For Torah shall come forth from Zion

Avrum Leib Burstein, head of the Jerusalem Klezmer Association, hopes to make the city the Yiddish cultural capital of the world.

Avrum Lieb Burstein plays the accordion with a klezmer band at Burstein’s Krechme (photo credit: LOULOU D’AKI)
Avrum Lieb Burstein plays the accordion with a klezmer band at Burstein’s Krechme
(photo credit: LOULOU D’AKI)
Avrum Leib Burstein is a true showman.
All eyes in the heimish basement, lined with Yiddish books and memorabilia, are on the 44-yearold Breslov hassid as he chants the havdala prayer to a beautiful Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach melody. The only light in the room comes from the fire of the braided candle Burstein holds, his face aglow.
Dressed in a shimmering bekishe, a hassidic coat, the klezmer musician and brains behind the weekly Klezmer Tisch welcomes the mostly non-Jewish crowd to Burstein’s Klezmer Basement, or in Yiddish, Burstein’s Krechme.
“This place is a library of Yiddish books. Books in Yiddish. Not Hebrew, not Aramaic. Yiddish. Yiddish is the language from more than 1,400 years,” Burstein tells the crowd, which includes a smattering of young Italian, Spanish and French tourists. “This is the klezmer basement.”
Soon, a three-piece band begins playing soulful melodies as two women hand out plates of hot potato kugel and glasses of the basement’s homemade Krechme’s wine to each member of the audience. The basement, located in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Romema neighborhood, is charming, arranged with a long wooden table holding flowers in gefilte-fish jars and surrounded by chairs and cozy sofas before the stage. It is a window into another world, which Burstein is working hard to preserve and restore. At tonight’s tisch, famed pianist and composer Achiya Cohen is accompanying Itzik Berlov on clarinet and Shmulik Kriger on bass for a jam session.
Several klezmer bands rotate from week to week, playing a diverse range of klezmer, including melodies which Burstein says originated in the Land of Israel starting in the second century.
Yonatan Megidish, a member of Burstein’s Jerusalem Klezmer Band, emerges to perform the traditional bottle dance, delighting the crowd as he delicately balances a bottle of wine on his head, smoothly rotates his wrists and glides across the room.
Megidish, whose long sidelocks frame his warm smile, explains that the roughly 500-year-old dance likely emerged during the Jewish exile from Spain.
“They don’t have [a] place to put the bottle, so they put it on the head,” he says of the expelled Jews.
The lighthearted though intentional lesson on the bottle dance and melody demonstrates Burstein’s core mission to make the basement an educational site.
The weekly Saturday night shows, which start around 10 p.m., “are only the display window” for the Jerusalem Klezmer Association, which Burstein also runs.
“It’s a type of movement,” he says. “It’s not [just] a band, it’s not an association.
It’s the movement of music and Jewish culture.”
Formerly part of the YUNG YiDiSH nonprofit, which Mendy Cahan opened in 1993 to preserve and spread Yiddish culture in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Burstein took over the basement space in 2005 after Cahan moved to Tel Aviv. Cahan has collected over 40,000 Yiddish books, many of which are housed in the YUNG YiDiSH Living Museum located in Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station.
When the klezmer bands are not performing, the Jerusalem Klezmer Association offers classes in the basement.
Burstein, who plays the accordion, piano and clarinet, offers lessons and workshops along with other established musicians to aspiring musicians. Many of the musicians both teach and take lessons.
“Everyone enriches their knowledge and experience,” Burstein says. “Everyone learns together.” He has been training students in klezmer, the musical tradition of Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe, since 1990, and recording since 1993; he was the first to record an album of hassidic Breslov melodies for the High Holy Days.
Burstein dreams of the Jerusalem Klezmer Association – currently run by volunteers – becoming a more formal program with paid teachers and funding by the Education Ministry.
His dreams do not stop there. Taking inspiration from Isaiah 2:3, “For the Torah shall come forth from Zion,” Burstein hopes to establish a major center in Jerusalem to preserve and promote Yiddish and klezmer culture, including language, music and food, within Israel and beyond. He argues that it’s a shanda that it does not already exist.
“Hitler and Ben-Gurion killed Yiddish and klezmer,” he says, pausing dramatically.
“In the early years of the state, it was forbidden to do a show in Yiddish.... It’s a miracle that today they allow it to happen.
Between the Knesset and Yad Vashem there should have been a big building, a house of Jewish culture.”
The state’s early focus on promoting Hebrew language left Yiddish behind, and according to a 2011 study by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, only 2 percent of the population, then roughly 154,000 people, speaks Yiddish. Before the Holocaust, 11 million people spoke Yiddish as their daily language.
Burstein hopes the government has come a long way since then. After he performed “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof at the 2014 National Bible Quiz for Youth, he says Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised him that he would promote Jerusalem as the klezmer capital of the world.
To further his vision of Torah going out from Zion, Burstein founded the Jerusalem Klezmer Festival, which brings together musicians from around the world and celebrated its third year at the gathering in August. In 2007 he published The Soul of Klezmer: Sheet Music, Stories and History of Traditional Jewish Music, a one-volume book in six languages. Most of all, Burstein wants Jews and non-Jews alike to be able to access Yiddish culture.
Along with his bandmates, Burstein performs around Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Europe, spreading klezmer to whoever will listen, and wowing crowds with the bottle dance. Since 2009 he and his musicians have traveled to European cities over the High Holy Days to share klezmer and shtetl culture with klezmer bands and typically non-Jewish crowds.
“We need to… connect [these bands] with the source so they won’t just have the body of klezmer music and the technique, but also the soul.”
It does not bother him that his shows, including those in Jerusalem, do not draw many Jews.
“I’m saying that if Jews don’t want the Torah, I give it to the non-Jews,” he says, adding that his shows in Israel draw on a broad sampling of Israeli society, including Arabs, right-wing Jews, secular Jews and Christians.
One population tends to stay away, however.
Burstein intentionally does not promote his Saturday night shows among haredim, for fear of creating conflict. He worries they would be upset that men and women sit together, for example. More lenient haredim do attend his shows, though. He wants the “music of the Jewish soul” to touch hearts, inspire laughter and draw people in, not to be a source for argument.
Based on this philosophy, Burstein has crafted a tisch that combines theater, musical performance and Ashkenazi hospitality.
He emphasizes the importance of engaging all of the audience’s senses.
“It’s really not just the music; rather, it’s this whole culture. It’s also the Yiddish, also the acting, and Jewish food.”
Quoting Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, Burstein says, “If a person would say his Torah with his melody and dance, the world would dissolve.” Such is the power of creative presentation.
Burstein has also launched an acting career as a means to promote his vision in the broader society. He played the character of Anshin on the first season of Shtisel, a drama about a hassidic family in Jerusalem which centers on the romantic life of the youngest son, Akiva Shtisel. Anshin serves food to Shtisel and his friends, played by Burstein’s bandmates, at their local restaurant.
The eighth episode of the first season was filmed at the klezmer basement, Burstein says, adding that they will return to the series for the second season this month.
The show’s context is familiar to Burstein, who was born to a Polish father and German- American mother and grew up in Mea She’arim. From the age of five, he says, he already felt connected to klezmer music.
By 10 he was selling tapes of musician Gershon Kletzky in the market in Mea She’arim. “This people need to hear,” he recalls thinking.
But it was Argentine-Israeli clarinetist Giora Feidman’s 1973 record Jewish Soul Music that transformed Burstein forever.
He later became a student of Feidman, studying the clarinet under his tutelage.
Music has been an important outlet in Burstein’s life, as he has not always been comfortable within the confines of the yeshiva world. Studying from morning to night did not come easily to him. At 17, seeking a more open environment, he left his haredi yeshiva, going against his family and community, and moved to a ba’alei teshuva yeshiva for students new to Jewish observance. It was there that he met peers from different backgrounds and began formally studying music.
“It opened a lot of horizons that I didn’t have, and I continued,” he says.
Today the father of five and grandfather of one chooses to make his home in Musrara because he wants to live near Jews and Arabs.
“That’s who I am,” says Burstein, who says he is drawn to multicultural experiences.
He remains focused on building up the Jerusalem Klezmer Association, explaining that he must wear many hats to make his dream a reality. He likens himself to Rabbi Hiya, who after the destruction of the Second Temple, the Talmud says, took it upon himself to return Torah to Israel by doing the agricultural and slaughtering work needed to physically make the Torah and Mishna. Rabbi Hiya taught them to children, and then had the children teach each other what they had learned. “He returned the Torah to all places,” Burnstein says. “So the same thing regarding music here.”
Burstein’s Klezmer Basement, 52 Yirmeyahu Street, every Saturday from 10 p.m. to 11/11:30 p.m. NIS 50; students, NIS 25.