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Klezmer Musicians, Aficionados Converge on Home of Pied Piper

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Bad Pyrmont is a sleepy spa town in northern Germany with mineral baths, shady parks and a graceful castle dating back to the 16th century.

It also is not far from Hamelin – home of one of the world’s most famous – if legendary – musicians: the Pied Piper.

But during Sukkot this year, a different type of music filled the crisp, autumn air here: klezmer, the lively traditional music of Eastern European Jews.

During the entire Sukkot week, Bad Pyrmont’s castle was the scene of an intensive workshop in klezmer music and Yiddish culture.

The workshop was conducted by members of the American klezmer band Brave Old World and other Jewish musicians and Yiddish culture scholars from North America.

Only a handful of the 40 participants were Jewish.

Most were non-Jewish Germans.

All, however, were fascinated with klezmer music and the Jewish culture from which it sprang – a culture that was almost totally destroyed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Klezmer fans and musicians are part of a movement that a emerged in Germany in the mid-1980s and mushroomed there and in other countries after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

Today, there are local German klezmer bands across the country, most of them with no Jewish musicians.

North American klezmer groups such as Brave Old World, Kapelye and The Klezmatics regularly tour even small German towns. Klezmer CDs are big sellers and Yiddish songs get radio air time.

Brave Old World had a hit in Germany not long ago with a song about how strange it was to make a living by playing Jewish music for young German audiences.

“There must be 10 or 12 klezmer groups in Berlin alone, of very different styles and quality,” said Stefan Kuhne, 35, the guitarist of a five-member klezmer group based in Bremen.

The group, which plays traditional Jewish tunes as well as its own arrangements, calls itself “The Klezgoyim,” a reference to the fact that none of its members is Jewish.

“Even in Bremen there are two or three groups,” Kuhne said. “And there are a lot of groups who play klezmer, but not professionally.”

The interest of young Germans in klezmer, said Michael Wex, a Yiddishist from Toronto who taught a daily session at Bad Pyrmont on the Yiddish language, results from numerous factors and is the topic of endless discussion.

The most “obvious” factor, he said, “is some kind of third-generational awareness of the Holocaust and what happened and as a result of that, some kind of desire to find out what this culture and who these people who were almost completely exterminated over here were.”

Wex added: “There is also the idea that Yiddish is a Germanic language and hence, is in some weird way, part of German cultural heritage.”

Some of the non-Jewish klezmer musicians could not verbalize their interest, especially because of their awareness that klezmer music and Yiddish played little role in the lives of Germany’s largely assimilated, highly westernized prewar Jewish population.

Stefan Kuhne of The Klezgoyim said he became interested after hearing a concert in Berlin in 1988 by the U.S. group The Klezmatics.

“It gave me the feeling of the power of the music and the joyful sound that I hadn’t heard before,” he said.

“I started to search for what this culture is, and what this culture meant to me and why I am interested in this culture. And it is a question I cannot answer even today,” he also said.

One of the greatest influences in Germany in the popularization of klezmer music has been clarinet player Giora Feidman.

He became a celebrity in the last decade through concerts, workshops and television appearances in which he used klezmer music as a metaphor for universal personal expression and understanding and as a way to foster German- Jewish relations.

Critics of Feidman say he created a cult following in which this message overshadowed the actual meaning and specific cultural contexts of the music itself.

Heinz Baldermann, a German Jew who was the prime local organizer of the Bad Pyrmont workshop, said the weeklong session – believed to be the most comprehensive, residential workshop on klezmer and Yiddish culture to have been held in Europe – had been designed to return to the unique qualities of klezmer and its cultural roots.

“The workshop aimed at focusing of all sides of the music, to explain the tradition behind it, to explain the social and cultural background of the pieces,” said Baldermann, the director of an Adult Education program in Bay Pyrmont and a founder of the Haskala Jewish cultural organization in nearby Hanover.

To this end, there were classes in Yiddish song conducted by Bella Schaechter- Gottesman, a contemporary Yiddish composer, and in East European Jewish dancing. There also were master classes for instrumentalists and ensemble groups.

In addition, Michael Wex taught his daily class on the history and contexts of the Yiddish language, and Henry Sapoznik, a pioneer of the klezmer revival in the United States, taught a daily session on the history of klezmer.

Evenings were devoted to performances to discussions of topics ranging from Jewish history to contemporary attitudes toward Jews to analyses of why klezmer is popular today.

One issue discussed was whether it is “legitimate” for non-Jews to devote themselves to playing klezmer.

“There are plenty of non-Jewish musicians playing this music better than Jewish musicians who count among the leaders of the revival,” said Alan Bern, musical director of Brave Old World. “Who owns the music at that point?”

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