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Arts & Culture Klezmer Booms in Germany — but Musicians and Fans Aren’t Jewish

April 1, 2002
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The opening act of the recent Eighth International Klezmer Festival here was a Berlin-based band called Sukke.

The group was billed as the “first German all-star klezmer band,” but none of its four members is Jewish.

There were hardly any Jews, either, in the capacity crowd at Fuerth’s Comodie theater. Like most klezmer concerts in Germany, this one was for Germans.

The band, its audience and the festival itself are part of a phenomenon that over the past 15 years has made Germany the klezmer capital of Europe.

The Fuerth festival was inaugurated in 1988 with just two evenings of concerts. This year it featured nine days of performances by a score of artists. They ranged from a non-Jewish, all-girl Berlin klezmer band called Klezmers Techter, to Alex Jakobowitz, an Orthodox Jew who plays the marimba while wearing a yarmulke and tzitzit, or ritual fringes.

In addition, there were walking tours of the former Jewish quarter, entertainment for children, puppet theater performances, exhibitions, film showings and “klezmer pubs.”

“They gave a very warm reception,” said Tom Cohen, of the Philadelphia klezmer band Klingon Klezmer, which also played at the festival. “They applauded very enthusiastically after every tune, some more intensely than others. I got a feeling that they really enjoyed themselves, and they enjoyed what they were hearing.”

The klezmer boom began in Germany in the 1980s and exploded after the Berlin Wall came down.

Today, there are scores of klezmer and Yiddish music groups around the country, and it is estimated that between 20 and 30 groups play in Berlin alone.

Motives behind the craze are complex. In part, embracing Jewish music and other aspects of Jewish culture is a facet of Germany’s broader attempt to come to terms with the Nazi past. In recent years, klezmer music has also become part of the burgeoning world music scene.

“The klezmer movement in Germany is filled with good will,” said Francois Lilienfeld, a Jewish musician based in France who is one of the organizers of the Fuerth festival.

“The idea is that the grandchildren of the war generation is playing the music of the victims,” he said. “The idea that these youngsters really want to make up and know this culture is very nice. The other side of it is that a fashion is always a fashion, meaning that you get lots of people just jumping on the bandwagon.”

When the movement started in Germany, there were very few Jews living in the country. Jewish performers from other countries toured and gave workshops, but the phenomenon often became a closed circle of German musicians performing and giving workshops to a German audience, creating part of what can be called a “Virtual Jewish World.”

This is still frequently the case.

But thanks to immigration from the former Soviet Union, Germany — with its Jewish population nearing 100,000 — now has the fastest growing Jewish population in Europe. In Fuerth, the Jewish community now has 500 members — 10 times bigger than it was in 1989.

Haim Rubensztayn, president of the Fuerth Jewish community, says he is uncomfortable with the German klezmer craze.

“On the one hand, I think its important to show people a little of the Jewish culture, if people understand each other, then they can live better together,” he told JTA. “If they don’t understand each other, they can start hating.

“On the other hand, what I personally don’t like is that Jewish music and a lot of Jewish things get hip,” he said. “They are now hot. There are many groups who, normally speaking, can’t make a living somewhere. Then they learn two or three songs, they play Jewish music and then they get rooms full of people who applaud them.”

He and other Jews feel that it is essential to affirm that Jews are living people and that Jewish culture is a living phenomenon — not a sacred relic of a guilt-ridden past.

“I’ve often been asked do you have to be Jewish to play klezmer music,” said Lilienfeld. “My answer is ‘no, but it helps.’ In other words, if you’re not Jewish and you want to do klezmer, it’s useful to have someone to work with you who comes from this tradition.”

Heiko Lehmann of the group Sukke has consciously tried to follow this path.

Sukke plays songs from the standard klezmer/Yiddish repertoire. But, as demonstrated at its opening night concert in Fuerth, its most compelling work derives from recent collaborations with the Canadian Yiddish writer Michael Wex.

Wex and Lehmann, in fact, have worked together for years to produce a growing collection of new Yiddish art and cabaret songs that do not conform to standard klezmer conventions.

“In my eyes, if you’re a German and you want to play Jewish music you have to make sure that you’re making a contribution and not trying to make up for the Holocaust,” Lehmann says.

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