Culture

There's a Golem in the River

Last night, about two hundred klezmer fans and me jumped on a boat in the East River and set sail down to New York Harbor. There, between the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the Old World came to life. Like the mythical golem which was brought to life with God’s name, Jdub Records’s newest band, Golem, used an impressive display of will and energy to make the old spirit return.
Aside from giving a raucously good show, this band captures the uniquely Jewish irony that I haven’t heard from other artists. While Klezmer music is often, simple, joyous and loud, its escapist fantasy is born out of pain and uncertainty. Even the happiest wedding freylekh is properly played with the broken glass still shattering in the dancers’ ears. The Yid knows that the marriage won’t be perfect, that there won’t be meat on the table every shabbos, that the children will scream and that the Cossaks can always come again. This pain and humanity stirs the Klezmerer to play even louder. Music like this can’t be played by anyone, since it comes from the kishkes – not the mind. Annette Ezekiel, the lead singer and accordionist, leads her band, stirring up all that pain, release and fear, and lets her audience dance and shout, even when there’s a war in Israel, and I don’t know how I will pay my rent.

21 thoughts on “There's a Golem in the River

  1. So your take on klezmer music is that it is the Jewish equiv. to Jazz? Or the Blues? Also, wouldn’t you say that irony is a way to disconnect oneself emotionally – as opposed to engaging in the “kishkas?” I agree that there is something inherently painful about klezmer – but I also think that for us, looking back at klezmer’s heyday (and not participating in it), that pain is nostalgic. Golem is interesting because they are adding something new to klezmer – the irony that you mentioned. Not because they embrace the emotional faucet of the movement.

  2. I hear you Mordy, so let me play on your comment a bit. The celebratory klezmer I’m speakign of, to be distinguished from the soulful, introspective music that people like Andy Statman play, isn’t Jazz or Blues, if anything – it’s top 40 pop. It’s loud, brassy, kitsch, and could easily piss you off. And, often, moder Klezmer bands – and definitely Israeli ‘chassidic’ bands – when they try and capture only the apparent melodies and chord changes, do. What redeemed the music, what gave it soul, is the underlying pain and apprehension that accompanied it. That discomfort is what allows the musician to truly exhalt when he blows his horn, and to the dancer to throw up her arms, in a desperate attempt to be happy, at least for the one night. So, yes, perhaps our appreciation of that pain is largely nostalgic. After all, the cossacks aren’t coming, and please God, everyone at the show will have plenty of chicken (or tofu) to eat this Shabbos. However, still the Jewish wedding recognizes all the garbage and lowly parts of the relationship even while celebrating, and even without pogroms we still have katyuoshas, car bombs, and wars to torment us. Perhaps for me in particular, this week, as I set off into the new world, with just a few dollars, without a job, without a home, while only knowing some mishpacha and a few landsmen from Yerushalayim, while my home is burning and my friends are fighting, I got to share a bit of the joy that my grandfather describes seeing in the old burlesque and swing halls of the 1940s.

  3. Josh — You perfectly capture how Golem is able to keep klezmer relevant instead of relegating it to nostalgia. They’re not ironic at all — they feel, deeply, the pain of modern life and they express it in an important, Jewish, and avant garde way. Golem is the best thing to happen to the new Jewish music scene since Molly Picon.
    Shabbat Shalom,
    Zachary

  4. Josh, I agree with you up to a point. See, it seems to me that the classical issues that klezmer bands were responding to are less effective today as musical themes. You said that instead of Cossacks, we now have wars – or at least marital issues. Agreed. But I don’t know that the style has evolved to respond to those newer issues. Now that we’re conscious of wars between nations (instead of Pogroms on individual levels) the furious/rushed/kinetic style of klezmer music seems out of place. You don’t cry for dead Palestinians (or Israelis), in the same way you cry for family/townpeople who you knew personally. Which is not to say that Klezmer can no longer deal with personal issues, but that wide-distribution labels seem like a poor way to have personal klezmer relate to a wider audience. I attribute the “kitchy” nature of most klezmer bands to that fact – it doesn’t translate in the modern model of pop-music.
    And, (to Zachary’s comment to), if Golem is being ironic, they are at least dealing with the issues. Irony is a way of responding to this highly impersonal discomfort and mourning. But I think there is a way that klezmer can still evolve to deal with these issues in a modern way that it hasn’t exactly hit yet. Which isn’t to say Golem isn’t going to go there – only that I don’t think they’re there yet.

  5. I think Golem is an exceptionally smart band. There need not be a choice between mind and kishkes, and Golem embraces both.
    Probably the most important neo-klezmer band since the Klezmatics.

  6. David, I’m not sure that “most important neo-klezmer band since the Klezmatics” means much. And I love the Klezmatics. But I don’t know that they have used the genre to the greatest effect. In a sense, they are still playing Klezmer music from Europe – just updated. There is some novelty to that. And both bands are heads above most other klezmer music. I’m trying to ask, though, whether Klezmer music can go somewhere that it hasn’t yet been. Not just putting a modern twist on it. And like I said before, I think that Golem has come the closest.

  7. listen to Hasidic New Wave. That will put a spin on things… 🙂 not klezmer at all, but its pretty frickin awesome.

  8. “The celebratory klezmer I’m speakign of, to be distinguished from the soulful, introspective music that people like Andy Statman play, isn’t Jazz or Blues, if anything – it’s top 40 pop. It’s loud, brassy, kitsch, and could easily piss you off.”
    I glossed over this the first time, but someone pointed it back at me. So I’ll respond now.
    Josh, this is kinda absurd. So I’m going to assume you don’t listen to top 40 pop. First, because much of top 40 pop today is “soulful, introspective music.” And I certainly wouldn’t compare any klezmer at all to anything top 40. I don’t even believe that it’s *closer* to top 40 than to Andy Statman. In a way, Statman and Golem are the same coin. They may be doing different things with the same rhythms, but they are coming from the same place and same tradition. And Jazz and Blues can be loud, brassy, and kitsch – at least in my experience.
    But I think the biggest issue is that klezmer can’t be top 40 because it doesn’t speak to people who listen to top 40. Which – like my comments above – I say places it squarely in the same camp of Statman. Music that just isn’t reaching broad appeal because it doesn’t have broad appeal.

  9. Mordy, you wrote,
    “I’m trying to ask, though, whether Klezmer music can go somewhere that it hasn’t yet been. Not just putting a modern twist on it. And like I said before, I think that Golem has come the closest.”
    Of course it can. The question is whether it will, and if that is needed. Possibly all that is needed is a “modern twist,” or it won’t be recognized as klezmer, but as new Jewish music.

  10. I think a “modern twist” would be disasterous. In a review of Jamie Saft’s Bob Dylan tribute I’m working on, I deleted a line where I bemoaned the “modern twists” of Jewish music. That all too often it seems like Jewish music is an equation. Pop+Jewish=Chevra. Folk+Jewish=Carlebach. Punk+Jewish=Yidcore. “Twists” become kitschy too damn quickly, and that’s part of what Josh sees in Golem. A kitchiness. I don’t think there is inherently anything wrong with kitchiness, but that it does condemn klezmer to limited appeal.
    “…if that is needed.” I don’t know? Does the world need modern klezmer? Maybe. Klezmer emerged to respond to a certain crisis in a certain place and time. I don’t see any Jewish music dealing with modern Jewish traumas like Klezmer was able to. Maybe we need something to emerge that is *like* klezmer, or maybe we need modern klezmer. I couldn’t say.

  11. Mordy,
    Diaspora Jewish music has always been a fusion of whatever modern music was around recast with a Jewish tinge. The musicians and composers themselves often traveled in musician circles, and were exposed to other types of music. One of the problems we faced as Jews in Europe was that we were surrounded by a culture whose body of music was vastly superior to our own. This was not theology. It was not our focus, and it was no contest. I like the Klezmatics, and I like Golem, and think they a provide a contribution to our present culture, and a bridge to our past.
    But it is asking too much for particularly Jewish music consisently as ground breaking and innovative as Dave Brubeck or Radiohead.
    Just to have two bands the likes of the Klezmatics and Golem over a twenty-five year period, you needed a New York City with a million Jews.
    To produce the likes of Dave Brubeck or Radiohead, you needed an entire Ango empire.

  12. You’re assuming that Klezmer music must be made by Jews for Jews. And that the distinctive characteristics of Klezmer couldn’t be embraced by the “Anglo empire.” I’m suggesting that Klezmer has value for today that hasn’t been properly embraced or experimented with. What is keeping Tom Yorke for sampling Klezmer? Why does he feel (or hasn’t been exposed) that Klezmer can’t help him. (Obviously, he is using other influences. But how about other artists?). How about khazone and paraliturgical singing, which Klezmer mimics? How about krekhts and dreydlekh? Trill? Klezmer has definite value for dancing, for expression, etc. And it has been completely ignored.
    If you think that the extent of Klezmer’s value is as Simcha music for New York jews, you’re being very shortsighted. If anything, I’d say Jewish attempts to keep their musical forms from being used by the general culture is the reason there aren’t more artists appropriating them. This may be a good or bad thing, depending on your outlook.

  13. “If you think that the extent of Klezmer’s value is as Simcha music for New York jews, you’re being very shortsighted.”
    We both specifically chose two bands who are most famously known for going way beyond simcha music. I am saying you need the simcha music as some form of demand for klezmer generally in order to provide both a foundation and a platform for developing bands that go beyond such stuff. Music and certainly bands do not evolve in a vacuum. Great composers have generally emerged organically, and by “paying their dues,” not purely in academia. Gigging is essential.
    “You’re assuming that Klezmer music must be made by Jews for Jews.”
    Yes, at least much of the time. Maybe this is our critical point of difference.
    “What is keeping Tom Yorke for sampling Klezmer?”
    He isn’t interested in ethnic music. Even Dave Brubeck, who finds Judaism and Jewish themes quite compelling, was not interested in Jewish music, but rather, Jewish ideas. I have no complaints.
    “If anything, I’d say Jewish attempts to keep their musical forms from being used by the general culture is the reason there aren’t more artists appropriating them.”
    It influenced some pieces of jazz a little, but no, there isn’t currently a demand for it, and even if it’s done, it won’t mean that much, but will be a novelty. The opportunity for klezmer influence on a massive, genpop scale is probably long past.

  14. “The opportunity for klezmer influence on a massive, genpop scale is probably long past.”
    We’re in agreement about that. All I was arguing was that Klezmer music is not effective today. It might be fun, kitchsy, Simcha-worthy, but it does not have the cultural resonance it used to. Whether it could or not is a different issue. Most of my questions in my last post were rhetorical. I think I know exactly why artists don’t sample Klezmer music – it doesn’t have urgency nowadays.
    I’m personally trying to move away from Jewish music as a niche genre and try to understand how it participates in mass culture. That’s why I made my initial comments about klezmer. Keep in mind that making Jewish music does not make someone ineffective in pop uclture – Mattisyahu laid that particular myth to rest. What we need to do is figure out why he broke into the Top 40, what made his music relevent, and why other music lacks that compulsion.

  15. Mordy,
    We are two percent of the American population. While we may have a disproportionate amount of great musicians, we do not have a particularly superior canon of specifically Jewish music compared to any other ethnic group. This is partially because we played our music on the same instruments as everyone else. This lack of uniquely Jewish hardware makes identification of Jewish music a difficult sell. Playing in minor more often and prefering the violin and clarinet to the brass instruments or the guitar doesn’t cut it.
    Matisyahu’s success in the general population was, in the end, at least partially a novelty act success story. At least partially, people were fascinated by a chassidic guy singing black music. If he had been a liberal secular Jew from Westchester, he would simply not have been as compelling on the late-night talk circuit, which was critical to the level of his success.

  16. I’ve been thinking about how to respond. I think the issue, David, is that we have so many different assumptions about what music is and how it operates and there’s a chasm in this conversation. I don’t know what population percentages have to do with sounds. Musicians find sounds that speak to them, no matter how obscure they are. And playing in minor is very popular right now — I won’t go into a music lesson, but both in indie music and top 40. And you’re take on Matisyahu seems fairly superficial to me as well. Pitchforkmedia called him a novelty act. I’ve spoken to midwest teenagers who listened to him, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t see him as novelty. And you’re right – if he had been a liberal secular Jew, he wouldn’t have been as compelling. But is that because a liberal secular Jew isn’t wearing a black hat, or because a liberal secular Jew wouldn’t have been tapping into a rich spiritual/chasidic tradition?

  17. Let me jump back into this conversation. First off, my perception of Golem was that they recaptured, perhaps reclaimed Klezmer music. I felt that the experience there to be authentically similar to the classical recordings and descriptions of Klezmer that we are familiar with. Perhaps my true connection to it came from projecting myself back into that classical world. This is what Mordy refers to as nostalgic. However, it was not new, or exciting musically. As i clarified to someone the morning after the concert, I felt that Golem fulfilled a paradigm, a lost one, but did not create a new one.
    That leads me to the bigger question, which is where this discussion has lead – can there be a new paradigm? Can there be Jewish music, jewish culture that is meaningful, that speaks to today’s Jews, as well as non Jews, that draws on the past without merely being nostalgic?
    I don’t know the answer. The truth is that I am slightly pessimistic, and doubt the significance of even asking the question. However, this is part of my current spiritual quest, and Golem was a good start. It certainly means more to Jewish culture, then say, the Bangitout party that I was at the day before, and I’m looking forward to see what else is out there. Following the Golem concert, i dropped by Jewschool’s Y-Love, and this Wednesday i will be at a Pharoah’s Daughter show.

  18. Mordy, you said,
    “And playing in minor is very popular right now — I won’t go into a music lesson, but both in indie music and top 40.”
    Exactly — they don’t need us for that.
    “But is that because a liberal secular Jew isn’t wearing a black hat, or because a liberal secular Jew wouldn’t have been tapping into a rich spiritual/chasidic tradition? ”
    Even granting the latter was important, the black hat helped, Mordy. A lot.

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