I recently wrote a blog post extolling klezmer music and Yiddish culture as a preview for a concert I led last week at BZBI in Philadelphia. Here it is for your reading pleasure:
Old Culture Makes Jewish New
Yiddish culture gives me a fresh kind of Jewish identity. Contemporary Yiddish culture provides a world that sates and enriches the ethnic, religious, political, and ancestral aspects of my Jewish identity. For me and many others, klezmer music – the instrumental party and ceremonial music of Ashkenazic Jewry – is the gateway to this world and one of its most exciting parts.
I come to my love of Yiddish culture and klezmer music through the path that I often call the “DNA” path. As in, once I started really hearing the music (the Klezmatics album Jews with Horns sat on the banister outside my bedroom for years before I sat down and listened to it), I felt like I was experiencing a homecoming, as though the music was already a part of me that had been just waiting to be rediscovered. I’ve later come to learn about the myriad ways in which my family was connected to Yiddish and klezmer, when this culture first came to America and now. But if all those connections were active when I got hooked, they were in the deep subconscious.
My favorite thing about engaging in the Yiddish world is that I’ve been able (and encouraged) to broaden my horizons and find my own path without rejecting any other ways of looking at the world of music or otherwise. Personally, I’ve become more radical, but also more inclusive. On the final day of the 1st ever Yiddish New York back in December, I got the chance to talk to and play music with ultra-orthodox jews, radical queer activists and people from all different backgrounds. I had previously played with and for such a range of audiences in the same week, but never in the same room! This experience showed me the power and depth of the culture and the music that draws us in so strongly, that we can find common ground and ways to listen to each other.
I’ve had the chance to play this music with some of the best musicians on the planet. I’ve performed with Frank London, Hankus Netsky, Adrienne Cooper and had the chance to grow with my own generation like Michael Winograd, Patrick Farrell, Dan Kahn, Benjy Fox-Rosen, and many others. I’ve played for thousands of Lubavitch Hasidim outside 770 Eastern Parkway, and for thousands of Poles at the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival. And I’ve had the chance to meet and teach trombone players from all over the world and from every musical background.
Yes, it’s an exciting life. Yes, I’m one of the few people with a dedication to playing traditional klezmer on the trombone. Maybe that’s enough to say why I feel klezmer connects me to my Jewishness but I think there’s more to it all than that. When I hear all about the identity struggles from the mainstream Jewish world, when I hear Jews losing their culture and identity, I think, “well, we’ve kind of got the solution to that.” I’m not saying I know the answers, or that I’m even right in saying what I feel, but I do know that in the Yiddish world, the culture isn’t lost in the face of the modern world. Often, we’re drawing on very old sources to face the challenges of the modern world. Whether a show (written by Jenny Romaine, Adrienne Cooper and Frank London) based on The Memoirs of Glükel of Hamelin, one of the first known female Jewish writers from the 17th century, or my own forays into fusing Hasidic music with rock, the engagement with the past gives us deep resources to work in the present.
The concert on Saturday night will mostly be traditional klezmer music and Yiddish song. We’ve got some of the best folks in Philadelphia who have deep roots and lots of great energy. And remember, klezmer is so often the entry into this big wide world of music, language, culture, history, food, humor, etc. Yiddish culture is already a huge part of our lives as American Jews, and I believe it only gets more fun and more fascinating the deeper in you go. That’s why I’ve found such a home here as a musician and in figuring out what it means for me to be Jewish.
And now, Leib Glantz.