Klezmer, the traditional wedding music of East European Jews, is making a spirited comeback in modern America, and you don't even have to be Jewish to like it.
"It's wonderful. It's sort of Jewish country music," says Carl Auvil, 77, who was born in a West Virginia town he says was so white and Protestant that the Ku Klux Klan couldn't find anybody to persecute. He finds klezmer foot-stomping enough for the Grand Ol' Opry.
Mr. Auvil and his wife, Irene, are dancing to the Machaya Klezmer Band at the Holiday Inn in Chevy Chase. "Sort of dancing," he cautions. "I stumble around the floor. She dances."
Mrs. Auvil remembers klezmer from the Jewish weddings of her childhood. Her father, Samuel Steinman, came from Odessa, then part of Russia, in 1909. He and other East European Jews brought klezmer with them when they emigrated to the United States at the turn of the century.
"I remember the men would get down on the floor and do the kozatzke," Irene Auvil says. That's the squating, arms-folded, athletic, foot-slinging dance that takes its name from Russo-Ukrainian Cossack horsemen.
"Then we didn't hear klezmer for a while," she says. "Now the young people are going back to it."
Klezmer has made such a robust revival that even the august fiddler Itzhak Perlman has recorded a klezmer CD, and he's just appeared in a PBS documentary about klezmer.
And the Machaya Klezmer Band draws a respectable crowd for a Sunday night Hanukkah dance in Chevy Chase, a Washington suburb where the streets are lined with Gucci, Brooks Brothers and Yves St. Laurent, not much like the im[See Klezmer, 2E] poverished East European villages where klezmer was born.
"This music is like a ticket back into Jewish culture," says Paul Feldman, a 39-year-old Washington lawyer listening to the band. "It's a great thing actually and a lot of fun.
"I used to be a wedding photographer in Brooklyn," he says, "almost exclusively at Hasidic and Orthodox weddings, and this was the music for all their weddings."
But by the 1960s very few people were playing klezmer outside the Orthodox community in New York, says Fred Jacobowitz, who plays the clarinet with the Machaya Klezmer Band.
Mr. Jacobowitz, who holds a master's degree from Juilliard School of Music, lives on Mayfield Avenue in Northeast Baltimore. He's principal clarinetist in the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra. He plays clarinet, saxophone, flute and bagpipe. He teaches wind clarinet and sax at the Peabody Preparatory School. And he conducts courses on klezmer at the Peabody Elderhostel.
Although primarily Jewish, klezmer has always infiltrated mainstream culture, Mr. Jacobowitz says. The Andrews Sisters first national hit was the Yiddish klezmer tune Bei mir bist du schoen and swing trumpeter Ziggy Elman took a klezmer solo on "And the Angels Sing." Klezmer tunes turned up in Betty Boop and even Bugs Bunnie cartoons.
The Fiddler on the Roof was a klezmer, the Yiddish word for musician, which eventually expanded to include the music as well. But the musical is sheer Broadway, according to Sy "My mother calls me Seymour" Greene, the trombonist with Machaya.
Mr. Greene, who's 76, traveled three years with Irving Berlin and even played with Berlin's World War II show "This is the Army."
He also played years ago with the great jazz trombonist Jack Teagarden in his big band. He calls klezmer "Jewish tailgate."
"Klezmer is party music," Fred Jacobowitz says. "It is intimately associated with festive non-synagogue occasions. It is not to be confused with the liturgical tradition even if it uses some of musical gestures and sounds.
"It is characterized by all manner of expressive effects, particularly the sound which we call the krekhtf, which is a sob or a moan, reminiscent of the cantor in the synagogue."
Krekhtf, of course, is a Yiddish word pronounceable perhaps only by klezmer and cantors.
At the Holiday Inn, Mr. Jacobowitz's clarinet not only sobs, moans and groans, but also bobs, weaves and dances, grunts, gossips and chatters, smiles, laughs and guffaws.
Nobody's doing the kozatzke to Machaya's music, but lots of people are up and dancing. That's one of the nice things about klezmer: you don't have to be a Fred Astaire to get up and dance.
Jay McCrensky, the accordionist who founded Machaya, leads the dances. He's a Jewish renaissance man, a folklorist who, besides klezmer dancing, teaches skiing and cabala, which is Jewish mysticism. Paul Feldman studies cabala with him at the Washington Jewish Center and klezmer at the Holiday Inn. Mr. McCrensky figures nearly a third of his dancers are not Jewish.
But Yeva and Vladimir Lesokhin are Russian Jews who came to the United States 16 years ago. They dance enthusiastically and very well, indeed. The tunes are very familiar to them from Russia.
They heard them in the works of Isaak Dunayevsky, one of the most popular songwriters in the defunct Soviet Union, president of the Leningrad Composers Union, Honored Art Worker and People's Artist. He incorporated klezmer melodies in his most patriotic songs.
"When we came here we couldn't believe these Soviet nationalist songs, the most popular songs in the Soviet Union, have Jewish melodies," Yeva Lesokhin says. "We as Jews in Russia didn't know this. We do now," she says.