A Yiddish revival on German soil

Yiddish music and dance draw crowds in an unexpected place.

Jewish music cartoon 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jewish music cartoon 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 fields.”
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.
But this 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.
This year’s 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.
The history 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.
The first 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 harmonized refrains.
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.
This 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.
Among 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 Americans.”
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 music.
“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.
All 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 history.
“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.
The 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 motivations.
“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 identity.
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.
As 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 liberating.”
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.
“Simply 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 deserve.”
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 audience.
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 Heritage Site.
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.
Bern is 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.” •