Past songs that tell us how to live now

Playwright Diane Samuels, the author of Kindertransport, finds support for her view that traditional Jewish music is as relevant today as ever.


December 22, 2009
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Klezmer Klub plays Yiddish music to appreciative audiences.

Klezmer Klub plays Yiddish music to appreciative audiences.

A woman stands with a fat sack of bagels before her, selling her wares on an East End Street in the monochrome days of the early 20th century. Little did she know that a century later her image would be called upon for the cover of a new CD of klezmer instrumentals and rediscovered Yiddish song, Whitechapel Mayn Vaytshepl (Whitechapel My Whitechapel).

And while Klezmer Klub — the band of musicians responsible for bringing to light this collection of musical glimpses into Jewish immigrant life in London — are keen to assert that this is not just an easy listen for “bagel Jews” who want to identify by eating the bread and avoiding the religion, the question remains whether this music, with its roots in an Eastern European Jewish world that no longer exists, was far more relevant then than it is now.

“I had no positive feeling about being Jewish,” says Gabriel Ellenberg, accordion-player and co-founder of the band in the late 1980s. “There was no connection… it seemed different, nothing to do with me.”

His parents’ attitude is deeply familiar: no Yiddish please, speak English. Here was a chance to make a new life and put all the old troubles behind. Ellenberg, along with so many of his generation, went to university, and moved away from the old language and life of the artisan, labourer and trader. What he retained was the strong political sensibility of the “left-wing Jewish non-religious tradition”.

Then, he heard his father playing a “dodgy tape” of the album In The Street by the klezmer revival band Zmiros. This was his first encounter with the music. Quite simply, it “touched” him. That “bittersweet” sound that expressed a feeling that “joy and sadness are always intermingled” inspired him to buy an accordion at Greenwich market for £5 and join the left-wing street group the Big Red Band. He learned the music by playing at public demonstrations.

The band’s clarinettist Jon Petter describes himself as growing up in a “left wing, non-Jewish, non-religious tradition” with a background in church music. He came to klezmer through world music, playing with African anti-apartheid activists. He too joined a street band, the Fallout Marching Band. Petter and Ellenberg both remember a convention in Sheffield in the 1980s when 100 musicians from a huge range of cultural, religious and musical backgrounds made an “unholy racket” playing the klezmer piece Lebedig un Freylekh (Lively and Happy). And this piece again captured people’s spirits at the climate change march in London earlier this year. Something vital clearly still pulsates through these melodies.

“We are fortunate not to be living in the middle of violent conflict and it’s crucial that we make friends and bring people together,” says the singer Vivi Lachs, born and raised in Liverpool from Polish and Russian ancestry, who introduced Yiddish song to Klezmer Klub — the band originally played only instrumental pieces. She remembers her grandparents and father speaking Yiddish but was encouraged to focus on modern Hebrew. She danced a mean Israeli hora from an early age and was circling away at the west London liberal community Beit Klal Yisrael when Klezmer Klub played there. They invited her to act as dance “caller” and she realised that she knew nothing about klezmer dancing. She decided to learn, and discovered that she was among more non-Jews than Jews at the Jewish Music Institute’s annual klezmer week.

Yiddish song… it hits the Jewish button in them

She began to study Yiddish in earnest after her father died in 2000. Her eyes shine when she talks about the huge library of Yiddish literature in Poland that is only possible to access if you understand the language because so little has been translated. She emphasises that the songs unearthed and re-arranged by the band, with English lyrics and modern references added, are simply about life in its many facets, the tough, sublime and ordinary.

“In Victoria Park: ‘Everyone is resting their bones/And falling on stones and losing their teeth.’ In Three Sisters of Leicester Square, the middle sister ‘sells herself’. Bertolt Brecht loved this song because it understands prostitution to be a result of economic pressures. Interestingly, a Palestinian colleague has taken a consignment of Whitechapel CDs back to Ramallah.”

Another popular klezmer band, Shir, also has a CD due to be released in the next few weeks, combining klezmer and Ladino music. Clarinettist and singer Maurice Chernick manages the busy schedule of gigs at music venues and public events along with bar - batmitzvahs and weddings. “In our concerts, I think all ages love the klezmer. The Yiddish song is perhaps speaking to an older generation, but there is great interest still in it among the younger people… it hits the ‘Jewish button’ in them. It has sorrow, humour, pathos and works even if you don’t understand it.” Jon Petter of Klezmer Klub echoes this sense of universal appeal: “All the stuff in the songs is very human.”

So the music continues to evolve, fusing folk with jazz, world music, different languages and dance. Both bands agree that, at heart, klezmer and Yiddish song are historical records only in part and give voice to the stuff of life and how we deal with change.

‘Whitechapel Mayn Vaytshepl’ is out now — details at klezmerklub.co.uk. Shir’s CD ‘Ashk’farad: Vilna Salonika Afula’ is due to be released in the new year — details at www.shirmusic.co.uk. Diane Samuels is writer in residence at Grafton school in Islington

    Last updated: 3:10pm, December 22 2009