Queer Klezmer Quandary

December 1, 2007
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Alicia Svigals

On October 12, 2007, over 100 musicians prominent in the contemporary revival of klezmer music gathered on the steps of the Eldridge Street synagogue on the Lower East Side of New York for an historic photo. This Ashkenazic Jewish music tradition had faded to a whisper in the 1950s and 1960s but returned with an unexpected crescendo in the 1970s, and the photo was intended to document the thriving creative community that the klezmer world has become. Among the faces in that photo are several people, like myself, who are openly gay and lesbian; our disproportionate presence is an oft-noted and curious fact about the current klezmer and Yiddishist scenes.

In conjunction with the photo shoot, I and twelve other musicians from around the world embarked on a weeklong concert tour. After the first show, a lesbian couple posed an interesting question: How did I feel about all those songs about khusns and kales, brides and grooms? What meaning could they have for me? My solo feature had been a ‘kale bazetsn’ full of cantorial inflections and high emotion that was played to encourage the bride to have a good cry before her ceremony; the ritual was, perhaps, a proto-therapy for a young woman who would be leaving her family and town to live with a man she hardly knew. Why was I so eager to evoke such a world?

In 20 years of playing klezmer music, I had never before entertained the question. Beyond a vague wish to apologize when presenting certain material, and a parallel project to write more relevant lyrics for our songs, I had never examined the contradiction between songs celebrating brides and grooms, and my life as a lesbian. The dilemma for women — and especially lesbians — caught between the pulls of Judaism and secularism or assimilation is, deep down, a tension between a premodern way of life and our own. Why engage with that old world at all, let alone celebrate it? What indeed does the kale bazetsn, with its implications of female restriction and inagency in the most intimate areas of life, have to do with “out” lesbians in 2007?

What we seek and celebrate and try to recreate from that world is the “communitas” that’s missing from our own. The nostalgia for a past that was in many ways so awful, so full of violence and horror (pogroms and forced conscription and other realities of Jewish life) suddenly becomes understandable; as painful as that world could be, people felt embedded in a group in a way we long for today, sometimes consciously and sometimes without being able to name the feeling as such.

Klezmer musicians are striving, among other things, to revive the practice of community dancing. In a traditional circle dance like the hora, the dancers are all physically connected and in total visual communication. Most important, the group is physically moving as a unit and the individual, buoyed along, feels personal boundaries dissolving into a greater whole. Awash in the euphoria of the music, participants enjoy community warmth difficult to experience today. Compare the image to the iconic dance depicted in the iPod ad — an individual in a state of solitary pleasure, sealed off from all other human beings, and the musicians who provide that pleasure a mere abstraction.

While the heterosexual klezmer musician may be presumed to have a natural affinity for those old bride and groom songs than we queer klezmers have, the real motivation to keep those songs alive is probably the same for all of us. In this way, as is so often the case with gay people, our outsider status illuminates an otherwise hidden reality for the group as a whole.

But why is there not just a gay presence in the klezmer/Yiddishist world, but indeed an especially large one? As an imaginary Jewish landscape without real-world institutions like synagogues to contend with (that lesbian couple’s local shul, for example, turned them away when they tried to join with their kids as a family), “Yiddishland” is a safe haven, a frontier world we can begin to populate unmolested. And so we have — in workshops such as Klezkamp, at festivals like Ashkenaz in Toronto, in our bands and somehow, paradoxically and sometimes uncomfortably, in our kale bazetsns.

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Alicia Svigals, a leading klezmer fiddler, is a founder of the Grammy-winning Klezmatics. She's composed, arranged, recorded, and performed with artists ranging from Itzhak Perlman to Led Zeppelin. She also has a rocking wedding and bat/bar mitzvah band and can be contacted at www.aliciasvigals.com.

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