Why I Love Klezmer

Ahead of next week’s Klezmer on Ice, learn more about the klezmer in the Twin Cities. Today, the series author, TC Jewfolk’s New Voices intern Miri Verona, on how Klezmer connects her to Judaism.

Klezmer is the first passion in my life that’s really stuck with me. I learned about klezmer sometime during my first year of college, and it’s still with me now as I’m preparing to graduate in a few months. When I first started listening to the music, something about it immediately clicked with me. In my life playing music, I’d often looked on enviously as those around me immersed themselves passionately in different genres. I’d tried a number of them myself – classical, jazz, opera, choir – and while I enjoyed aspects of each, I didn’t feel any were speaking to me specifically. Then I started listening to klezmer.

The first klezmer music I fell for was by the Klezmatics. Their eclectic oeuvre gave me the immediate message that klezmer, similar to jazz, can actually be a lot of different things. The first songs which completely captured my sensibilities were probably from the Klezmatics album “Possessed.” The group was collaborating at the time with playwright Tony Kushner who was adapting the Yiddish play “The Dybbuk.” The two songs with words by Kushner were titled “An Undoing World” and “Fradde’s Song.” 

Klezmatics’ singer Loren Sklamberg’s voice had an immediate grasp on me. While I was cultivating this love for klezmer, I was also having one of the darkest times in my life where very little was making sense. I remember with my natural bass voice, I’d listen with an incredible yearning to female singers especially, not realizing how much I wish I had a voice like theirs. Around that time, I found a humorous, but evocative blog post referring to his voice as “bell-clear, uncomfortable, third-sex sounding.” I think Sklamberg’s “third-sex sounding” tenor touched me most of all because it didn’t feel out of reach to me. 

I came out to close friends as a lesbian and a woman maybe a month before I first started playing klezmer myself. I finally saw an opportunity during a musicology class where we were asked to write about genres we felt an affinity for. Of course I wrote about klezmer, but so did a clarinetist, Georgia. I connected with her and my trombonist friend Mikayla, who also got a hold of our friend Willow who liked to sing. The four of us had our first jam, where we had a lot of fun playing a few klezmer tunes with an awful level of musicianship. This turned into a weekly open jam, before our friend Eviatar wanted to play klezmer on his trumpet recital. Thus was born our band, “Eviatar and the Klezmommies.”

For much of my life, I’ve struggled to truly feel like part of a community, but with klezmer and my Klezmommies, I’d finally found that feeling in a way I’d never before. It would connect me with so many people: not just my bandmates, but other classmates, the Jewish community and other klezmer musicians. 

Playing with my Klezmommies, without fail, cheers me up if I’ve had a bad day. Every rehearsal is a beautiful place where we merge reverence and respect for Jewish culture and the klezmer tradition, along with whole-hearted laughter where we embrace every wrong note and crazy musical idea. Klezmer is a place where my idiosyncrasies feel like they have a home: my gayness and Jewishness and creativity ooze out of me. I love calling myself a “klezbian,” but the term feygele comes to mind too. It’s a term that me and our lead singer Willow like to use. It means “little bird” in Yiddish and often it’s a derogatory term for a gay man, but is also a term of endearment especially for a girl or woman, so we like to reclaim it with an equal sense of irony and sincerity. 

Getting to work on the story of klezmer in the Twin Cities was so meaningful an honor as I connected with many people with similar backstories to myself. I talked to so many people who connect to their Jewish roots through music, Jews of Scandinavian heritage, musicians who want to preserve the klezmer tradition through careful research and bring it into the future with chutzpah. Each person was so generous with their time and encouraging with their own bit of wisdom to give. 

There are so many ways to play and embody the klezmer spirit, which makes the genre a place of calm for me. There are traditions to be revered and futures to be paved, but just playing klezmer day to day, maintaining the music in the community, feels like a mitzvah.