Festival review: A world of Jewish soul music

25th annual Klezmer Festival arrives in Safed; religious tunes give ancient city a 21st-century vibe.

Safed Klezmer Festival 370 (photo credit: LAHAV HARKOV)
Safed Klezmer Festival 370
(photo credit: LAHAV HARKOV)
Israel is full of cities that combine new and old – Jerusalem, Jaffa and many others – but somehow, Safed always seems authentically timeworn.
Visitors spend days wandering through narrow, crumbling stone passageways and peering into centuries-old synagogues where men with long, white beards crouch over ancient texts. Walls are painted turquoise to ward off the evil eye and art galleries display depictions of rabbis and Biblical scenes.
For a few days every summer, Safed lights up and rockets forward to the 21st century, ironically thanks to a style of music that is hundreds of years old – Klezmer.
This week, Safed is celebrating its 25th annual Klezmer Festival. Nearly every open space had a stage with lighting effects in every shade imaginable where Jewish music is played and can be heard from far away. If a square in Safed is too small for an official performance, a street musician playing the clarinet with a turned-over hat on the cobblestones was likely to have filled it up.
One popular festival venue is the Saraya, a white stone palace built by a Beduin sheikh 300 years ago. The Saraya is adjacent to Safed’s Independence Square, where vendors of food and art displayed their wares.
Throngs of festival-goers gathered outside the Saraya on Monday night to hear popular Jewish music band Hamadregot sing Hassidic and Kabbalistic tunes, while purple lights flashed and twinkled behind them, but inside the massive white edifice, there was a more intimate performance.
Hassidic clarinetist Zvi Gluzman played in the Saraya’s inner courtyard to no more than a few hundred listeners who squeezed into the venue on plastic chairs, while others grabbed spots on the stairs or stood in the stone archways marking its entrance.
Gluzman’s song choices were well known to those familiar with Klezmer music. He jumped from happy tunes you could imagine being played at an Orthodox wedding, to slow, mournful and soulful. The audience ranged from small children to the elderly, secular to Hassidic, all bobbing their heads in unison to Gluzman’s music with many able to sing the words. As the musician in the large black hat and long, curly forelocks played his clarinet, the city of Safed came alive around the audience, seeming younger and more vibrant than ever.