Barukh Habo (Welcome)!

Welcome to the new Klezmer Academy blog. This will be a place for sharing information, opinions and experiences about all aspects of klezmer music. I hope that in addition to being a platform for me to express my views and knowledge, it can also serve as a forum for discussion among other performers, educators and interested audience members.

One very special feature of the blog will be “Tune of the Month” posts. On the 15th of each month, I’ll publish a post about a tune I find particularly interesting. These might be unusual, rarely heard tunes from the Mayrent Collection, tunes that have been recorded by several groups in various geographic locations or at different time periods, or tunes with interesting modal, harmonic or structural elements. Each such post will include sound files of the recording(s) being discussed as well as a downloadable chart of the basic tune.

I am very interested in including reviews of recordings as well as descriptions/discussions of projects involving klezmer. If anyone would like to send me recordings to consider or would like to share information about current activities that might be of interest, please contact me at I would also welcome suggestions for guest posts by my colleagues.

Klezmer is the richest, most complex musical world that I know, and I look forward to exploring it in the months to come.


It's Not Jewish Jazz

Despite the worldwide revival of klezmer music over the past 30 years, many people don't know what it is or where it comes from. One commonly heard response to "Well, what is klezmer, anyway?" is that it's "Jewish jazz." While this answer is catchy and usually satisfies the questioner, it isn't actually true, and considering some differences between klezmer and jazz may help clarify matters.

Klezmer music, which can be most easily defined as the dance music of the Yiddish-speaking Jews of eastern Europe, is essentially communal, like Jewish prayer, rather than individual. The Yiddish word klezmer is derived from two Hebrew words: kley, which means tool or vessel, and zemer, which means song. Thus, as one famous klezmer has said, the musician becomes the vessel through which song flows, a concept that most jazz lovers would find quite congenial. It is, however, a very modern, not terribly authentic notion. In fact, kley is a word that resonates loudly in Yiddish culture. There is a wonderful term in Yiddish for those members of the community who performed ritual functions: kley koydesh, or holy tool. These included the shoykhet (kosher slaughterer), the moyl (performer of circumcisions), the rabbi, etc. These people were tools of the community. So was the musician, without whom there could be no weddings, no celebrations of Simkhes Toyre, no post-briss partying.

The music itself is an exciting mixture of prayer modes (nusakh) and melodies, Ukrainian folk tunes, Romanian music, gypsy soulfulness, and dozens of other influences of the cultures among which Jews lived, all played to the rhythms and inflections of spoken Yiddish. It expresses the whole range of human emotions, from the most exuberant joy to the most profound sadness. Melody is the key; unlike jazz, where a melody is improvised over a fixed set of chords, in klezmer music, the melody is fixed, and the chords are almost unnecessary. Rather than improvising, the musicians take the melody, embellish it in a large variety of ways, polish it up a little, and offer it back to the community to listen or dance to. Where jazz is laid back, always a little behind the beat, klezmer rushes ahead, which is part of what makes it so hard to sit still while you listen to it.

Another misconception common in the general public, even among those who are relatively familiar with Jewish culture, is that there is one universal klezmer band to which all klezmorim belong, or at least that all klezmer bands play a uniform style. In fact, there is a whole spectrum of stylistic approaches to Yiddish music, ranging from the most traditional to the most avant garde, with a shmaltzy, nostalgic approach lying somewhere in the middle. There are groups that virtually replicate the sound of old 78 rpm recordings, down to the instrumentation and even the mistakes; there are others that improvise Yiddish melodies to a hard rock beat, while still others attempt to merge Yiddish and jazz.

What klezmer does share with all other kinds of music is the ability to express the whole range of human emotions, from the most exuberant joy to the most profound sadness. Listening to the haunting, exhilarating sounds emanating from scratchy old 78s can be a profound experience, capturing the essence of Eastern European Jewish life in the last century and introducing it to a new generation.


All in the Family

When I first entered the klezmer world, I used to envy my teachers who could claim descent from several generations of klezmorim. It seemed as though such a yikhes (pedigree) would somehow enhance their ability to understand and perform the music I so desperately wanted to play. In fact, I spent the first 18 months after attending KlezKamp trying to replicate what I thought that experience might have been like, listening constantly to any spoken Yiddish and Yiddish music that I could find. I credit that experience with the relative speed with which I progressed from totally clueless to on the right path.

When I talked with my paternal grandmother about my passion for klezmer, she told me that one of the few memories she had of her father, who had died in a factory fire shortly after they arrived in America when she was 6, was of him playing the violin by candlelight in the evening. He was a dorfsyid, a Jew living in the country almost completely among gentiles, and he owned a mill, so he probably was not what we think of as a klezmer, traveling from wedding to wedding. But I did find that image of him playing by candlelight very satisfying. Perhaps the music was, after all, in my blood.

Several years later, I read a brief article in the local Jewish paper about the Boston chapter of the Jewish Genealogical Society and their Family Finder tool, which allowed people to enter their surname and see if anyone else was searching for that same name. Feeling curious, I went to the site and entered my last name. Almost immediately I found the name of someone else doing research on “Mayrent” – since this is an extremely rare surname, I figured that he must be looking for my relatives, and so I emailed him. The very next day, I received an email from him informing me that he was, indeed, researching my family. He also sent me this picture of his great grandfather (Louis Nadelman, far left) and our mutual great-great grandfather (Simon Mayrent, top center).


This was incredibly exciting. Living in Pultusk, a small city north of Warsaw, Poland, the chances were very great that this orchestra was not assembled to play Mozart! I was a little disappointed to discover that Simon played the fiddle rather than the clarinet, but that was nothing compared to the delight of discovering that I did, in fact, have something of a klezmer pedigree.

I was also delighted to compare that picture with this portrait of Simon in his later years that my grandfather had given me. Grandpa often told the story of how his grandfather had come to stay with him and his family in Chicago for a while but went back to Brooklyn after a few weeks because my great-grandmother’s home wasn’t kosher enough for him. How wonderful to compare that story and this image of a serious, somewhat dour man with the rather disheveled klezmer in the earlier picture! While it was obviously the same man, he seems to have found religion later in his life.

Several years later, when the Wholesale Klezmer Band, with whom I was playing at the time, decided to record the tune “Yikhes,” we began our arrangement the way Simon’s band might have sounded. Instead of three fiddles and a clarinet we had two fiddles, a clarinet and a flute. This was a small way to honor my own pedigree and express my gratitude to this unknown ancestor whose path and mine were converging.

“Yikhes,” as performed by the Wholesale Klezmer Band on our album, Zingen far Sholem, Tantsn far Freyd (Sing for Peace, Dance for Joy).