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What is Klezmer music? Nowadays it refers to a generic brand of ethnic music, which could be Moldavian, gypsy, or vaguely east European. For the most part rhythmic and danceable, and sometimes also sung in an often incomprehensible Yiddish, this genre has an almost universal appeal – it fascinates, makes feet tap, and evokes a storybook past of the imaginary and exotic folk that created it.
For centuries in the Yiddish world of east European Jews, music other than folk songs could only be heard either in the synagogue, where one listened to the ancient art of religious chant or khasanut, or at celebrations such as weddings. In both cases, the performers were professional musicians: the synagogue singers, khasanim, possessed not only a profound knowledge of a centuries-old musical tradition, but were often great Talmudic scholars, and the klezmorim, wedding musicians, not always as respected and learned, but well-liked and very popular. Medieval German Rabbis considered the latter to be nothing more than useless and even dangerous clowns who distracted people from serious contemplation of the Exile and from the tranquil and somber life led while in attendance of the advent of the Messiah. The people, though, loved the klezmorim and needed them. Some famous musicians, thanks to their extraordinary ability to make their instruments laugh and cry, were followed and celebrated like pop stars. With the appearance of Chasidism, that great movement of Jewish spiritual renewal that swept Ukraine, Byelorussia and Poland in the middle of the eighteenth century, klezmorim acquired a certain respectability even in religious circles. Like prayer, according to the Chasidic Masters, music can become a powerful instrument of redemption if performed with proper intention. And so, even dances played at Chasidic weddings became sacred dances.
Klezmorim along with Roma, the only professional musicians in the vast territories of Ukraine, Bessarabia, and Byelorussia, often played for non-Jewish audiences, developing a vast repertoire of pieces that belonged to other traditions. That is why it is sometimes difficult to distinguish a klezmer melody from a Moldavian, Greek, or Ukrainian tune. The real difference lies not in the notes but in the interpretation. The instruments must speak Yiddish, our language of the Exile. They must speak of boundless pain and, at the same time, of boundless hope and the joy of life. That’s the right way—“Ot azoi !” as my grandmother used to say, and then would sing to me and sing…