Tuesday 15 February 2011

Not Your Bubby's Klezmer!

A few weeks back, I went to a concert at my synagogue, Dorshei Emet. It was Shabbat Shira—the Sabbath of song. My shul is reconstructionist, which means we’re always on the lookout for something new to throw in the mix—hubby and I only half-jokingly call it Our Lady of Social Workers and University Professors. Our movement’s tag line is “Judaism is the evolving civilization of the Jewish people,” the keyword being “evolving.”

(photo by Stephane Filion)

“The past has a vote, not a veto,” is another of our other favourite slogans.

But I digress…

Getting back to the concert: despite being co-sponsored by Klez Canada, this wasn’t your typical Jewish music event—nu, what do you expect from something billed “New Yiddish Cabaret and Old-Time Hebrew Hoedown”? It was more like la relève du Klezmer.” Not your Bubby’s Klezmer, that’s for sure!

In fact, hubby and I had our usual altercation when he discovered—15 minutes prior to leaving—that it was a Klezmer concert.

“Alternative Klezmer,” I hastily reassured him.

“But I hate Klezmer,” my husband wailed.

“You do NOT hate Klezmer,” I told him, a Phi Beta Kappa grad of the Jackie Mason school of Jewish wifery. “You just hated that terribly sad Klezmer concert we went to a few years back, music from the Warsaw ghetto. Or music for the Warsaw ghetto, or whatever it was. I forget.”

“Music to kill yourself by,” he said.

“I promise you’re going to love this concert,” I said (really, where do I get the nerve?)

“I hope you’re right,” he sighed, shrugging into his coat. And so on.

Anyway…we arrived at the synagogue and it was packed, PACKED! People swinging from the rafters…well, not really (“Are you kidding? Swinging from the rafters? You could get hoit doing such a t’ing! And in shul yet? Shame on you!”)

In fact, the sanctuary was nearly as full as on erev Yom Kippur—which, for a shul, is pretty full, I don’t need to tell you! And the audience—all ages, from babes in arms to geriatric cases--loved the show, if the standing ovations were anything to judge by.

But the approbation wasn’t wholly (holy?) unanimous—in fact, part way through the inspired first song of the rousing first act—Adam Stotland and his J-men (my term, his musical friends being Jarrod Atkinson, Joe Grass, Jason Rosenblatt, and Joshua Zubot), the first song being “Gimme That Old Time Religion” —the older lady sitting beside me tapped my shoulder and crooked her finger at me. It was dark and I was pretty sure I didn’t know her; I expected her to tell me how great the group was. Instead, I nearly plotzed when she said, in her Central European brogue, “Vut is dis, country music? Crazy! Dis is crazy, I tell you!”

Which only goes to prove there’s no pleasing some people.

The program notes referred to Adam’s “unique voice within the Jewish world… Klezmer, progressive rock…his own unique style of ‘Jewgrass,’” (you can hear selections from Adam’s new album, Maagal, on his website). Youthful, energetic, and freilach, in Hebrew, Yiddish, and English—it hit all the right “evolving civilization” notes.

Then there was the other headliner, Daniel Kahn. A poet. Need I say more? Yes, I need.

Originally from Detroit, currently from Berlin by way of New Orleans, Kahn is blurbed as a “multi-instrumentalist, singer, writer, poet, actor, director, composer, performer” who is “constantly reaching beyond boundaries, be they artistic, linguistic or geographic.”

(“Probably has to do all those things because he isn’t very good at any of them.”

“Will you please shut up?”)

Clearly the fellow’s an underachiever.

Also a thorn in the side. And I mean that in the best possible way, in a way the good Reb Kahn clearly intended. One of my early memories of Dorshei Emet’s Rabbi, Ron Aigen, was at a meeting for potential new members, where Rabbi Ron announced he wasn’t looking to make people feel cozy but to challenge them (I believe he said he wanted our shul, the Recon, as it’s familiarly known, to be a place where we “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” I was actually looking for quite the opposite, at the time; clearly a man in some way similar to Dan Kahn).

One of my favourite moments of Kahn’s set was when he asked if anyone in the audience “worked for a living?” Who among us were “workers,” the class of person he wished to dedicate his next song to? The audience was struck dumb, sneaking glances at each other out of the corner of our eyes. We were doctors, accountants, developers, lawyers, university professors, administrators, professionals of all stripes…all of us thinking “does he mean me? He couldn’t possibly mean meI don’t punch a clock, I am not unionized...” And so on. Thank God, some poor schmuck owned up to being a worker or we’d still be sitting there…)

Another highlight was Kahn’s doozie of a song, Parasite (“Anybody in the audience a biologist?” he asked. Even though I am, and I know I was not alone, by this point everyone was afraid to answer…).

Afflicting the comfortable…that’s what he was up to, no doubt. Does he really think we are all parasites? I’ve yet to come up with a satisfactory answer. I was—and still am—profoundly uncomfortable at the thought. A master stroke from a master shit-disturber. A poet, indeed.

On the way home, hubby agreed I had been right—he very much enjoyed the music. “But bluegrass music with Yiddish or Hebrew lyrics…do you really believe that’s Jewish music? I don’t,” he said.

“Jewish music is whatever music Jewish people make, whatever they write or perform,” I retorted, thinking something about this conversation seems really, REALLY familiar.

“So if a Jewish pianist plays Mozart, suddenly Mozart is Jewish music,” he lobbed back.

“Well…” I said, “they played guitar, mandolin, violin, harmonica, double bass, piano, accordion, even something Dan Kahn called his ‘jewtar.’”

“He sang Un canadien errant,” hubby countered. “And if Nana Mouskouri sang Un canadien errant, that makes it Greek music?”

“This discussion is getting ridiculous,” I said, spared the loss of the argument by a subsequent near-collision--quite a spot of luck, I thought.

Later it hit me, the reason for this attack of déjà vu: because defining ‘Jewish music’ is like defining ‘Canadian literature.’ It’s the same question as ‘Is CanLit whatever Canadians write?’ (Leaving aside the question ‘what is literature?’, of course.) You could ask it of any art, any jurisdiction.

Now Rohinton Mistry writes wonderful books set in India, but he’s a Canadian writer, isn’t he? If Mistry set all his stories in India for the rest of his career—long may it be--does that make them any less Canadian? (Ironically, while pitching this story, The Rover’s Critical ‘I’ editor, Bryan Demchinsky, told me he’d had the identical discussion some years back with Charles Foran—even down to the mention of Rohinton Mistry. Foran argued Mistry’s work was not Canadian, I believe.)

Must Canadian literature conform to certain settings or themes, primary among the latter being “alienation, alienation, alienation,” as one of our good friends put it a couple of decades ago? Must it be in certain prescribed languages—English, French, and Cree, for example? Is Farsi a no-go, CanLit-wise?

No, of course not.

Hubby—and perhaps that lady at the concert—were operating from what they knew of the history of Jewish music, not la relève de la musique Juive…the renewal of Jewish music. They were operating from the perspective of the past, not the future.

Why do we feel the need to classify things in this sort of narrow, parochial way? Jewish music, Canadian literature? Isn’t it enough to recognize art when we see it, exclusive of national or ethnic borders?

The past has a vote but not a veto, I say…

The Shabbat Shira concert was a huge success (props to Eada Rubinger and her team), attended by people from inside as well as outside our shul community. It was also a fitting memorial to Shulamis Yelin, z’l, a fellow synagogue member and Montreal poet whose bequest has made our Shabbat Shira concerts an ongoing endeavour.

Well, it wasn’t my Bubby’s Klezmer, that’s for sure. Or my Zaida’s.

And what could be more Jewish than ending this discussion with a question?

Beverly Akerman is a Montreal writer; her first book, The Meaning of Children, was just published by Exile Editions.

This piece was originally published on The Rover.

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