Klezmer On Ice Bringing New Twists To Traditional Yiddish Culture

When the Klezmer On Ice Festival debuted last winter, organizers weren’t sure how it was going to go and who the audience for something like this might be. 

“One of the biggest (takeaways) was the fact that we’re able to bring together the Jewish community – people that usually aren’t doing things together,” said Josh Rosard, one of the lead organizers of the Jan. 31-Feb. 4 event. “We were all together in one place that weekend at the events that we hosted. That was really special and something that we want to emulate again.

“We have a few specific intentions with the festival, and I think the overarching one is to demonstrate that Yiddish culture has a relevant place in modern Jewish identity.”

This thesis, Rosard said, is exemplified in some of the choices that were made for this year, particularly with the headlining event, the Feb. 4 performance of Forshpil at the Cedar Cultural Center. 

“It’s a thought experiment of what would happen if this transmission was continued from the shtetl to modern day and Yiddish musicians were playing old folk songs with electric guitars and synthesizers?” Rosard said of Forshpil. “And can we fill a room in Minneapolis in 2024 to listen to a concert where the words are 100% in Yiddish?”

Rosard was looking for a band to headline that has a deep reverence to tradition and is very well rooted in klezmer traditions and Yiddish, while also trying something modern and experimental with that knowledge and understanding. 

“Forshpil is integrating the traditional sound into a modern context,” Rosard said. “The opening night performers, Lea Kalisch and Jewbalaya, are actually doing a lot of similar things in their music; blending klezmer and Yiddishkeit with modern styles. There’s an element of symmetry to the festival too.”

Ilya Shneyveys, the multi-instrumentalist backing Forshpil singer Sasha Lurje, said that he was blown away by Minneapolis in general, and, specifically, the close-knit klezmer/Yiddish community.

“Every time something happens, it’s a big deal,” he said. “In New York, because there’s so much of this…it’s just another event. Everyone (in Minneapolis) was so involved and excited about playing and learning.”

In addition to the closing concert, Forshpil will also lead Klezmer workshops on Sunday at the Minnesota JCC Capp Center St. Paul. Shneyveys – who Rosard credits with creating the name Klezmer on Ice – said that a workshop nearly 20 years ago in St. Petersburg, Russia, was his gateway. 

“Klezmer workshops have been a big part of my life,” he said. “It was my first exposure to lots of people playing music all the time. It’s not just what you’re teaching, but how we’re all learning by playing and the deep-dive exposure to the culture. In a week, we had no sleep, but lots of workshops and classes and jam sessions.

“These workshops can spark someone else’s desire to dive deeper into this music. You can’t learn everything in two hours. But I’m also learning you can’t learn everything in 20 years either.”

Rosard said the first session will be a large group Yiddish dance workshop, while the second session will have different sessions to choose from.

“This is intentional not only because learning the dances is an essential first step for anyone engaging in klezmer, but also because of what Yiddish hora dancing symbolizes: simultaneously expressing ourselves as individuals while holding hands and moving together,” he said. “I’m very much not a dancer, but I took a dance workshop at KlezKanada that really helped improve my klezmer accordion playing.”

Shneyveys’ alter ego, DJ Shney, will spin kleztronica beats on Saturday afternoon, Feb. 3, at Lake Harriet for Klezmer on Ice at the Art Shanty Projects. Kleztronica is the combination of klezmer music with the electronic, making live music with traditional or electronic instruments and also sequencing that with samples of old recordings or like old beats that are taken off of klezmer records, Rosard said.

“​​It’s not a completely new thing, but it’s starting to gain more traction among kind of the younger generations,” he said.

This year’s Klezmer on Ice is also taking place in the context of Israel’s war with Hamas, stemming from the terrorist group’s attack on Oct. 7, 2023. Following the lead of Yiddish New York, Rosard released a community statement to help center the event around art and the artists: “The juxtaposition of cultural celebration and grief is a distinct feature of klezmer music. This year, we come together at a time when our hearts and minds are weighed down by the pain, suffering, and loss in Israel and Palestine. The festival organizers acknowledge that a diversity of opinions and beliefs will be present among artists and participants, and intend for our time together at Klezmer on Ice to be focused on this expressive cultural heritage, and the artists who are harnessing this deeply rooted tradition to bring peace and collective vitality to their communities.”

“We’ll have some traditional klezmer throughout the weekend,” Rosard said. “But klezmer isn’t just something nostalgic from the past. It’s something that the up-and-coming generations of people looking for a Jewish identity are identifying with it, and connecting with other generations through that experience.”