Music Preview: Yidstock 2024 — Roots and Branches

By Debra Cash

“The only way to keep the music alive is to view it as a living thing and support artists who approach it that way, rather than as a museum piece.”

Yidstock, the Festival of New Yiddish Music at the Yiddish Book Center, Amherst, July 11-14, 2024.

A few months ago, New England Conservatory professor Hankus Netsky, who was a pioneer of the Eastern European klezmer music revival in 1980 when he founded Boston’s Klezmer Conservatory Band, attended a rollicking performance of Jewish music at the Somerville Armory. Looking around at the enraptured crowd of people the ages of his grown daughters, he turned to Judy Bressler, KCB’s original vocalist, and joked, “It’s a shame there aren’t any old people who are into Yiddish anymore.”

While the joke was hyperbole, the perception is illuminating: Yiddish music is no longer primarily a touchstone for an immigrant generation and people who grew up speaking, or at least understanding, Yiddish in their homes. The klezmer torch has been taken up by a rising generation of American and Canadian-born artists — as well as a far-flung contingent of singers and instrumentalists across Europe, Israel, and South and Central America — who both treasure the canonical klezmer, folk, Yiddish theatre and Yiddish cabaret repertoire, and invest themselves in new musical expressions of their heritage. Klezmer, for many of the Jews descended from Ashkenazi emigres, remains haimish, a music rich with a sense of belonging.

Next month, the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst hosts the 12th edition of Yidstock, its festival of new Yiddish music. The four-day event is an array of concerts, workshops, talks, and a special film screening at the book center’s beautiful, evocative complex set on an apple orchard at the edge of the Hampshire College campus.

Yidstock’s curator, Seth Rogovoy. Photo: courtesy of the artist

Seth Rogovoy serves as Yidstock’s curator. The 2024 festival juxtaposes fan favorites such as the klezmer superstars the Klezmatics — whose show opens the festival and which sold out almost immediately — and artists playing the western Mass. festival for the first time. Over the course of four days, audiences will be able to experience an international klezmer sampler with Montreal-based Josh Dolgin aka Socalled Gephilte, a jam-band that draws on the streams of rap, funk, and R&B, and Berlin-based Daniel Kahn, who is perhaps most famous for his Yiddish version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” (I found Kahn’s repurposed version of the World War I Yiddish ballad about tuberculosis and polio “Mentshn-Fresser” (People Devourer) the most compelling music video of the Covid epidemic.) A show based on the irreverent Khumesh Lider (Bible stories) of great Yiddish poet Itsik Manger (1901-1969) by Basya Schechter and Avi Fox-Rosen should be another highlight.

“It’s important that the subtitle is Yidstock, the festival of new Yiddish music,” Rogovy says. “We are devoted to Jewish music as it’s been heard for the last 50 or 100 years, and almost all of our artists have that history of the music as part of their foundation. But what we look for are artists who are bringing something new, different, and contemporary. The only way to keep the music alive is to view it as a living thing and support artists who approach it that way, rather than as a museum piece.”

Depending on how you count, the klezmer revival is in its third or fourth generation. Adah Hetko and Kaia Berman-Peters are part of the current cadre: along with violinist and singer Lysander Jaffe and cellist Raffi Boden, they perform as Levyosn (Ashkenazi Hebrew for “Leviathan”).

Hetko grew up in a musical family. Her father is a guitarist who has played everything from Elvis to prog-rock bands, her brother is an old-time banjo player who also plays Greek music, and her mother has organized folk festivals. She dates her obsession with Yiddish song back to 2013.

New England Conservatory professor Hankus Netsky. Photo courtesy of the artist

“I had just graduated and was working at Vassar College for the Office of Religious and Spiritual life. I got really interested in minority languages in college and also in Jewish community and Jewish community dynamics. I told the very wonderful campus rabbi I was curious about Yiddish, because it was in my family. She responded ‘Well, there’s this kooky thing that I went to 10 years ago and I think you might like it.’ That’s how I ended up going to Klezcamp, my first klezmer festival.”

Her bandmate Berman-Peters, the daughter of a Jewish studies academic, picked up the accordion as a teenager and started attending drop-in klezmer sessions at Columbia led by mandolinist Jeff Warschauer (who himself spent a number of years playing with KCB — the klezmer world is full of cross-connections.) “Lysander and I bring Levyosn a lot of the stuff that we learned from music school, experimental part writing with crazy harmonies. Then Adah adds to that her kind of folk sensibility and brilliant, singable translations.”

Even as they see their work as an act of multi-influence “cultural sampling” and remixing, today’s younger klezmer artists are quick to give shout-outs to their senior teachers and mentors, musicians and scholars such as Netsky, Kahn, Warschauer, Schechter, and Bressler. (Bressler formally mentored Hetko through a two-year Mass Cultural Council Traditional Arts apprenticeship, a recently discontinued program that will be very much be missed.) Hetko and Berman-Peters are particularly grateful to the women in their field who have taken them under their wings.

Levyosn — the Boston-based group is part of the latest klezmer revival. Photo: courtesy of the artist

For his part, Netsky says that the practice of transmitting Yiddish music has changed from the days when he would find a rare Yiddish 78, make a cassette, and “trade it like baseball cards” within a small circle of klezmer enthusiasts. Today, YouTube turns up rarities and there are some — if not enough — digitized Yiddish music collections online.

Yet the challenges of deeper engagement and understanding remain. “The young people realize that if they’re going to know anything about Jewish music, they’d better know Hasidic music and they better know cantorial music and they better know nusach, the kinds of modal melodies that you do in the synagogue, because guess what? Good luck composing Ashkenazi Jewish music if you don’t know the language of your music. There’s a whole world. What’s going on now is that the world has opened up.”

“To perform Yiddish music [at the Yiddish Book Center] where you’re surrounded by symbols of Yiddish culture” is very special, Hetko says. “The large performance hall has a chandelier of a golden peacock, which is a symbol of Yiddish culture, music, poetry. It’s also connected to this idea of Jewish mobility, moving from place to place. The endurance of this mythical symbol feels very close to home for me.”

Adds Berman-Peters, “it really feels like going to Yidstock is like we’re making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.”

Debra Cash, a Founding Senior Contributor to the Arts Fuse and a member of its Board, works at the Jewish Women’s Archive.

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