Music From the World’s Kosher Kitchens


By Michael Wex

Published December 31, 2004, issue of December 31, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

A Wandering Feast

By Yale Strom And Elizabeth Schwartz

Jossey-Bass, 272 pages, $24.95.


In 1981, when Yale Strom undertook his first journey to Central and Eastern Europe, you couldn’t use the word klezmer without having to pause to explain it. The klezmer revival was still gathering steam when Strom attended a concert that inspired him to start a klezmer band of his own, and begin his exploration of the music of Yiddish-speaking Jews. In the intervening quarter-century, the indefatigable Strom has written 10 books, released roughly the same number of recordings and directed three movies. If klezmer has become a household word, Strom has done more than his part to make it so.

“A Wandering Feast” is an informal personal postscript to Strom’s “The Book of Klezmer” (2002), and describes the trip that Strom made to Europe after deciding to skip law school and go off in search of “the roots of klezmer music, its last songs and melodies, and the stories of its creators.”

It could be argued that the same roots, similar stories, and even more songs and melodies were available in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Cleveland or Toronto at the time, but the Warsaw Pact offered one advantage that virtually no North American city could duplicate: the public kosher kitchen. Strom generally heads for the kosher kitchen in any town that has one, introduces himself and lets the locals know why he has come. Given the clientele of such kitchens, he was virtually assured of dealing with older people who remembered prewar culture and who continued to identify as Jews. Those who didn’t know the music that Strom was looking for could often refer him to someone who did.

As an acknowledgment of the role that food played in Strom’s methodology and experience — hence the feast of the title — co-author Elizabeth Schwartz, a Yiddish singer who is also Strom’s wife, has contributed 35 recipes for dishes mentioned in the main text. It is ironic that Schwartz collected and tested these out in the United States, since Strom’s trip was motivated by the idea that the Jewish culture of Europe is somehow more authentic than Jewish culture here at home, that there’s a spiritual difference between “Yismakh Moyshe” sung by a shoykhet, or ritual slaughterer, in Miskolc, Hungary, and “Yismakh Moyshe” sung by a shoykhet on Clymer Street in Brooklyn: The

Miskolcer is presented as a sort of Hasidic Chingachgook, one of the last of the yidishe Mohicans.

Strom’s lust for the exotic occasionally moves him to lose respect for the day to day. When the sexton of the synagogue in Kosice, Slovakia, tells Strom that he won’t be allowed to take pictures at [cap shaleshides, the third meal of the Sabbath, Strom hides a tape recorder on his person and tapes the shaleshides anyway. Let’s ignore Hillel’s unmusical Jewish dictum, “Don’t do to others what you hate having done to you”; there is still a question of politeness, of respect for the culture of your hosts, whose songs are now being taken against their will. Time and again, Strom tells us that he is a vegetarian; would the discovery that his food had been laced with lard have elicited the same unconcern as his violation of the Sabbath in the Kosicer synagogue? More than 20 years after the incident, there’s no sense of shame in the telling, no glimmer of awareness that this attitude of klezmer above everything, klezmer über Alles, leads to fossils in a display case rather than a living, fully rounded culture.

After more than 20 years, Strom still needs work on his Yiddish. His personal motto, “Er geyt kegn der shtrom”(“He goes against the current”), also goes against all rules of Yiddish grammar (if it isn’t kegn dem shtrom, it isn’t Yiddish). He should know that zmiros — Sabbath songs — is plural; repeated references to “a zmiros” don’t indicate that he does. These are typical of the errors in Yiddish that are scattered throughout the book; even the Hebrew in the etymology of klezmer comes out wrong.

These cavils aside, “A Wandering Feast” is an absorbing look at Strom’s experiences in what has since become another vanished world. Along with the stories and recipes, there is music to 15 songs that Strom composed or collected on his trip, and brief histories of the Jewish communities in each of the countries visited. Minor disagreements aside, it’s impossible to argue with Strom’s basic point: In a world with more than its share of lawyers, we can always use another klezmer.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach!
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.