Alex Jacobowitz calls himself the “classical klezmer.” Like klezmer musicians of centuries past, the 39-year-old native of New York state makes his living traveling from country to country and city to city, playing music on the street.
But he’s not one of the thousands of jeans-clad, guitar-strumming buskers who pass the hat in subway stations and city squares. And he doesn’t even play klezmer music — the traditional popular music of East European Jews.
Jacobowitz is a classically trained artist who performs the works of Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart and other classical composers on a marimba — a gigantic instrument resembling a six-foot-long xylophone that stands waist-high and has 100 keys.
And, as an Orthodox Jew, he performs before Germans, Poles, Hungarians, Scandinavians and other Europeans in a kipah, beard and sidelocks, with tzitzit hanging free from under his shirt.
“I’m trying to bring people together through music,” he said during a break in a performance before dozens of tourists in the vast, medieval main square of Krakow.
Not only that, he added. He is also consciously making the point, in the countries where the Holocaust took place, that Jews and Judaism are still very much alive.
“My kipah, my beard, my tzitzit — these are not props,” he said. “They are who I am.”
Ten years ago, when he first played in Hungary, he recalled, “People told me that no one had worn a kipah in public for 40 years. They said I was giving courage, setting an example, for those who were afraid.”
Particularly in Germany, he said, “When people ask me what am I really doing here, I feel that it is an inner compulsion to confront death.”
Sometimes, he said, “Christians start crying. I’m not here to resolve people’s conflicts, but I know that what I do helps, that music helps.”
Jacobowitz, who did not grow up in a religiously observant home, studied at the Eastman School of Music, in Rochester, N.Y.
He made aliyah to Israel in the 1980s, became Orthodox and now lives — when he is not on the road — in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, near Hebron.
For more than a decade, he has spent eight months of the year touring Germany and other European countries, going from city to city by car and pulling a trailer containing religious books and kosher food as well as his marimba. He sleeps, and often prays, in parking lots.
Jacobowitz models his profession and lifestyle after a 19th century Chasidic musician named Michael Joseph Gusikow, who took Europe by storm in the 1830s by playing classical music on the straw fiddle, a type of xylophone that Gusikow himself invented.
Gusikow was born into a family of musicians in what is now Belarus, in about 1806. With his typical Hasidic attire a visible part of his mystique, Gusikow toured Russia and then Austria, Germany and France to great acclaim before his death in 1837.
He became so popular that Orthodox side curls sparked a fashionable hair style among society women — the “coiffure a la Gusikow.” The composer Felix Mendelssohn was one of his fans.
Jacobowitz discovered Gusikow when he was in music school doing research on the marimba — an instrument more frequently associated with Latin American rhythms than classical works.
“If I didn’t have Gusikow as a role model, I wouldn’t have such confidence in what I do,” Jacobowitz said.
Jacobowitz is a consummate showman, whose spiel, jokes and storytelling — in several languages — enliven his virtuoso performances.
He enthralls audiences as he crouches and twists his body and arms over the marimba, hitting the keys with four flashing mallets, and sometimes inviting an onlooker to grab a mallet and join him.
Crowds are usually friendly — and generous: he told an interviewer two years ago that he took in between $1,000 and $2,000 a day thanks to donations and on- site sales of his CDs.
In Poland, local audiences compared him to one of the most famous characters in Polish literature — Jankiel, the Jewish innkeeper and cymbalom player in the epic 19th century book “Pan Tadeusz,” by Adam Mickiewicz.
But Jacobowitz has also been the target of anti-Semites.
“You develop a radar about it,” he said.
On the first day he played in Germany, in 1991, he said, he was hassled by skinheads, who heckled him and looked as if they might attack.
“I felt challenged,” he said. “I wasn’t going to go away, and I wasn’t going to be afraid.”
Several Americans in the crowd stepped in and prevented any violence.
Though Jacobowitz has played all over much of Europe, his performances in Krakow marked the first time he had taken his act to Poland.
He timed his visit to take place during Krakow’s annual Festival of Jewish culture, which draws many Jewish performers and tourists to the city.
But still, he admitted feeling uneasy playing in a country with a history of anti-Semitism, and where 3 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.