Thinking in Yiddish
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 15, 2002) – Yale Strom has been involved with klezmer music for over 20 years, as a musician, composer, bandleader, researcher, writer and filmmaker, which would put him solidly in the camp of the pioneering klezmer revivalists. Yet in his new “Book of Klezmer” (A Capella) and in conversation, Strom strongly argues that there was no such thing as a klezmer revival.

“I played Jewish music as a kid, I sang Yiddish songs,” said Strom -- who leads his band, Hot Pstromi, at the Spencertown (N.Y.) Academy on Saturday at 8 – in a recent phone interview from his New York City apartment.

“To revive something is to bring it back from the dead,” said Strom. “Klezmer was never completely dead. It was being sung and played in Eastern Europe and in parts of the Soviet Union, and it survived in the prayer melodies – the DNA of Jewish music.

“Were there times when it was more dormant than others? Yes. But it never died. We’re not revivalists. We’re masters of culture and returners to our cultural roots.”

Strom has been mastering and returning to those roots in a myriad of ways since he bought a one-way ticket to Eastern Europe in 1981. At the time, most American klezmer musicians were learning the old Yiddish dance tunes from vintage 78s and from the few immigrant-era musicians who were still alive and who represented an unbroken chain from the shtetl through the postwar world.

Spurred on by one of the earliest revival bands that he heard in San Diego, where he spent his teen-age years, Strom paired his natural sense of wanderlust with his insatiable curiosity, and spent 10 months trekking by train, bus, car, wagon, bicycle, horse and foot throughout Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Romania in search of Jewish melodies that were being sung and played by the few Jews who remained in those territories, as well as by non-Jewish musicians, particularly Gypsies, who kept the music of their erstwhile neighbors alive after the Holocaust.

Strom brought with him his violin – always a good ice-breaker when meeting other musicians – his camera and a tape recorder, and came back with evidence of a continuous, unbroken klezmer and Yiddish music tradition that survived in spite of the German attempt to eliminate it.

Two decades later, Strom has been back to Eastern Europe over 50 times. He has eight recordings under his belt, including the aptly-titled “Wandering Jew” and “With a Little Horseradish on the Side,” as well as three documentary films, including “The Last Klezmer,” which profiled Polish-Jewish musician and Holocaust survivor Leopold Kozlowski. His seven books include several collections of photographs documenting Rom and Jewish life in Eastern Europe, and his bands have included Zmiros and Klazzj. He has composed a symphony, and written original music for the National Public Radio series, “Jewish Stories from the Old World to the New,” hosted by Leonard Nimoy.

Strom’s band, Hot Pstromi, plays an eclectic variety of instrumental klezmer tunes, Yiddish folk and theater songs, Hasidic melodies, Sephardic folk songs (from the Spanish-Jewish tradition) and some of Strom’s original compositions in an amalgam of Jewish, world music and jazz styles. The ensemble includes bassist Sprocket J. Royer and accordionist Ismail Butera, as well as vocalist Elizabeth Schwartz, who in real life is Strom’s wife and the mother of their daughter, Tallulah.

While Schwartz is heard on Strom’s most recent album, “Garden of Yidn” (Naxos World), singing Yiddish with a dusky ease that smacks of familiarity, in fact she is a relative newcomer to the language and the music.

Unlike Strom, who was raised in a richly Jewish cultural and religious environment in Detroit in a family that had close ties to the Stoliner Hasidim, Schwartz grew up in a totally assimilated household in upstate New York.

As a teen-ager and in college Schwartz sang and performed in musical theater and as a jazz singer. But after college she gave up performing and moved to Hollywood, working her way up the production ladder in the film business.

“I never listened to klezmer until I met Yale,” said Schwartz. “I had no clue about the breadth of the genre. Then I started listening to Yale’s music and got excited about it.”

At Strom’s encouragement, Schwartz began learning Yiddish and returned to singing. Much to her surprise, she found that the music exerted a deep emotional and even spiritual pull on her.

“I think it would be very disingenous to say there’s no connection to spirituality or being Jewish when you play klezmer music,” she said. “Singing ‘Papirosn,’ there’s more of an emotional connection for me than singing ‘The Man That Got Away,’ even though I was never an orphan selling cigarettes but I have broken up with people.”

Strom emphasizes the essential connection between the Yiddish language and the music. “I’m not saying you have to be a linguist, but having some concept of the history and the language, the words, helps you express yourself in the music,” he said.

“When I’m playing music, you’re hearing me think. When a klezmer played in the shtetl in 1858, what language did he think in? Yiddish. You can’t separate the two.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 15, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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