. What it has never done, however, is assimilate completely. Rather, klezmer music in particular, and Jewish music as a whole (as the Jews who created it), consciously and subconsciously borrowed liberally but never sacrificed its Jewish sensibility. Jewish values, the internal rhythms of Jewish languages, the musical motives of the synagogue and the schoolhouse, have all enabled Jewish music to retain a unique cast that separates it from that of the surrounding community.

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Marsha B. Edelman

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.