The Book of Klezmer: The History, The Music, The Folklore

By Yale Strom

Chicago, IL: A Cappella Books, 2002.
xvi, 381 p. [24] p. of plates: ill., music ; 24 cm.
Bibliography: 363-369.
Discography: 371-374.
ISBN: 1556524455 (hardback : alk. paper)

Yale Strom has written a book with enormous effort that supplies the reader with good access to extensive quotations by klezmer musicians, translations of previous scholarly works into English, 3 superb appendices, a bibliography, a very nice discography and an index. The purpose of the book is to give an overall history of klezmer music, with its growth in Eastern Europe and a look at the current scene and it’s meaning today.

Strom spent several years researching the material, conducting interviews of klezmer musicians in America and Europe, and having materials translated into English. Over a twenty-year period, he made some fifty trips to Eastern Europe doing ethnographic research. Details supplied by photographic plates and the extensive quotations from his interviews abound in the book.

A highlight of special note in this book is Appendix 1, “Klezmer Zikhroynes in di Yizker Bikher,” (Klezmer remembrances in the Memorial Books). This refers to the many ‘yizkor’ books, (Yiddish: yizker bikher) the memorial books, made by survivors of the Holocaust remembering the people and Jewish culture of their hometowns. A complete collection of these books, he states, is located at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, with many at YIVO in New York. Other major libraries, including Brandeis University Libraries, also contain numerous yizkor books.

Strom has picked out many sections from these books referring to musicians, music, weddings and other simchas involving music, and translated (or had translated) those sections from the yizkor books into English. This appendix is arranged in alphabetical order by the name of the town, and is quite useful for those seeking any information about that community. Strom also includes notes about the spellings of names, and details of how he translated numerous Yiddish words for these yizkor book entries. He states that “The bibliographic form follows the one compiled by Zachary M. Baker used today for reference at YIVO.” This format will aid enormously in the usefulness of these listings, being based on the work of one of our nation’s outstanding Judaica librarians.

The other two useful appendices are the “klezmer loshn”–the vocabulary or jargon of working klezmer musicians in Eastern Europe in Yiddish. It was interesting to note that some of the first examples of this Strom used to express the connotations of this jargon, was a bawdy reference to women and criminal’s language, giving the feel of the “low-class” nature of the klezmer. Strom constructed the vocabulary using seven previously published works, and putting everything together in one list. However, he notes that by the time he did his research into klezmer jargon, most of the vocabulary had been forgotten. Apparently it disappeared along with the klezmorim in Europe, and doesn’t seem to be part of the current klezmer world in contemporary America.

A real treat of the book is the third appendix, which are several scores of songs Strom includes from his vast repertoire learned in Eastern Europe. Some people may wind up buying the book for these 11 songs alone.

Also included is a brief discography and a glossary. The glossary is important because Strom insisted on using a Yiddish spelling for vocabulary words, even if some of those words have already had ‘standardized’ English spelling which are more familiar to American readers. Examples of this are: “toyre” instead of “Torah” for the scroll of the Five Books of Moses, or “bar mitsve” instead of the more standard “bar mitzvah.” These changes are intended to give the reader a “Yiddish” instead of a “Hebrew” orientation to the vocabulary, lending to the “atmosphere” while reading the book. Some readers may find this annoying at first, but in general, it works overall to be consistent.

Those reading the summary of Jewish music history in chapter one, “fun David Ha-melekh biz Duvid der klezmer,” need to be careful. One may use this as a starting point, but serious study of this period should rely on other scholars for details, due to some serious errors in the musicology of this chapter. Mr. Strom makes sweeping statements that often fit into a good story line, but aren’t really accurate history as currently understood by most Jewish musicologists. In general, when reading the first two chapters, a reader should feel secure when reading items that are translations or quotes from previous research, but keep a questioning mind when reading summary statements of Mr. Strom.

An example of this is on p. 9, in discussing Rossi’s music, he states: “Rossi and his fellow Jewish composers…they may have helped usher in a process of assimilation that sacred Jewish music underwent in Europe, a process that ended only in the nineteenth century.” At first I thought there was an error in the print, but there it was. Why had this process “ended in nineteenth century,” the beginning of the Reform music in Europe? That seemed quite a mistake to me. Of course, he uses the word “may”, but still gives the impression musical assimilation ended in the nineteenth century. Even if Rossi’s music had some lasting impact in Italy and surrounding areas, where was the influence in Eastern Europe, in the Pale of Settlement in the 17th or 18th century? Or for that matter in France or Germany? Even considering that cantorial music often adapted shades of European classical music in the 18th century, polyphonic music was not extent in those synagogues. Did he mean that it was ‘OK for Jewish synagogue music to adapt ideas’ from surrounding culture? If so, why does he state that the process ended in the nineteenth century? No matter how one dices up the statement, it just doesn’t make sense and amounts to misinformation. Unfortunately, there are many such summary or sweeping statements throughout this book, and Mr. Strom’s understanding of the forces shaping Jewish history in Eastern Europe may deserve some revisions as well.

However, that said, a person unfamiliar with any Jewish music history can still learn a lot and get a general gist of the history of Jewish music from this book. Mr. Strom is an excellent storyteller and so the reading is fun, easy and it’s a quick read. (if you can just get yourself to gloss over some of the more glaring problems.) Mr. Strom appears to be a good ethnographer, and if the reader focuses only on his original field work, there is much to celebrate.

Chapters 3 and 4 of Strom’s Klezmer are much stronger portions of the book. Here he gets into more familiar territory and his work benefits from the numerous primary sources he was able to garner. People may differ over some particulars of klezmer history here, but it is a much stronger and thorough examination than some previous memoirs released. Strom’s discussions are strengthened by allowing the musicians to speak in their own voice. He also bravely covers an important aspect of today’s klezmer music (also discussed in a recent book: Virtually Jewish : reinventing Jewish culture in Europe by Ruth Gruber)– that is– the phenomenon of Jewish culture being lauded and growing in European lands that participated in the Holocaust and now feel the cultural gap of not having many Jews living there. The question why klezmer music is so popular in Germany is compelling. This is an important and interesting aspect of the book, and Strom is to be applauded for eliciting such poignant statements from many practicing musicians.

The Book of Klezmer: The History, The Music, The Folklore is a mixed resource. It’s greatest strengths are the gathering in of so much information on primary sources in one place, and the extensive quotations and translations of older research into English. It’s weaknesses are in those areas that cover the era prior to the end of the nineteenth century. While Strom takes upon himself the enormous task of trying to summarize so much Jewish musical history, he is better suited to the modern era and the primary fieldwork he conducted. The book is worth reading for it’s later sections, and we will look to another musicologist to come and fill in the gaps of the earlier history.

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