Music in Global America


Above: Litvakus is a Brooklyn-based klezmer band led by Zisl Slepovitch on clarinet. Photography: Misha Gulko, 2016. Used with permission.



Klezmer is the instrumental dance and party music of Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe. The Yiddish language is a dialect of German with some Hebrew words. It was commonly spoken among the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. Originally, klezmer (pl. klezmorim) referred to musical instruments, and was later extended to refer, as a pejorative, to musicians themselves. Today klezmer is a generic term referring to the traditional music and its extensions.

From its origins in the 16th century throughout much of the 19th century klezmer was almost totally an oral tradition played by itinerant musicians, mostly at wedding celebrations, and in secular contexts as well. In the twentieth century klezmer bands and orchestras began to be recorded, and klezmer underwent a process of Americanization. After World War II the genre nearly disappeared until it was revived in the 1970s. A further revival in the 1990s inspired a global interest in klezmer. Today a wide variety of klezmer bands perform in many countries around the world. 


American Jews, or Jewish Americans, are Americans who are Jews, whether by religion, ethnicity or nationality.* The current Jewish community in the United States consists primarily of Ashkenazi Jews, who descend from diaspora Jewish populations of Central/Eastern Europe.  Ashkenazi Jews comprise about 90% of the American Jewish population.**  Most American Ashkenazim are US-born, with a dwindling number of now elderly earlier immigrants, as well as some more recent foreign-born immigrants. 

Depending on religious definitions and varying population data, the United States has the largest or second largest Jewish community in the world, after Israel. In 2012, the American Jewish population was estimated at between 5.5 and 8 million, depending on the definition of the term, which constitutes between 1.7% and 2.6% of the total U.S. population.

The metropolitan areas of New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami contain nearly one quarter of the world's Jews.

Jewish migration to the United States increased dramatically in the early 1880s, as a result of persecution and economic difficulties in parts of Eastern Europe. Most of these new immigrants were Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews, most of whom arrived from the poor diaspora communities of the Russian Empire and the Pale of Settlement  (modern-day Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova.) During the same period, great numbers of Ashkenazi Jews also arrived from Galicia, at that time the most impoverished region of the Austro-Hungarian empire with a heavy Jewish urban population, driven out mainly by economic reasons. Many Jews also emigrated from Romania. Over 2,000,000 Jews landed between the late 19th century and 1924, when the Immigration Act of 1924 restricted immigration. Most settled in the New York metropolitan area, establishing the world's major concentrations of Jewish population.



Americans of Jewish descent have been disproportionately successful in many fields and aspects over the years. The Jewish community in America has gone from a lower class minority, with most studies putting upwards of 80% as manual factory laborers prior to World War I and with the majority of fields barred to them, to the consistent richest or second richest ethnicity in America for the past 40 years in terms of average annual salary, with extremely high concentrations in academia and other fields, and today have the highest per capita income of any ethnic group in the United States, at around double the average income of non-Jewish Americans.

"American Jews," Wikipedia

*The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey showed that “only 5% of American Jews consider being Jewish solely in terms of being a member of a religious group. Thus, the vast majority of American Jews view themselves as members of an ethnic group and/or a cultural group, and/or a nationality.” [Ira Sheskin, “American Jews” in Jesse O. McKee’s Ethnicity in Contemporary America: A Geographical Appraisal (2000)]
**Henry Sapoznick stresses the origins of the Ashkenazim as those whose "language and basic cultural forms derive ultimately from the old German Jewish settlements." (The other major ethnic divisions of the Jewish diaspora are the Sephardic Jews who established communities in the Iberian peninsula and developed a distinctive culture which they took to Northern Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas when Jews were expelled from present-day Spain and Portugal in the fifteenth century. The Mizrahi Jews are descendants of local Jewish communities in the Middle East from biblical times into the modern era.)


The most important melody instruments of klezmer are violin and clarinet because of their ability to mimic the human voice; flute is less common and saxophone is a recent alternative. As shown in the painting below of a traditional Eastern European Jewish wedding procession, early klezmer bands had few members, usually violin, clarinet, tsimbl (cimbalom) and cello. These instruments are soft (Jews faced many prohibitions against playing loud instruments), and they are also portable, an important point since klezmer musicians were mostly itinerant, traveling from venue to venue and from town to town, often playing for processions.

The accompanying instrument was at first tsimbl (cimbalom), then piano, and, later, accordion. The bass instrument is string bass, or tuba. Other instruments that may be members of a klezmer group are cello, trumpet and trombone. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, larger bands — klezmer orchestras — could include multiple violinists, brass instruments, drums, and cymbals in addition to the near-ubiquitous clarinet. For smaller bands, percussion instruments that might be added are wood block and/or snare drum.


After the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, as an act of mourning religious authorities banned the rich instrumental music that had been part of Jewish liturgy. The most influential form of musical expression within the Jewish community became cantillation, the singing of prayers and scriptures by the synagogue kahzn (cantor). Cantillation had two decisive impacts on the klezmer: the use of the Ahava Rabboh mode;* and a florid, melismatic melodic style. A mode (or scale) is a set of notes from which melodies are derived. Each mode is distinctive, and melodies derived from a mode share its characteristic sound. To hear the recognizable character of Ahava Rabboh, compare the standard melody of "Joy to the World" with The Klezmonauts' "Oy to the World" which recasts the melody using Ahava Rabboh.

The elaborately ornamental singing style of cantillation is heard in this traditional version of "Shim Yisrael."
*This prayer mode is similar to the  maqam Hijaz in Arab music, and can be described in the Western system as Phrygian with raised third, or E F G# A B C D E.

A clear connection between the singing of khazonim and the sound of klezmer is most evident in the free-form doina, which combines the vocalization of Jewish prayer with Eastern European laments. In this genre we hear the krekhtsn, tshoks, and kneythshn  — "the achy, bent, and cutoff notes which we often hear as the 'laughing' and 'crying' quality of klezmer. This is the essence of klezmer ornamentation and is arguably the single most important characteristic of klezmer, both musically and in terms of its 'Jewishness.'" [Rogovoy, The Essential Klezmer]

The Chicago Klezmer Ensemble plays a doina followed, as is customary, by a dance tune — in this case, the Romanian sirba. Klezmer adapted the slow, improvised doina from the Romanian peasant solo song of the same name, turning the melancholy vocal form into an instrumental improvisation that serves as an introduction to a fast dance tune. The Ahava Rabboh mode can be heard clearly in the doina on this recording. The dance that follows is a Romanian folk dance named after the Serbs and also popular among Ashkenazi Jews.

Also important to the development of Old World klezmer were unaccompanied Yiddish folk songs, and nigunim, the wordless songs of  Hasidim, a religious sect founded in Poland in the eighteenth century that encouraged song and dance as a form of prayer bypassing the "burden" of words.

Alicia Svigals and Jeff Warschauer featured in Chabad 'Nigun Rikud' from the 2002 album Vodkazak:

Lastly,  Kapoznik cites the songs of Yiddish theater, spearheaded by Abraham Goldfaden in Romania in the late 1800s. Abraham Goldfaden, "Dumpling's Song" from The Witch.  Yiddish theater validated Yiddish as a language and brought Jewish folk song and dance to the public. Goldfaden traveled with his troupe to Ukraine, Russia, and finally New York where he died in 1908. The great migration of Jews in the late nineteenth century brought successive waves of Yiddish performers to New York, "some simply as artists seeking an audience, but many as a result of persecutions, pogroms, and economics crises in Eastern Europe." ["Yiddish Theater," Wikipedia] 


From the sixteenth century, Central European Jews who were expelled or who fled persecution gradually migrated eastward to areas controlled by Polish and Russian nobility. By the late eighteenth century the Jewish population of East Europe was confined to the cities and shtelts (villages) in the Pale of Settlement. Over the next hundred years, Yiddish-speaking Jews absorbed musical influences from surrounding cultures and developed kapelyes, instrumental bands whose music making was a necessary component of wedding ceremonies. Wedding celebrations lasted for days and included many ritual dances. Kapelyes also played at inns and taverns, marketplaces, and fairs. At the beginning of the nineteenth century klezmorim were confined by law to playing soft instruments, and so were dominated by violin (fidl), flute, and the klezmer tsimbl (cimbalom).  The tsimbl demonstrated in the video is the instrument in the center. It is played by striking the strings with lightweight implements ("beaters") which causes the strings to vibrate.

With few exceptions, the status and reputation of klezmorim was low:

They were an irreverent, irreligious, and even immoral bunch — the very cliché of the dissolute musician. For all their efforts, they died without so much as a ruble to their names. They were a hereditary caste, with kapelyes sometimes consisting of members of one family, fathers and sons alike. [Rogovoy, The Essential Klezmer]

A segment of the klezmorim were cosmopolitan musicians who played in cities and for wealthy patrons, became familiar with current fashionable non-Jewish European dance forms, and sometimes read music. 

As prohibitions against Jewish musicians playing loud instruments were lifted in some areas toward the end of the nineteenth century, the clarinet took over from violin as the lead instrument in the kapelye. Brass instruments and percussion instruments entered in Old World klezmer bands due to the conscription of hundreds of Jewish boys from 8 to 12 years old were kidnapped from the homes of poor Eastern European Jews and forced into tsarist military institutions in the early 19th century. Those who did not die from fever on the forced marches to barracks in Siberia were required to serve for 25 years. They were prohibited from speaking their own languages, harshly disciplined, and forced to convert to Christianity.  The photo below shows klezmer musicians with clarinets, and with the brass and percussion instruments common to military bands.



Seth Rogovoy identifies three stages in the history of klezmer in the United States. The first stage was the mass migration of Eastern European Jews to the U.S. in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when klezmorim such as Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein "carved their own musical niches at a time when jazz was popular, variously resisting and integrating American influences into their playing styles." The second stage is the 1970s roots revival of klezmer by groups like Kapelye, and the Klezmer Conservatory Band. The third stage is the continuing hybridization of klezmer with rock,  jazz, avant garde music and other American musical genres and styles. 

From the peak of emigration in 1880 until 1924 when the U.S. government slammed shut the doors on Jewish, Asian, Italian and other emigrants, some 2.5 million Jews came to America. Most ended up in New York's Lower East Side, one of the most densely populated places on earth during that period. 

Klezmorim continued to lead lives as itinerant musicians for weddings, but these were now held in convention halls, and the quaint Old World customs were shed. Ceremonies centered on lively celebratory dances, especially the freylekh (Yiddish for "festive"). Here Dobranotch, a Russian klezmer orchestra, plays a freylekh

The early twentieth-century recording industry produced thousands of "ethnic" records marketed to urban emigrant groups. Recordings made klezmer a listening music as well as a music for dancing. These early documents of klezmer by those close to the Old World tradition were also crucial to the revival of klezmer.

Harry Kandel's Orchestra and similar klezmer bands in early twentieth-century New York were marked by their emphasis on ensemble playing. But "the introduction of a distinctive, lead solo voice was an innovation of Abe Schwartz [his band is heard in this recording, with Dave Tarras on clarinet]. Schwartz is perhaps best known for having hired and recorded a couple of virtuoso clarinetists who would go on to establish themselves as the most famous and influential klezmorim of the immigrant era, and perhaps of all time," Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras. 

Naftule Brandwein, "Nifty's Freilach":
Brandwein was born in 1889 and entered the U.S. sometime before 1920. Within a few years he had established a reputation as the "king of Jewish music." 

A larger-than-life figure, Brandwein was noted as much for his wild behavior as for his virtuosity. He supposedly once performed dressed as Uncle Sam, strung with Christmas tree lights that nearly electrocuted him when he perspired…He was a shikker, or a serious drinker, and the very stereotype of the Old World, unreliable lowlife. Nevertheless, he was much in demand for playing parties, weddings, and hotel gigs in the Catskills until his death in 1963.  [Rogovoy]

Dave Tarras plays a Romanian Nigun

Tarras was born in Ukraine in 1879. By his teens he had mastered the playing of multiple instruments. At eighteen he was drafted into the Tsarist army where he led an elite military music ensemble. With the Russian Revolution came chaos and anti-Semitic pogroms. Tarras fled to New York City in 1921 where his music reading abilities opened up jobs playing Greek, Russian and Polish music, and in New Yorks' burgeoning Yiddish theater scene, one that rivaled Broadway. Tarras recorded hundreds of records beginning in 1925.

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Klezmer as a popular music slowly declined during the 1920s as American Jews became assimilated and enamoured of Big Band music and Broadway. The Great Depression and the rise of radio brought the recording industry to a virtual halt in the 1930s. And after World War II, Latin dance music replaced klezmer as the favored wedding celebration music of Jewish families. 

Efforts to introduce klezmer into jazz were spotty and superficial. There were some smash hits though. The most successful novelty hit was The Andrews Sisters' recording of the Yiddish song "Bei Mir Bist du Sheyn" (video above) which topped the pop charts in 1932.

The song was recorded in 2008 by the Budapest Klezmer Band in an interesting version that transitions from an Old World Yiddish manner to a cool jazz arrangement and ends with a verse in English.

And in 1939 the top song went to "And the Angels Sing," originally a klezmer melody that trumpeter Ziggy Ellman arranged for Benny Goodman's Orchestra, with added lyrics by Johnny Mercer (Ellman's solo begins at 1:45). Bandleader Sam Musiker also tried to push Tarras into a Swing-klezmer fusion, but by the 1950s/60s rock & roll and rock had all but killed klezmer. 


* Additional records with tsimbl, both historic and modern, can be heard here.


Henry Sapoznik, "Klezmer Music: The First 1000 Years" in the Music of Multicultural America, Kip Lornell and Anne Rusmussen (eds. ,2016. 

Henry Sapoznik, Klezmer! Jewish Music from Old World to Our World, New York: Schirmer Books, 1999.

Mark Slobin, "Under the Klezmer Umbrella" in Fiddler on the Move: Exploring the Klezmer World, Oxford University Press, 2003.

Mark Slobin (ed.), American Klezmer, Its Roots and Offshoots, University of California Press, 2002.

Seth Rogovoy, The Essential Klezmer, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2000. 

Jonathan Freedman, Klezmer America: Jewishness, Ethnicity, Modernity, New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

Zev Feldman, (2016). Klezmer: music, history and memory. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Milken Archive of Jewish Music


The members of this group should begin with the course readings, and the klezmer videos in the Global America playlist for examples. The presentation should cover the revival of klezmer in the U.S., the development of hybrid forms of klezmer, and klezmer as an international form of music.

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