Klezmer music is commonly known as the instrumental music traditions of Ashkenazi Jews. What you might not know, nor will Wikipedia inform you, is that the term “Klezmer”, as most of us know it, came about 40 years ago here in New York City! The coining of the term for this genre of music was part of an initiative by the Center for Traditional Music and Dance (CTMD) to recover this art form.
“We take Klezmer music for granted now but when we started [this initiative], the musicians didn't really call it 'Klezmer music',” says Peter Rushefsky, Executive Director at CTMD. In 1978, they did a concert series with David Tarras, sparking a huge interest in promoting and resuscitating the art form. Their researchers were searching for a spicy term to use when one of them suggested using the word “klezmer,” previously a somewhat derogatory Yiddish term used to refer to less-than-trained folk musicians. “It’s kind of amazing,” Rushefsky says, “40 years later, it’s embedded in world music.”
Here in New York, there are Klezmer programs for young children and Klezmer programs that seem to engage older adults. But I see a problematic gap and a need to engage teenagers and young adults – the future of our culture! As I continue my thesis research and think about what my Jewish Community Music School will look like when it opens, I am taking into consideration the ways in which these existing organizations are keeping alive our older traditions, but also starting to think about how to make our traditional art forms relevant for the long-term. All art forms have to evolve and adapt to remain relevant, vibrant, and survive. Not that such wonderful work has been done to bring back these traditions, I believe that we should be thinking less along the lines of preservation and more along the lines of growth. If we are hesitant to let our musical traditions evolve with time, it is possible that we will lose them once again.
If you’re interested in seeing CTMD's Klezmer workshops in action, they hold weekly instrumental workshops on Tuesdays at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. Once a month this is followed by an incredible Yiddish dance workshop and jam session. All are welcome to play, dance, or both (if you have trouble choosing like I did). They also have a Kidz Klezmer Band that meets most Sundays.