I started playing klezmer about ten years ago, and I started at the top as it were: with David Krakauer. I had just arrived in New York, where there was much talk of a thing called “Radical Jewish Culture.” I was twenty-one years old and had decided, at the urging of Anthony Braxton, to pursue a career in avant-garde accordion playing. Great idea, right? So when I got wind of this “Radical Jewish Culture,” I thought it sounded like something I should check out. I’m Jewish, with my fresh college diploma I felt pretty cultured, and having played accordion with Anthony Braxton, I was pretty sure I was radical. So I joined a klezmer band.
I did not know anything about what I was doing. I had never played any form of “folk music,” which requires a very different type of discipline from what I had been doing with Braxton. I had never toured with a band, with all of the technical, logistical, and interpersonal challenges that brings up. I had never even done any serious thinking about what being Jewish meant to me. It took a few years of playing klezmer music with David to even start to deal with these rather important issues. Once I did, I realized that klezmer was the wrong place for me to be as a musician and as a Jew.
How does klezmer fit into the grand scheme of music today? Where is it in the record store? Klezmer is “World Music,” but unlike other sub-genres of “World Music” like African, Brazilian, or Balkan, klezmer does not come from a specific place. It comes from a religion. So why isn’t klezmer next to the gospel section or even the Contemporary Christian section? It is because the music world sees klezmer not as a religious music but as an ethnic music. And indeed, the audience, whether Jewish or gentile, American or European, sees it as an ethnic music. Through the vehicle of klezmer, Jews become the providers of happy (or at least “happy/sad”) multi-kulti dance music, free from the nasty subtleties of religion or history. People consume klezmer music to bathe in a stew of denatured Jewish ethnicity, not to participate in or to confront the reality of living Jewish spirituality.
When the time came to make my own “Radical Jewish Culture” album, I wanted to write music that would reflect my actual identity as a mostly secular 21st century Jewish person, not an externally assigned pseudo-ethnicity. Though the tropes of klezmer became a part of that, the story I wanted to tell required a different compositional language, floating free from the strict rules of klezmer. I wanted to make a record on a Jewish topic, not a record in a Jewish language, much as Jewish artists and writers have been doing for at least the last hundred years. Maybe that isn’t so radical after all.