Klezmer Rebounds with Old Roots, New Audience

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Revivals can either sink or swim (see: Fuller House), especially when there’s no need to beat a dead horse.

But there is one revival and movement that has gained momentum in the Jewish community: klezmer.

While many may think this traditional music style died out, the reality is a musical resurgence that pays homage to it roots, even if it’s for a new audience.

A key leader of this musical revival is Hankus Netsky, a native Philadelphian who recently wrote Klezmer: Music and Community in 20th Century Jewish Philadelphia, exploring klezmer’s roots in his home city.


Netsky, chair of Contemporary Improvisation at New England Conservatory in Boston will direct the Philadelphia Klezmer Heritage Ensemble in a performance at the National Museum of American Jewish History on April 10.

His book, which took about five years to write, came about as he was working toward his Ph.D. at Wesleyan University. Growing up in a family of klezmer musicians, it occurred to him that he had never really heard the music, which he found strange.

“As I was growing up, Jewish music was being changed around me,” said Netsky, who started the Philadelphia Klezmer Heritage Ensemble. “They were taking these old ethnic traditions and putting them aside and replacing them with new versions of Jewish music … and I have to say, even when I was six or seven it seemed really wrong to me, partly because I was from a family of Jewish wedding musicians, klezmorim.

“It occurred to me that there was a tradition in my family that was an international musical tradition. At the same time, no one was teaching it to me,” Netsky continued. “And the reason wasn’t because they didn’t like it — it’s because they were convinced it was dead.”

A lot of the research Netsky did for his book involved talking to musicians who didn’t necessarily want to discuss it, such as his family members.

When he started his research in 1974, as he details in his book, he was “strongly discouraged” from writing about klezmer. That was the message when he proposed it as a topic in one of his undergraduate classes at the New England Conservatory.

Nonetheless, he started looking into the klezmer scene in Philadelphia as he talked with grandparents and uncles. In turn, they led him to great-uncles, who led him to other resources and musicians. Some of the latter were in disbelief he wanted to talk to them about klezmer, while others gave him information.

“When I first tried to do this hardly anyone would talk to me,” Netsky recalled. “When I led this revival, they realized, ‘Oh my God, people actually care about this,’ and after that they all were willing to talk to me.”

In 1980, after taking a break from research and deciding where to go next, he organized a concert in Boston of some of the songs and dances he had transcribed from music his family and other musicians  had given him.

It served as the official launch of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, and it also spawned the revival of the klezmer scene.

“I really got the idea for reviving this tradition when I was probably 18 or 19,” Netsky said. “I heard enough of the music especially because one of my uncles had my great-grandfather’s record collection and he played that for me. I’ve heard family members play Jewish weddings in the ‘60s when there was still a trace of it. It was really exciting, I didn’t understand why people weren’t playing it.”

He resumed his research in 1996, at which point the attitude toward klezmer had changed. It was interesting enough that he was able to earn his Ph.D. on klezmer in Philadelphia.

People don’t often think of Philadelphia when it comes to klezmer music, he said, which was where his family played. Usually, the first city that comes to mind is New York.

“I realized that as I looked at the music and met musicians from New York, they didn’t know any of the songs that my uncles played,” he said. No one had really looked into the klezmer traditions in Philadelphia, even though it was as big a player as a city like New York.

“My book is the first book that is a study of a regional tradition,” he added. “It’s almost like if people wrote books about jazz and no one said anything about New Orleans or Chicago.”

Part of the reason Philadelphia was particularly important in klezmer history was because of the musicians who played here, he discovered, and their commitment to their “ethnic ties” and backgrounds.

A key player in the Philadelphia klezmer scene was the Kandel Orchestra, a Philadelphia-based band from the ‘30s. One of the Philadelphia Klezmer Heritage Ensemble performers, Susan Lankin-Watts, has familial ties to the orchestra.

Lankin-Watts, a renowned trumpeter who was awarded a Pew Center for Arts and Heritage grant in 2015 and will perform with Netsky during the concert, said her grandfather played in the Kandel Orchestra, thus starting a long affinity toward klezmer in her family, spanning from her uncles and great-uncles to her mother.

Netsky even talks about some of Lankin-Watt’s family in his book: Morris Hoffman — her grand-uncle — Jacob Hoffman and Johnny Hoffman.

“I always had klezmer in my life,” said Lankin-Watts, who grew up in Lower Merion. “I didn’t know it was called klezmer, it was just called Jewish music.”

Her mother, Elaine Hoffman-Watts, is a percussionist who has become famous in the Philadelphia klezmer scene. She also will be performing with the ensemble.

Lankin-Watts started playing the trumpet when she was about seven after finding the trumpet her father played in high school lying in their closet at home. She hasn’t stopped since.

She started learning more about her family’s ties to klezmer after her mother attended KlezKamp, a klezmer and Yiddish music festival in New York, and told her about people there who knew about her grandfather and music he wrote.

“I didn’t know I came from this family of klezmer musicians,” said Lankin-Watts, “but these people knew and they told me about my grandfather.”

She immediately loved klezmer music because of its ties to the Jewish people.

“It was music that the people around me loved, so I loved it because they taught me to love it,” she said. “I love the language, I loved listening to Yiddish. I felt like it was a special language. I just loved how it sounded, and it made me feel yearning and it made me feel complete at the same time.”

“Those of us from eastern Europe descent, it’s our music,” she continued. “It’s what we got married to, it’s what we sang to, it was what we danced to, what we cried to — it’s ours. It’s powerful because it belongs to us.”

She is looking forward to the performance at the museum because it will be a chance to shine a light on Philadelphia’s history with klezmer for some who may not have realized the connection.

The revival of klezmer will also attract a younger generation, one that she has already noticed is falling in love with the music.

“We’re not in the revival anymore. We’re in the lifeblood of it,” she said. “There are generations of it making new music, playing old music, people finding new stuff, people finding people in Moldova who are 90-year-old men playing it — people are actively working with this stuff. It’s eastern European Jewish music. It’s something special to us.”

Netsky agreed.

“What I enjoy is that it sounds like my grandparents,” he said with a laugh. “It’s music that feels personal, like, ‘Oh, this is actually my heritage.’”

He looks forward to what he says will be a lively concert and celebration.

“It’s going to be a performance where they’re going to hear what I think is some of the best Jewish music ever created,” he said, adding there also will be two dance facilitators. “People will instantly get up and do these dances that maybe their grandparents did but they didn’t know anything about.

“It’s really an effort to have a further revival of [the music], to give people an opportunity to express these ethnic and cultural roots,” he continued. “I think the younger generation and also the older generation — everyone’s out of touch with it. The point is it’s going to be both a concert and a party, a celebration.”

The concert, which is part of a larger weekend-long conference and Shabbaton put on by the Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood, among other organizations, was a way to bring together klezmer musicians who have local ties and to the music in general.

Although he anticipates audiences grooving to the melodies, he did mention there will be no rendition of wedding tradition “YMCA,” but added with a laugh that the idea of spelling out words with your arms might have come from a Jewish bandleader.

So next time you’re at a wedding, keep that in mind that the music alongside the traditional finger-snapping shimmy of our beloved Tevye run pretty deep.

Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0740

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