Photo by Spencer Ritenour
In his 2006 study “Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language and Culture,” Rutgers University professor Jeffrey Shandler noted the strange phenomenon in which musicians have become some of the most well-known authorities on Yiddish culture. “Marginal figures in East European Jewish society before World War II, klezmorim are now prominent cultural spokespeople, enacting representations of that society on stages around the world.”
However one feels about the primacy of music over the language itself in much contemporary Yiddish culture, there is no doubt that klezmorim are doing a great job, not just playing music, but also conducting ethnographic research into a folk repertoire that goes well beyond the Yiddish theater chestnuts and art songs of the early 20th century. On June 13, at New York’s Baruch College Perfoming Arts Center, musician, composer, arranger and bandleader Dmitri “Zisl” Slepovitch premiered a collection of just such material in a program titled “Traveling the Yiddishland,” the result of some 10 years researching Yiddish songs in Belarus and other parts of the Former Soviet Union with the late Jewish music scholar Nina (Nechama) Stepanskaya.