Alex Jacobowitz: Der klassischer Klezmer Alex Jacobowitz: Der klassischer Klezmer
Stories by Alex Jacobowitz
Der Grinder & der Hero (Deutsch)

As I played in Erlangen, a young man named Rudi stood before me - I recognized him from a klezmer festival a few years ago in Fürth. He´s what some people refer to as a German klezmer (actually, there is no such thing - there are only Germans who play klezmer music, but I was being generous). He plays tuba (or sousaphone, I´m not really sure of the difference, except I think sousaphone is what you wear, and tuba is what you hold on your lap).

In any case, we were making small talk, when he mentioned that he had seen me on television. Now, I´m used to being on television, and my standard polite questions are about when, what, which program, etc. He answered "Poland." That got my attention.

The world´s largest Jewish festival is held yearly in Krakow, and lasts for nine days. I´ve played there three times. At the end of each festival is the "final concert" in which the world´s best klezmers perform before 10,000 people in Kazimierz, Krakow´s old Jewish Quarter. This concert is broadcast live to millions of Polish homes. Although I had been in two American documentaries made about the klezmers who come to Krakow, I had never seen the Polish live broadcast since I was too busy playing it, and didn´t know how to get a copy from Polonia, the Polish broadcaster.

"And which year was it filmed?" I asked.

My heart skipped. I had played a vibraphone solo during that year´s final concert - my best work ever - but hadn´t yet heard it.

"How did you get it?" I pushed further.
"It´s a DVD, it´s being passed from hand-to-hand inside
the klezmer community."
"Hm. Could you make me a copy?" went my hesitant voice.
"Sure," he answered, "I live around the corner. I´ll be
back in ten minutes."

And off he went.

I started my street show, not fully allowing myself to believe that this was going to happen.

For me, the Krakow Jewish Festival is something very special, almost holy - not only because it´s a unique and breathtakingly wide celebration of the 1000-year-old Ashkenazi culture, but because it happens in the Polish homeland, about 30 minutes away from Auschwitz. I´ve always felt that performing in this festival (despite 500 kilometers of da-dump, da-dump of Polish highways) to be not only therapeutic for Jews and non-Jews, but almost a mitzva.

Now, all kinds of Jewish culture can be documented - the Tora and her commentaries, Yiddish language and literature, recipes of Jewish cuisine, even Jewish papercutting. But with klezmer music, which is primarily not written down, as soon as the notes fade away, it´s gone forever. Perhaps a nostalgic memory of the emotions conceived by this wonderful music remains, but the sounds themselves disappear into the Polish night. A television recording meant, for me, a form of salvation for the music´s soul.

Sometime later, I found a DVD, dropped into my bag, from Rudi. Can you imagine how I felt as I put the magic disc into my laptop? As I saw the pictures of Szeroka Square, the heart of the Jewish Quarter, and klezmer music came over the speakers? The music of my culture, played by my friends - Brave Old World, Klezmatics, David Krakauer, etc.? And there I was, playing with them.

In some ways, it seems crazy, I know. For many Jews, Poland is little more than a Jewish cemetery, and the idea of making music there - or just as badly, putting oneself in the mood to make music there - is heartbreaking. On the other hand, some would say, should Jews NOT make music there? Is it better to be silent? For me, it was difficult to come to Poland, to play this music. If it had been jazz or classical, one could always say one did it for professional reasons. But no, this was Jewish music. It was, for me, completely personal.

A broad smile spread over my face as I gazed at the computer screen; the sky-cam panned the night sky to show a full moon over the well-lit stage, as thousands of people danced to the music. I knew what came next. The Doina.

A Jewish doina is a sophisticated klezmer solo, something between musical improvisation and prayer. And the night of that concert, I was given the nod to play the doina.

I recall it all very well - the chill of the night, how nervous I was as the first vibraphone notes of Hoffman´s Doina echoed out over the square, how the television cameramen ran to me, poking their cameras so close I feared my mallets would strike their lens rather than my B-flat. Perhaps most importantly, I remember how I wanted my fellow klezmers, and the dancers, and my children, and perhaps even a few Jewish ghosts to listen to my reverent doina with their hearts as well as their ears.

Then the other klezmers began to play - the keyboardist added harmony, the violinists, slowly at first, moaning gently, getting louder, then the brass, the basses, crescendoing their voices. It was a religious service, somehow Jewish, somehow ecumenical.

As the credits raced at the end of the DVD, I smiled at how the Polish TV had misspelled my (essentially Polish) name. But what made me really happy was to know that the sounds were retained - the music was saved - for the next generation.

Alex Jacobowitz

(Naturally, I was a bit nervous today - but then again, like
listening to the works of Satie, I´ve felt unresolved for years.

In 2002 I released my first recording with ...
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Rosh Hashana in Augsburg
I was making my way to the kosher food store in Munich´s Viktualienmarkt when the call came. I recognized Diana´s thick Russian-accented German from her "hallo". She was the secretary of Augsburg´s ...
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Saturday Night in Jerusalem
Here I am, back in Munich. My son, Shmuel, and I were
scheduled to meet on Ben-Yehuda at midnight - he
wanted to accompany me to the airport. On my drive
from Kiryat Arba to Jerusalem, I was ...
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Tschaik 4 - excerpt from A Classical Klezmer: Travel Stories of a Jewish Musician
(I was a professional percussionist with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in the spring of 1983, and was ...
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(Naturally, I was a bit nervous today - but then again, like
listening to the works of Satie, I´ve felt unresolved for years.

In 2002 I released my first recording with ...
Read More ...




Contact Alex
to order his book,
Ein klassischer Klezmer.