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jewish stories

July 15, 2007
—The Muse of Maxwell Street—
by Cyril Robinson Click Here to email me

[Band plays a freylech, Lebedike Honga (1min), to open, moment before I make my entry]
Shalom Aleychem If you must know, my name is Cyril Robinson, a good Jewish name if I’ve ever heard one. I will be your batkhn today, the Muse of Smooze. I am here with the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band. So give them a hand.

Who here knows what a batkhn is?  Listen, [stage whisper] I am a rank amateur. I really need your help. Will you help me with this performance? I’ll let you know how. We might need some clapping –OK—let’s hear some clapping; some foot stomping --let’s hear some foot stomping—Great – rhythm.

How do you know when you’re listening to klezmer music? You know, because you’re sitting still, but your feet are moving. Klezmer is not a sit-still music. So, if you can’t dance in the aisles, let your ears and eyes do the dancing and prancing.

We are going to take you on a poetic and musical nostalgic journey through Jewish music, with some seeded wry humor on the side. Some part will be in rhyme. We’ll try to make it all sublime. OK, let’s have a ball, a matzo ball.
Well, dear folks, before I disclose the plot
I better tell you what it’s not
No princes nor princesses
With their golden tresses
No moats nor castles
Nor clowns with tassels
No damsels in distress
No knights to get them out of that mess
No fire- breathing dragons
Nor handsome prisoners in leg-irons
No wizards performing miracles
Or bards to sing lyricals
They’ll be no giants nor dwarfs
That morph
into knife-wielding toughs.
But I’ll disclose some clues
It’s just about us poor Jews
So note by note, let’s begin.
Jews to give their speech some spark
Begin with a question mark.
To ask why klezmerizing
Is so mesmerizing.
We’ll start with a beginning  without an end, an end with a new beginning

  1. the wedding --the most important of all Jewish celebrations or simchas,
  2.  the most joyful moment in the life of the newlyweds, and the crowning achievement of their parents.

.In celebration, we raise in song Chusn-Kalleh  Mazl Tov (3min)
  The wedding jester, or batkhn, that’s me, was the bandleader, master of ceremonies, comedian, and storyteller, all rolled into one. 
He’d do anything to make a pun.
Improvising morals as he went along
With the wit of a talmudic scholar
He twitted all the bridal party till they did holler
He praised the bridal couple
And urged them to be supple
The musicians, he urged to play harder
To get more coins in their larder
He told the guests to leave their sorrow
And to dance, like there was no tomorrow
Yoshke (4 min)
Vos far a klezmer aza khasene.  – the weddings only as good  as the klezmer.
Let me set the stage. On this balmy August night, the congregation, all fifteen of them, go to the synagogue courtyard to bless the new moon. As if the moon needed their blessings to shine! But these are Jews. It can’t hurt!
These mostly elderly men, holding their prayer books, gathered around their rabbi as he began softly to chant the prayers. Just as they finished their prayers, in marched two musicians, a violinist and a bassist. They played a Chasidic nign, a wordless tune. Suddenly, one of them began to dance, then, another, then another, till all the men were dancing and singing at the top of their lungs. [Chasidic nign— about 30 seconds.]
So part of our conversation will be about music, some about dance, and some about song.  Let’s talk about klezmer.
Klezmer is a music of conversation. So the clarinet and I will hold a musical conversation about klezmer. I'll ask Clarinet player a series of questions.; the clarinet will answer in the language of clarinets, and just, in case, you don't understand clarinetish, I will interpret. But before we begin, this play, let me say who the performers are today.
[As each musician is introduced, he gives a 10 second tune.]
Harry, the clarinet, you must agree
plays with the pizzazz of jazz
Take a look and you will see,
he’s just a clarinet with a moustache.
Now, we turn to the fiddle. 
That’s Alex, born in Minsk, for him,
composing and arranging’s a cinch.
Then there’s the singer of our songs,
If she were not here,
She’d really be missed
Because she’s our vocalist
And in a band, you need a bit of melody
Someone who can play on key
So we have Miriam
She can go high and low
On the piano.

And finally, the guy with the big sound
who really can pound
That’s Mark on the drums
Give him a hand
He comes from the Kiev State Circus Big Band.
And now that we’re through with introductions, 
We’ll start on our klezmer peringrinations.

 Where does klezmer music come from?   (clarinet gives the response.)
Klezmer music was the music of our grandparents and Yiddish was their language. A yid hot lib dem geshmak fun a Yiddish vort in zeyen moyl. A Jew likes the taste of a Yiddish word in his mouth.
Jews are funny because “Yiddish is intrinsically funny, what with its elaborate curses (all of your teeth should fall out, except one, and that one should ache), and it’s penchant for cultivating an incisive, dark-edged, altogether cock-eyed view of the world. It’s the language of lament, myth-busting, and belly-laughing; Yiddish is the tongue of the underdog, the outsider, and the sad but wise survivor who laughs to keep from crying.”
And where did you find people like that?  In the shtetl -- the Jewish village, of course.
In Eastern Europe, klezmorim loved the fiddle
The clarinet came out somewhere in the middle
But as Napoleon’s army fled in retreat
They left their clarinets among the winter wheat
Klezmorim gleaned those fields of clarinets
And ever since, they’ve been the band’s special pets.
Clarinets, they found, could be heard
Above every other sound and word.
Musicians of the Balkans and of Greece
Made the clarinet sound very nice.
They made it laugh, cry, and sigh
It was really Yiddish on the sly. 
OK, Don, give us a klezmer krekhts
And, Alex, make your violin spin
Give us a glitshn.:
Klezmer is like you and you
Some of you are old and some young
Some wear white, and some wear blue
Some speak one tongue and some another
But every one of you has a mother
For klezmer that mother is Yiddish,
And almost everything else but British.
So klezmer is a music of many strains
And, may I add, considerable pains.
There is a lot of cantering
Mixed in with considerable bantering.
Klezmer means a musician
Who plays the music of folk
And can tell a good joke
But before we begin our play
There is a bit more to say
Our presentation will really be in double time
Klezmer is the tune 
But we think it would be wrong
Not to celebrate it with song
For klezmer gets you up to dance
Song tradition it does enhance.
[A song by Kimber here]
(Kimber) Yitchak Pearlman expressed it this way:
When you're dealing with music, you're dealing with the soul of society; and if there's any music that can be identified with the soul of Jewish society, it's klezmer music.
Well, that's enough of that
Let's have some more clarinet [a brief clarinet refrain]
The klezmer train stops at many stations,
A real medley of nations
Roumainians, Hungarians, Moldavians, Russians, and Gypsies,
itinerant musicians all did share,
brewed a potion of romance, passion, and finesse,
then ladled in the crying and singing of the  cantor’s prayer.
Out came a doina (a Rumanian lament), a chosidl or Chassidic dance,
and the Lark  Gypsy chants (4 min). 
The violin takes us from meditation to frenetic moves
The doina shows how the clarinet sings the “Jewish blues.”  Doina/Lark.

(Cyril) Where did klezmer come from and when and where was it played? (The clarinet gives the response.) Jews were expelled from here, and invited there
Traveling badkhonim (folk troubadours), on the route,
mixed their Hebrew with Yiddish, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Turkish,
and Gypsy words to boot.
Young klezmers were their father’s heirs
When they didn’t play, they cut hairs
Village klezmorim played folk narratives, holiday, and wedding odes
at wayside inns, taverns and courtyards on the roads
Yiddish bards, dating back five centuries,
Sung of weddings, love and disease
Of holidays, Shabbat zmirot, and what not
And for a price, would even give love advice.
Of course, not all dealt with such aplomb
For there were fires, plagues, expulsions, and the pogrom.

(Kimber)  Rabbis looked askance at women’s singing in sight of men
They couldn’t enter that group of ten
But from the time of Miriam, they sang of many things
Of longings, complaints, dreams, and weddings,
Mother songs, soldier, orphan, women's union songs,
Confessions, disappointments, accusations, lamentations, and other wrongs.
But though, for Jews, Russia was a messa.
Jewish music had Odessa.
(Cyril) Was there a biblical base to the klezmer music? (Clarinet gives the response—20 seconds.)
(I'm sorry Don, the clarinet, you can't use that kind of language before this audience  could you rephrase it?) [Don here plays a different refrain.]
Through music people could serve God in joy and gladness,
But destruction of the Jerusalem Temple,
Meant playing instrumental music in the synagogue was seen as madness.
Yet, Jews needed music in their prayers
So chanting voices rose to meet these cares.
How did dance enter into klezmer music? (Clarinet gives the response.)
When women mixed with men in dance,
Rabbis looked at them askance 
Where women danced with men present
They were no more lenient
That was something goyem did
To Jews it was forbid.
Then the Chasids came along
Reaching for God with dance and song
The pious ones as they were known
In 18th century Poland, it was sown
Israel ben Eliezer, Baal Shem Tov
Master of the good name, or besht
Chasids studied and prayed instead
Words are better left unsaid
If you want a miracle
You sing and dance in a circle
Where there is neither front nor back
Neither beginning nor end, right,
You’ve got the knack. [Circle dance]

Jews were pushed here and there
By movements for prayer they didn’t care
There was Theodore Herzl with his state
who defied the rabbis who did demand
that only God  could reclaim our homeland.
Then there was the Bund
That said the worker
Was his won maker
In America where all are free and equal
And everyone has a place
There work with hands is no disgrace.
They would have a future
In America where they could nuture.

    (Cyril) How and in what form did klezmer arrive in America? (The clarinet gives the response.)
Yiddish-speaking immigrants brought musicians in duplicate
Both secular minstrels and chanting cantors did migrate
Cantors supplied the key
Between spiritual song and minstrel balladry
Cantors and rabbis often went on at length.
So much, that they tested their congregation’s strength
So, they were often the butt of jokes
Here is one told to folks:

Just before Rosh Hashana: A horrible plague has strangely struck the congregation leadership: the rabbi, the cantor, and the synagogue President.

    "Please," says the rabbi, near death -- my Rosh Hashana sermon.  What a waste to die now without having carried it before my congregation. I'll go happily if I can first recite my sermon. It's an hour ninety minutes long, tops."  A nice, young Jewish doctor, a member of the congregation, says he can hold off death for a few hours.

    At this point, the cantor interrupts, "Please, for 20 years I've been denied the opportunity to sing a beautiful, richly ornamented Hinneni, a composition of my own, lasting no more than two hours. I must sing it before I die!"  They now turn to the synagogue president.
    "What is your last wish," the doctor asks.
"With tears in his eyes,” the President says, "Just let me be the first to die.

How did European Klezmer affect American music? (The Clarinet responds.)
Klezmer musicians, repelled by pogroms and poverty
brought their band to the promised land.
Where everybody has a place
And working hard is no disgrace.
A lyric of the year 1900 was, America the Golden Land:
Play klezmer, your fiddle in hand;
play the song of the golden land.
Long ago by my cradle, my mother sang it to me.      
It was her dream and she gave it to me.
Play klezmer, sing that sweet melody.

  Jews, in song and dance, rallied workers on picket lines.
Yiddish protests appeared on union signs.   Mayn Rue Platz,  "My resting place," -- my work is my grave:
Do not seek to find me, my beloved,
in cool gardens where there are flowers, birds,
breezes, and streams of clear water.
Seek me, rather, among the bundles and machines
in the hot crowded darkness of a sweatshop.
Not under a tree am I, but bent over, bound to the work.

(Cyril) There were two great klezmer musicians that formed American klezmer, Naftule  Brandwein and David Tarras.
So let's hear about Naftule Brandwein  (Di Mame iz Gegangn (2.5)
When we speak of klezmer history
We think of two musicians key
Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras
The father and son of klezmer Americas 
Brandwein came from Galicia in 1913
One of the most colorful performers even seen
Brilliant at clarinet
On the stage and on the set
He’d dress outlandishly
Drank like a pig
For every gig
A very nasty shicker
When he was full of liquor
With not a bit of modesty
He made the band a travesty
Of Jewish music, he thought he was king
Even though he played on the wing
It didn’t bother him to commit a gaff
If it would make the audience laugh
He’d cover himself with Christmas lights
Dressed in little more than tights
His perspiration set the lights afire
As current surged through the wire
His elecution ended almost in electrocution
So despite his clarinet display
His drinking got in the way
And when as many of the time
He could not read music worth a dime
The leader of the band
Found a more professional at hand
David Tarras, a younger man
Better fit into his plan
Born in the Ukraine
He became the leader
Of the next klezmer reign
His father, a badkhn who played the valve trombone
Didn’t want to make of Dave a clone
So started the youngster on the flute
An instrument that never quite took root
Tarras found the flute just didn’t suite
So the clarinet he learned to toot
But then came the Rooshian revolution of 17
About which Jews were particularly keen
Nonetheless followed the pogroms of 21
From which Tarras was forced to run
Across the ocean in New York
He first swept floors
Fearing music opened no doors
Gradually he took some wedding jobs
Playing to attendees’ mournful sobs
While Brandwein was a clown of sorts
Tarras dressed like the clean-cut sports.
And as musician had such skills
That great performers
Mounted to see him in the Catskills.
Tarras ended his days
With a great ball
When in the 70s he appeared at Carnegie hall
And with others who revived this jive
Klezmer once again came alive.
Tarras even had fans
That claimed he played as Benny Goodman can
Called Tarras the Jewish Goodman
Tarras attained such fame
That Charlie Parker and Miles Davis came
Up to the Catskills
To hear his improvisational skills


The klezmorim thought they might forever go on

But after World War Two they sunk into oblivion

By the 70s they were no more

There was no klezmer roar

You might ask how this came about

The Holocaust removed the core

And assimilation took away more

Those with affluence

Became suburban

Or went south for the sun

As their children earned a ton

No more the sound of klezmer

Under the Huppah or for the Bar Mitzvah

Instead jazz and the big band

Got the hand

 (Cyril) What part did the “Jewish Alps” play in the development of
Jewish-American culture?  (The clarinet responds.)
The Catskills, the Borscht belt, known as the Jewish Alps, about 90 miles north of New York City, became the university for freshmen comedians. By the 1920s, in pre-air-conditioned times, the Catskills were dotted with Jewish hotels that allowed working people to escape from the torrid city. It was said that the white line running down the middle of the highway from New York City to the Catskills was paved with sour cream. Jews, who at the time, were often barred from other areas, could find a congenial environment, with tables so loaded with kosher food that they put the surrounding mountains to shame. They could even get away from New York’s Jewish insolent, lackadaisical waiters, waiters who not only talked back to you, bawled you out, told you what to order, what not to order, and then banged your order down in front of you. One customer complained that when he asked what soup they had. The waiter replied: Barley and bean.” What other kind do you have? Bean and barley.”

[Kimber] What was entertainment like? (The clarinet responds.)
Competition for customers resulted in the hotels hiring social directors, known as the "toomler," (from Yiddish, "Tummler," tumbler or dancer -- who would fall down a flight of stairs or jump fully dressed into pools, make a tumult) to organize group activities. Toomlers were often promising young men, that is, young men who promised anything.

In the summer, Chicago Jews had their miniature Catskills, without the mountains. Jewish families rented cottages in the Indiana dunes or the South Haven area of Indiana; or the eastern shore of Lake Michigan; there were summer camps, cottages, boarding houses; resort hotels, Jewish butchers, grocery stores, a synagogue, a dancehall, an illegal casino; and a boat service to Chicago during the summer.

[Cyril] What caused the decline of klezmer after WWII?
In the late l940s and early 1950s, klezmer music lost its commercial appeal. European klezmer musicians had made inroads into jazz, nightclub, popular, and classical music. Only a minority continued to make their living playing traditional music by playing at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and community festivities.
After WWII a number of factors reduced interest in traditional Jewish music: the assimilation of foreign-born Jews who distanced themselves from the Yiddish culture; increased affluence, movement to the suburbs, and big band music. You know the joke: With Jews, what’s the difference between a tailor and a psychoanalyst?  A generation!
By the years 1950 to 1970 klezmorim, born in Europe, had practically disappeared. Klezmer music was rarely performed, until the klezmer revival of the late 1970s.

[Kimber] What about this klezmer revival? [The clarinet responds.]
Beginning in the late 1970s, the Klezmer revival has been dubbed Radical Jewish Culture, Jewish Jazz, Jewish Soul, and Jewish Avant Garde music. It's a newer in-your-face identity. Cutting across genres and style, these new unorthodox, musical Tzaddikim are synthesizing Ladino ballads, Afro-Cuban, klezmer dance tunes, traditional Jewish-camp songs and liturgical music with British art-rock, gypsy melodies, and Pennsylvania polka, creating something wholly original.

. For Jews, Klezmer is to music what the bagel is to bread.
`(Cyril) Let’s finish with the story of Jews in Chicago
Jews came from afar, as far as they could be from the Czar
From Lithuania, Latvia. Poland and Russia
After the Pogroms in the 1880s, Jews were frantic
To cross the Atlantic.
Many ended up at Halsted and Maxwell
A place to buy and sell
`Here’s a story that illustrates how Chicago might have appeared to newly-arrived Jews:
Josef, a Jew from a little village in Poland goes to Chicago, and then returns and tells his friends of his experiences. Chicago, he says, is an extraordinary city. I met an Orthodox Jew who talked of nothing but the Talmud. All day he meditated on the text, and every time I brought something up, he could cite a passage in the Talmud. I met a Jew who was an atheist, who would refuse to talk about God. He said the tales in the bible were only for children and the naïve. I spoke to a Jew who was a CEO, who employed hundreds of employees, and drove an automobile of extraordinary beauty and power. I encountered a radical Jew who spoke of nothing but equality, the class struggle, and social justice.

  Though properly impressed, his friends replied: After all, Chicago is a great city, with many Jews. It’s normal that you would find such Jews. But Joseph responded, you don’t understand! It’s the same Jew.

There’s Maxwell street of yor, your Maxwell street, your folklore.
  An open-market bazaar.  Everyone is looking for a bargain and everyone has something to sell. There is color, action, shouts, odors, dirt, old-world traditions on wheels.

Buying is an adventure of matching wits. Shops, booths, tables, stands, butcher’s blocks, stocked and piled with melons, vegetables, parsley, radishes, garlic. Crowded as a slum. It is a slum.

Shoppers are poking and sniffing, plucking, buying, exchanging, asking the price, shaking their heads, walking on, called back, haggling, jostling, walking into each other. Thousands talk at once. Shouts and curses of buyers and sellers fill the air. Neighing of horses, cars honking, dogs barking, clucking of hens, piecing children’s voices.
There is haggling and hawking in languages from Yiddish to Spanish. Women burrow through heaps of colorful clothes, hats, shoes, lamps, spades, shirts.

Pullers, engaged in perpetual conversation, stand in front of stores to pull you in, trapping you with an umbrella handle. Before you are aware, you are trying on a suit too big and out of style. It fits like a glove, he swears. It is the latest model put out by Hart, Schaffner & Marx, Jews just like you. He'll sell it to you at a loss of $10. How can he do that and stay in business? We sell so many of them. It's all in the volume. Chutzpah.

Sellers ask ten times the amount, and buyers offer a twentieth. How much is the radio? For you, two dollars. But it doesn't work. So from where else can you buy a radio for two dollars? A hat is offered for 50 cents. If it fits, it costs 75. A stocking salesman shouts, Hey lady, only one hole in these socks--where you put your foot in. 
                              You want to bargain, you got a price,
I got something for you, very nice
You can’t go wrong
How about for your wife, a mah jong?

But Dan Ryan came along with his expressway

Then the University had its say
With urban renewal
That was no bargain so Jews did their best

They went west, and then North

A little hokey-pokey

And they ended up in Skokie.

Does klezmer have a future? (The clarinet responds)
You can’t have a history, without a past, a present without a future. There are klezmer festivals, starting in the Catskills, migrating to New Jersey, and followed by offshoots in St. Petersburg, Kiev, Krakow, London, Cambridge, Montreal, and Toronto. With klezmer concerts all over the world, there are now tens of klezmer bands, hundreds of musicians, Jewish and non-Jewish; some of the best in Europe, surprisingly, in Germany. Each finds a jam-packed audience, now amounting to thousands. Many net-sites, including this library’s own, the Jewish Music Archives, enable anyone to find these dozens of groups and when or where they are playing.  Mark Slobin, entitles his  book. Fiddler on the Move, Exploring the Klezmer World, suggesting klezmer’s extensive reach.  He writes about klezmer as a heritage, a music rooted in Jewish history. Thus, the audience of klezmer, this audience, you, by being an audience to and for klezmer, becomes part of that community and that history. Building a common vision of what klezmer is and might be, as Slobin puts it, there will be many who will “take on the klezmer lifestyle. For the foreseeable future, there will always be fiddlers on the move.” I like Mark Slobin’s idea of shaliach tzibur, “messenger of the congregation,” the way cantors channel prayer toward its divine destination. Isn’t klezmer a kind of prayer?  It has the “restlessness and spiritual spark of a dybbuk, a displaced soul seeking a body,” again in the words of Mark Slobin. And to me, klezmer is kind of musical tzaddic.

Let me end our show with a story. In the shtetle of Chelm, the lord of the manor  convoked the Jewish notables and told them:  You Jews are reputed to be extremely intelligent. I am going to let you prove it to me. You see this mule. I will give you one week to teach it to talk. If in one week it can’t talk, you’ll all hang.

What to do! The villagers discussed and discussed it without finding any solution. Finally, the rabbi arrived. He suggested that he would go see the lord. No one could suggest a better idea, so off went the rabbi. A few hours later, the rabbi reappeared.sporting a big smile. So, everyone asked? Everything is arranged. I succeeded in convincing the lord that it’s very difficult to teach a mule to talk. He has agreed to give us five years to do it. The villagers looked at each other in amazement. But after five years we’ll still all be hung. The rabbi replied:  True, but think of all that can happen in five years. The mule could die. The lord could die. And who knows, in five years, perhaps the mule will learn to talk. And so who knows where klezmer will be in five years.

Before we leave, I want to thank the band, and their leader, Lori Lippitz, who wrote the script with me. A shenere un besere velt – a more beautiful and better world. Thank you and zayt gezunt. Freylech to end with (2min)

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