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.
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.
“It was a shock to see kids freaking out,” the accordionist says afterwards. “We knew people would react, but we didn’t know they would react like that. They loved it.” While some of the Murrys have had musical training (Noah Sheldon attended the New England Conservatory of Music and even drummed at the Chabad Lubavich in Evanston, Illinois, where he’s from), they insist they are not very interested in form per se, concerning themselves more with making the audience move. “Admittedly, we can’t play like someone like David Krakauer,” says Murrys singer Alex Kranjeck. “The virtuosity thing’s been done, and it’s called Rush.” Experimental klezmer and progressive rock, Kranjeck suggests, both take something seen as essential and raw and make it into something to be listened to seriously. Can a visceral folk music meant for dancing turn into “art” without losing something? Probably not. Then again, as Krakauer says himself, all this experimentation can only mean that the form will continue to evolve. After all, without Rush, there would be no Metallica.
When a form as ethnically loaded as klezmer is used for avant-garde ends, there’s inevitably going to be a divide over the oldest issue in folk music: authenticity. Are musicians doing justice to their ancestors’ ancestors’ klezmer? Does this loyalty even matter? Is the traditional style no longer important, something that should be relegated to compilations of Jewish wedding music of the ages? Klezmer scholar Sapoznik explains that there are now different schools, which break the genre down the way Jewish temples classify themselves: the orthodox movement, which insists on “play[ing] the music as if it never intersected with the twentieth century”; the reform movement, which pushes klezmer’s boundaries or fuses with other kinds of music (for instance, the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars); and the conservative middle-of-the-roaders. Sapoznik is a traditionalist, holding that the reform category is essentially Klezmer for Dummies, and quite simply, does not work.
But when I ask the legendary Andy Statman, who plays mandolin and clarinet in his own Jewish/jazz/bluegrass (jewgrass?) quartet, about Sapoznik’s denominational structure, he says, condemningly, “He doesn’t know.” A well-regarded pioneer of “orthodox” klezmer in the 70’s, Statman makes frequent appearances with his band, playing to what he describes as “mostly secular audiences.” He has held court weekly at the Charles Street Synagogue for the past few months, leading a weekly jam session, with a simple sign out front announcing “Klezmer Tonight.” Andy points out, though, that his current music is not really klezmer. “Only one or two people in Europe can actually play it,” he says gravely. “It’s a very tragic form, but people think it’s ‘party music.’ ” While his band sets up, and the audience takes their seas in pews complete with prayer books, the MC—an older man with a hat, beard, and microphone—announces, “Klezmer is written for the feet, but this,“ he gestures dramatically at the stage, “this is written for the heart.” The band then kicks into a song almost resembling free jazz. Although the familiar tragic clarinet is present, there are also large helpings of electric bass, drums, and keyboards. Andy wears a yarmulke, but his clarinet at times sounds at times like panpipes, not so much Jewish as what we came to recognize as generically “spiritual” sometime around Sgt. Pepper. This vibe segues into Peter Gabriel-style African drums and a mandolin that buzzes like a grasshopper. Meanwhile the bassist starts playing a bluegrass tune that sounds like a kid nagging his mother to buy him a video game system for his bar mitzvah. The effect is about as far from orthodox Jewish music as you can get, but that seems to be the point. If only two or three people really know how to pull off traditional klezmer (which may be technically true: there aren’t that many 80-year-old Jewish musicians around), then what is everyone else supposed to do? The answer seems to be, for Statman’s band at least, to make music as unpurist as they wanna be. If it’s abstract enough, it resists pigeonholing. The music can claim a certain spiritual depth at the same time that it resists existing categories. “You just play it,” Andy says, describing his unique arrangements. “It’s beyond klezmer.” And indeed, the sign out front of the temple has since changed—It now reads “Jewish Mystical Music.”
So is this the fate of this once-raucous music of a lost Eastern Europe and the old Lower East Side? Has it gone “beyond klezmer” to live in a far-off universe which sometimes gets flashes from the light of a distant Star of David? Scholars have trouble pinning down our moment in the genre’s trajectory, and musicians involved in the movement seem to like klezmer in part because it’s difficult to pin down. Like Yiddish, it is a dead language with a vivid cultural history. Klezmer has given rise to a million different definitions, a million different shticky names: Jew-less klezmer (Klezgoyim), teen klezmer (the Klezminors), Ivy League klezmer (The Klez Dispensors), punk klezmer (Yid Vicious). To add to the confusion, The Knitting Factory has recently put out several new Jewish-identified CDs, including The Jewish Alternative Movement: A Guide for the Perplexed—featuring offerings from Krakauer and the Balkan-influenced Paradox Trio—as well as an album of Fiddler on the Roof covers on which Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt, morose as ever, imagines he’s a dairyman named Tevye imagining he’s a rich man.
If there’s a commonality in all these developments, it’s that klezmer is still an ecstatically happy Jewish marching music with a sad, almost funereal edge. It’s Goth wedding music, both a kind of crazy dance tune and a mournful dirge, doubting itself even as it asserts itself. This very contradiction is what allows for so many interpretations. As for whether klezmer will live on or become just another tour-bus stop, well, as David Krakauer says, “the history books will tell.” But then again, as the Murrys say, “We couldn’t give a shit about the history books.” Ironically enough, it’s this spirit of debate that will most likely keep klezmer alive for many Passovers to come.