Jewish Chronicle London (July 21, 2000)
Latin Rhythms with Orthodox beat
Touring klezmer delights crowds
from Ruth Ellen Gruber, Crakow
ALEX JACOBOWITZ spends eight months of the year on the road, travelling from country to country, playing music on the street.
But he's no ordinary busker.
A classically trained artist, he performs the works of Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart and other classical composers on a marimba -- a gigantic instrument resembling a xylophone that is more commonly associated with Latin rhythms. His marimba is two metres long, stands waist-high and has 100 keys.
Not only that. As an Orthodox Jew, he performs wearing a kipah, and has beard and sidelocks, with tsitsit hanging from under his shirt.
Mr Jacobowitz, 39, describes himself as a classical klezmer.
"I'm trying to bring people together through music," he said during a break in a performance before dozens of tourists in the vast, medieval main square of Cracow.
He is also consciously making the point, in the countries where the Holocaust took place, that Jews and Judaism are still very much alive.
"My kipah, my beard, my tsitsit -- these are not props," he said. "They are who I am."
Mr Jacobowitz, who did not grow up in an observant home, studied at the Eastman School of Music, in Rochester, New York. He made aliyah in the 1980s, became Orthodox and now lives, when he is not on the road, in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, near Hebron.
He has toured Europe for over a decade, travelling by car with a trailer containing religious books and kosher food. He sleeps, and often prays, in car parks.
Ten years ago, when he first played in Hungary, he recalled: "People told me that no one had worn a kipah in public for 40 years. They said I was giving courage, setting an example, for those who were afraid."
Mr Jacobowitz takes as his model a 19th-century Chasidic musician, Michael Joseph Gusikow, who took Europe by storm in the 1830s by playing classical music on his own invention, the straw fiddle. Mr Gusikow toured Russian and then Austria, Germany and France, to great acclaim before his death in 1837.
So popular did he become that his peyot sparked a fashionable hairstyle among society women -- the "coiffure à la Gusikow."
"If I didn't have Gusikow as a role model, I wouldn't have such confidence in what I do, " said Mr Jacobowitz, a consummate showman whose jokes and storytelling, in several languages, enliven his performances.
In Poland, audiences compared him to one of the most famous characters in Polish literature -- Jankiel, the Jewish innkeeper and cymbalom player in the 19th-century book "Pan Tadeusz" by Adam Mickiewicz.
Although Mr Jacobowitz has played throughout Europe, his performances in Cracow were his first in Poland.
He timed his visit to take place during Crakow's annual festival of Jewish culture, which draws many performers and tourists to the city.
But he admitted to feeling uneasy playing in a country where three million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
"This is a debt I wanted to pay to Auschwitz," he said.