by Stewart Hendrickson

Klezmer is “music of uncontrollable joy fused with irrevocable pathos. Echoing the sounds of its long-lost homeland of Eastern Europe, it mirrors and interweaves with the musical kaleidoscope of its new home in America.” (Inna Barmash, Why Klezmer?

 On Sunday, Nov. 10, Temple Beth Am in NE Seattle will host it’s annual Klezfest, a festival of klezmer music and food. First I will give you a brief historical background of klezmer music, and later tell you about klezmer in Seattle and the upcoming Klezfest.

After the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD the rabbis said that Jews should be in mourning and would no longer have music in the church. Church musicians were suddenly without a gig. Jewish musicians recalled that the Bible said weddings must have music and rejoicing, and asked the rabbis if that was permitted. It was, and Jewish musicians found a new gig.

Klezmer has its roots in the dance music played by Jewish musicians at weddings in the shtels or close-knit Jewish communities in Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. But this music was for more than just dancing, it was also for listening – to express the joys and sorrows of the people. The word klezmer is derived from the Hebrew words, kle for vessel or instrument, and zemer for song, and groups of these professional musicians were called klezmorim.

In Eastern Europe this music has roots in the Middle East, Turkey, Greece, Poland and Russia. Wherever the Jews lived they appropriated some of the local music. When Jewish immigrants came to America in the early 1900s they brought this music with them. However, like many immigrants anxious to assimilate into the mainstream culture, they soon lost interest in this “old world” art form.

The klezmer sound was used as instrumental accompaniment for Yiddish songs and for the Yiddish theater. Klezmer musicians in show business and big bands brought this sound with them, where it began to fuse with popular American music and lost much of its original form. By the 1940s it had practically disappeared as the young people were not interested in this music of their parents from the “old country.”

In the 1970s a new generation of Jewish musicians were searching for their roots and new musical ideas. They sought out old scores and records, and discovered a musical tradition that was almost gone. Henry Sapoznik was a founding member of this klezmer revival. He collected old 78 sound recordings of the early 20th century Yiddish music, and in 1976 with Michael Alpert formed Kapelye, one of the first klezmer bands on the east coast. Other east coast revival groups that formed about that time included the Andy Statman Klezmer Orchestra and the Klezmer Conservatory Band. In the mid 1970s, Lev Liberman discovered his musical roots in a stash of old Yiddish 78s in Oakland, CA. He formed the first west coast revival band Klezmorim in Berkeley in 1976.

Klezmer did not reach Seattle until the early 1980s. Having played klezmer music since 1978, Sandra Layman (Seattle violinist) along with Meg Glaser and Jim Mirel founded in 1980 the Pacific Northwest's first klezmer group, the Mazel Tov Klezmer Band in Seattle. They disbanded in 1982 and the Mazeltones klezmer band formed with Mary Kantor (clarinet), Wendy Marcus (violin, vocals) and others. The Mazeltones performed for 16 years in Seattle, and played their last concert at Temple Beth Am’s Klezfest in 1998.

Currently there are several klezmer bands active in the Seattle area. These include the Freylakh Klezmer Band, a traditional group with Kim and Nancy Goldov, and Carl Shutoff; the Shalom Ensemble with Rabbi James Mirel in Bellevue; Kugel with Shawn Weaver; and Klez Katz, a new group with Harvey Niebulski. These groups are becoming quite popular for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, weddings and other Simchas (“happy occasions”).

On Sunday, Nov. 10, Temple Beth Am (2631 NE 80th St., Seattle) will celebrate klezmer music with their annual KlezFest. This will be combined with Mame Loshn Northwest, a Yiddish language conference. KlezFest will begin with a Kidstage from 1:30 – 4:30 and the Mainstage from 4:30 – 8:30. Mame Loshn will begin with a luncheon at 12:30 followed by the Keynote Speaker, Henry Sapoznik, and then Yiddish language classes until 4:00. Food will be available for purchase from Leah’s Catering and Bakery.

Henry Sapoznik, producer of  the Yiddish Radio Project heard coast-to-coast on National Public Radio this year and one of the founders of the klezmer revival will be the musical headliner for KlezFest. He will perform on banjo with one of the leading klezmer clarinetists, Margot Leverett of New York, and the nationally known Seattle accordionist, Laurie Andres. Other performing local bands will be the Freylakh Klezmer Band, the Shalom Ensemble, and Klez Katz.

Tickets for KlezFest are available from Temple Beth Am and from the Tree of Life Judaica and Books (2201 NE 65th, 206-527-1130) at $12 for adults, $8 for children.

Recommended books and recordings of klezmer music:

Klezmer! Jewish Music from Old World to Our World, by Henry Sapoznik, Schirmer Books, 1999.
The Essential Klezmer, a music lover’s guide to Jewish Roots and Soul Music, from the Old World to the Jazz Age to the Downtown Avant-Garde, by Seth Rogovoy, Algonquin Books, 2000.
Klezmer! Jewish Music from Old World to Our World, a companion CD to Henry Sapoznik’s book, a chronological anthology of klezmer music from the early 20th century to the present time. Yazoo (7017), 2000.
The Art of Klezmer Clarinet – Margot Leverett, one of the leading musicians in the klezmer revival pays tribute to legendary clarinetists Naftule Brandwein, Dave Tarras, and Shloimke Beckerman. A truly outstanding recording of klezmer clarinet music. Traditional Crossroads CD (4296), 2000.
Little Blackbird – Sandra Layman, Seattle violinist and early klezmer musician in the Pacific Northwest, has produced an outstanding collection of klezmer, Romanian, Greek, Turkish, and Hungarian music from her live recordings from 1982-85, ably assisted by other Northwest musicians. Sandra Layman and Rosin Dust Music (101) 2001.
Kugel – Finger Play. Shawn Weaver’s band (Seattle) plays mostly original compositions in the klezmer style with jazz and world music fusion. Popover Productions, 2002.

Stewart Hendrickson is Chemistry Professor Emeritus – St. Olaf College, Research Professor Emeritus  University of Washington, and in his new career, an unemployed folk musician (voice, fiddle, guitar; Reprinted from The Victory Review, November, 2002.