There’s a new sound in Jewish music. It’s coming from young musicians with one foot in Brooklyn and the other on klezmer’s silk road through Europe: Paris, Berlin, Krakow, Budapest and points east. These musicians have bands with cheeky names, like Yiddish Princess and Electric Simcha, and they’ve come of age in a cultural landscape utterly transformed by the past 35 years of what is usually called the “klezmer revival.”
The Central Yiddish Culture Organization (CYCO), a Manhattan based non-for-profit outfit dedicated to the promotion and development of Yiddish literature, is in trouble. CYCO, and its inventory of 55,000 Yiddish books is being kicked out of its current home. Given that the income from book sales could not possibly pay market rent on a new space, it looks like the last bookstore in Manhattan dedicated to Yiddish language and (mostly) secular literature is in need of a miracle. CYCO has already seen one miracle of sorts — a write up of their crisis in the New York Times, here.
In 1979, when Henry Sapoznik founded the klezmer band Kapelye, he was among a cohort of passionate young musicians, musicologists and cultural workers who sought to reclaim Eastern European Jewish music and link themselves to still-living masters of that tradition. It was hard work. Relatively little had been done to preserve or transmit the culture of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in America.
In 1996, Shane Baker looked like just another New York City cliché: a young gay man, recently arrived in the Big Apple from Kansas City, Mo., waiting tables at Tavern on the Green and planning his entry into the world of New York theater. But Baker’s story was unusual, even for New York. A Yiddish-speaking non-Jew, he had come to the city to start a life in Yiddish theater. Some might have said that he was — to be generous — a few decades late.
Earlier this month, the 90th birthday of folk legend Pete Seeger drew 15,000 people to New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The sold-out show demonstrated the legacy, and continuing vitality, of the American protest-song tradition, a tradition that was born in the Great Depression and gave rise to some of the fiercest critiques of modern capitalism and imperialism in any discourse. Daniel Kahn, a Detroit-born singer-songwriter now living in Berlin, is part of that tradition, while at the same time creating a new musical idiom blending American-folk and Yiddish-protest song. Kahn, 30, is a post-modern folkie just as likely to quote from the Industrial Workers of the World songbook as to cite Marxist critic Slavoj Zizek. But his political sympathies and artistic creations are very much reminiscent of those of Seeger and his progeny.