KlezCalifornia: Keeping Yiddish Culture Alive

Lily Kharrazi - Posted on 12 May 2010

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By Lily Kharrazi, ACTA's Living Cultures Grants Program Manager

Dancers at KlezCalifornia's Yiddish Culture Festival improvise to Klezmer music.Yiddishkeit is the word for a living Yiddish culture.

This past February, 450 people of all ages participated in KlezCalifornia's Yiddish Culture Festival where they were able to study with Klezmer master musicians and teachers from around the world, sing Yiddish songs in a chorus, speak Yiddish at all levels, learn the improvisatory dance that goes with the infectious Klezmer repertoire, attend lectures on a variety of subjects including diaspora history, participate in an open-mic talent show, and explore Jewish interactions with Greek, Roma, Balkan, Ukrainian and American neighbors.

Supported in part by ACTA's Living Cultures Grant Program, this project is produced by KlezCalifornia, a non-profit organization in the Bay Area which was founded in 2003 to foster and build a vibrant region-wide community of people who include Yiddish culture into their lives.  Their focus on the cultural heritage of Eastern European Jewry as embodied in its music, literature, and the arts make the word living in this equation anything but hyperbole.

Yiddish culture refers to the culture of Ashkenazi Jews whose pre-World War II population was estimated to be 8 million strong. They lived in cities and villages throughout Germany, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Lithuania, Russia, France and Italy. As a multi-lingual minority population, the language of Ashkenazi Jews is comprised of Hebrew, Aramaic, German and regional dialects that Jews spoke in this vast area.  While there is much scholarship on how the Jews who originated in the Middle East came to live in the diaspora, some sources speculate that the historical, linguistic and genetic evidence points to a European presence dating back to the 4th Century. 

At its height this amalgamation of influences produced great works of literature, theater, music, foodways, story-telling, political, social and religious commentaries.  This vibrancy was soon to suffer unimaginable acts of deliberate annihilation under a Nazi campaign to rid Europe of its Jews.  Two-thirds of the population was annihilated and sadly, the word "genocide" was coined for the first time in history entering into our lexicon. 

Survivors of the World War II campaign were soon to have the option of living in the newly formed state of Israel or to relocate to other lands in a complicated story rife with politics. The state of Israel for historic reasons would revive the mother tongue Hebrew as the national language. A distancing from Yiddish language and culture which had brought scapegoating and persecution led to the near extinction of this rich culture in the post-war years to follow. 

The history of the war and the memory of the Jewish contribution to European cultural life were referenced in one of the weekend workshops at the Festival. In a session comparing the musical styles of Klezmer to the melodies of the surrounding regions, this two session workshop was led in part by master clarinetist Christian Dawid.  Based in Berlin, his participation in the weekend was a highlight.  He is a leading Klezmer musician who performs internationally and who has sought out the origins of Yiddish music among the folk traditions still being played in Europe today.  As his first name implies, Christian Dawid is not Jewish. 

The workshop examined the confluence of Klezmer melodies with the melodies of neighboring cultures to ask the question: What makes a Klezmer tune distinguishably Jewish?  He explained that in his travels through present day Moldavia for instance, he recognized a famous old Klezmer melody that the brass band was pumping out, recognizing it to be a klezmer melody but the band musicians did not know where the music was from.  Dawid explained it like this: "It was as if the history was written on water", meaning that there is little public memory of the culture left.  The Yiddish Culture Festival participants in this workshop joined Christian Dawid in listening exercises to explore the stylistic differences between melodies played all over the region, many of which sound similar. Some of the consensus pointed towards Klezmer melodies mimicking more a call for prayer, or a sense of supplication, a tonal sequence not unlike the melodic sound of spoken Yiddish. 

The revival of Klezmer music is a particularly powerful story in light of the fact that the populations of Eastern Europe were decimated. Poland alone lost 3 million Jews in the Holocaust.  It is also in Poland, that the largely non-Jewish population revived a fierce interest in Klezmer music heralding the renaissance of this genre in the very heart of where once was deep darkness.  Each year Warsaw holds a major Klezmer music festival drawing thousands of people to dance and sing and revel in the music of the Jewish Ashkenazi world.

In the 1970's the resurgence of Yiddish became a scholarly pursuit with the establishment of key academic positions dedicated to the revitalization of the language and culture. On the traditional arts front, a key figure in the music revival brings us right back to the California community.  Sometimes referred to as the “godfather” of the revival, Martin Schwartz, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at U.C. Berkeley, made available to interested musicians his own vast collection of early Yiddish recordings, both secular and religious.  

Many American Jews are descendants of these Eastern European populations in the continuing story of Jewish diaspora communities yet mainstream American culture is filled with " Yiddish-isms" as well.  For example: the ubiquitous bagel and lox are Ashkenazi food; the comedy sensibilities of Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld and Ben Stiller are peppered with Yiddish sayings; and the presence of Klezmer music can be heard in the current world- music fusion bands that borrow from Balkan, Roma and Klezmer music.

KlezCalifornia is the portal to present day Yiddishkeit.  Available through their website is a valuable resource-a sort of "Yellow Pages" of all things Yiddish. In this Northern California-based directory, one can find language lessons, musicians, and lecturers on Yiddish history, language and arts.  Appropriately named the golden or "Gele Pages" this collection reflects that the pulse on this revival is strong with multiple generations partaking.

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KlezCalifornia: Keeping Yiddish Culture Alive

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Books for sale at KlezCalifornia's Yiddish Culture Festival.

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Klezmorim, or musicians of Klezmer music, rehearsing at Klez California's Yiddish Culture Festival.  (Photo: Ira Greenberg)

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Frank London, a master Klezmer artist who has contributed to the revival of Klezmer internationally, conducting a workshop at KlezCalifornia's Yiddish Culture Festival.

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Dancing to Klezmer music is mostly improvisation. (Photo: Dale Perlman)

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Cultural pride at KlezCalifornia's Yiddish Culture Festival.

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A multi-generational Klezmer band. (Photo: Lea Delson)

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Christian Dawid of Berlin, a master Klezmer clarinetist, queries participants in a workshop comparing musical styles of the region: What makes a tune Jewish?

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Cookie Segelstein and Stu Brotman of the Klezmer group Veretski Pass providing instruction during a workshop at KlezCalifornia's Yiddish Culture Festival.

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Participants listen intently to the nuances of the music during a workshop at KlezCalifornia's Yiddish Culture Festival.