Hasid Jazz?

Orthodox, conservative, or reformed, klezmer's back and marching

It's Passover on the Lower East Side. Flocks of people are scurrying across Houston like it's the Red Sea, and Ludlow's the Promised Land. They have brunch, get their hair cut, and buy deliberately dirty jeans in the same cramped storefronts that people 90 years ago bought deliberately ugly wigs, herring by the pound, and prayer shawls in. But at the same time that the area becomes increasingly assimilated into the modern, panethnic culture of gentrification, an inverse phenomenon is taking hold—nostalgia. There seems to be a hankering for the handmade virtues of the Old World, or at least for signifiers of what once was. The ancient Yonah Shimmel's Knishery on Houston is a tour-bus stop, and come summer, Ratner's, that perennial kosher canteen, will be overtaken by its less kosher, more kitsch backdoor lounge, named for token Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky. For nine dollars, it's possible to visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum's carefully restored early-century apartments and have an interactive immigrant experience. And down on Norfolk Street, people are playing klezmer again. The Tonic Sunday klezmer brunch series, created by acclaimed clarinetist David Krakauer, just celebrated its one-year anniversary.

Cooking klezmer kids the Murrys, from left to right: David Siegel, David Griffen, Noah Leff, Anne Champion, Alex Kranjec, Matt Fiveash, Annette Ezekiel, Nathen Ela
Photograph by Michael Schmelling

Is this, too, a part of the nostalgia phenomenon—a retooling of the old to make it new and hip? Once a kosher wine cellar, Tonic has been transformed into a haven for downtown music of the Knitting Factory variety. Each week, the audience reverently watches virtuoso performers play as if the messiah has come (at last) to inspire them. Appearing with his band one recent Sunday, Krakauer recalled the old days, when people would gather to drink and make merry as they listened to various Lower East Side clarinetists. Then he looked intensely at the ceiling, closed his eyes, and began to play. Krakauer has collaborated with the Kronos Quartet and was a member of the Klezmatics, this scene's most visible band. His clarinet, which in the wrong hands can be a wimpy instrument, is powerful, muscular even, a driving force for the rest of his small, tight band. But as much as he talks about the communal feeling of old Jewish wine cellars, it's clear he is playing to a different end.

In Klezmer! Jewish Music From Old World to Our World (Shirmer, 1999), Henry Sapoznik points out that klezmer musicians in Europe served an important celebratory function, providing music for elaborate wedding dances such as broyges tants, during which mothers-in-law would pretend to fight and then make up. Now there isn't so much as a mother-in-law joke—the audience sits on wooden chairs and politely claps after every set. Tonic may have once been a wine cellar, but now it's an art house where people drink coffee. And the music is different too. Often, the bands back up Jewish melodies with a rhythm closer to experimental rock or jazz, transforming klezmer's tragic march into something else. Krakauer sees what he's doing as moving forward. "Klezmer does have room for innovation," he insists. "It's a song form related to jazz." He claims that his improvisational elements don't change the original spirit of the music, but instead help "bring back the rawness to it, getting back to something simpler, something playing it note for note just wouldn't do."

A few blocks away from Tonic, a bunch of hipsters are standing around outside Katz's Delicatessen. The front of Katz's is so mobbed that it looks like a club. Inside, people table-hop excitedly, making their way to the back room. Everyone's come to see the Murrys, an emerging band who do in fact play virtually note for note klezmer they've found in the library. The Murrys have attracted their friends, friends of friends, and people who heard about them through the grapevine. Although Katz's is on Houston, the gate to Ludlow's party zone, it is unaccustomed to this kind of action. The guys behind the counter slinging out bowls of soup and compiling huge towers of meat look unfazed, but some of the longtime patrons are surprised. "Is this a bar now?" one elderly lady asks. Observing the band setting up amongst salamis and photos of Katz's owner with his arms around Jackie Mason and Alan Dershowitz, it does look like some crazy kind of Jewish theme tavern. The Murrys' drummer, Noah Sheldon, is decked out as a Hasid, with a heavy black coat and dark curly earlocks. A guy dressed in suit and skinny tie is carrying an accordion, and a girl with wild curls in a tight leather outfit adjusts the mike. They look like a Kids in the Hall skit about Jews—this costumed 12-piece marching band crammed onto a too-small stage. But then they start to play. At first the crowd shuffles around, vaguely bobbing their heads. These are cool kids, trained not to dance. But then the Murrys start cooking. The girl in leather belts out Yiddish, the guitarist plays full blast, and two trumpets and a trombone go nuts. The fast two-beat rhythm sounds a whole lot like polka, and it's virtually impossible not to dance (or at least march) to. The accordion gives the whole enterprise an Old World tint, even though guitarist Milan McAlevy is twanging surf riffs. Soon everyone's sweaty and red-faced, sashaying around in a circle and lifting squealing volunteers up on chairs.

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