On a Friday evening a couple of years ago, a group of Chasidim sat down for a festive Shabbat dinner at King’s Hotel — the only kosher hotel in Budapest.
The group, many of them from Brooklyn, had stopped off in the Hungarian capital during a pilgrimage to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of their rabbi’s grandson in the ancestral town of Munkacs, now in Ukraine.
Between courses in the hotel’s restaurant, the group sang Friday night zemirot, or songs, that came from their local tradition.
Among a few non-Chasidic dinner guests was the American cantor Jack “Yankl” Falk, who is also a member of the Budapest-based klezmer band Di Naye Kapelye.
Falk was astonished to recognize the melody of one of the Chasidic songs as identical to a tune Di Naye Kapelye had learned from a field recording of a Gypsy, or Roma, fiddler in a Romanian village made in about 1970.
This discovery represented an exciting breakthrough in the Jewish musical detective work that marks Di Naye Kapelye’s hands-on approach to klezmer.
“The song was familiar to us in melody but not in context,” recalls the band’s leader, Bob Cohen. “It made our jaws drop. We had learned the music, and knew it was somehow Jewish, but even the sources we had learned it from were ignorant of the context.”
The Yiddish word “klezmer” derives from the Hebrew “klei zemer,” meaning “vessels of song” — or musical instruments.
In the past, “Klezmer” referred to a professional musician who played the instruments.
Only recently has the term klezmer come to mean not only the musicians but the music itself.
By now, “klezmer music” is often used to describe the entire genre of music based on Yiddish traditional and popular motifs — be it note-for-note reproductions of tunes found on old records, contemporary interpretations of old material, new presentations of songs still played in Eastern European villages, or rock and jazz improvisations based on klezmer sources.
Cohen likes to look for the music — or memories of the music — in the places where it was once played.
A New Yorker who has lived in Budapest since 1988, he has spent a dozen years “scrambling around East Europe looking for contexts and traces of Jewish music.”
The fact that he is an anthropologist as well as a musician has helped.
“In the U.S. I was working on cultural identity among distinct American Indian groups — people who looked assimilated but maintained their cultural identity,” he said.
“In Eastern Europe, Jews became an invisible tribe,” he said. “We’re still here, but it’s up to us to dig it up — there are still people who remember. It hasn’t disappeared, but you have to dig.”
Di Naye Kapelye is composed of both Jews and non-Jews, Americans and Hungarians.
Cohen and other group members have made numerous forays into remote parts of Romania to record and learn from elderly Gypsy and other musicians who once played music with Jews and who now sometimes are the last living memory of a nearly vanished tradition.
For example, the group’s accordionist, the American Christina Crowder, even lived in Romania for two years studying accordion and collecting music from village musicians on a Fulbright Fellowship.
“The memory of Jewish culture is often maintained by non-Jews, those who choose to cherish the legacy of neighbors lost but never forgotten,” Cohen said.
“We go around finding old Gypsies — and occasionally we have found a couple of elderly Jews, too,” he said. “Often, they know the melody but nothing more. Sometimes they remember playing the music — but not when, where or on what occasion. What we try to do is then to put Jewish flesh back on these bare bones.”
About half of prewar Romania’s 800,000 Jews survived the Holocaust. Almost all the survivors eventually left for Israel. Most did not leave until after 1960, however, which means that Jewish music was still being played at weddings and other festivities well after the Shoah.
Today, there are about 12,000 Jews in Romania, most of them elderly.
One of the most important influences on Cohen and Di Naye Kapelye was Itsik Svarts, a Yiddish writer and folklorist who was director of the Yiddish theater in the northern Romanian city of Iasi from 1948 until the theater closed in 1966.
Cohen calls Svarts, who died last May in Iasi at the age of 95, a “mentor, inspiration, and primary source,” who enthusiastically shared his memories and knowledge. He describes Svarts’ wife, Cili, who died in 1997, as “one of the best Yiddish singers in Europe.”
Cohen, whose own family roots are in Hungary and Romania, speaks Hungarian, Romanian and Yiddish. He plays the violin, mandolin and several other instruments and also sings.
While the music on “A Mazeldiker Yid” is described as “old-time klezmer music from Eastern Europe,” Cohen says that he is more comfortable calling it simply “Jewish music.” The CD, he said, aims to recreate “the enjoyable sound of Jews enjoying themselves.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.