Popular Klezmer: Pushing the Envelope

With klezmer's popularity on the rise, artists have taken it in new--and sometimes "controversial"--directions.

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Crazy Freilach,

Performed by Kol Simcha


Oy Tate,

Performed by Naftule's Dream


Extrapolate Backwards,

Performed by Kaila Flexer

Links courtesy The Klezmer Shack.


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Klezmer scholar Henry Sapoznik has described the Klezmatics as "the group most responsible for creating a bridge between traditional forms and contemporary esthetics," combining the diverse musical backgrounds of the band's members (jazz, rock, bluegrass, and rap) with the traditional sounds and instrumentation of the historic klezmer repertory.

Others have perceived klezmer as an all-purpose catchall, able and willing to incorporate as many musical innovations as their creativity can conceive. A 1995 exploration of the klezmer phenomenon by Joel Lewis described a haughty "in-your-face" style of ostensibly Jewish music that believed itself to be a legitimate inheritor of the klezmer tradition but that has troubled even the most open-minded fans of contemporary klezmer. Henry Sapoznik registered his concerns, noting that some musicians who claim to be playing klezmer are actually "obscuring the difference between Jewish music and music played by Jews."

In a series of recordings on his new label, Tzadik, John Zorn's Masada has drawn on his backgrounds in soul, jazz, and even classical music. Concerts at New York's Knitting Factory, an avant-garde performance venue, have featured the saxophone-playing Zorn and other performers in so-called "Radical Jewish Music Festivals." The titles of the songs are in Hebrew and the performers themselves often appear with dangling tzitzit [the fringed-garments observant Jews wear under their shirts]; but the "Jewish" pedigree of their music is called into serious question by traditionalists who prefer to find a sense of musical continuity in music that purports to represent Jewish culture.

Pushing the Envelope Without Ripping Its Seams

But if some styles and would-be stylists of Jewish music have appeared to go too far in claiming a relationship between their art and Jewish tradition, others have found a way to push the envelope without ripping its seams. Mirroring the higher profile of spirituality in modern society (Jewish and non-Jewish) and the frequent return to Jewish tradition by successful entrepreneurs whose previous association with Jewish life was tangential at best, Jewish musicians from all backgrounds have returned to try to reclaim their Jewish musical roots.

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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.