With the emergence of new ways to learn Yiddish, such as immersion at the Yiddish Farm in Goshen, N.Y., or the Yiddish Book Center’s new program for young adults, those interested in learning the language have more options. For some, however, the connection to Yiddish has less to do with fluency than with enjoying Yiddish through klezmer music.
Today, klezmer music—played by people of all ages—can be heard worldwide, at venues like the International Jewish Music Festival in Amsterdam, at Jewish lifecycle events, local concerts and at large-scale events like New York State’s annual KlezKamp, a week-long Yiddish immersion program, now in its 28th year, where participants from all over the world explore Yiddish music, language, food, crafts and more.
Among the many new klezmer groups, Ezekiel’s Wheels bills itself as “experimental klezmer and folk.” Its ensemble includes two violinists, a bassist, clarinetist and trombonist—all under the age of 30. Recently, it won both “Best Klezmer Band” and “Audience Choice Award” at the October 2012 International Jewish Music Festival in Amsterdam, where the band members reported that the judges liked their improvisational skills and democratic nature.
Ezekiel founders clarinetist Nat Seelen and fiddler Jon Cannon met during their freshman year at Brown University in September 2004. Throughout their four years at Brown, they played in the klezmer band Yarmulkazi. After school, they decided to establish their own klezmer band. They initially turned to Craigslist to flesh out the group.
Seelen’s interest in klezmer started as a child when his parents bought him klezmer sheet music and records.
“I loved the idea of a type of music where the clarinet was the head person,” he said. “From a cultural standpoint, klezmer really spoke to me. My family is Jewish, but we're not at all religious, so learning, playing, studying klezmer music seemed like a perfectly good way for me personally to become engaged in the culture of my ancestors.”
One of the group’s violinists, Abigale Reisman, a graduate student at the New England Conservatory, has been with the band for a little more than a year. She took the strictly classical music route until her junior year at the Manhattan School of Music when she realized that her robust Jewish upbringing had had a profound effect on the music she felt most strongly about: klezmer.
“Once you delve into klezmer music, it’s not a stand-alone thing; you want to learn Yiddish. When you study Yiddish, you’re studying the culture,” said Reisman, who took an elementary Yiddish class at KlezKamp in July 2012.
This spring and summer the band will be touring more than 10 U.S. cities from Boston to Chattanooga, entertaining audiences with their unique blend of folk, pop and traditional klezmer melodies. In the meantime, check out their Facebook page, website and YouTube channel.
Klezmer, with its often fast-paced rhythms and joyous sounds, emerged from the shtetls of Eastern Europe as early as the 1500s; the rise of Yiddish theater in the late 1800s helped to spread its appeal. But when waves of Jewish immigrants came to the United States in the early 1900s, klezmer was eclipsed by their desire to assimilate In the 1930s, however, elements of klezmer crept into popular swing songs, such as “Bei mir bist du schon,” by the Andrews Sisters, and “And the angels sing,” featuring trumpeter Ziggy Elman with the Benny Goodman orchestra. Then, in the 1970s, more traditional klezmer saw a revival in conjunction with the rising interest in mainstream folk music.
And, today, with a new generation enjoying the klezmer sound, the beat goes on.