On Readers, Fakers, Bakers, Writers, & Ruptures

Coming from a Jewish background personally did not mean that somebody was necessarily familiar with any intrinsic qualities of klezmer, although—unless they’d developed an aversion through early negative exposure to this sometimes-stigmatized heritage—it usually didn’t hurt.

Written By

Eve Sicular

Howie Leess (1920-2003) was one of the most upright, good-hearted musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, and his playing inspired me to form my first full band. I’d been told about his superb Yiddish clarinet stylings even before I heard him myself, but even so Howie’s powerfully nuanced playing was a revelation to my ears, especially his signature doyna (rubato solo) which evoked a soulful era that had nearly disappeared a generation before. He was a hard worker who’d started professionally in his early teens during the Depression on bandstands in “the mountains” [Catskills venues], and he was thrilled to adopt email (all-caps always, to save typing time) as a septuagenarian because it went instantly around the world for free – yet this man would turn down a gig if it seemed unethical to him because he’d “rather sleep well at night” than be a back-stabber. So it confused me at first to hear Howie described as both “a reader and a faker,” even if I could sense this was meant as a compliment.

Slightly younger contemporaries of Howie’s gave me other names for him, too: He was “the Mountain Goat” among guys who were regulars for decades in Lester Lanin’s cocktail and debutante-geared orchestra (because on tenor sax, he’d find his own inside parts to climb around Big Band standard reed arrangements). He was also “the fifth Epstein Brother” (several non-blood relatives who played often with that esteemed klezmer family claimed such a title, and it was a lucrative mantle since Hasidim immigrating after WWII chose this local band as a favorite for their Brooklyn weddings, which could take place any of six nights a week). I found out later that Howie was himself a serious left-winger who had little use for most of the rabbis he met, but I’d already witnessed that out of respect he would finish his coffee outside in the rain rather than risk violating kosher rules by bringing a cup with milk into a synagogue. He was a “Jewish specialist” for the Society bands, and an “American specialist” for a klezmer kapelye. His own craft at Yiddish music had been learned from several klezmer greats who came from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, though he was born in the USA; as one contemporary music historian told me, Howie was featured on klezmer revival recordings on tenor since he was equally skilled there, even though he could also play rings around most other clarinetists of his generation. All of this qualified him as an ace in both reading and faking, and he was mainly below the radar of fame but in demand into his 80s.

Photo of Michael Hess (holding violin), Howie Leess (holding clarinet), Michael Hess, smail Butera (holding accordion), and Eve Sicular (holding a snare drum)

Howie Leess (center holding clarinet) with rest of the original personnel of the Greater Metropolitan Klezmer Band (our name for the first six months or so), left to right: Michael Hess (violin), Dave Hofstra (bass), Ismail Butera (accordion), and Eve Sicular (drums). Photo by Donna Binder.

People who speak multiple languages often feel different sides of their personalities emerge in each idiom. Similarly, musicians who perform various genres of music can express each style with their personal feel once they are at home in it, while their vocabulary and accent may reflect certain places of origin even as they to move from consciously translating to more fully inhabiting another sonic culture. This process continues to shape experience and expression as each person learns their repertoire, its character and how it interplays with surrounding habitat of humans: dances, lyrics, jokes, ceremonies, customs, histories, venues, and the shared heritage of other musicians involved. Howie’s experience seemed to make him completely bilingual in a wide swath of the American songbook as well as Yiddish and Hasidic repertoire. I was awed at Howie’s sound and his command of a room of dancers. And I’ll never forget that when I invited him to make a demo recording for our prospective new group, he said: “Sure! I love when a woman runs the business.”

There’s a balance between what can be understood by eyes and by ears.

In the working musical world described in Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans, Charles B. Hersch finds that art and commerce would both be served by a band that “transcended the usual lines, uptown and downtown, black and Creole, honky-tonk and society, readers and fakers – by being able to read music and improvise in whatever style was needed, and thus flourished professionally.” Quoting Scott DeVeaux, he then lists qualities of a successful musical enterprise in this context: “Dependability, versatility and unobtrusive competence.” Keeping an ensemble together on an ongoing and harmonious basis depends on many things, but these fundamentals still hold true in our NYC-based, wide-ranging experience from the mid-1990s ‘til today.

Besides Howie, in my own ensembles, members have approached klezmer from both “reader” and “faker” backgrounds. Among versatile musicians, neither term connotes merely literacy itself. Certainly everyone involved in Metropolitan Klezmer or Isle of Klezbos can read printed music, transcribe tunes, and write a chart if necessary. I’m actually the least fluent in these skills, and am grateful to work collaboratively in many instances. Yet there’s a balance between what can be understood by eyes and by ears.  Some of my other original bandmates, particularly our accordionist and violin/ney flute /qanun zither player, had an ear already attuned to the inner workings of Yiddish music. They had been playing related styles for years, so for Eastern European Ashkenazic musics they were often adapting this knowledge (and as needed, their instrument tunings) and calling out melody and modal cognates between klezmer and Turkish, Greek, or Arabic songs with which they were long familiar. For instance, in discussing the tonal nature of a piece, they would refer to its being in “hijaz” (a classical Arabic scale) rather than the Yiddish term “freygish.” Later on, once Howie went into semi-retirement upstate, our horn section expanded to include other wonderful players who were from more of a conservatory background and who, since graduating from prestigious music schools, had been playing grooves more based in jazz, blues, Latin, and other diasporic traditions, and often relying on charts as an initial way into a tune or arrangement. Of course their improvisational skills were constantly honed as they became ace fakers in those genres, too. Coming from a Jewish background personally did not mean that somebody was necessarily familiar with any intrinsic qualities of klezmer, although—unless they’d developed an aversion through early negative exposure to this sometimes-stigmatized heritage—it usually didn’t hurt. And sometimes, as with my experience, hearing Yiddish and klezmer led to awakening multifarious dormant understandings.

Coming from a Jewish background personally did not mean that somebody was necessarily familiar with any intrinsic qualities of klezmer, although—unless they’d developed an aversion through early negative exposure to this sometimes-stigmatized heritage—it usually didn’t hurt.

Yiddish language, in a parallel with Yiddish music, is a fusion language—as is English, but for different reasons. While the British Isles assimilated various spoken tongues, both official and vernacular, through waves of invasion arriving over the centuries, Yiddish evolved as Ashkenazic Jewry themselves moved around Europe, generally Eastward, over a millennium, both in waves of migration and along trade routes. In naming our first Metropolitan Klezmer album “Yiddish for Travelers,” I was both alluding to the geographically variegated roots of this musical culture (with certain dance types denoted as sirbas, bulgars, terkishers, and volokhs indicating—whether musicologically accurate or not—provenance among co-territorial or neighboring people) and to an imaginary travelers’ handbook. The latter was in fact based on the real post-WWII Say It In Yiddish which, though seemingly ironic, gives a lovingly ordinary set of phrases for such things as checking into one’s hotel room in mameloshn. This affirmative pocket-sized volume had been published in 1958 by Uriel and his wife Beatrice “Bina” Weinreich, who were from a renowned family of Yiddish linguists. I knew Bina in the early 1990s from working as an archivist at the YIVO Institute. (Her husband had died tragically young in 1968.) As it turns out, Say It In Yiddish also inspired novelist Michael Chabon to write first a controversially condescending essay by the same name (in which he characterized the book as “poignant and funny”) and later, in response to protests and unexpected perspectives he received in reply to his initial somewhat glib short piece, he wrote his counter factual book The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007). My own use of the transmogrified title came from not such a different attitude as Chabon’s but with a different impulse of honoring the tradition as something to be cherished rather than written off with regret yet dismissal and derision. (Coincidentally, Chabon had first spotted this glossary during research at YIVO a decade earlier—in 1997, the year we issued Metropolitan Klezmer’s debut CD.)

I feel lucky to have first heard an early live performance version of the klezmer revival in the early ‘80s by the Boston-based Klezmer Conservatory Band, mostly 20-somethings then onstage at Ryle’s in Somerville MA. A few years later, I flew back to Boston to work as an apprentice editor on A Jumpin’ Night in the Garden of Eden, the first feature klezmer documentary. This movie-in-progress featured the KCB among others, and I spent after-hours time studying film rushes of their drummer (pre-internet, pre-YouTube, on a 16mm Steenbeck flatbed). By the time I finally attended my first KlezKamp in December 1989, I had already picked up some Yiddish language and played a few gigs as a sub with Seattle’s beloved Mazeltones. That group’s accordionist/vocalist/co-leader, Wendy Marcus, had generously lent me many source tapes to learn style and repertoire, both from archival recordings and ‘70s/’80s commercial albums. Wendy also revealed to me the delicious, completely unexpected news that the New York-based, internationally-attended KlezKamp included an informal, convivial alliance of freylekhe felker, openly LGBT Yiddishists. The idea of attending a gathering that would nourish my folkloric musical tastes as well as my progressive Jewish secular sensibility, all in a supportive environment that even extended to my sexuality, was more than I would have imagined possible. Even the queer-friendly group’s name reflected another marvelous quality of Yiddish culture that met my cravings: in a language that seeks to amuse itself, freylekh is a double entendre alluding to a famous beginner textbook line about happy/gay people. (When describing an upbeat dance style, it’s also worth noting that freylekhs is etymologically related to the English word “frolic.”)

A group photo of the KlezKamp participants, December 1993.

So while my first KlezKamp had its hitches, I experienced a certain sense of finding home even though I’d never been consciously aware of longing for this. I had no active nostalgia. My upbringing had reflected a decidedly assimilationist cultural understanding, and even covert antipathy towards Yiddish on my Mom’s side with their Viennese-Jewish upper-class family values. Nonetheless, I embody a cliché, in that it satisfied a longing for this place I’d never been. And while there is never enough space to express the many near-obliterations that have befallen Yiddish-speaking Jewry worldwide in the 20th century, the sense of loss and grief also deepens the sense of attachment and significance of carrying forward this vibrant culture, and not just as a mission of preservation. It’s incredibly heartening to be aware of the level of talent, imagination, commitment, intelligence, and diversity among communities of people who feel especially inspired by this culture—past, present and future. People I met at that first visit to KlezKamp introduced me to musicians including amazing players with whom I have now performed, toured, and recorded with for over two decades. After 30 years, KlezKamp completed its run in 2014 although KlezKanada and Yidish Vokh are still flourishing each August and, in December 2015, “Yiddish New York” carried on much of its spirit, too. We always have the despair of whether our connections to Yiddish sources are still adequate after so much has been destroyed, but even a morbid point of view can be affirmingly ironic. To quote Isaac Bashevis Singer (whose Nobel Prize acceptance speech was spoken in his mother tongue), “Yiddish has been dying for 100 years. My prediction is that it will keep on dying for the next 100 years.”

The process of understanding Yiddish music and literature shows a repeating pattern of rescue and re-creation.

The process of understanding Yiddish music and literature shows a repeating pattern of rescue and re-creation. Many of the most famous authors, even from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were either not initially fluent in the language and/or discouraged from taking it seriously as a worthy medium of published thought. In musical spheres, “klezmer” was often a derogatory term for an inferior, unschooled musician (despite many amply gifted and some formally-educated players among the ranks of traditional and sometimes dynastic klezmorim). Yet by the time Russian Jewish musicians were finally admitted to Tsarist-era conservatories (in disproportionately-high numbers, especially on violin), the Romantic-era search for identity coincided, and led to active movements of collecting Yiddish folk melodies and creating art music. So prodigies in composition and performance completely steeped in Western classical traditions were coming back to their roots, some with more active connections than others. (Joel Engel, a co-founder of the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music, came from a wholly-assimilated family, but other prominent members included sons of a cantor, a rabbi, and a klezmer bandleader.) Joseph Achron, Mikhail Gnessin, and Alexander Krein were among those creating “elevated” settings for Yiddish traditional melodies, and original Hebraic-inspired pieces. While revolution, pogroms, assimilation, Stalin’s anti-Semitic purges, and the Holocaust were among the forces that dispersed this movement, many of its most active protagonists went on for decades with varying degrees of compositional output. Among the places they ended up were Hollywood, New York’s Temple Emanuel, the Soviet Union, and, in passing, Palestine.

An historic photo of Joseph Achron

Joseph Achron (1886-1943) arrived in Ellis Island on December 31, 1924 and remained in the USA until his death in Los Angeles on April 29, 1943. For more information, visit the Joseph Achron Society.

These art music adaptations of Ashkenazic Jewish traditions—paralleling the creative efforts of Dvořák, Bartók, Kodály, Janáček, etc.—were primarily an approach by readers’ (albeit often well-informed, versatile performers themselves quite familiar with traditional musical spirit and context) drawing  heavily on heritage generated mainly from fakers (who were also actively sought out and recorded in collecting expeditions utilizing literally cutting-edge technologies of the time, such as Edison wax cylinders). Into the late 20th and 21st centuries, I am glad to also see and hear Yiddish music finding new life created by and for faker-readers with wide frames of cultural, tuneful reference. And in the case of my own bands, the people who seem to be writing the most original compositions are those who began more on the reading edge, while those who began more on the faking side are invaluable references and style guides. Those bandmates who began closer to the roots of the music meanwhile have made fascinating musical translations among related genres, while we are also involved in myriad multi-faceted projects.

In the 21st century, we are certainly ready to shift even beyond the best impulses of revivalism. First, permit me to relate a tantalizing tale of innovation, tradition, delight, and dangling unfulfilled promise. I moved back to New York in 1990 to more fully pursue my klezmer aspirations, but stayed in touch with many dear people in the Pacific Northwest. My friend Trudi stayed in Seattle and to my surprise, opened a flourishing business called Sweet Lorraine’s drawing on her childhood memories of Mr. Moskowitz’s Jewish bakery in Detroit.

Trudi had worked in many fields before but to make this dream come true, she was fortunate to be able to go back first and apprentice with Moskowitz himself. As she told me, three things made her enterprise successful. The first, of course, were the recipes and secret techniques which her mentor was willing to share with her; opening her place over a thousand miles away, she wasn’t exactly his direct competitor. Second, as fondly as she recalled the tastes of his treats, she realized that they could even be improved upon simply by upgrading the ingredients: The original versions, while delectable already, were based on using the cheap stuff (and also may have been constrained by keeping to a kosher-neutral pareve formula). Trudi’s innovation would be to use the freshest grains, the lushest dried fruits, the finest eggs, and butter… not margarine. Thirdly, while not trying to market these product to a strictly observant Jewish clientele, she was actively celebrating her ethnic cultural heritage in the fairly white-bread but burgeoning foodie environs of Seattle circa 2002. Her authentic yet expanded approach immediately caught on, her rugelach, dark loaves and challahs sold to a devoted following far beyond the bakery’s Magnolia neighborhood storefront, and Sweet Lorraine’s—named, if I recall correctly, for Trudi’s own mother—was a hit for all the sixteen months it lasted. Who knows what flavor and menu alchemies Trudi might have been inspired to create if her grand revivalist culinary dream had continued? Already she had studded her macaroons with pine nuts. Sadly, constraints of capital and a lease non-renewal brought this experiment to a premature close, perhaps years before the word artisanal came into hipster parlance. (I am keenly aware that any Yiddish-culture essay bringing food into focus runs the risk of inviting kitsch or shtick. and Look, they’re even anagrams! But I’ll shake the fear of being interpreted as the former and after all proper deployment of the latter is really an art.) But Trudi’s legacy, even if less enduring than the NYC-based Levy’s Rye Bread ads, had an even higher caraway quality quotient, and a deliberate but classy register of camp. Her awareness of fantastic, earthy delicacies, and her clear ideas of production and merchandising, brought wonders for fortunate customers and employees while the place lasted.

The cover for the Isle of Klezbos' debut CD.

The cover for the Isle of Klezbos’ debut CD. You can hear it here.

In the same year Trudi’s bakery opened, Metropolitan Klezmer recorded its third album, Surprising Finds, and the band’s “sister sextet,” Isle of Klezbos went into the studio for our debut, Greetings from the Isle of Klezbos, at which point I feel like I had found my own musical identity within this idiom. But, even by the release of Metropolitan Klezmer’s second disc (which was recorded in 2000 and released in 2001), I feel the band’s creative tendencies beyond high-quality revivalism are already evident, in particular a distinct minimum of schtick— one track out of 16—and zero kitsch to my ear anyway. That disc’s title, Mosaic Persuasion (a striking phrase I had also come across while working at YIVO) is a double entendre. On the one hand, the term is an archaic euphemism for Jewish, referring to people of the “Mosaic” faith, as in the Five Books of Moses. (As I subsequently learned, in German usage a similar adjective can indicate Jews when the word Judische seems too heavily loaded.) But the added wordplay for me alludes to a beautiful optimism voiced by NYC’s then mayor, David Dinkins, when as a candidate he spoke of the city’s society as a “gorgeous mosaic.” Like the ad campaign of decades earlier (all those adorable and distinctly assorted goyim wryly posed with their slice of rye and the caption “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s”), Dinkins strove to highlight a vision of unity among distinct and proud cultures living together, benefiting from each other’s harmonious proximity and interchange.