International Jewish Music

Jews have wandered the world over, and sometimes all that wandering gets packed into one song.

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By Ofra Haza

Links courtesy Putamayo World Music

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One thing that seems to unite these contemporary performers is their willingness to reinterpret ignored, under-appreciated, or forgotten music. That's how Klezmer music, what grandparents used to listen to, has experienced a huge revival worldwide, especially in unexpected places. These days, in New Orleans, twenty-something bar-hoppers rock to the New Orleans Klezmer Allstars, who manage to make wedding music sound funky. The band was called "genre-crossing" and "nutty" by Billboard, and the Village Voice labeled them "easily the funniest and wildest of the new wave." Meanwhile, "KlezFests," which attract hundreds of eager Klezmer fans, are held regularly in St. Petersburg and London.

The Jewish Music WebCenter, at, maintains a list of upcoming world Jewish music events, and for devoted Klezmer fans, has an online sound archive dating back to 1915, which is a treasure trove.

Klezmer isn't the only genre that's benefiting from a new image. Mizrachi music, which was once called "bus station music" because you bought tapes of it at the sketchy old bus station in Tel Aviv, is now mainstream radio fare and slowly moving upscale. In America, where fans gleefully stock up on Mizrachi CDs, the organization Ivri-Nasawi promotes Mizrachi music and literature at, and the group has branches in NY, LA, and San Francisco.

A CD of Jewish World Music

A good introduction to the wide world of Jewish music is "A Jewish Odyssey," a release from Putumayo World Music. The CD includes music from Chile, Brazil, Turkey, and Italy, along with Israel, America, and Canada, and it has plenty of useful artist information. "Odyssey" starts off with a haunting Yiddish melody sung by Israeli legend Chava Alberstein, called "Di Goldene Pave," or the golden peacock. The lyrics are actually a Yiddish poem written by Anna Margolin, a Russian-born radical who moved to America around the turn of the century, and her words set the stage for the CD's globetrotting. Next, there's "Rad Halaila," about the strength of the night, from the British band. It's based on a traditional Hasidic melody that might be familiar if you're a frequent wedding or bar-mitzvah attendee.

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Aviya Kushner

Aviya Kushner is a Lecturer of Creative Writing at Columbia College of Chicago. She is the author of And There Was Evening, And There Was Morning.