Silence settles over the auditorium of the Ottmar Gerster municipal music school
in Weimar, Germany. From a corner of the hall, a group of elderly women begin to
sing, timidly, in German, “A boy saw a little rose, little rose upon the
Schubert’s melody rises, graceful and solemn; the audience, some
70 people from various age groups and nationalities listens intently. Soon, the
voices fade away, and a middle-aged man with a beard, glasses and curly hair
sits down at the piano to lead the audience in the next song.
time, the words are in Yiddish. “If only I had the strength, I would run
in the streets; I would loudly shout – Sabbath, holy Sabbath!”
This is a moment
from “A shtim fun harts” (“A voice from the heart”) – one of the weekly,
Shabbat-inspired evenings held during Yiddish Summer Weimar, Germany’s most
prominent annual Yiddish cultural festival. Founded in 2000 by Alan Bern, an
American-born accordionist and composer, Yiddish Summer has become one of the
world’s most prominent summer institutes for Jewish music.
theme, “Ashkenaz: The matrix of Yiddish and German cultures,” focused on the
encounter between Yiddish and German folk music. Over the course of six weeks in
July and August, a team of instructors, which included prominent members of the
American Yiddish culture scene and local experts on German folk music, led
students in courses on Yiddish song and language, a dance seminar, concerts, an
instrumental workshop and an academic symposium.
“Yiddish music, like all
folk music traditions, is not a frozen, isolated phenomenon, but the result of
dynamic, intercultural processes,” Bern, the founder and artistic director of
the festival, tells The Jerusalem Report.
“As such, it draws its
inspiration from many different registers of life – for example, some of the
ornaments and phrasing patterns in Klezmer music reflect the musical style of
the Western Baroque, the period during which Klezmer as we know it developed,
while others might very possibly be echoes of certain expressive sounds in
pre-war Yiddish speech that are now lost to us,” he explains.
of that development is indeed fascinating. Klezmer (the term is a
conflation of the Hebrew words for “musical instrument”) evolved in Bessarabia
during the 18th and 19th centuries, later spreading to other regions of Eastern
Europe – in particular, Hungary, Romania, and Poland – where it intermingled
with local folk and Gypsy music to produce a complex, refined art form,
performed primarily at weddings.
In the US, Klezmer emerged during the
1920s, thanks to the presence of Europeanborn musicians such as the legendary
clarinetists Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras; their style and legacy would
later inspire the American Klezmer revival of the mid-1970s, which in turn paved
the way for the Klezmer fervor that swept through Europe during the last two
decades of the 20th century.
Germany was the undisputed center of this
second revival, an unexpected development not only because of the obvious
historical overtones, but also because Klezmer was never traditionally performed
there. Yiddish Summer Weimar was founded as part of this trend. And although
interest in Yiddish music has since waned considerably, the festival continues
to foster that spirit of enthusiasm, drawing a crowd of devoted followers each
year. Many of those fans are attracted by the interdisciplinary approach
to musical education the festival is known for, which emphasizes unconventional,
“nonclassical” performance and learning techniques.
“Most of us in the
West learn music by first learning to read written notes. By doing so, we
distance ourselves from the actual territory of music itself – sound,” Bern
remarks during a break for lunch in the music school where the workshops are
held. “One way to heal that rift is by learning by ear; another is through
improvisation, which allows you to attend to your own musical impulses and act
on them directly.”
These ideas , play ed out in practice during the
ten-day instrumental workshop, also pointed to some of the paradoxes involved in
transmitting traditional Jewish culture in Europe today.
session began with a foray into Bavarian culture: After a brief introduction to
the geography of the region, the instructor, Evi Heigl, a violinist, singer and
expert on south German folk music, proceeded to perform a series of melodies – a
rowdy, down-to-earth polka, a simple, solemn ari, or air, from a village in the
Bavarian forest, and finally, a Czech folk song. A few minutes later, the group
had memorized the melodies and was accompanying Heigl’s singing with lusciously
After a short break, the theme shifted: In the
second session, Joel Rubin, an American Klezmer clarinetist, coached the group
on how to produce the krekhts, a traditional Jewish ornament.
somewhat unconventional pairing of musical styles was complemented by the
diversity of the group of participants, whose 25 members hailed from over 10
countries, including Germany, France, Japan, Latvia, the Czech Republic and the
United States, a mix of nationalities that contrasted with the homogeneity of
the team of Jewish music instructors, all of whom were Americans.
them was Walter Zev Feldman, a New York-born performer and ethnomusicologist,
who is one of the foremost authorities on the history of Klezmer music (see The
Jerusalem Report, June 8, 2009). In an interview with The Report, Feldman
explains that this discrepancy reflects some of the underlying contradictions
that characterize contemporary European Jewish musical life in general. “It is
something of a paradox that the prime transmitters of East European Yiddish
culture here today are American Jews,” he observes.
Indeed, in the
post-war period, North America was the only place in which that culture was
preserved and passed on to a younger generation of musicians; for obvious
reasons, that process did not occur in Europe. As a result, Feldman says,
“Although Yiddish culture developed on the Continent, most Europeans, having
never been exposed to it in its traditional form, had to ‘relearn’ it from
That process of “relearning,” one of the most intriguing
phenomena of postwar Jewish cultural history, has become something of a
tradition in Germany, and Yiddish Summer Weimar has played a central role. The
festival evolved from a workshop given in Weimar in 1999 by the American Klezmer
group, “Brave Old World,” at a time when the German Klezmer revival, which had
begun in the mid-1980s was in full swing, transforming Germany into the Klezmer
capital of the world.
Joel Rubin, a former member of that ensemble,
lived, taught and performed in Germany throughout those years. He recalls that
Klezmer then seemed to pervade all levels of German society, from high culture
and politics to the thriving club scene in downtown Berlin, where a score of
venues drew large audiences to concerts of Yiddish song and instrumental
“Local bands, composed mostly of non- Jewish Germans, mushroomed
in the hundreds, and workshops, led primarily by American Klezmer musicians,
drew large groups of participants all over the country,” he says.
that, however, belongs to the past. “The Berlin Klezmer scene, which
began to deteriorate after 9/11 – in part due to the ensuing financial crisis
–has now all but faded away,” Rubin, who teaches in the Performance Program at
the University of Virginia, tells The Report. “Besides the obvious economic
factor, which affected culture around the world, the interest and fascination
with Klezmer itself has also waned.”
Indeed, if judged according to
Berlin’s program magazines, music is now conspicuously absent from Germany’s
cultural scene; public interest seems to have shifted towards more actual,
pressing questions, such as the social integration of the country’s prominent
Turkish population. This fact does not deter the festival’s organizers,
who see it as their mission to continue to spread awareness of Yiddish
traditions in Germany and to uphold the legacy of the German Klezmer revival –
now essentially a closed chapter of German- Jewish cultural
“Today , Yiddish Summer Weimar is a meeting point for a growing
international community of artists eager to learn about Yiddish music, language
and culture,” Rubin continues. “On the one hand, for many of these young
musicians, the emphasis is on authenticity: In addition to ‘just’ playing
Klezmer, they are looking to experience something of the prewar European Jewish
culture within which that music developed.
At the same time, most of them
– Jews as well as non-Jews – see the Yiddish language and musical style as
objects of study distinct from Jewishness and Judaism,” he explains.
participants confirm Rubin’s observations. In conversations during breaks
between sessions, some of them share their stories and reasons for coming to
Weimar, revealing a remarkably wide range of backgrounds and
“I’ve done nothing but Yiddish my whole life,” Andreas Schmittges, a non-Jewish dance instructor from Cologne, tells The
Report, going on to describe his passion for Yiddish dance, which he will be
teaching at the festival. Next to him is Magdalena Müller, a German clarinet
player from Hamburg, whose interests range from Klezmer to world music and jazz.
Ange Sierakowski, at 15 the youngest member of the group, was born in France and
grew up in Rome. Although not Jewish, he says he feels a close affinity with
Yiddish music, reflected in the mature, controlled tone of the melody he
performs on the clarinet during a round of introductions.
Anja Husmann, a
German violinist, recounts, in fluent Hebrew, the story of her immigration to
Israel and subsequent return to Germany, where she has continued to pursue her
interest in Klezmer.
Their stories reflect a topic that has been much
discussed in the Jewish intellectual world in recent years: the extent to which
European- Jewish identity is being shaped by, and is dependent on, creative
dialogue between Jews and non-Jews and the fact that this dialogue has, in turn,
produced a new, more liberal and inclusive definition of
Yiddish Summer Weimar seeks to create an atmosphere of
reflexivity in which to contemplate this and similar issues – offering an
example of the notion of an intercultural “space,” which scholars have used in
discussing the problem of Jewish identity in contemporary Europe.
Jeffery M. Peck, professor of the Communication, Culture and Technology Program
at Georgetown University, explains in his book, “Being Jewish in the New
Germany,” the notion of identity today has become inseparable from the idea of a
virtual space extending between an individual’s multiple homelands and cultural
allegiances, and which functions as a setting for a “constant repositioning and
interaction” between them. This interaction, in turn, offers, in Peck’s words,
“an essential moment for critical reflexivity, as unsettling as it is
This intellectual aspect was not lost on Miléna Kartowsky, a
Jewish singer from Paris who is participating in the festival’s Yiddish song
workshop. In an interview with The Report, Kartowsky, 23, says that, in her
opinion, Weimar is the model contemporary Jewish cultural event.
being born a Jew doesn’t make you ‘Jewish,’” she says. “The effort you make to
understand what that word really means is what is important. That can only
happen through confrontations, such as those that occur continuously at Weimar
and force you to constantly reevaluate your cultural orientation and your place
in the world.”
“What we are interested in is defining the notions of
‘self’ and ‘other’ within Jewish music. This has been the motivating
force behind the festival since the very beginning,” Bern tells The Report. It
was that preoccupation, he explains, that prompted the choice of German folk
music as this year’s theme.
Yet many of the festival’s German fans had
reservations about that choice.
“Without exception, all of the negative
e-mails I received in response to this idea came from Germans,” Bern recalls.
“It’s something of a paradox. Last year, when the theme of the workshops was
“Yiddishkeit,” the participants were primarily Germans; this year they are
mostly non-German Jews.” This phenomenon is related to the controversial
status of German folk music today, which is another contentious issue that
pervades the festival.
According to Heigl, the negative response reflects
the deep-seated discomfort that many in Germany still feel towards a tradition
that has been so widely exploited in the past. “Every nation is proud of
its own music – except the Germans, who are ashamed of it,” Heigl writes in an
e-mail to The Report a few weeks after the end of the festival. She notes the
dismissive attitude with which many of the German students in the instrumental
workshop approached the music she was presenting. “I certainly think that one
should be careful in approaching anything that the Nazis made such prominent use
of; on the other hand, many of these things – including the old rural dance
music – have been stigmatized and degraded to an extent they do not
Heigl adds that for many of those students, the workshop turned
out to be a revelatory experience. “By the end of the workshop, I had completely
won them over. At the final concert we performed a Zwiefach [a typical
south-German dance with alternating meters], singing it in three languages –
Bavarian, High German and Yiddish.”
Moments such as this are what set
Yiddish Weimar Summer apart from the popular Klezmer cult that has evolved in
Germany over the past 20 years, centered around the popular, Argentinian-Israeli
clarinetist, Giora Feidman.
Feidman was among the initiators of the
German Klezmer revival and today is widely considered to be the official
representative of Jewish music in Germany.
The music of Feidman and his
protégés is a regular feature of official events, such as the annual
commemoration of Kristallnacht on November 9 or the “Jewish Culture Days,” an
annual, 10-day festival held in Berlin, where the music is presented as a
vehicle for reconciliation with the past – a ‘safe’ way for Germans to confront
the legacy of the Holocaust,” Rubin tells The Report.
This helps explain
why much of the government funding Bern struggles to obtain for Yiddish Weimar
is channeled instead into events that cater to a mainstream
Bern is disheartened by what he describes as a “clique
mentality” and what he sees as the unwillingness on the part of government
sponsors to cooperate with the festival. “We are perched on a narrow ledge,” he
notes soberly. “The world thinks we’re being taken care of, because this
is Germany; in fact, each year it’s an uphill battle for funding on city, state
and national levels.”
The festival has received some support from the
city of Weimar, including a building to use as its headquarters, rented at the
symbolic price of one euro per year. But, as Bern notes, that aid pales in
comparison to the millions allotted to the other educational and cultural
institutions in Weimar, which has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Cultural
Despite these difficulties, Yiddish Summer has obtained a
degree of international recognition. Among other honors, it was recently
chosen by the Westbury Group, a worldwide network of Jewish foundations, as one
of the 36 most innovative Jewish cultural initiatives in Europe today. Equally
importantly, Bern has used the festival as a launching pad for a number of
international projects that have won funding from the European Union; most
prominent among these is “The Other Europeans,” a band comprised of Klezmer and
East- European Roma musicians, whose repertoire highlights the historical bond,
often overlooked, which unites these two musical cultures.
determined to continue this tradition: flyers for Yiddish Summer 2012, with the
heading “Ashkenaz, Chapter 2,” are already circulating. Sporting a photo
of two clarinetists – a German woman and a Japanese man playing side by side –
it promises a program that will continue “to explore the connections between
Yiddish and German culture and history.” •