Music from the heavens

There is nothing more Jewish in the sonic department than klezmer music, right?

(photo credit: SHAHAR COHEN)
There is nothing more Jewish in the sonic department than klezmer music, right? That unmistakable, beguiling and most hypnotic of sounds insinuates itself into your ear and tugs gently, or feverishly, at your heartstrings until you don’t quite know whether to laugh or cry.
Those sentiments, and more, having been coursing through the veins of Moshe “Moussa” Berlin for many a year. Berlin, all of 80 years young, has been one of the mainstays of the annual International Klezmer Festival in Safed for years and will be up in the Galilee town again this year when the free festival takes place there, for the 32nd year running, August 12-14.
The emotional bifurcation inherent in the genre is probably best conveyed on clarinet, which just happens to be Berlin’s means of music-making. “I don’t have a scientific argument for it, but on clarinet you can make the music laugh or cry, and you can produce fragmented notes.” The veteran klezmer artist feels the instrument has something close to a Jewish soul. “On the clarinet you can express all sorts of things that are fundamental to Judaism.”
Berlin returns to the oxymoronic theme of the art form. “Klezmer music refers to the destruction of the Temple,” he posits. It seems that in the music department there were some twist and turns in the development of post-Temple music. “After the Temple was destroyed it was decreed that no one should make music anymore. But you can’t live without music, so they wove the destruction into the fabric of the music.”
Hence the wailing, jumping lines that Berlin and his ilk spin out at shows, weddings and all manner of Jewish ritualistic get-togethers. “After the destruction of the Temple, they outlawed music because, in Judaism, music has a different role. It is not for entertainment, it has a more spiritual role, to elevate people to higher spiritual realms, and to draw him to return to religion. In the times of the Temple, music was used as a form of thanksgiving, for example, to give thanks to God for victory in battle.” One has only to think of Joshua and his shofar-blowing troupe which, according to the biblical narrative, brought down the mighty walls of Jericho.
Berlin says a compromise was needed to allow people to once again revel in and even groove to the fruits of his co-professionals’ labors. “They found a solution. It says in Psalms, ‘If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand cease to function... if I do not, exalt Jerusalem as my greatest joy.’ So the Jew said, I can’t not play music but, every time I play, my playing with conjure up a sense of pining for Jerusalem. There is a lot of pain sadness and kvetching [moaning] expressed in klezmer, but this is optimistic music. That is the Jewish way.”
THAT IS fascinating insight. But what about the spread of the genre outside the confines of the Jewish performers? Since the inception of world music around three decades ago, klezmer groups have sprung up all over, particularly in places like Germany, Poland and Sweden, and there is a hardly a Jew among them. Berlin has an explanation for that, too. “If a non-Jew can fuse his playing with longing for the Temple, and he feels that, he can play klezmer too.”
Berlin has been doing his fair share of wailing and merriment-spreading for close to six decades all over the globe. He started out on violin at the age of six, but was not entirely enamored with the fiddle. In his teens he tried out on all kinds of horns, and considered making the saxophone his principal instrument. That was until he heard one of the masters of the clarinet do his enchanting thing. “I learned how to read music when I played violin. So, when I moved to the clarinet I taught myself.” Progress was duly made until Berlin hit a wall in his learning curve. “I got to some saturation point and I thought of trying the saxophone.” Enter world-renowned klezmer clarinetist Giora Feidman. “It was just then that I went to the Hassidic Song Festival and I saw Giora playing with an orchestra. I thought that was exactly the kind of musicianship I want to get to.” And the rest is history.
Over the years, Feidman and Berlin exchanged musical ideas, each impacting on the other’s work, and there were other sources of inspiration along Berlin’s long and winding klezmer road, such as revered Safed-based clarinetist Avraham Segal who was a leading figure on the scene back in pre-state times.
True to his free-roaming spirit, when we spoke Berlin did not yet know what he and his quartet would be playing at their two gigs in Safed. Berlin has ensured continuity of his favored line of work, with the band for the festival including his pianist daughter, Odelia, his son Elyashiv will be on drums, and electric guitarist Menachem Herman completing the lineup.
Berlin may not know the specifics of his Safed playlist, but he promises an emotionally uplifting time will be had by one and all. “I feel that the heavens gave me an opening and I was drawn into that. Give me good musicians, good writers and a good period and, thank God, I am happy.”
All Klezmer Festival shows are free. For more information: 04-697-4403 or

Tags Safed klezmer