Texts and Tunes: New Jewish novelists, Yale Strom, David Krakauer

David Krakauer

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., May 3, 2001) -- In this column I plan to share with readers discoveries that I have made in my reading and listening life. It is my fervent belief that we are in the midst of a great period in Jewish cultural history – a veritable renaissance, if you’ll pardon the culturally-incorrect expression. And I think the vitality of our cultural life is also a reflection of a great spiritual awakening among Jews of our generation. This is something that needs to be celebrated, and it is my hope and intention to further that celebration in some small, modest way in this space.

Contrary to reports claiming otherwise, the Jewish-American novel is not dead. In fact, it is alive and well and in some ways more Jewish than it has ever been. The list of young fiction writers working in a Jewish vein is an impressive one that includes Allegra Goodman, Nathan Englander, Jonathan Rosen, Anita Diamant and Michael Chabon.

Add to this list recent debut works by two young female novelists: Bee Season by Myla Goldberg and The Family Orchard by Nomi Eve. Both of these well-written family sagas are imbued with deep, rich themes of yidishkayt while working on a more basic level as gripping stories that would appeal to readers of any background.

Goldberg’s Bee Season (Doubleday) paints an intimate, harrowing portrait of a contemporary family of four in crisis. She weaves an intricate web of duplicity in which Kabbalah, mental illness, crime, brainwashing and contemporary educational theory all vie as theories to explain why people behave the way they do, and what drives some people to extremes of behavior. If the book spins somewhat out of control near the end, it’s only because Goldberg has plunged her characters into a whirlwind. But her portrayal of Eliza, the pre-pubescent spelling champ of the title, is masterful and memorable.

In The Family Orchard (Knopf), Nomi Eve paints on a wide canvas. Hers is a multi-generational, somewhat magical family saga spanning a hundred years of Israeli history, from early Zionist immigration from Eastern Europe through statehood and wars to today. Eve patterns her narrative after that of the Talmud, with terse, diary-like entries credited to the narrator’s father (read: the Mishnah) juxtaposed with imaginative, lengthier elaborations and aggadic interpretations by the narrator herself (read: the Gemara). The orchard of the title is both an actual fruit orchard that plays a key role in the text, but also a metaphorical family tree that the book sets out to explore. The book is rich in detail of time, place and Jewish history, but also in good, old-fashioned plotting: it cries out to be made into a TV miniseries. And if it putters out near the end, that is only in contrast to its opening chapters, which are gripping and electric.

There are a few klezmer artists who with each album keep pushing the music forward, building firmly upon tradition while making new, highly personal statements for their time. Clarinetist and composer David Krakauer is one of the best. On his aptly-titled new CD, A New Hot One (Label Bleu), he has come up with the most successful fusion of experimental, cutting-edge klezmer that remains rooted solidly in the tradition. Krakauer’s original compositions and his new arrangements of old klezmer standards acknowledge the music of our present-day global village while speaking with a strong Yiddish accent. We know little of the great immigrant-era clarinetist Naftule Brandwein, but enough that it’s fair to say that if he were alive today and in his prime, he’d be making music like that of Krakauer: bold, spirited, witty, danceable, poignant, and always inventive and exciting.

Yale Strom’s considerable talents as an arranger, composer, folklorist, musician, producer and all-around musical visionary have never been put to better use than they have on Garden of Yidn (Naxos World). For 20 years, Strom has been dishing out the fruits of his field research in Eastern Europe and his own imagination in a variety of forms and to varying effect. He puts it all together on Garden of Yidn, which with its combination of original compositions and Yiddish and Sephardic folk melodies in jazzy arrangements has the feel of late-night Jewish cabaret. The revelation of the album, however, is vocalist Elizabeth Schwartz, who channels her wide-ranging background in musical theater, blues, rock and jazz into a vivid, contemporary Yiddish idiom that needs no translation.

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