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.