Klezmer conquers Jerusalem

The capital’s third annual International Klezmer Festival pulls out all the stops

Klezmer clarinetist and festival organizer Hanan Bar-Sela (center) struts his stuff alongside Basque musician Enrique Ugarte (left). (photo credit: Courtesy)
Klezmer clarinetist and festival organizer Hanan Bar-Sela (center) struts his stuff alongside Basque musician Enrique Ugarte (left).
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This week, the Holy City will play host to the third annual International Klezmer Festival, a weeklong celebration of Eastern European Jewish music in its many varieties.
Organized by the same team that has run the venerable Klezmer Festival in Safed for over 10 years, the newer Jerusalem event features the best Israeli klezmer musicians, as well as dozens of guest artists from abroad, in multiple performances around the city – including several street-level, open-to-the-public events.
Just what is this music, arguably the most well-known style of Jewish musical expression? The origins of the word “klezmer” lie in the Hebrew language – klei meaning instruments, zemer meaning song – so it is, at its root, instrumental music. Indeed, in Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, families of sometimes itinerant klezmer musicians were a backbone of Jewish life, performing extended suites of instrumental pieces for various lifecycle events in the community, especially weddings.
In the 20th century, the clarinet replaced the violin, and the US, with its swelling immigrant population, became a major center for klezmer activity. Largely dropping the older, stately style, a new generation of musicians embraced a New York influence, resulting in the hard-driving, rhythmic sound closely associated with modern klezmer. After the music nearly died out in the late 1950s, a new generation in the US, the “Klezmer Revival” of the 1970s and ’80s, brought klezmer music back to the forefront of Jewish life, and today, the style can incorporate almost any influence.
One of the featured artists at the Jerusalem festival, for example, specializes in tango-klezmer fusion.
Modern klezmer also incorporates elements of hassidic music and music from Yiddish theater, both closely related but distinct genres.
In Israel, the story is somewhat different. Although the early Zionist pioneers rejected the klezmer aesthetic – as they did with much of old-world Yiddish culture – an indigenous style of klezmer had already been in development for some time. This style centered around the Lag Ba’omer celebrations at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yohai in Meron, which mixed klezmer and hassidic music with a Middle Eastern influence, and has continued to be the one of the dominant threads of Israeli klezmer.
Nonetheless, for much of the existence of the State of Israel, klezmer music, like other styles of traditional Diaspora Jewish music, has been largely under the radar of mainstream musical culture.
This may be changing, however. Over the last several years, there has been a “huge difference” in the appreciation of klezmer music and in the number of young musicians embracing the genre, according to klezmer clarinetist Hanan Bar-Sela, who is the artistic director of both Jerusalem’s International Klezmer Festival and the Safed Klezmer Festival.
More young musicians are joining or starting groups playing klezmer or klezmer-influenced material, he tells In Jerusalem – a development far beyond the usual tunes, which never completely left the wedding-band repertoire. The change, in his opinion, is due at least in part to a side effect of the piyutim movement, which in recent years has seen Israelis of all stripes embracing the once-underground style of eastern Jewish religious song. That has paved the way, he believes, for further appreciation of other neglected genres of traditional Jewish music, such as klezmer.
Along these lines, Bar-Sela notes that the festival in Jerusalem is really “two projects: the performances, and also international artist workshops.” These workshops, master classes and rehearsals, held in conjunction with the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, are not open to the general public, but have the aim of fostering musical dialogue between Israeli musicians and musical guests from abroad.
The festival opens on Wednesday, with a grand performance at the Bible Lands Museum featuring the main guest artists: clarinet maestro Helmut Hazel, accompanied by pianist Sebastian Welch, both from Frankfurt, Germany; solo pan-flutist Constantine Moscovici from Moldova; Raoul Jaurena, a New Yorkbased master of the Argentinean accordion known as the bandoneon; Munich-based Gypsy-klezmer ensemble Gitanes Blondes, featuring clarinetist Caroline Hartig from the US; and Bar-Sela along with accordionist Emil Eibinder, who teaches Balkan and klezmer music at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.
This performance, which begins at 8:30 p.m., includes admission to the museum and a 7:30 p.m. guided tour of “By the Rivers of Babylon,” an exhibition on the Babylonian exile.
The next day features two events open to the public, free of charge. The first, at 5 p.m. at Zion Square, is a “Klezmer March” street party, led by Avraham Burston of the Jerusalem Klezmer Association. The evening continues at 7 p.m. with a concert at the First Station, featuring Gitanes Blondes, Hartig and Israeli hassidic-klezmer clarinet sensation Chilik Frank.
On Friday, another open street event is planned: a 10 a.m. tour of the Old City’s gates accompanied by live klezmer musicians. Later the same day, at 1:45 p.m., a gala choral concert will take place at the Yeshurun Central Synagogue on King George Avenue. That event, a performance of the Kabbalat Shabbat Friday evening liturgy, features IDF chief cantor Shai Abramson, the Heavenly Voices choir under the direction of Rafi Biton, and the Angels Choir children’s ensemble, which Bar-Sela calls “truly wonderful” – all accompanied by klezmer musicians.
Shabbat is Shabbat, of course, but on Saturday night, August 1, the festival organizers have planned two events. One is a concert by virtuoso bandeonist Jaurena and ensemble.
Jaurena, a tango-style accordionist originally from Uruguay but now based in New York City, lived for several years in Israel, where some of his tango-klezmer compositions became known among the local klezmer musicians. His concert takes place at Beit Avi Chai at 10 p.m.
The second Saturday night event, also at 10 p.m., is a klezmer-style tish – a traditional meeting around a hassidic rabbi’s table, typically involving song, strong drink and food. This event, hosted by singer Yishai Lapidot and radio personality Ariel Berman, will take place in the Cardo, in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, and is free of charge.
The central concert of the festival, scheduled for Sunday, August 2, features veteran singer and media personality Yehoram Gaon, along with Jerusalembased singer Aaron Razel and a klezmer ensemble directed by Bar-Sela. Titled “Jerusalem Melodies,” it will take place at the Seven Arches hotel on the Mount of Olives at 8:30 p.m.
Monday, August 3, will see the final generaladmission performance of the festival, “World Wide Klezmer,” featuring an ensemble led by Bar-Sela and a special guest, talented Israeli singer David D’or. This concert takes place at the Israel Museum at 8:30 p.m.
A final concert on Tuesday, August 4, is a special performance in remembrance of the klezmer musicians who perished in the Holocaust. This event, organized in part with Yad Vashem, is a private event for the families of Holocaust victims and survivors and is not open to the general public. 
Tickets for the Bible Lands Museum performance on Wednesday, July 29, are available at (02) 561-1066, ext.4. The cost is NIS 65 in advance, NIS 75 at the door and NIS 55 for museum members.
Tickets for the choir concert at the Yeshurun Central Synagogue on Friday, July 31, can be obtained by calling *6226, and range from NIS 55 to NIS 80.
Tickets for Raoul Jaurena’s Beit Avi Chai concert on Saturday night, August 1, are available at (02) 621-5900. Cost: NIS 60; NIS 20 for students.
Tickets to the “Jerusalem Melodies” event on Sunday, August 2, range from NIS 55 to NIS 85, and can be obtained at *6226.
Tickets to the “World Wide Klezmer” event on Monday, August 3, cost NIS 55 to NIS 85 and are available at (02) 677-1300.