Spousal Lectures, Schnapps and Other Glories Celebrated by Unlikely Klezmorim Group

By Amy Weintraub Kratka

Published March 21, 2003, issue of March 21, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

It was nearly 8 p.m. when the klezmorim danced their way in to greet the crowd, hoisted their instruments on stage and proceeded to make a l’chaim on the berry-flavored schnapps that awaited them in a tall, elegant bottle. The musicians didn’t look like Old World incarnates in their sleek black ensembles, nor did they sound like street entertainers when they commenced their lecture on Eastern European “musical ambiences,” but when they began to sing one understood that their sound was as authentic as their centuries-gone counterparts.

The Singing Table, featuring Michael Alpert, Sruli Dresdner and Lisa Mayer, which appeared at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York last month and will perform March 26 at the Neo-Hasidic Conference at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, is an unusual pairing of play and academe: The three musicians alternately hummed tunes and recounted history, sounding both melodically plaintive in their songs and authoritatively wistful in their discourse. Indeed, the trio is a remarkably fluid mix of personalities: Alpert accompanies his historical explanations with slow, mournful accordion chords; clarinetist Dresdner intones mystical nigunim as if in a trance — like his own chasidic ancestors, he tells us — and Mayer, the violinist, both jokes and bows with virtuosic pluck and a winsome smile.

Sometimes, the nigunim reflect the sadness and weight of history; other times, they bespeak joy and transcendence. One song that many audience-members recognized, whose lyrics comprised an acrostic, served to teach children a life-lesson along with the aleph-bet. “AZ Nisht Kein Emunah” it was called, and its message is relevant to today’s success-driven kinder — one of its lines reads in translation: “If you have no rachmones, for what are you ripping this world apart?”

In introducing these songs, the musicians were careful to pay homage to the family members that, in many cases, resurrected the tunes from historical oblivion. One melody, with a joyful refrain that the audience picked up immediately, was sung to the Satmar rebbe upon his postwar arrival in America. To this day, Dresdner told the audience, his father remembers the rebbe’s appearance in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Dresdner has an uncle who is equally proud of his chasidic heritage and has taught his nephew many nigunim. This uncle, Mayer quipped, is still single, takke, and wants to stay that way. He refuses to marry because an old married friend of his was once stopped, drunk, on his way out of a tavern, by a Polish policeman:

“Where are you going?” the policeman asked, gruffly.Thinking quickly, the friend replied, “I’m going to a lecture.”The Poilishe looked at his watch. “At this hour? Who gives a lecture at 2 o’clock in the morning?”“My wife,” the man retorted.

Comic relief like this reminds new listeners that Eastern European melodies were often shaped by their surroundings and those who peopled their world, Jewish and gentile. A version of the Friday night liturgical prayer “Lecha Dodi,” for example, includes strains of what could be a Polish wedding march — all in major keys, which is rare in a klezmer tune. Another song is a klezmer rendition of an ancient Hungarian shepherd’s tune — transmuted during the 18th century into a chasidic parable.

Notwithstanding the distance that separates Jews from their musical roots, no one in last month’s audience felt estranged from a vibrant klezmer culture. Too many feet were engaged in the tants that concluded the program, and too many hearts were warmed by that luscious berry-flavored schnapps.

Amy Weintraub Kratka is a doctoral candidate in English at Boston University, writing her dissertation on Cynthia Ozick’s aesthetic. Her articles have appeared in The Journal of Contemporary Thought and The MELUS Journal.






Find us on Facebook!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • 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.