Klezmatics bringing a healthy dose of heresy on tour


Grab your children and your grandparents! A band of Yiddish heretics are zingen their way to Southern California!

Not that you should worry. These heretics, the Klezmatics, are happy and coming to share their zest for Eastern European Ashkenazi-inspired music.

What is so heretical about a long-established Grammy-winning group setting out on its 30th anniversary tour with December stops in Los Angeles and Costa Mesa? Along with the usual Yiddishe party music — which also includes songs by Woodie Guthrie — the band will perform songs from its new album, provocatively titled “Apikorsim/Heretics.”

For many Jews, the Yiddish word apikorsim — used as a cutting term by one Jewish denomination to describe the perceived religious deficits of another — is mostly familiar through its use in Chaim Potok’s best-seller from the mid-1960s, “The Chosen.” But Lorin Sklamberg, the Klezmatics’ longtime lead vocalist and accordion, guitar and piano player, doesn’t see it that way. For him, the word’s meaning moves beyond a Jewish showing of disrespect to representing one of the joys of the Jewish world.

“It’s not unusual for us to take things that have a stereotypically negative connotation and turn them around,” Sklamberg said in a recent phone interview the morning after he had flown to New York following a Klezmatics performance in Poland. 

As Sklamberg explained, the band likes to find a “positive aspect of something that might be somewhat controversial.” For instance, the title track of the new album, “Apikorsim,” represents the coming together of a traditional Yiddish dance tune by Klezmatics co-founder, vocalist, and horn and saxophone player Frank London with lyrics by contemporary Yiddish linguist Yuri Vedenyapin, who the band asked to write on the topic. “They just completely went to town on it,” Sklamberg said. And with lyrics like “Happy heretics don’t think about God … Happy heretics have no rabbi … Happy heretics don’t get circumcised,” it’s clear the writers not only had “gone to town,” they had left the shtetl

“You could take it literally or you could take it metaphorically,” Sklamberg said when asked about the song’s provocative lyrics. For him, the song invokes the thoughts that “you don’t need to have all those strictures in your life to enjoy life” and that “you don’t have to abide by Orthodoxy,” he said. 

“One of the nice things about the Jewish world,” he added, “is that there is a tacit acceptance that people allow everyone else to be Jewish in their own way.”

Sklamberg described the band’s following as comprising “everything from religious Jews with yarmulkes and beards to hipsters with tattoos and beards.”

“All of these Jewish worlds have been allowed to co-exist. I think that’s one of the delights of being Jewish,” said the musician, who had a Conservative upbringing at Temple Beth Torah in Alhambra.

Another song on the “Apikorsim/Heretics” album shows the group’s knack for turning around meaning. “Ver Firt Di Ale Shifn?” (Who Guides the Ships?) — with Yiddish lyrics by Zishe Landau (1889-1937) and music by Chava Alberstein — asks, in the form of a riddle, “Who plays with the children, and takes some of them away?”

Sklamberg said initially he was puzzled by the song’s lyrics. “As it turns out, Landau had lost a child, an infant when he was young,” and the poem “was kind of a lullaby for the child,” Sklamberg explained. But he sings the song with a broader meaning. It’s “for all parents who have had the tragedy of losing a child,” he said. “It’s one of the most well-received songs in our concerts.”

Growing up in Monterey Park, Sklamberg was in high school when he began playing accordion in a band called Rimonim that performed Israeli folk-dance music at weddings and bar and bat mitzvah parties.

“I didn’t know how the music was connected to my heritage and how the music I was hearing in shul was related to what we were playing,” he recalled. “There were people around I could have asked, but I didn’t think to do it.

“When I moved to New York and started studying Yiddish and getting involved with the Klezmatics, I started to see how all these things that I had grown up with were interconnected,” said Sklamberg, who as an original member has been with the band for 30 years.

His experience with listening to Chasidic music in shul and studying Hebrew at his synagogue’s school and Los Angeles
Hebrew High School helped ease his evolution to klezmer. “All these tools were really helpful in becoming proficient in Yiddish instrumental and vocal music,” he said, voicing a conclusion he laughingly acknowledged would make his Hebrew school teachers happy.

One of the ways the Klezmatics keep their audiences happy is when they conclude each show with “Mazel Tov,” a “little lullaby waltz” written by Yiddish singer, actor and impresario Boris Thomashefsky. The group plays it at the end to “wish everyone well and off into the night,” said Sklamberg, who sings it sweetly and innocently — without a heretical note.

“Every star that shines above us,” it begins, “should always shine on our future.” 

The Klezmatics will perform Dec. 19 at the Pico Union Project in Los Angeles and Dec. 22 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. For more information, visit Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa or Pico Union Project.

Calendar December 7-13


SAT | DEC 7

THE KLEZMATICS

The old country just got a little newer. Taking traditional sounds and themes and infusing them with some modern funk, the Grammy-winning band brings rhythm and timeless spirit to its audiences. With 25 years of experience and a growing fan base, the Klezmatics have changed the face of the Yiddish imprint on popular culture. They are making history, performing history, and you get to dance all the while. Sat. 7:30 p.m. $69-$108. The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. (310) 434-3200. SUN | DEC 8

WALK OF AGES XIV

Here’s an opportunity to work off some of that Thanksgiving feast (not that you don’t look great). It’s a 5K run/walk that raises funds for the Los Angeles Jewish Home so that it can provide the finest care for its golden-years residents. From basic services to tai chi, the Home offers much to many. With a pancake breakfast and face painting after you finish, it’s a festive morning for everyone. City Councilman Bob Blumenfield is going, so you can, too! Sun. 7 a.m. (registration), 8:20 a.m. (opening ceremony), 8:30 (5K), 10 a.m. (breakfast). Free (seniors, 80 and over), $15 (youth), $35 (general, ages 13 to 80). Jewish Home’s Eisenberg Village Campus, 18855 Victory Blvd., Reseda. (818) 774-3324. ” target=”_blank”>beittshuvah.org

MOHAMMED FAIROUZ AND DAVID KRAKAUER

“Symphonic Prayers and Poems” is an opportunity to understand how the power of music transcends cultural and religious conflict. Highly acclaimed composer Mohammed Fairouz interweaves Aramaic, Jewish, Israeli, Arab and Western inspirations to showcase how strong and unique togetherness can be. Klezmer musician David Krakauer performs the West Coast premiere of “Tahrir,” a clarinet concerto written for him by Fairouz. Sun. 7 p.m. $30-$50. Royce Hall at UCLA, 340 Royce Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 825-2101. ” target=”_blank”>cjs.ucla.edu. (310) 825-5387. 


MON | DEC 9

“AM I MY SISTER’S KEEPER?” STANDING WITH WOMEN, GIRLS AND LGBT PEOPLE WORLDWIDE

Dec. 10 is International Human Rights Day, and American Jewish World Service (AJWS), along with many proud partners, is hosting a forum honoring what those rights mean for everyone, everywhere. A panel discussion moderated by Journal Executive Editor Susan Freudenheim will include AJWS President Ruth Messinger, Guatemalan activist Claudia Virginia Samayoa, Temple Emanuel’s Rabbi Laura Geller and Loyola Marymount political science professor Jodi Finkel. American folk musician Julie Silver will perform. Mon. 7 p.m. Free. Temple Emanuel, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills. (310) 843-9588. “>aju.edu.


TUE | DEC 10

MAX BROOKS

This one’s for all you thrill readers and big imaginers. Whether you were a fan of “World War Z” or “Daredevil,” Brooks (the son of Mel Brooks), Mark Waid and legendary producer Thomas Tull have collaborated on a graphic novel that might get a little dark. “Shadow Walk” follows a U.S. Special-Ops team as they discover the Valley of the Shadow of Death — the one we hear so much about from the Bible — which might be an actual place hosting a dangerous new energy source. Tue. 7 p.m. Free. Barnes & Noble at The Grove, 189 The Grove Drive, Los Angeles. (323) 525-0270.

Oh, Klezmer! Oh, Klezmer!


There are assorted good reasons to program a klezmer night around Chanukah, and brisk ticket sales is only one of them.

“Klezmer is a hugely important part of the Jewish language and culture,” said Dale Franzen, director of the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, in assessing the Eastern European music genre that touches on political and cultural themes. 

“The fact that Yiddish is dying worries me a lot,” she continued. “That’s a huge loss, and any little way that we can keep it going will be special. It’s depressing when languages die.”

She’ll get no argument from Lorin Sklamberg, a sound archivist for the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York and the lead vocalist for the internationally known group the Klezmatics, who will take the stage at the Broad on Dec. 7. 

“People sort of refer to this mythical place where Jewish Ashkenazi culture exists like ‘Yiddishland,’ ” Sklamberg said. “There isn’t a place where people speak Yiddish day-to-day except little pockets of Chasidic communities.”

Of course, whenever Sklamberg and his fellow Klezmatics assemble, Yiddish and klezmer music escape the threat of extinction in a big way. Franzen expects the Klezmatics show to inspire much clapping, stomping and singing from an enthusiastic crowd. She also expects a sold-out house.  

“It will be a fantastic concert,” she said.  

That’s a safe prediction. Now in their 27th year, the New York-based Klezmatics have produced 10 CDs and performed in more than 20 countries. They won a Grammy Award for the 2006 album “Wonder Wheel” and hit the Top 10 on Billboard’s World Music chart. They have collaborated with artists as seemingly unrelated as violinist Itzhak Perlman, playwright Tony Kushner, folk singer Arlo Guthrie, beat poet Allen Ginsberg and Pilobolus Dance Theater. 

The band is currently at work on a joint project with Hungarian artist Péter Forgács on the installation of the video project “Letters to Afar” at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. “Letters” is based on home movies made by Jewish immigrants from the United States while visiting their hometowns in Poland during the 1920s and ’30s. Music from the project — as well as old favorites — will be part of the Broad performance, according to Sklamberg.  

“We haven’t written for anything exactly like this [before],” Sklamberg said of the “Letters” project. “The closest thing I can think of was the work we did with Pilobolus Dance Theater. A lot of the time, you have the music and they construct the dance piece around it. This way, you’re sort of accompanying them rather than the other way around.”

The Broad gig will be a homecoming of sorts for Sklamberg, who grew up in Monterey Park, attended shul in Alhambra and studied briefly both at UCLA and USC. He is the only Klezmatic with West Coast origins and still has family in Los Angeles. 

But the roots of this roots band are decidedly East Coast. When asked about the band’s formation, Sklamberg started to tell a story that sounded like it was heading toward a punch line: “In 1986, a guy from San Francisco came to the Village in New York to play Yiddish music …

“I never met that guy,” Sklamberg said, “but his band somehow morphed into this sextet. We rehearsed in this apartment — and if you know New York, you know that apartments are long and narrow. We rehearsed standing in a line, and we just never really thought this would be something that could be a career. 

“We were playing the music with our whole beings,” he continued. “We were putting ourselves into the music in a way that came naturally to musicians who play other types of world music. There are places where music is an indigenous part of a given culture that has a homeland and place where people speak the language.” 

As the ’80s slipped away, the Klezmatics were able to ride the wave of interest in world music and the proliferation of CDs. What was originally envisioned as a novelty band to be hired for parties and weddings ended up taking them around the world. 

“That Yiddish music was included in the world music book, which was something that hadn’t ever happened before,” Sklamberg said. “Because, by and large, Yiddish music was insular; it was part of [the] Jewish community at large, but it wasn’t really being exposed to a wider audience. So now it’s considered like another genre of world music, which is all the more healthy for the longevity of the music we play.” 

The band’s current incarnation includes original members Sklamberg (accordion, guitar, piano), Frank London (trumpet, keyboards) and Paul Morrissett (bass, tsimbl), along with Matt Darriau (kaval, saxophone), Lisa Gutkin (violin) and Richie Barshay (percussion) 

Every Klezmatic has one or more side projects, and the band’s most recent album and accompanying documentary celebrating its 25th anniversary — 2011’s “Live at Town Hall” — was funded through a Kickstarter campaign. 

“I have this day job, which is part time and flexible enough for me to do what I need to do, but sometimes it becomes more difficult to sustain, to keep creating new repertoire,” Sklamberg said. “People are wedded to the idea that you put out a new collection of songs. I’m assuming we’ll make more CDs, but I don’t know.”

The Klezmatics have a handful of December dates in California and Arizona and pick up their touring again in March 2014. 

When Franzen was looking to program an assortment of different cultural holiday offerings for the Broad, she locked in the baroque group Interpreti Veneziani, “A Cajun Christmas” with BeauSoleil and the always zany Impro Theatre for “Jane Austen UnScripted.” To complete the set, she wanted a blowout klezmer night to coincide with Chanukah. 

“I talked to Aaron Paley at Yiddishkayt, [the L.A.-based group that promotes Yiddish culture], and he said ‘There’s only one band. You have to bring in the Klezmatics,’ ” Franzen said. “I did a lot of research, and indeed, they were the group to bring.” 

For ticket information, please visit this story at jewishjournal.com

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