Navigate to News section

Puttin’ on the Schvitz

Daniel Brenner, the rabbi and musician behind Klezmer Aerobics, hopes to have you schvitzin’ like it’s the 1880s

Rose Kaplan
February 11, 2016

Last year, Daniel Brenner had a dream. As he slept, he heard the Klezmorim’s album Streets of Gold, the 1978 classic that helped launch an American klezmer revival. The next day Brenner went to his local YMCA and put on the album to pump him up while he exercised.

“People were streaming by me, coming out of Zumba class,” he said, “and the thought that came to me was: it is time for Klezmer Aerobics.”

So Brenner, a rabbi and Jewish educator who has also worked as a musician and performer since the late ’80s, decided to create Klezmer Aerobics, a mashup of 1980s-style aerobics classes and traditional Yiddish performance; or, and he puts it, a “family-friendly interactive dance/storytelling workout.”

Initially, Brenner drew inspiration from the techiyas hameisim, a traditional comic dance involving a beggar, alcohol, and money that he saw his Lubavitcher cousin perform at a wedding last year. “Seeing the dance revived got me thinking about other Jewish dance traditions that were once popular but have since faded into memory,” he said.

As he dances and spreads the gospel of schvitzing, he’s been creating instructional videos along the way.

Last year, Brenner led the first Klezmer Aerobics at the Kehillah Synagogue in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Footage of Brenner’s performance shows him dancing gaily in front of children who do the same, overlaid with 80s-style funk synths and Hebrew Hammer-style titles proclaiming “old shul meets new shul.” Afterward, Brenner, who is also a published playwright, launches into his original story called “Levi and the Old Badchen”—badkhn is a Yiddish word for popular entertainers, usually comedic, who performed at weddings and holiday celebrations—about a dancer and his apprentice.

“80s Klezmer Aerobics is intended to be an all-ages family show and I am trying to make it work artistically on both a child and adult level,” Brenner says.

Brenner had such a good time at the North Carolina show that he decided to do it again, this time in a more official capacity. Next month, he’ll run a participatory Klezmer Aerobics show at Limmud NY 2016, a Jewish learning conference in Stamford, Connecticut.

Brenner has been taking his project’s artistry and historicity seriously, an effort shown by his enlisting the help of professional Jewish performers and cultural scholars: Baruch College’s Debra Kaplan, a theater professor with a deep background in Yiddish culture, and Steven Lee Weintraub, a teacher, choreographer, and performer specializing in Yiddish dance.

“In a couple of hours, in his living room in Philadelphia, Weintraub was able to teach me some of the basic hand gestures for freilich dance, show me video clips from Yidl mitn FidlThe Dybbuk, and Bobover (Hasidic) wedding parties, and teach me some tricks about leading klezmer dance with large groups,” Brenner added.

In his research, Brenner has also unearthed some strange factoids from the annals of Jewish dance history. For example, while exercise maven Richard Simmons grew up Catholic, his mother was a Jewish tap-dancer in New York, and her parents, Avram and Jennie (Tzena) Satinsky, were both born in the Ukraine in the 1880s.

So, what should attendees expect from Brenner’s Klezmer Aerobics performance at Limmud? Well, live music, for one. While Brenner used music he had on his cell phone for the first show, in Stamford he’ll have members of his band Midnight Nosh along for the ride. “Having live music means that we can really respond to the energy of the audience,” he said.

And while the show is all-ages for now, Brenner has dreams of revamping 80s Klezmer Aerobics as a participatory show for adults, with audience members dressed in 80s gear: “If I do it, I hope to involve the Jewish burlesque performers the Schlep Sisters,” he said.

Let’s just say, it’s definitely not what most 19th century badkhonim had in mind!

Rose Kaplan is an intern at Tablet.