Cantor Jeff Warschauer: Davening Through Music

I met Jeff Warschauer at in NYC in 2014. He was running the Columbia University klezmer band. I didn’t know at the time that I was talking to one of the most well-known mandolinists in the world of klezmer. I talked to him on Wednesday. Here’s our interview, edited and somewhat summarized. Some Yiddish terms have added definitions in [square brackets].

I: You’ve said to me you grew up in a secular family. What drew you to Yiddish culture and klezmer as a genre?

J: Growing up, I Iargely lacked an identification with the Jewish community. My mother was a refugee from Nazi Germany, whose native language was German. My father had an Eastern European background. We had a little Jewish culture – we celebrated some hoidays, we sang some songs. If I heard any Hebrew, it would be in a German Ashkenazi pronunciation. My grandmother was a Zionist, so we had books about Israel in the house. And as a child of a refugee, we had a lot of stories about the Khurban [the Yiddish term for the Shoah or the Holocaust].

I: Could you give an example?

J: My mom remembers that my grandfather was a store manager. My grandmother was blond with blue eyes. Some Nazis bothered her while she was coming into the store with my mother, saying, “What is an Aryan like you doing going into a Jew store?” She grinned and said, “Smile to the nice man.” My grandmother was a strong woman.

I: Sounds like it!

J: Yes. Also, my generation saw a lot of Holocaust stuff on TV. Anyway, I didn’t have a bar mitzvah ceremony when I was thirteen, but I read a lot. I was a voracious reader – I would read whatever I could get my hands on.

I: How did you break into klezmer as a genre?

J: I grew up playing guitar. I eventually fell in with a group of “Jewbillies,” playing what I call “American ethnic music” – country, bluegrass, rockabilly – in bars. I was a working musician, working as a frontman for the rockabilly performer Sleepy LaBeef. But I was feeling limited by the music scene I was in. So I went back to school at the New England Conservatory, in what was then called the “Third Stream Department” and now the “Contemporary Improvization Department.” I studied under the great Hankus Netzky and Alan Bern. It was a great environment for me to begin exploring my own ethnomusical roots.

I: What drew you to the mandolin?

J: The guitar is not a traditional klezmer instrument at all. While I was at NEC I spent time working on using the guitar as accompaniment or as a solo instrument, but for playing lead I needed something else. I wasn’t about to pick up the fiddle or clarinet, and electric guitar was frowned on at the time. But I had some experience with the mandolin. I was influenced by Andy Statman, as well.

I: You’re a founding member of the Ger Mandolin Orchestra, a mandolin supergroup. Could you explain the concept of a mandolin orchestra?  

J: A mandolin orchestra is a group of instruments in the mandolin family, often accompanied by an accordion or percussionist to fill out the sound. The original Ger mandolin orchestra was an amateur pre-war group from Góra Kalwaria (Yiddish: Ger), Poland. After the Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment) secular Jewish cultural and educational groups like this grew. The mandolin was at the time like a recorder today – a not-too-expensive starter instrument. So it was a good one for amateur groups. The current Ger Mandolin Orchestra is named in their honor.

I: Any stories in your career that strongly affected your life path?

J: In 1985, I was one of four klezmer musicians who went to (what was then) the Soviet Union to meet with refuseniks [Jews denied the right to leave the USSR] and non-Jewish civil rights activists. We played music with them, and I was struck by how they were using music to promote human rights! We were interrogated by the KGB and were eventually forced to leave. So we used that notoriety to help get some of the refuseniks out. We met with Ted Kennedy, Alan Dershowitz, and other important officials from both sides of the Iron Curtain, and we helped some people escape. It was extremely formative to my Jewish identity, showing me what the People Israel really can be.

I: After years as a major figure in the Jewish folk community, you decided to go back to school. I met you while you were studying to become a cantor. What inspired this decision?

J: First of all, Deborah Strauss, my wife and musical partner, and I would do musical residencies around the world. It was fulfilling, but I sometimes felt like a “new kid on the block,” dropping in and leaving without ever making a home. I had also become more observant, and was looking for a way to keep Jewish traditions like not traveling on Shabbos which were difficult for a touring musician. But really the key was that I felt I needed to know nusach and cantillation [traditional melodies for prayer or reading] for a fuller understanding of klezmer. For years, I’ve been playing different types of music, trying to daven [Yiddish for “pray” or “have a spiritual experience”] through it, so I decided, “Why not learn how to use music specifically designed for davening?”

I: Finally, any advice for people considering going into music?

J: Hankus Netzky told me his teacher Ruth Rubin told him, “Don’t expect anyone to be interested in what you do, and don’t expect to make a living in it.” Having a disposable income is helpful, too.

I: Thank you!

J: It was great to talk with you!

 

Seattle with Missiles

Let’s play an association game. What do you think of when you think of the state of Israel? If you’re like many Americans, you’ve thought of an impoverished, dangerous war zone. But ask a person who’s been to Tel Aviv or to Jerusalem and they’re likely to say they feel safer in Israel than they do in America! So let’s narrow this down and play another round. I’ll describe an area, you tell me what you’d expect there.

Imagine, if you will, a small impoverished desert city, barely half a mile from the Gaza Strip border, the direct target so many Qassam rockets (over 4,200) that its unofficial nickname is the Bomb Shelter Capital of the World, where over 70% of children show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder,  where you can’t sell your house and leave because nobody would buy it, a city that  other cities’ mayors use as an example of what they will not turn into. What do you suppose would be this city’s greatest contribution to the world? War reporting? CNN coverage? Michael Bay movies? Well, how about a music scene so vibrant and revolutionary it’s called the Seattle of Israel? Ḥaverim, may I welcome you to Sderot, home of the most unlikely rock hotspot on the planet.

The story of Sderot’s rock all started with a man named Ḥaïm Uliel, born to a poor Moroccan Jewish family in a tin shack in Sderot, founded as a refugee camp in 1951. Israel had, and still has, a serious problem regarding relations between (largely wealthy and successful) Ashkenazi Jews from Europe and (often poorer and discriminated-against) Mizraḥi and Maghrebi Jews from Arab countries. Pronunciation and language differences and a music industry controlled by Askenazim meant that Israeli music was dominated by Ashkenazi artists, Western bands, or Ashkenazi artists covering Western bands. But, like a high-schooler in a Twisted Sister video, Ḥaïm wanted to rock. In 1988, he founded a local Sderot band called Sfatayim (“Lips,”) which mainly got work at local Moroccan weddings. Uliel recalled in 2007, “Beatles, Led Zeppelin. I dreamed of being Jimi Hendrix. But I also understood that to make a living, I had to play at weddings, and that meant playing… songs in Moroccan.” So he combined the songs of his Moroccan heritage with the rock he loved, adding his own inspiration to create something new and never before seen.

The Israeli mainstream couldn’t make head of tail of Sfatayim. Labels weren’t interested in Arabic music, and radio DJs wouldn’t play it. But it caught on, surprisingly enough, on world music stations, played along with Cuban dance music and West African guitarists. In the words of Matt Rees, “Most of the first Sfatayim fans outside the Moroccan Jewish community were unaware that the Arabic hits ‘Lalla Isha’ and ‘Ahlan waSahlan’ were recorded by five guys who grew up forty minutes outside of Tel Aviv.” But their notoriety grew as they released gold album after gold album, until they were welcomed into the Israeli mainstream. Looking back, Uliel reminisced,

“As we matured, we became more socially aware. We started to understand what we had achieved. That we had won. Until Sfatayim, North African music wasn’t played on the radio in Israel. I feel we managed to save the culture of our parents and bring it from the margins into the mainstream.”

Sfatayim’s keyboardist Kobi Oz founded Teapacks, a “bizarre mélange” of rock, Mizraḥi music, and Chasidic klezmer that became so popular as to record the disturbingly schizophrenic klezmer-French-folk-metal-rap ode to nuclear annihilation “Push the Button”, the official Israeli entrant for Eurovision in 2007.

Altogether, this poor dusty desert town of Sderot begat a new kind of rock – Rock Mizraḥi (note – link in Hebrew). Combining Arabic folk music, Western rock, and a unique Israeli ethos, it was born and raised here, but, like the Liverpudlian skiffle that inspired the Beatles or the Seattle garage rock responsible for the ‘90s alternative renaissance, a seed of something wholly new was planted. The Seattle of Israel may have more missiles raining down than water, but, more than the Ashkenazi establishment’s talking points ever could, the seed of Rock Mizraḥi “made the desert bloom.”

Roumania, Roumania: How It Sounds

 

 

Aaron Lebedeff (born 1873 in Belarus, died 1960 in New York City) is probably the single greatest Yiddish performer of all time. He was born for the stage, singing with the local cantor Khazzan  Borukh Dovid in his shtetl and running away from home multiple times to join theatre troupes. After being drafted into the Russian Army in the war, he was sent to Manchuria, and went from there to Shanghai to San Francisco to New York City (the exact opposite direction almost every other Jewish immigrant came to what was affectionately called the American Jerusalem). Unlike many of the performers of his time, he composed, wrote the lyrics to, and sang and performed all of his material.

Lebedeff’s most famous work is the classic comedic monologue Rumenye, Rumenye, an old recording of which I’ve linked here. The Jewish community of Romania was often joked about by other Jewish communities, who characterized them as drunken thieving lowlifes who only want a good time. This song plays into those stereotypes, but in a humorous and poignant way. And we see this in the song’s structure.

We begin with a slow clarinet introduction, full of the sobbing krekhts and quivering dreydlekh that characterize eastern European folk music. Then, at 14 seconds, our narrator comes in. “Ekh!” he shouts. “Rumania, Rumania, Rumania, Rumania, RUMANIA, Rumania, Rumania!” We hear the loss in his voice as he reminisces… “Once there was a land, sweet and lovely.” Is this song going to be yet another dirge about lost history and home, as was his Slutsk mein Shtetele? But at 50 seconds, we reach a turn!

 

“Oy, to live there would be such a delight!”

“What your heart desires you can get!”

“A mamaliga!”

“A pastrami!”

“A karnatzl!”

SLAM!

SLAM!

SLAM!

SLAM!

SLAM!

And just as it seems to be calming down with “a little glass of wiiiine,” we break into a fast-paced freylekh dance. This is the core of the song, and as the music livens up, so to do the words:

 

In Rumania, life is good!

No one worries, no one should.

Everywhere they’re drinking wine –

And a bit of cheese is fine

In Rumania, iz dokh gut

Fun keyn dayges veyst men nit.

Vayn trinkt men iberal –

M’farbayst mit kashtaval.

Ay-diggidiggidum-diggidiggidum!

 

At 1:38, we suddenly find ourselves major! And at 1:58, we come across the chorus:

 

Ah, it’s such a joy!

You can’t find better

Ah, it’s such a delight

Drinking Rumanian wine!

Ay, s’iz a mekhaye,

beser ken nit zayn!

Ay, a fargenign

iz nor Rumeynish vayn.

 

At 2:09, we start hearing some new “vocables” or nonsense sounds. These grow more prominent throughout the verses and verses and verses as the speed increases to a climax at 3:07.

Suddenly, a full stop. We’re back at the beginning, with some pseudo-chazzanus from the former cantorial soloist. As Aaron semiaudibly reminisces about Bucharesti, we begin to let our guard down. This is a bad idea. At 3:19, a huge “HEYYYYY!” starts the second half of the song – twice as fast. We find ourselves in almost a full minute of nonsense sounds, from rhythmic panting to a clarinet impression to lip flapping, smacking, and gargling.

When meaningful words come back at 4:00, we’re not sure what to expect. But what do we find? Did you guess a reference to the ancient Sabbath liturgy, followed by a bunch of crude and rape-y jokes about sexual harassment? Well, that’s what we get.

 

“May redemption come from the heavens!”

Stop and kiss the cook, Khayeh

Dressed in old scraps of cloth

She’s making a kugel to honor the Sabbath

Moishe Khayim comes over

And takes the best part for himself

Moyshe Khayim, Borukh Shmil

Grabs her kitzl* in secret.

And the girl pouts, annoyed

And she doesn’t want it, but allows it.

“Yokum purkon min shamayo!”

Shteyt un kusht di kekhene, Khaye,

Ongeton in alte shkrabes,

Makht a kugal likoved Shabbos!

Iz Moyshe Kahyim ongekumen

Dos beste kheylik tzugenumen;

Moyshe Khayim, Borukh Shmil – 

Khapt a kitzl in der shtil!

Un dos meydl nebekh blozt zikh

Un zi vil nit nor zi lozt zikh.

*I’m not translating kitzl, but I’ll let you know katz means “cat” and –l is the diminutive ending, like –y in English. Figure it out yourselves, creeps.

After the patter song gets more and more convoluted, we’re solidly back in party mode, which goes on as another chorus (5:00) goes on to a vast shout (5:10), then more vocables, another few verses of patter, and finally one ending chorus (5:52) and three last great big shouts (6:01).

People say the Jewish story is one of loss and tragedy, and that may be true. But we have some great parties as well. And Lebedeff, the great one of Yiddish theater, shows that more than anyone else. This recording was made after the Nazis destroyed Jewish Europe, and the Soviets disappeared what was left. But Lebedeff knew as we all should remember that you can’t have sorrow without joy. You can’t have mournful reminiscence without drunken parties. And as Purim, the Jewish celebration of drunken nonsense, comes up, we should keep that in mind. Enjoy your Rumanian wine!