First, a confession. When my wife and I married in 1998 in New York we had a musical problem. We’ve both been musicians and music, including Jewish music, were important to us. I especially love Jewish music. So we couldn’t have just any music at our wedding. We actually watched videos of big bands given to us by the caterer. They reminded me of Frank Sinatra, Jr. I despaired that we could find just what I was looking for. I don’t remember precisely how this happened, but I called my friend Nan Rubin and she told me of her friend, Yale Strom, who led a klezmer band. I’d heard of his work preserving Jewish music in Eastern Europe. I don’t remember if I even actually heard his music before we booked him. But when I asked him if he could do more popular non-Jewish music Janis and I grew up on like the Beatles I liked his answer: “Sure, no problem, that’s what we grew up on too.”
Yale and his wife and the rest of their band did an extraordinary job. We danced and danced–doinas and horas and everything in between. I even think they enjoyed our wedding and I know everyone enjoyed their music.
All this by way of introducing the subject of this post: Yale just sent me an e mail about a massive klezmer spectacular he’s organizing as part of the project to restore the landmark Eldridge Street shul, a bastion of Jewish life on New York’s Lower East Side. It’s called A Great Day on Eldridge Street and modeled on a classic photograph Yale loves of the greats of 1950s jazz called A Great Day in Harlem:
The Eldridge Street Project will assemble more than 75 of the world’s most influential klezmer musicians for A Great Day on Eldridge Street, an unprecedented, ten-day series of concerts, lectures and educational events that will kick-off on October 12 with a march through the streets of the Lower East Side and an historic photo shoot on the steps of the National Historic Landmark Eldridge Street Synagogue. The photo is inspired by “A Great Day in Harlem,” the iconic 1958 photograph of renowned jazz musicians, including Thelonius Monk, Dizzie Gillespie and Count Basie.
This unique gathering of international musicians is conceived and led by Yale Strom, a klezmer virtuoso and the world’s leading ethnographer of klezmer culture and history. “I was influenced by the film A Great Day in Harlem and wanted to do something similar for klezmer culture,” says Strom. “The Lower East Side is the birthplace of Eastern European Jewish culture in America. And Eldridge Street is the oldest East European Orthodox synagogue, and an important site of traditional Jewish culture. I can’t think of a more appropriate place to take this photograph.”
The ten-day celebration will highlight klezmer, the wedding and folk music predominantly played by Eastern European Jews. Derived from Near Eastern and East European music sources, and influenced by the regions’ classical and folk traditions, klezmer is a decidedly multi-cultural musical form. Brought to the United States by Eastern European Jewish immigrants, its popularity waned by the 1950s as Jews looked to American musical sources. But klezmer experienced a revival beginning in the 1970s when young musicians interested in their East European Jewish roots reclaimed this musical tradition, incorporating American jazz and rock influences.
As is evident from this event, Yale is not only a great musician and visionary regarding Jewish music, he’s also an organizer who likes to get things done. This is an extraordinary project and any New Yorkers among my readers really must take advantage.
The MacArthur Foundation just announced their “genius” award winners this week. I’ve got a hot tip for them: Yale Strom should be on their short list. Just look at this list of his books and films. He’s more than productive, he’s prolific; and on a subject that is of immense cultural significance to the Jewish people: the preservation of our great Eastern European musical tradition.
Here’s what the website says about the participating performers:
Musicians participating in A Great Day on Eldridge Street will travel to the Lower East Side from across the United States and around the world, including Canada, Israel, Europe and the former Soviet Union. They include pioneers of the klezmer renaissance, such as David Krakauer, Frank London and Andy Statman, guiding figures including folk singer and actor Theodore Bikel and
MacArthur Award winner John Zorn, and more recent practitioners of the genre. Other featured participants are Don Byron, the world-famous African American jazz clarinetist who is an original member of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, as well as leading female klezmorim Adrienne Cooper and Alicia Svigals. International figures include Moshe Berlin, the famed Israeli clarinetist who will be performing for the first time in America, and members of the aptly named Amsterdam klezmer revival band Di Gojim — none of whom is Jewish.
The participants range in age from 20-something Annette Ezekiel, the leader of the Golem, to octogenarians Mina Bern and Shifra Lehrer, grand dames of Yiddish theatre. A number of the A Great Day on Eldridge Street participants come from a long, esteemed line of klezmorim, including Sy Tarras, son of the late great klezmer clarinetist David Tarras.
These are some of the key workshops and events that will take place during the festival:
The events of this multi-faceted cultural, performance and documentation project will include:
* Thursday, October 11: Educational workshop with select group of musicians and second grade students at local Chinatown public school P.S. 42
* Friday, October 12: Procession of the featured musicians down the streets of the Lower East Side ending at the landmark Eldridge Street Synagogue. Photographer Leo Sorel will then take a portrait of the group.
* Sunday, October 14: Major evening concert at Symphony Space in Manhattan.
* October 15-21: Statewide Great Day Tour with performances and educational workshops at the Bardavon 1869 Opera House in Poughkeeepsie (October 16), The 1891 Fredonia Opera House (October 18), Buffalo State Performance Arts Center (October 20) and the 1890 Performance Hall at Hochstein in Rochester (October 22)