Bemokem she-eyn ish iz a hering oykh a fish.
Where there is no worthy man, even a herring is a fish.
And where there is no klezmer dance party, even a Bulgarian horo will do. The night of my 30th birthday I dragged a gaggle of my best law-school girlfriends to folk-dance night at Hungarian House on the Upper East Side. Not because I had any kind of facility with the exotic skitter of Balkan folk-dance meters, oh dear, no. Rather, I’d been attending KlezKamp (in the winter) and Klezkanada (in the summer) for a while and I so wanted my non-Klez friends to get why I’d gone crazy for the scene. And they loved me enough to indulge my mishegas for a few hours. At that time there wasn’t a regular Yiddish dance night anywhere in New York City, so Hungarian House (and that night’s Balkan band) was close enough.
While the casual listener of “klezmer” today may sense the deep interplay of cultures pulsing beneath the music, without some much more recent American cross-pollination, what we think of as the “klezmer revival” would not have taken place. Before the klezmer revival was a gleam in its participants’ eyes, musicians were honing their chops in various other ethnic-music scenes, especially Balkan. In his book Klezmer!: Jewish Music from Old World to Our World, Henry Sapoznik writes that his conception of a klezmer-music “camp” was directly influenced by the Balkan music and dance camp then sponsored by the East European Folklife Center; a gathering where the majority of participants were, of course, Eastern European Jews. But rather than being mainly peer-led, KlezKamp would put intergenerational cultural transmission at its center, connecting music and dance to the lived experience of Jews in the here and now. It was a brilliant insight and something that has had profound reverberations far beyond those who were lucky enough to attend KlezKamp in its 30-year history.
Today there is a circuit of Jewish-music festivals and retreats, winter and, mostly, summer. Klezkamp iz avek in der eybikayt (gone to its eternal reward), but you can party in places like Krakow, Weimar, and, now, in its third year, Yiddish New York, the unofficial wintertime successor to KlezKamp. As much as social media has facilitated new and exciting expansions of our creative (and social, and romantic) lives, nothing can substitute for a week spent learning, loving, and jamming IRL. Of course, winter convocation is hardly unique to the klez tribe. This year my dear friend Anthony Russell will be acting as special Yiddish attaché and honey-voiced honey trap at Limmud UK. Those who think Yiddish art song is fusty or irrelevant are gonna flip their lids. Anthony will be interviewed by the brilliant Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, senior rabbi for the Reform Movement, UK, and then lead a workshop titled Written in Breath: Yiddish Song as Commentary. All of this on Monday the 25th, as Anthony notes “a day of immense goyish significance, I’m told.”
Right this moment, it feels like most of my social-media feed is at the Association for Jewish Studies meeting in Washington. Every winter I wistfully follow the panels and gossip, wondering a little, not too much, but a little, what might have been. When I was applying to grad school a journal like In Geveb was inconceivable. I barely even knew anyone my age doing academic Yiddish. Today, the editors and contributors of In Geveb are an established AJS presence.
Our session, “Yiddish Studies Beyond Borders” is happening right now in the Gallaudet University room! #AJS17 pic.twitter.com/scT3o93kcK
— In geveb (@ingeveb) December 17, 2017
Because I’m not currently at any winter retreat (and will have only limited time at Yiddish New York) I had to call on a special correspondent to help me paint a fuller picture. The most unusual Jew I know, Shane Baker, is in Berlin at the third annual ShtetlNeukolln festival. Where most of these festivals take an enormous amount of planning and forethought, ShtetlNeukolln has somewhat miraculously sprung up in the fertile soil—and still reasonably priced real estate—of Berlin. It started as a local jam in a neighborhood that had attracted a large part of the city’s young klezmer-oriented musicians. Think of it as Berlin’s Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. One jam night turned into a weekly thing turned into workshops turned into a multiday festival. Much of the festival takes place at Werkstatt der Kulturen, a vibrant public center that hosts Berlin’s many ethnic communities, including Syrian refugees and its large Namibian population. Werkstatt der Kulturen is also one of the few cultural institutions in Germany run by a person of color.
Last Thursday my girl crush Sasha Lurje and her band, You Shouldn’t Know From It, opened the fest to a wildly appreciative crowd. As Shane puts it, “There’s much more whistling (loud fayfing, both of approval and as musical garnish) than one is normally accustomed to at a Yiddish concert without Peysekh Burstein. Poor things don’t know they’re calling up the devil.” Then again, who’s more fun at a party?
Though Jews are an estimated 2 percent of attendees, for Shane, the vibe of ShtetlNeukolln is in a way more heymish than other festivals due to its loose feel. There’s also an educational component on the part of the Jewish teachers for the non-Jewish crowd. Sasha and her bandmate, musician Craig Judelman, held a public Kiddush on Friday night. Though it could’ve ended up as mere spectacle for a curious crowd, Sasha and Craig feel it’s important to connect song and ritual in a way that draws in all participants, many of whom arrive at Jewish music with their own sense of cultural and historical absence. In that way, the non-Jews at ShtetlNeukolln, and the thousands of Jews who have ever participated in a klezmer retreat, are drawn by the same inner journey, to connect to history, to shared cultures, to what has been—and still might be.
Next Year in Berlin!: ShtetlNeukolln has already announced its 2018 dates of Dec. 6-9, leaving the jet-setting klezmer of leisure plenty of leeway for Berlin and New York.
ALSO: A couple years ago the Klezmatics put out an album of Woody Guthrie song titled Happy Joyous Hanukkah. Guthrie can pull off some goofy lyrics no one else could and, well, the Klezmatics are the Klezmatics and I listen to the whole darn thing every year. Klezmatics at SOPAC, Thursday, Dec. 21. … Hungarian House is great (it really is), but if you want a real Yiddish Tantshoyz, also Thursday, Jalopy will be rocking with an all-star band and Yiddish dance leading. … And if you want check out what all the fuss is about, don’t miss Sasha Lurje on the bill with her cross-cultural project Goyfriend (with Craig Judelman and Zisl Slepovitch) along with Tsibele and Overnight Kugel, Monday, Dec. 25 at Town and Village Synagogue. It’s part of the YNY festival—non-YNY attendees $20—so please buy your tickets in advance and get there early. This will sell out and seats will be annoyingly scarce.
Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.