Creating A Klezmer Community In The Twin Cities

Ahead of next week’s Klezmer on Ice, learn more about the klezmer in the Twin Cities. Today, a look at the modern scene.

Mark Stillman grew up hearing the klezmer-inflected Yiddish music of Mickey Katz, as well as different Jewish music while attending synagogue. An avid folk dancer, he picked up accordion in college and started exploring various folk music and musical styles from around the world. His first love was generally Eastern European music. But soon he made the jump to klezmer after a call from trumpet player Dave Haberman. “You soon realize that Romanian folk song was something that the klezmer musicians were adapting to their own repertoire.”

Stillman is one of many musicians that have contributed to the Twin Cities klezmer scene, playing and revamping Eastern European Jewish folk music for new audiences. The scene has been influenced by professional musicians and enthusiasts alike – with folks from Minnesota, and transplants from across the country. In return, Twin Cities klezmer has nurtured its own unique story in the broader klezmer community. A variety of groups have waved the banner of klezmer in the Twin Cities, each with their own distinct sound and panache.

Some musicians, like James Vculek’s mid-’90s to early 2000s klezmer band Prague ’24, knew each other from a lifetime of playing music in the Twin Cities. Prague ’24 was started by a group of freelance musicians in the Twin Cities, a number of whom played together as high schoolers in the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies (GTCYS). 

Maybe the most recognizable influence Twin Cities klezmer has had on the broader klezmer community came from an early band playing Yiddish music in the Twin Cities, the Yiddishe Folkmenshn, co-founded by flautist Peggy Davis. They played for various events in the Twin Cities throughout the ’80s. Davis recounted their rendition of the Yiddish socialist song “Ale brider,” or “All brothers.” 

“I needed to have another verse for ‘Ale brider’ that would be ‘Ale shvester,'” said Davis as she recalled a verse which would mean “All sisters.” Rabbi Eli Braun came up with “azoy vi rokhl, rus un ester” meaning “just like Rachel, Ruth and Ester,” and Davis brought the lyrics to KlezKamp, a program for American klezmer musicians, in Dec. 1985. From there, the verse took off in popularity and can be heard in the Klezmatics’ rendition, among many others – all from one winter night in St. Paul.

One of Minnesota’s first modern klezmer bands was the Sim Shalom Klezmer Band started by trumpet player Dave Haberman, who invited accordionist Mark Stillman and clarinetist Shelley Hanson, along with other musicians, to play klezmer music together.  

Stillman’s certainly the prototypical modern klezmer. Not only does he play tons of Jewish music, but tons of music in general from all around, but he’s still a proud Jewish musician all the same, saying he feels the most Jewish when he’s “out there playing klezmer.” As Stillman states of his early days exploring the genre, “I took my Jewish heritage … my familiarity with how Jewish music should sound – Israeli music, music from Eastern Europe – and I added my own spin on it.

Stillman has gotten to play with local folk giants Boiled In Lead, and even forged a decades-long friendship with actor, and musician Theodore Bikel. A highlight of his klezmer career is his collaboration with clarinetist and composer Shelley Hanson. Together they played in the band Klezmer and All That Jazz, playing klezmer and various compositions by Hanson, including her “B’sha-ah tovah” concerto for klezmer band and orchestra.

The Leo Fine influence

Stillman and Haberman both said late Twin Cities bandleader and trumpeter Leo Fine was an important influence on their musicianship. “No story about klezmer in the Twin Cities can go on without talking about Leo Fine,” Haberman said.

Stillman and Haberman grew up hearing Fine play music for bar mitzvahs, weddings, and various other Jewish events in the Twin Cities. Once, Haberman saw Leo ask an audience to raise their hands if he’d played at their weddings – and nearly every hand in the room went up. Fine was primarily a jazz and swing player, and inspired Haberman to play trumpet. When Haberman became interested in Jewish music, Fine pointed him to the tunes to start with.

The first time Haberman heard specifically about klezmer music, however, was from Rabbi Joe Black, formerly of Temple Israel. Black pointed him towards Chicago’s Maxwell Street Klezmer Band, where Haberman got in touch with their bandleader Lori Lippitz – cementing a career in klezmer. 

Amy Olson, the former singer of the klezmer band the Prairie Heym Klezmorim, also recalled Black as an influence. The band was started in the late 80s by the late Marty Dworkin, a long-time professor of microbiology at the University of Minnesota, who also played with Peggy Davis and the Yiddishe Folkmenshn. Dworkin was the clarinetist in the band, and enlisted the help of Olson, as well as accordion playing from Allen Levine, UMN’s Professor Emeritus of Food Science and Nutrition and, at one point, a PhD student under Dworkin. 

The Prairie Heym Klezmorim brought a uniquely Minnesotan expression to klezmer, reimagining Aaron Lebedeff’s song “Rumania, Rumania,” as “Minnesota, Minnesota.” They also performed an adaptation of “My Fair Lady,” “Mayn Teyere Meydl,” at the Minneapolis campus of the Minnesota JCC in 2005.

Levine and Olson are both transplants from the East Coast, part of the flow of musicians in and out of the Twin Cities that have defined the klezmer scene here. Levine is from New Jersey, and spent summers honing his jazz piano in the Catskills. He found the Twin Cities a good community for klezmer. “It’s very warm and welcoming here, everybody knows everybody,” he said.

Olson appreciates the commitment to Jewishness in smaller communities, having grown up in Rhode Island, where the entire state’s Jewish population is less than a third of the number of Jews in the Twin Cities. “In Minnesota, where you’re not around a lot of Jews, you have to really work at it to keep it alive – and I think people do.” 

Levine and Olson were influenced by – and getting to meet or get coached – by members of some of the larger Klezmer revival bands like Kapelye or the Klezmer Conservatory Band when they came through the Twin Cities. In return, the Twin Cities had helped shape the careers of these groups, with the Klezmer Conservatory Band getting one of their biggest breaks playing on famed Minnesota radio show A Prairie Home Companion in 1984.

Surprised by klezmer

Judith Eisner, who also uses the Yiddish name Gitl, was raised in Massachusetts without hearing klezmer music. But Eisner’s mother was a musician, and she followed in her footsteps taking up the violin, eventually getting a music education degree and moving to the Twin Cities in the ’70s. When she did hear klezmer for the first time, “I was blown away,” Eisner said.  She was at a show at Peavey Plaza in the early ’90s, when Marty Dworkin’s Prairie Heym Klezmorim were playing. Eventually, Eisner called Dworkin up, asking for some tunes she herself might play.

Eisner’s first klezmer group was called Tsatskeles, and was composed of herself and her lesbian friends. The group played largely to have fun, dressing up in campy hyper-feminine prom dresses to perform at First Avenue and the State Fair. “We were pretty crappy at it…but we were having a good time,” she said. 

Eventually though, Eisner wanted to learn more about klezmer, and had a fateful lesson with klezmer fiddler Deborah Strauss. Interested in researching, Eisner went on to attend KlezKanada, another klezmer summer program – 8 times – and started another group dedicated to more historically-informed playing. Eisner’s Klezmorim still plays to this day. 

Eisner’s had various projects over the years including Naye Strunes, a klezmer band that raised money for Doctors Without Borders while telling the stories of the Righteous Among the Nations, non-Jews who risked their own lives aiding Jews during the Holocaust. Sheet music from Naye Strunes as well as recordings of Eisner’s Klezmorim can be found on her website.

Similarly, Joe Vass didn’t know about klezmer until the 1990s. Vass has a background in classical piano, but became interested in jazz and then klezmer, starting his own group called the Minnesota Klezmer Band before changing their name to Klezmerica.

Vass’ music started taking off around 1998. The year marked the 100th anniversary of George Gershwin’s birth and Vass had the idea of a show that traced Gershwin’s Jewish heritage through music. The show, called “Gershwin the Klezmer” was performed at the Minnesota JCC. Even though Gershwin wasn’t known to play the genre we now call klezmer, “I don’t believe that the word ‘klezmer’ is correctly applied as a style of music,” Vass said. “I think of a klezmer as a person.”

Klezmerica would go on to tour “Gershwin the Klezmer” around the country and even present it at the International Klezmer Festival in Safed, Israel.

21st Century klezmer

Rabbi Reysh Weiss was pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota when she started a klezmer group, the Mahadrin Klezmer Ensemble. The group played mostly for fun at various locales around the Twin Cities, as Weiss jokes, “because, of course, klezmer is the solution to everything,” said Weiss, who is now based in Massachusetts. “I definitely think it’s a great way to build community…one of the staples of a healthy, vibrant Jewish life is making sure that there’s going to be a meaningful musical connection.”

Last year, Temple of Aaron Rabbi Marcus Rubenstein was a founding member of a new band in the Twin Cities called Jewbalaya, which mixes New Orleans jazz with klezmer music. Rubenstein is from the East Coast and is part of a lineage of jazz trumpet playing which goes back to his grandfather.

“The pride that musicians have here…there’s so many great musicians that come out of Minnesota. I just love the openness of the music scene here,” he said, comparing the scene here to the more competitive one in New York. “Whether it’s Jewish klezmer music or just jazz music or whatever.”

Sarah Larsson has been a central figure in the Twin Cities klezmer scene in recent years, from being a part of folk and klezmer bands to organizing regular klezmer jams around town. Her concern isn’t the type of competitiveness that Rubenstein sees in other cities, but the way people sometimes minimize some types of Jewish music as a way to lift up others.

“I think Yiddish and klezmer gets kind of stamped out and squashed a bit compared to other things … like Israeli folk dancing and pop music coming from Jewish artists overseas and the summer camp synagogue music singalong kind of stuff,” she said. “To me, there’s this really powerful experience that I can’t deny when I hear Yiddish being sung or spoken and want to hear klezmer music. 

“I think that me lifting up a Hebrew language hip-hop artist is good for klezmer the way a Ladino folk singer lifting up klezmer is good for their music. It’s good for everybody when we’re all supporting each other.”


Editor’s note: This story has been changed to reflect that Rabbi Eli Braun, not the Yiddishe Folkmenshn, came up with the “Ale shvester” line for “Ale Brider.” The KlezKamp that the line was introduced at was not a summer program, but in Dec. 1985. 

Judith Eisner’s name is also not Gitl Judith Eisner — Gitl is the Yiddish name she uses. Eisner grew up in Massachusetts, not the Twin Cities.