Klezmer, Community, and Communication: How Music Loses its Roots

by Peter Tracy

1893 painting of a marriage procession in a Russian shtetl by Isaak Asknaziy

Walter Feldman begins the preface to his book Klezmer: Music, History, and Memory with a series of anecdotes: a fiddler prays the afternoon prayer before a khasene, or Jewish wedding, in Western Ukraine; the violinist Marder Hagodel, known as “The Great Marder”, wakes up in a hotel: it is ten-thirty at night and he is just in time to fulfill his obligation to play the most important part of the wedding ceremony; in Eastern Poland, a rabbi and his assistants set up a khupe, or wedding canopy, on cemetery grounds, beginning the event known as the shvartse khasene: in the midst of a cholera outbreak, the local klezmorim play a special melody in the hope that dead relatives will intercede with heaven to chase away the angel of death.[1]

These stories have more in common than being centered on weddings: they each took place over a hundred years ago, and each of them were related told Feldman by people that he knew personally.All of these storytellers hailed from the widespread Yiddish-speaking Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, collectively known as Ashkenazim. All of these remnants from that cultural sphere related their stories to Feldman in another place entirely, in Israel or in the United States[2].

Each of these stories is also about klezmer music. As a category the term klezmer is rather new: stemming from the work of Soviet Jewish researcher Moyshe Beregovski, it was popularized by Feldman himself in the 70’s. Before there was a specific name for it, the instrumental music of Ashkenazic Jews was simply a part of a larger web of musical practice including liturgical music, Yiddish folk songs, and elaborate structures of paraliturgical hymns that wove themselves deep into the fabric of Ashkenazic life[3].  From the word for the musician who performed music at traditional Jewish weddings, “klezmer”, the term as it is used today seems to have grown out of necessity, out of a need to put a name to something that newly needed differentiation from its musical surroundings among the Jews of New York and Philadelphia rather than Edineț or Warsaw. Feldman notes that a group or band of such musicians were “called klezmorim, a kapelye, or else simply ‘di klezmer’ – a collective plural”[4] , and that, by his own adolescence in post-war America, the term “sometimes came up… but never in connection with the present.”[5]

Peter Lippman has already provided a concise summary of klezmer for Clef Notes[6], charting its history through to the present day and highlighting the various transformations it has undergone throughout the centuries. In doubling down on this subject, I’d like to expand the conversation to include some broader questions: what was the cultural context within which klezmer originated? What does this tell us about its ability to make meaning? What was klezmer to those for whom it was a profession, a ceremonial act, a piece of collective cultural expression, a part of the fabric of their lives? I’d like to make some preliminary stabs at arguing that klezmer provides a case study for the way that music functions within a broader socio-cultural context to alter the ways in which we relate to one another. As a part of a broader cultural web including, among other things, ritual, spirituality, language, social structure, and other art forms, music can shape the ways in which we think about ourselves and our communities. Yet when this web begins to shift or pull apart, aspects of musical meaning are altered or lost. I raise these issues not to celebrate klezmer’s, “glorious past” at the expense of its ever-changing and continuous present, but in an attempt to use klezmer to articulate some problems common to the many musical traditions which have largely lost the social and cultural context within which they originated and within which their meanings were shaped.

Early 20th century painting by Issachar Ber Ryback titled Wedding Ceremony

By the time klezmer came into its own the Eastern Ashkenazim had grown in number and in cultural cohesion. Feldman notes that, from about 1750 to 1950,[7] “the demographic center of world Jewry was shifting definitively from the Sephardic [Jews of the Ottoman Empire] to the East Ashkenazic zones”[8], making this population “the largest transnational Jewish group in the world, closely linked by language and many aspects of culture in a region stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea.”[9] Klezmer therefore became an integral part of what was a geographically diverse sphere of cultural practice embedded within a variety of Eastern European states.

This was a music that arose, as much music does, out of cross-cultural contact over long spans of time, and the foundational influences which Feldman identifies are far-flung in both time and space: pre-modern pan-european dance music, early-modern Western European dance music, Ashkenazic liturgical music, Greco-Turkish music, and Moldavian instrumental music[10]. Thus, Western European contra dances, Ottoman rhythms, and Balkan fiddling all seem to have made their way into klezmer, patterning its melodies and forms.

Among these influences however, is a musical practice that stands out for its seeming lack of connection to the Ashkenazim’s immediate Eastern European surroundings: Ashkenazic liturgical music. Elaborating on klezmer’s connections to both secular religious music throughout the centuries, Feldman writes that:

“The music of the klezmorim was a public part of Jewish musical culture whose primary locus was the wedding and was partly linked to the central liturgical tradition… as such, it represented a self-consciously Jewish cultural expression that absorbed the relevant religious and secular musical influences of successive historical eras.” [11]

Thus, the fact that music and sound surrounded the religious practice of the Ashkenazim cannot be easily ignored when discussing this highly adaptive yet distinctively Jewish musical tradition. “Since early childhood,” Feldman writes:

“Jewish males were exposed to a system of tonal and rhythmic relationships that governed everything from daily prayer to the learning of sacred texts. Indeed, his acceptance as an adult male Jew in the bar mitzvah ceremony was symbolized by his ability to reproduce a part of this system, insofar as it governed the recitation of a particular prophetic text in the Hebrew language (loyshen koydesh). Afterwards, throughout his life, he would participate in the partly improvised recitation of prayers… depending on his musical ability, he would be encouraged to create his own personal style of recitation in the company of the men of his particular community. No other musical repertoire was as deeply ingrained in his consciousness as this system was.”[12]

This is in stark contrast to the musical practice of most forms of Christian liturgy at the time, which featured “fully professional practitioners in command of a specialized liturgical repertoire, based upon an articulated body of musical theory.”[13]It also makes very clear the significant role which music played in building community among, at the very least, adult male Ashkenazim. Music historian Ted Gioia, in his Music: A Subversive History, highlights the physiological changes our bodies undergo when listening to or performing music with others: brainwaves, respiration, and pulse adjust in common to match musical rhythms, and oxytocin is released, making us more trusting of the people around us.[14]While I am hesitant to insinuate that the complexity of music’s meaning and function can be reduced to biochemistry, I also can’t help but see the process of improvisatory group music making known as davenen as a significant part of the cultural glue that bound Eastern European Jews together. By coming together regularly throughout their lives to make music out of the most important texts and stories of their communities, the male Ashkenazim who davened reaffirmed the values of their communities and their connections to each other, as well as to their faith. Feldman later discusses the more direct ways in which liturgical melodies found their way into the practice of klezmer, yet to my mind it would be difficult to argue that this core musical practice of the Ashkenazim had anything but a significant impact on the broader aesthetic priorities of klezmer as well, particularly during its early development.

Outside of the liturgy, music was equally woven into the fabric of Ashkenazic life: there were songs for all occasions, from Passover to Hanukkah. Klezmer’s role was largely as wedding music, yet even such a professionalized practice as klezmer invited participation in the form of dance. In fact, much of the klezmer repertoire centers around ritualized dances that no khasene could occur without, such as the dance known as broygez tants, or “dance of anger”, a comic ritual performed by the female in-laws. Thus, Ashkenazic dance forms another point of contact between klezmer and the broader web of Jewish culture. The gestures of Ashkenazic dance, Feldman notes, cannot help but be in some way connected to the broader systems of signs governing Jewish culture and communication: using the poet Osip Mandelshtam’s description of a solo Jewish dancer, who’s facial expressions and hand movements form the “necessary link between Jewish solo dance and verbal speech”, Feldman claims that, “in this large and influential Jewish community, gesture and movement of the whole body were linked with both thought and expression. As such they could and did influence Jewish musical performance in many genres, and in particular klezmer instrumental performance”[15]

In light of these gestures towards the interconnectedness of klezmer with the entire web of Ashkenazic culture, I can’t help but find myself agreeing when Feldman claims that “much of the musical and choreographic history of the Ashkenazic Jews is inherent in the klezmer repertoire, which thus functioned as a kind of non-verbal communal memory.”[16]

Like a language, klezmer was, in a slightly more abstract sense, a method of communication, a method of storing knowledge and expressing meaning. The rhythms of both the Yiddish and the liturgical Hebrew language shaped the musical aesthetic of klezmer, as did the rhythms of Jewish religious and secular life in the shtetls of pre-war Eastern Europe. It was entertainment, yes, but it was also a tool: a technology of communal identity, ceremony, and ritual that gradually lost much of the context which originally shaped its ability to make meaning for its community.

Yet we should avoid thinking in reductive terms about what makes klezmer Jewish or about how klezmer has “lost its roots”. It would be too easy and familiar a trope to argue, for instance, what to my mind is largely untrue: that a music’s originality and its usefulness as a tool of communal expression depend on the degree to which it is based in a completely unique and unchanging musical foundation.

Scholar Judit Frigyesi, writing about Ashkenazic synagogue song, claims that: “the uniqueness of a culture lies not in individual elements and fragments, for isolated segments in themselves have no meaning whatsoever. The character of a culture emerges from how its elements are used and what they mean for the community. Looking at it from the outside, music cultures may look similar; the melody turns here and bends there, but the sense of these turns and bends are born from a need that is unique to each individual culture and that can be understood only from the inside.”[17]

Like language, music exists on something of a continuum: some musics are more or less mutually intelligible to cultural spheres with which they share certain scales, harmonies, forms, or other musical priorities. This was certainly the case when klezmer came to the United States, where it often found ready acceptance among communities of Greek immigrants sharing city blocks with Eastern European Jews[18]Just as neighboring linguistic groups are often partially understandable to each other and might create hybrid languages to communicate, so too will musical styles often come into being that bridge cultural gaps, becoming popular and useful in multiple spheres. Such was the case with, for instance, the klezmer dance form known as bulgar, which has deep ties to Moldavian lăutar music as well as a transnational dance repertoire involving Greeks and Turks, such that it found widespread popularity among immigrant communities in America.[19] Yet unlike a language, a listener or participant need not necessarily learn the logic by which a music works in order to enjoy it or find meaning in it. Those of us who have little knowledge of klezmer’s history or origin, let alone its modes, rhythms, and forms, can nevertheless listen to a recording of a sher or a khosidl and find it in some way beautiful or exciting.

Medieval Jewish wedding procession

Yet this music, performed live and in the socio-cultural and ceremonial context in which it evolved, would mean something rather different to the Eastern European Jews of the 18th and 19th centuries than it does for the many of us, who, like myself, listen to klezmer largely through speakers via recordings streamed from the internet. We might, like someone listening to a poem recited in a language they know only vaguely, be moved by the rhythms we hear and by the conviction of the performer. We might even be moved by the meanings we glean from context or feel we can assume given our limited knowledge. But we will miss a great deal, and we will not experience this music as the music that accompanies our wedding dance, our holidays, our families, and our lives.

As for those who did have this privilege, those who wielded this insider knowledge to its fullest extent: the klezmorim of Eastern Europe were professionals. Making their living almost entirely by playing at weddings, some klezmorim were highly respected and gained an almost mythic status in their regions. In some places this was, as music is in many other parts of the world, a hereditary profession, passed from father to son[20]. And the klezmorim were organized as guilds, organizations that were at times even encouraged by the rulers of the Eastern European countries in which they found themselves.[21]By the 19th century, “a wedding without klezmorim”, Feldman writes, “would have been unthinkable. As the Yiddish proverb has it: ‘A wedding without klezmorim is like a funeral without tears.’”[22] Yet although individual klezmorim could gain widespread renown and could support themselves well, the music of the klezmorim was, to a great extent, communal property. “The reputation of a klezmer”, writes Feldman, “rarely would exceed fifty years… after that time, if any repertoire survived it would become anonymous.”[23]

Much of the cultural context that made these structures of meaning and professionalism possible was uprooted or outright destroyed, not just in the mid-20th century, but before, during the previous migrations of Jews to the New World and to the Levant throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was largely after the war, however, that this process of cultural dislocation reached its zenith. Far from their former homes in Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, or the Balkans, newly American Ashkenazim adapted and assimilated to their new surroundings at an arguably faster rate than their ancestors did, who had lived in relatively insular shtetls for generations in a time and place less fraught with fast-paced technological and societal change than the 20th century United States. Uprooted and thrown into cosmopolitan American cities, succeeding generations of Ashkenazim in the New World increasingly did not speak Yiddish, and many gradually became secularized[24]. Many Ashkenazic dances fell into obscurity, remaining understudied to this day.[25] And the traditional institutions which allowed for klezmer to exist – the khasene and the guilds – were severely disrupted by the dispersal and often extermination of the communities which upheld them. Although European klezmorim began to emigrate to America in the late 19th century, sometimes attempting reform their bands and communal ties, by the early 20th century they clearly “struggled to maintain their monopoly on Jewish life-cycle events against non-klezmer musicians.” Increasingly large portions of the “members of klezmer lineages branched out into mainstream American music, while the American born often bypassed the klezmer repertoire altogether in favor of orchestral or popular music work.”[26]By end of World War II, professional klezmorim were largely defunct.

In the 1970’s, however, young Jews like Feldman started to regain a more focused interest in klezmer, a music for which there was not yet a name. They began to play and, perhaps more importantly, to record klezmer, not only as wedding music, but increasingly as concert music and as commercially available albums. This is not to say that klezmer was not played continuously in America from the late 19th century onward or that klezmorim were not taking part in concerts and recordings earlier in the 20th century, but that the klezmer repertoire which we know today has largely been shaped by the near disappearance of many aspects of Ashkenazic musical culture and by the shift in performance contexts that accompanied klezmer’s revitalization in the 1970’s.

1902 illustration of dancing and music at a Hasidic wedding

Aside from becoming divorced from the ritual aspects that so shaped its practice and reception, there had been real musical changes at work in American klezmer throughout the 20th century. For instance, in the big cities of post-war America, “the modal bases underlying” many of Klezmer’s historical influences “become less and less understood, and hence less relevant, as harmonic relationships (i.e. chord progressions) largely replaced modality as the productive concept for new compositions by the American-born generation of musicians.”[27]Due to renewed contact with other Eastern European immigrant communities, klezmer’s Greek and Balkan sides were emphasized[28]. Increasingly, wind instruments such as the clarinet and later brass instruments such as the cornet came to the fore, a process which began much earlier but which seems to have gained steam in the Jazz-soaked cities of the 20th century. In contrast to the traditional string ensemble based around the violin and the cembalom, or tsimbl, Feldman cites the example of the clarinetist Dave Tarras, who, when he arrived in New York in the 1920’s, “performed and recorded with a larger ensemble based on the Jewish klezmer orchestra of the Russian Empire.”[29]Although Feldman notes that klezmer ensembles contracted again in the mid-20th century, it seems to me that almost every contemporary klezmer recording I come across features a sizable, brass-filled band. [30]

Clearly, the shifts in the geographical, political, and economic status of Eastern European Jews throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries had a major impact on the cultural web which made up Ashkenazic life. Although klezmer provides a rather dramatic example of disruptive and somewhat rapid musical change, this uprooting process is something common to  many longstanding musical traditions in the late 20th and 21st centuries. Although the processes at work can often be more subtle, amounting not to forced displacement and genocide but to, perhaps, a gradual turn towards commercialized recorded music at the expense of longstanding cultural traditions, many of the longer term impacts are similar: after gradually becoming divorced from their former social functions and thus shedding much of their original context, these musics, such as medieval European dance music or the music of the Ottoman Empire, find new life in other performance and recording contexts. These changes can and do yield interesting results for those of us who have a certain degree of musical curiosity and who are accustomed to getting our music over the internet: that I listen to and know about klezmer at all is due precisely to klezmorim’s shift away from playing weddings to selling recordings.

Yet we, decades or even centuries later, can’t help but be compelled to look back at times and attempt to pick up the fragments of a musical, perhaps even cultural whole that can never be put back together again. We can never pretend to continue where “the break” left off (if we can even consider there to be a hard break at all) and we can never experience a given early musical tradition as a true “insider”, as someone truly fluent in all the nooks and crannies of a culture that has moved on ahead of us or of which we were never a part to begin with. My hope, however, is that we can not only use the fragments which we have to continue to revitalize these various musics, but that we can, in some small way, attempt to recreate the community-centered practices which made these musics possible and which made them so meaningful.

A playlist covering klezmer music old and new, traditional and modern, European, American, and Israeli.

Early Music Seattle: Klezmer


Works Cited/Further Reading

 Feldman, Walter. Klezmer. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Frigyesi, Judit. “The Unique Character of Ashkenazic Synagogal Music: Homage to A.Z. Idelsohn.” Kenishta: Studies of the Synagogue World 2, 2003, pp. 146-66.

Frigyesi, Judit. Writing on Water. Central European University Press, 2018.

Gioia, Ted. Music : a Subversive History. First ed., Basic Books, 2019.

Lippman, Peter. “Klezmer Music”. Early Music Seattle, https://earlymusicseattle.org/klezmer/.

Netsky, Hankus. Klezmer. Temple University Press, 2015.

Rubin, Joel. New York Klezmer in the Early Twentieth Century: The Music of Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras. University of Rochester Press.

Slobin, Mark., and Klezmer Research Conference. American Klezmer : Its Roots and Offshoots. 1st ed., University of California Press, 2002.

Walden, Joshua S. The Cambridge Companion to Jewish Music. Cambridge University Press,         2015.

[1]     I rely heavily throughout this piece on Walter Feldman’s incredible study of not just Klezmer, but of the entire Yiddish-speaking cultural sphere, Klezmer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016). These anecdotes and more can be found on pages ix – xi.

[2]     Ibid. pp. xiii.

[3]     See, for instance, the chaper titled “The Music of the Klezmer Wiithin East Ashkenazic Music” in Feldman, pp. 31 – 58.

[4]     Feldman pp. xiii.

[5]     Ibid. pp. xv.

[6]     https://earlymusicseattle.org/klezmer/

[7]     Ibid. pp. 6.

[8]     Ibid.

[9]     Ibid.

[10]   Ibid. pp. 15-18.

[11]   Ibid. pp. 367.

[12]   Ibid. pp. 40.

[13]   Ibid. pp. 39.

[14]   Ted Gioia, Music : A Subversive History, (First ed., Basic Books, 2019), pp. 26.

[15]   Feldman pp. 10-11.

[16]   Ibid. pp. 367.

[17]   Judit Frigyesi, “The Unique Character of Ashkenazic Synagogue Music Homage to A.Z. Idelsohn”, (Kenishta: Studies of the Synagogue World 2, 2003), pp. 146-66.

[18]   See Feldman’s Preface to Klezmer, pp. ix – xviii.

[19]   See the chapter titled “Bulgar” in Feldman, pp. 347-366.

[20]   Women did not participate in klezmer before its revitalization in the late 20th century, and in fact were banned from public singing since at least the 18th century. See Feldman pp. 4.

[21]   See Feldman pp. 67 – 79 for more on klezmer guilds.

[22]   Ibid. pp. 4.

[23]   Ibid.

[24]   Besides Feldman’s study, see Mark Slobin’s American Klezmer : Its Roots and Offshoots (1st ed., University of California Press, 2002) for more on this topic.

[25]   Ibid. pp. 9-11.

[26]   Ibid. pp. 98.

[27]   Ibid, pp. 19.

[28]   Ibid.

[29]   Feldman pp. 113

[30]   See Feldman’s chapter titled “The Klezmer Ensemble”, pp. 99 – 116.