Popular Klezmer: Pushing the Envelope

With klezmer's popularity on the rise, artists have taken it in new--and sometimes "controversial"--directions.

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In 1992, jazz musician Ben Sidran (b. 1943) attempted to explore his Jewish heritage through Life's a Lesson, a collection of melodies ostensibly representing the High Holy Day liturgy. Bruce Burger's 1995 RebbeSoul: Fringe of Blue offered instrumental versions of several popular selections, including the Yiddish "Tum Balalaika," folk versions of the Sabbath table song "Deror Yikrah," the ubiquitous "Hine Mah Tov," the familiar High Holy Day chant Avinu Malkenu (in acoustic and electric versions), and well-known Hebrew songs by Naomi Shemer ("Yerushalayim Shel Zahav") and Baruch Chait ("Kol ha-Olam Kulo").

This collection won rave reviews from such disparate publications as Playboy Magazine, the LA Weekly, Billboard Magazine, and New York's The Jewish Week. Burger's collection feels the more familiar of the two, with an almost Hasidic adaptation of world-beat rhythms accompanying the traditional balalaika and mandolin (as well as keyboards, guitars, and occasional electronic devices). Sidran's saxophone seems less grounded in "authentic" Jewish musical sounds and harmonic vocabularies.

In 1996, television actor and Broadway entertainer Mandy Patinkin weighed in with Mamaloshen, a collection of richly orchestrated Yiddish songs from the folk tradition and the theater repertoire sung endearingly by Patinkin in a well-studied Yiddish (tutored by Henry Sapoznik). Patinkin's recording features translations of the Yiddish texts; he does not assume that his listeners will be familiar with this material, although audiences at his live performances of these songs have been filled with immigrant grandparents as well as their American-born grandchildren.

Controversial Territory

Yet despite the accolades that have greeted the work of Sidran, Burger, and Patinkin, each has also stepped into "controversial" territory. For Sidran and Burger it is their treatment of the most "classic"--and emotion-laden--selections that raises eyebrows and lowers the comfort level of even the most open-minded listeners. Some feel that Sidran's rhapsody on Ani Ma'amin (I Believe), the anthem sung by Holocaust victims with their last breath, does not resonate as "fresh" or "contemporary" as much as it offends with its lack of reverence for the history and pathos of the simple melody. Others think that Burger's treatment of "Hatikvah," the Zionist hymn that has become the anthem of the Jewish state, is similarly lacking in historical background or respect.

Patinkin commits the greatest "sin," though, by mixing authentic Yiddish musical memorabilia with tunes written by American Jews but with absolutely no pretense of Jewish identification. Irving Berlin was certainly among the best-loved American composers of popular song, but neither the civil religion of "God Bless America" nor the secular commercialism of "White Christmas" could possibly be mistaken for Jewish music, any more than "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" could be transformed into Jewish culture by being sung in Yiddish--no matter how many Jews enjoy the American national pastime.

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Marsha B. Edelman

Marsha Bryan Edelman is professor of music and education at Gratz College. She also serves as director of the Tyson Music Department and coordinates the college's academic programs in Jewish music.