Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Around the Jewish World: Klezmer Aficionados Gather at Festival in St. Petersburg

July 16, 1998
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Yefim Cherniy is one of the few Jews who grew up with klezmer music in the former Soviet Union.

“Even when this music could not be played in official concerts in the Soviet times, it still was in my parents’ home,” said Cherniy, a 39-year-old trained vocalist and guitarist who first learned about klezmer music from relatives who were cantors or performers in Jewish theater.

Cherniy, who has devoted his career to Yiddish music, is now a leading performer on the Jewish scene in Kishinev, the capital of Moldava, a former Soviet republic where much of the klezmer repertoire originated.

Few people in the former Soviet Union play this music, he said recently as he ran his fingers over his guitar strings. “To me, it’s always very important to meet those who have made this music part of their lives.”

He got a rare chance here at KlezFest `98, which brought together some 30 vocalists and music teachers from across the former Soviet Union — including such unlikely places for klezmer revival as Siberia and the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan.

In addition to master classes in Yiddish folk songs and klezmer music, participants attended lectures on Jewish cultural history in Eastern Europe and workshops on Yiddish folklore, dance and language.

The event was organized by the Center for Jewish Music of the Jewish Community Center of St. Petersburg and was supported by a grant from the New York-based Jewish Community Development Fund in Russia and Ukraine.

“We thought that this project would just be a way of connecting the two generations — the older listeners and the younger musicians who could see that by putting klezmer music in their repertoire they could draw more people,” said Martin Horwitz of the development fund.

A three-hour concert attended by some 400 St. Petersburg Jews crowned the weeklong seminar earlier this month.

“I wished they played more and more,” said Irina Kozlova, a listener in her 50s. “I never thought this music could be done so professionally.”

The seminar, now in its second year, was first conceived as the Russian edition of KlezKamp, an annual event held in New York’s Catskills mountains at the end of December.

But unlike the New York festival, which draws music lovers and Yiddishists as well as professional musicians, the Russian version was mostly for professionals.

Like many other aspects of Judaism, klezmer has stepped into the limelight in recent years in the former Soviet Union.

Still, few people take a serious interest in the music; it is rarely played outside weddings and family parties.

“The klezmer tradition had almost died here,” said Leonid Sontz, leader of Simcha, or Joy, the only professional klezmer band in the former Soviet Union.

“There have been three generations away from this tradition. Our goal is to bring these tunes, songs back to life,” said Sontz, whose band, based in Kazan, a city in the Volga region, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

Most of the students at the seminar were Jewish musicians in their 20s and 30s who were attracted to klezmer as a new musical genre.

“In America, younger people come to klezmer through an interest in anthropology, their own roots, country music or jazz,” said Horwitz. “Here they are coming through classical music.”

Indeed, most of the KlezFest participants were classically trained musicians and singers, but they came with more than a professional interest.

“What really moved me was the depth, the understanding people here have naturally of this music, even without studying it, simply having come from the earth where it was born,” said Zalmen Mlotek, a New York pianist and conductor who lectured at KlezFest. “This music seems to be very much in their blood.”

Some students spoke about ways to combine the music with Jewish life in their home communities.

“This music is so lofty and it’s such an important part of our history, mentality and spirit that it should be kept and developed,” said Ada Ermi, 36, who has been gathering and performing Jewish folk songs in Latvia for nearly 10 years.

Clarinetist Alexander Rodin said he is considering opening a klezmer club in Samara, Russia, where his band, called Aliyah, would play and give lectures on Yiddish music and culture.

“This music is not only about nostalgia,” said Cherniy.

“It’s a crossing of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Those who cannot connect with religion can look for what this music and culture offer to awaken their Jewishness.”

Ermi agreed. “In my life, this music has provided not only an outlet for expression, but also a connection to Judaism.”

Recommended from JTA