Breaking news: Klezmatics win Grammy, accidentally lend credibility to lame industry award

OK, it’s actually old news already. Last Sunday night, the Klezmatics won the Grammy for Best Contemporary World Album. In the process, they made history twice over, first for being the first “out” Jewish group to win a Grammy, and their record label, JMG, is the first Jewish record label to win a Grammy.

Now, winning a Grammy isn’t what’s got me all excited. I mean, I was happy when Jethro Tull won a Grammy for best Heavy Metal record in 1988. I happened to really dig the funky flute stylings of Ian Anderson. But when Jethro Tull won, it didn’t convince me that they were a better heavy metal band than Metallica. Or a heavy metal band at all.  It did convince me that industry awards are mostly silly and meaningless (except as a recognition of commercial success), as well as an excellent launch pad for adolescent cynicism and self-righteousness.

Nonetheless, Grammy winners get lots of press and, I’m hoping, ample opportunities to get paid. Which is what I’m hoping for the Klezmatics. Over the last twenty years they’ve created some of the most righteous old/new Jewish soul music around. They’ve worked their asses off and they deserve national recognition. Honestly, I want to give them an award just because they made me feel pride in being Jewish at a point in my life when proud was hardly the feeling I had for my people. Raging anti-semitism was more like it.

I was intrigued by the recent discussion around here about the word JAP. Now, I grew up on Long Island. I know from JAP. I lived next door to the spoiled, rancid, materialistic, screaming awfulness of semi-assimilated, semi-bourgeois ghetto Jewish life. Fitting in meant fitting into an oversized Benetton rugby shirt, frosted pink lipstick and the jeans with the little triangle on the butt. I didn’t fit in and I couldn’t wait to get the fuck out of there.

Back in the day, when I was in high school and the Village Voice still cost money, I used to go to the public library to read it. That’s where I saw the listing for the Klezmatics show at the old Knit. It was late December, 1992, the show was at midnight and my mom ended up going with me. My mom may be hip (maybe in an alternate, bizarro universe), but even she had her limits, as we waited downstairs for the show to begin, sipping our Rolling Rocks, she politely turned down the joint offered to us by people sitting nearby.

And then we got upstairs, and the Klezmatics tore up the place, and even brought on John Zorn at the end to add his squonking saxophone madness to the kleztasy. This wasn’t something anyone on Long Island knew about. No one at the Mid-Island Y, or Hebrew School or Temple wanted me to know about speaking Yiddish, or being an out gay Jew, or Jewish culture that had nothing to do with Israel. At the Manetto Hill Jewish Center, the shma and Hatikvah, learned by rote, were the totality of Jewish education. Content, in any sense, was not on the syllabus.

No, I had to go to a fire trap club, in the city, at midnight, in the dead of winter, to get a peek into what real Jewish culture could be like. And I liked it. A lot. You  might even say it changed my life. So, mazl tov Klezmatics, and Grammy voters, you get a pass just this one time. Rock on, NARAS, rock on.

9 Responses to “Breaking news: Klezmatics win Grammy, accidentally lend credibility to lame industry award”

  1. And to celebrate, the Klezmatics will be touring…. in Europe.

    But they’ll be back in the states for a quick 2-day hop to Philly and Boston in the second week of March, then it’s back to Europe (what is it with all these European dates???) before they resurface again on March 31 in West Hartford (where I hope to be, too). Catch ‘em if you can.

    judi · February 22nd, 2007 at 10:41 am
  2. what is it with all these European dates???

    They did a US tour in December to promote the two Guthrie CDs. Meanwhile, Europe just seems to have more of an appetite for Jewish music outside of synagogues. The Klezmatics and other Jewish acts draw much more diverse crowds in Europe than they do in the US, where their appeal seems sadly limited to the Jewish community.

    When’s the last time you saw a crowd of 15,000 rockin’ out at a Jewish music festival in the US like this one in Krakow:

    Oyhoo ain’t got nothing on that.

    themicah · February 22nd, 2007 at 2:47 pm
  3. whoa- props to the Plainview references…..

    you have stolen my life: “No one at the Mid-Island Y, or Hebrew School or Temple wanted me to know about speaking Yiddish, or being an out gay Jew, or Jewish culture that had nothing to do with Israel. At the Manetto Hill Jewish Center, the shma and Hatikvah, learned by rote, were the totality of Jewish education. Content, in any sense, was not on the syllabus.”

    of course now the klezmatics sometimes play gigs on long island as well, but they definitely provide a more youthful, accessible entree into Judaism than Mrs. Kratchman and her pointer.

    aliza · February 22nd, 2007 at 2:53 pm
  4. oh and p.s. did you know that Frank London grew up in Plainview and went to POB middle school? I once had a conversation with him about Mr. Geddes, the band director.

    aliza · February 22nd, 2007 at 2:56 pm
  5. Yeah, Frank and I bonded about the whole Plainview thing. He went to high school with the guy who ended up being the band director when my brother was in the band.

    rokhl · February 22nd, 2007 at 3:11 pm
  6. gee, I don’t mean to be cynical but having been to Poland and having a (non-jewish) Polish sister-in-law, as far as I can tell the current attitude of Polish intellectuals, artsy people, students, etc. towards Jewish culture goes something like this:

    it’s a beautiful ancient culture that once helped define Poland, and then those evil Germans came and destroyed it… by the way, we had nothing to do with that (false), if anything we tried really hard to stop the Germans from killing Jews (yes, a few did) and did we mention how much we ourselves suffered under German occupation? (OK, very true)

    so the result is, Poles who look at Jewish culture with the same kind of weird, romanticized perception Americans have of Native Americans or old-school Deep South black culture or whatever. They love eating in Jewish restaurants and they Jewish music, etc.

    I’m not saying this is totally a bad thing. It’s great that there’s a non-Jewish audience for this music and it is potentially a starting point for dialogue about what really happened in Poland. And it’s certainly better than anti-semitism. But let’s not let this strange appetite for all things Jewish go unexamined.

    by the way, regarding the nearly all-Jewish audience for klezmer and other Jewish music in the States, I’m curious what would happen if a Jewish musician actually dared to criticize Israel from the stage. Would they lose their audience and get blacklisted?

    harv · February 22nd, 2007 at 11:28 pm
  7. I hope someday someone writes that about me…

    dobzewitz · February 23rd, 2007 at 3:43 am
  8. Point taken, harv. I’m not saying that Europeans (and Poles in particular) don’t have a difficult relationship with Judaism. It’s just that they sure seem more interested in it than your average non-Jewish American, for whom Jewish culture is pretty much limited to the Dreidel Song (or, for a certain generation, Adam Sandler’s Chanukah Song) and fights over putting up a menorah with every Christmas tree.

    If nothing else, I thank European fans for playing a significant role in supporting today’s Jewish musicians. I’m pretty sure that without all those European gigs and CD sales via the German Piranha label, most of the big names in Jewish music today (including the Klezmatics and their various collaborators over the years) couldn’t afford to put as much energy into their art as they do.

    themicah · February 23rd, 2007 at 10:14 am
  9. harv,

    An interesting book that examines Polish-Jewish relations after the Holocaust is Steinlauf’s Bondage To the Dead. If you haven’t seen it, you might want to check it out.

    EV · February 23rd, 2007 at 4:06 pm

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik