Hipster Hasbara: Klezmer Revisited

My father Morris, who turned 91 a couple of weeks ago, has fairly uncontroversial tastes in music.  The one exception is his attitude towards Klezmer, one of the favored styles of recent years.  Morris hates it-and eventually I began to understand why as it became an increasingly familiar part of the musical landscape of the 80s and 90.

Prior to that Klezmer, would be visible to those of us growing up in the 60s and 70s as innocuous Jewish folk songs sung on LPs by Theodore Bikel, Ruth Rubin and Pete Seeger. When it re-emerged in something closer to its raucous original form, it would do so as one wing of the world/ethnic music wave which brought to prominence various forms of West African pop, Bulgarian women’s chorus, and Tuvan throat singing among others. Of these styles, Klezmer was, arguably, first among equals-embraced across the board from conservative to “cutting edge” musical circles, quickly establishing itself and gaining acceptance, like the Jews themselves, in many different corners of the musical world, some quite prestigious.

To give some indication of the variety of niches it inhabited, one the first and best known repertory ensembles, the Klezmer Conservatory Band would be founded in 1980 with the support of the New England Conservatory and its powerful director Gunther Schuller. Several successful groups would spin off from the KCB, most notably the Klezmatics who would establish themselves in the then flourishing “downtown” scene.  Another NEC alumnus Don Byron would champion the music of bandleader Mickey Katz infusing Klezmer into the avant garde jazz scene at a time when relationships between the African American and Jewish communities were becoming increasingly fraught. Another downtown luminary John Zorn, would mine the Klezmer vein through his highly praised ensemble Masada at New York’s Knitting Factory in its heyday.

Klezmer would also establish a presence in traditional “uptown” quarters of the classical music world through new works by a then younger generation of composers. Among the most prominent of these was Oswaldo Golijov whose Klezmer influenced works would become among the most performed concert music works of the last decade. Golijov’s Prayers of Isaac the Blind served as a vehicle for many notable clarinet soloists including Giora Feldman, David Schiffrin and David Krakauer the latter of whom would play a seminal role in the revival through his group Klezmer Madness.(1)   Also drawn to Klezmer was one of the last remaining bona fide classical music celebrities, Itzhak Perlman, who would endorse the genre through his recording “In the Fiddler’s House” accompanied by both the Klezmatics and the Klezmer conservatory band.

Some of this activity was financed by grants and awards from arts agencies and non profit foundations as well as subsidized gigs on university campuses. But Klezmer, unlike many other musical styles, was able to bat from both sides, as it were, functioning equally effectively in the for profit sector of the musical economy as well. A fraction of many musicians’ bread and butter, mine included, was derived from performing with Klezmer bands at weddings and bar mitzvahs, often for Jews “returning to the fold” now eager rather than reticent about celebrating what they took to be their roots.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with any of this: appropriation and cross fertilization is the life blood of music and there is a lot right with being able to make a living performing, whoever pays the bill.

And even if there were something wrong with it, how could anyone object to the kinetic, virtuosic, joyous flurry of notes which is Klezmer?


But Morris, and his generation did object and they had their reasons. For him, the high dudgeon wailing of Klezmer was the music of the shtetl and all that implied, which is to say, rabinically enforced illiteracy, bigotry, intolerance, and misogyny little different from what one would encounter in theocratic hamlets in rural Arkansas, Saudi Arabia or Albania.(2)  It was Klezmer, loud, uncouth, hyperactive, after all, not the subtle urbanity of Mendelssohn or Mahler which would form the basis of stereotypes brandished by those eager to erase from history Jews’ role in the forefront of European cultural ferment.  My father’s family was deeply connected with precisely that which much of the fascist right found most threatening: educated, assimilated, secular Judaism. It was the bearded, skull capped village Shylock which they caricatured in most anti-semitic stereotypes, not chemists, engineers or poets. From my father’s perspective, a definition of Judaism imposed by its oppressors should not be embraced, it should be repudiated and while those who have been victims of shtetl life shouldn’t be looked down on, that doesn’t make their vicitimization any less tragic or their backwardness any more worth celebrating.

My point here is not to defend my father’s attitudes (which I have some ambivalence about) but only to note that they were prevalent among Jews of his generation and background. That their existence needs to be reasserted is due to their having long since been made invisible by rose-colored glasses the donning of which was made inevitable by Hitler.  The profound divisions which characterized my father’s relationship to Judaism have understandably but by no means always defensibly been replaced by the myth of a Jewish national identity which papered over the chasm separating Jews of differing classes and profoundly different outlooks.

The main ideological force behind the attempts to unify Jews under a single national flag was, of course, Zionism, the success of which required that Jews look beyond their extreme and obvious differences seeing themselves primarily if not exclusively with respect to their historical victimization of which the holocaust was one of many albeit the most extreme manifestation. As has been frequently noted, the construction of a national identity was not so easily accomplished.  Unlike other nationalities, Jews were geographically dispersed, did not share a common language, or even, since the rise of secularism and reformed Judaism, believe in anything like the same god.  What commonalities there were resided in the amorphous category of culture though it was often unclear, given the extent to which Jews were assimilated whether their contributions should be seen as expressions of their Jewish identity or better explained as attached to national traditions which many Jews warmly embraced.

The perception of a core Jewish culture, albeit with multiple expressions, was necessary for the success of the Zionist project. Among those taking the lead in reifying it were Jewish Studies programs established in the post war years at many of the country’s most prestigious universities.  Wikipedia identifies thirty two of these which are often augmented by cultural centers sponsoring events, conferences, films and concerts promoting “Jewish life” on campus.  The Klezmer revival was nurtured by these as it was by non-academic institutions such as the Lowell Milken Archive for Jewish Music formed with the objective “to preserve and disseminate music related to the American Jewish experience, . . . encourage academic research . . .  as well as encourage the performance of American Jewish music.”  The organization specifically references its support of both David Krakauer and John Zorn and their role in the downtown Manhattan “radical Jewish culture” movement as well as Klezmer influenced works by composers Paul Schoenfeld, Robert Starer and Yehudi Wyner.

In this light, Klezmer can seen as one wing of the broader project of Jewish self-definition and as among its most successful.  Sons and grandsons of Jews who, like my father, would have dismissed Klezmer as vulgar and entirely foreign to their identities as modern, liberal and enlightened now embraced it in the concert hall, in movie soundtracks, in jazz clubs and at their weddings and bar mitzvahs dancing the hora as if they were characters in Fiddler on the Roof.

In addition to helping to address the centrifugual tendencies in Judaism itself the popularity of Klezmer also served a related purpose: to humanize and make palatable an ultra-orthodox shtetl culture which was not only backward and impoverished but also deeply strange and alien not only to Jews but even more so to non-Jews. The rabbinically enforced adherence to Talmudic law in ultra-orthodox neighborhoods in Israel is now only with great difficultly seen as belonging to a shared Judeo-Christian culture. More significantly, the enforced rigid separation of the sexes, forbidding of secular literature and suspicion of outsiders bears a much closer relationship to reviled theocratic states such as Saudi Arabia than Western liberal democracies.  For this reason, the ultra-orthodox were a liability in attempts by Zionists to portray a Jewish state meriting of the financial and military support of the western powers.

By celebrating the music of the shtetl culture, Klezmer not only softens what would appear to be repressive and forbidding aspects of the ultra-orthodox, it succeeds in turning them on their head.  The charismatic gesticulations accompanying Hasidic Torah recitations, not much less bizarre than the snake handling and speaking in tongues of a backwoods evangelical, become aestheticized as impassioned virtuosic pyrotechnics in Golijov’s Isaac the Blind.  The nigunim (prayer songs) take on a neutral identity as secular earworms when recontextualized in Steve Reich’s Tehillim. The skull caps, forelocks, scraggly beards and black cloaks of Hasidism appear not as they were intended, as antithetical and/or hostile to what initiates regards as a secular, decadent West, but, when paraded on stage by the Klezmatics, as hipster alternative fashion statements. (3)

While by no means its leading edge, the Klezmer revival thereby functions, knowingly or not, within the wider public relations (or, as it is increasingly better known, hasbara) strategy, to smooth the rough edges of ultra-orthodox Jewish elements. By helping to consign to the attic ultra orthodox intolerance and misogyny, known and sometimes harshly condemned by Jews themselves, Klezmer universalizes what would otherwise have been seen as a Jewish experience far removed from Western liberal tradition.


The goal of connecting Judaism and Jewish culture to the root of universalist conceptions of Western liberal democracies has been shown to be easily elided with promoting the role of the state of Israel as the front line of defense against Eastern fundamentalist, barbarism and terror.  To cement this equation as conventional wisdom is, of course, a longstanding objective of what has become known (albeit somewhat problematically) as “the lobby”, one which it has undertaken with remarkable success.

An indication of its success is finding even those most committed to secularism endorsing an explicitly religious state. These include “new atheist” Sam Harris, who is comfortable asserting that “The truth is, we are all living in Israel. It’s just that some of us haven’t realized it yet.”

Along similar lines, Elie Wiesel in a recent advertisement submitted to several newspapers describes the conflict as “not a battle of Jew versus Arab or Israeli versus Palestinian. Rather, it is a battle between those who celebrate life and those who champion death. It is a battle of civilization versus barbarism.”

Wiesel’s crude attempt to consign the Palestinian population to dark, irrational infamy while promoting what is increasingly becoming a pariah state of Israel as the beleaguered defender of life-sustaining civilization was rejected for publication. That it was even considered has much to do both with the successful demonization of the Islamic “other” and with the longstanding polishing of the reputation of a religious state claiming to speak for Western values.

Klezmer has done its part by affixing a happy face on some of the least attractive and most alienating characteristics of Jewish tradition, one whose adherents such as the Jewish Home and Shas parties comprise a majority component of the right wing coalition committed to a de facto policy of ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian minority.  For those becoming all too familiar with the brutality, violence and cynicism, a few clarinet high F’s and augmented seconds are all that is necessary to evoke this depressing reality.  My father never wanted to hear these sounds again, and, after a while, neither will many of us.

(1) Krakauer has written perceptively about his role here.

(2) Norman Cantor, in “The Sacred Chain: the History of the Jews”, pp. 224-225 is among those willing to look beyond Broadway musical conception of shtetl life: “What you do not learn from Sholem Aleichem is the superstition and the ignorance and the general ambiance of cruelty and deprivation, of fatalism and magic, and of comatose squalor that characterized the culture of the shtetl.”

(3) Perhaps the most conspicuous prior instance of the selling of ultra-orthodox as superficially unfamiliar but ultimately woven within the fabric of modern western, indeed, American culture were the series of books by Chaim Potok widely assigned in high school curricula during the 60s and 70s.  In the best known of these, The Chosen, the son of a Hasidic Rabbi decides to withdraw from rabbinical studies in order to become a Freudian Psychoanalyst.  The father, while initially opposed to the son’s decision eventually reconciles himself on the grounds that as a psychoanalyst, his son “will be a Tsadik, not just to his congregation but to the world.” Hasidism is therefore shown to be fully consonant with liberal, enlightened ideals, albeit those of the Upper West Side circa 1974.

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