Mikveh Plunges Into Uncharted Waters


Since the klezmer revival exploded a quarter century ago, the Ashkenazi musical tradition has experienced more variations than deli sandwiches. There has been klezmer-infused jazz, hip-hop, bluegrass and most any other permutation one can imagine. But as klezmer has morphed from shtetl to nightclub fare, one of the most unusual things it has added is women, said musician-scholar Yale Strom.

"Traditionally, the purveyors of Yiddish songs and culture were women, but that didn’t occur outside the home," said Strom, author of "The Book of Klezmer" (Chicago Review Press, 2002). "Women did not play in klezmer bands because of the Orthodox prohibition against hearing a woman’s voice and because nice Jewish girls stayed home."

"Even today, women are underrepresented," violinist Alicia Svigals said of klezmer. In recent years several all-female groups have sprung up, including Mama Labushnik and the playfully named Isle of Klez-bos. Perhaps the most accomplished of them all, Mikveh, named for the ritual bath, performs at Temple Israel of Hollywood on Sunday.

The quintet brings together some of the best klezmer musicians anywhere: Svigals, a founding member of The Klezmatics; vocalist Adrienne Cooper, a premiere interpreter of Yiddish song; bassist Nicki Parrott, who has worked with David Krakauer’s Klezmer Madness; accordionist Lauren Brody; and trumpeter Susan Hoffman Watts.

If these maidlech had united two decades ago, they "might’ve had to skulk around under a banner like ‘The All-Girl Klezmer All-Stars,’" Rolling Stone noted in 2001. Having come together in the more empowering 1990s, the 5-year-old group has been widely lauded for its musical virtuosity and its fresh, feminist take on traditional Eastern European songs.

In "A gutn ovnt Brayne" ("Good Night Brayne"), a battered wife tells her neighbor about the abuse; "Sorele’s Bas Mitsveh" honors the girl’s rite of passage; "Borsht" extols the virtues of, well, borsht, and "Yosemame" ("Orphan Mama") describes the quiet grief of miscarriage.

Mikveh’s musical voice fills a void, according to Svigals: "I can’t think of another song about miscarriage, although it’s such a universal experience," she said. "We’ve had elderly women come to us in tears after our concerts, talking about their miscarriages which occurred 60 years ago. The material has just had such a tremendous impact."

Mikveh began making an impact back in 1998 when playwright Eve Ensler asked Svigals to put together a klezmer ensemble for a performance of her "Vagina Monologues," to benefit battered women.

"Afterwards, we looked around at each other and said, ‘This is the start of something good,’" Cooper recalled. "It wasn’t so much that we were all women as the fact that we had such a fabulous front line of players."

Nevertheless, each of the performers had experienced "being the only woman in the band," Svigals said. "There was this huge repertoire of women’s folk songs out there, but they weren’t the songs the male-dominated groups were choosing to revive," she added. "As an all-female group, this was the area in which we felt we could make a difference, so Adrienne went out of her way to find [such] songs."

Cooper discovered "Good Night Brayne" in an obscure library anthology published in Jerusalem; she borrowed "Borsht" from a Ukrainian Jew who had brought the tune with her to Brighton Beach and adapted "Sorele’s Bas Mitsveh" from a piece about a bar mitzvah. Band members have also helped compose original songs such as "Orphan Mama," which uses imagery from a Yiddish poem by Itzik Manger.

The goal is to help nurture and evolve Jewish culture: "We don’t want to just recreate the old 78s," Cooper said. "We want to bring the music forward to the audience, not bring the audience back to the music."

Mikveh members intend to do just that when the group performs at The Nimoy Concert Series at Temple Israel of Hollywood on Sunday; June 20 happens to be Father’s Day and the irony hasn’t escaped Svigals.

"Of course, we all have fathers, so we will rock the house," she said.

Yet when asked if there is a daddy version of the classic "My Yiddishe Mama," the violinist was temporarily stumped.

"There is no ‘My Yiddishe Tateh," she replied after a pause. "But that should give us some food for thought. We’ll have to work on that and see what we come up with.

The result could be one more variation on the seemingly endless klezmer theme.

For tickets, $8-$25, and information about the concert, June 20, 3 p.m. at Temple Israel, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., call (310) 478-6332. Tickets can also be purchased at the temple’s box office, which opens Sunday at 1:30 p.m.

Janet’s Retro Planet


It could have been a scene aboard the deck of the Titanic –before that pesky iceberg hit.

As the live band performed tunes from the early 1900s,couples swing danced on the black-and-white checkered floor of an elegant artdeco venue. In between songs, Cherry Tartes, burlesque strippers dressed inskimpy raincoats, strategically folded and unfurled their umbrellas to reveal,conceal and tease the supper club crowd.

While it may have felt like the turn of the 20th century,the supper club was in the Fenix Room of the Argyle Hotel on Sunset Boulevard.

In the center of it all was the self-proclaimed “ukulelechanteuse” Janet Klein — a svelte woman with bright eyes, a brunette bob and along gown that might place her as a contemporary of Theda Bara and Clara Bow.On a winter Monday night, she belted out vintage numbers such as “HollywoodParty,” “You Keep Me Living in Sin” and “Nasty Man,” with her backup band, TheParlor Boys.

“I like to say that I was born in 1908,” said Klein, whocoyly describes her age as “30-ish.”

Born sometime after that in Los Angeles, Klein grew up inthe San Bernadino foothills, with her parents, UCLA-educated educators with anEastern European heritage.

“I always thought I had the soul of an old lady,” Kleinsaid. “I was always very close to the older people in my family. I loved thestuff they had in their houses.”

Klein’s ancestors were Polish leather-workers, and she hasheld on to their handmade, knitted, sequined gowns.

“I had a vision of me in a long gown with a candelabra,”said Klein, who now dresses in these family heirlooms when she performs.

Even as a teen attending Pacific High School and TempleEmanuel, Klein cherished the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s.

“This period has been poorly stereotyped,” said Klein of thedecade maligned by visions of Betty Boop and the Charleston, when, in reality,”it’s blessed by some of the greatest ever music produced by immigrants andblacks.”

Brad Kay, the Parlor Boy on piano and coronet who hooked upwith Klein in 1998, agrees that there is relatively little appreciation for themusic.

“Our tendency in our culture to completely trash the past,”Kay said. “Americans especially are prone to dismiss anything that’s older than20 minutes, which is completely opposite of the rest of the world.”

A trained classical pianist, Klein first picked up theukulele in 1995. Within months, she went up to Santa Cruz to patronize a notedluthier, who created Klein’s customized black lacquer ukulele — adorned withcherry blossoms, a “Coeur de Jeanette” logo mugged from a French cologne labeland birdseed fret marks.

Lori Brooks, who works at Hi De Ho Comics in Santa Monica,brought down the staff of her shop to the Argyle show. She also caught Klein atFais Do Do in November when a building code violation bust — teeming withpeople dressed in period clothing — enhanced that evening’s allure.

“It really had this 1920s Prohibition feel to it,” saidBrooks, 24. “At the strike of midnight, the fire department showed up. Thebartenders was quickly getting out of there. It seemed like all of LAPD was outthere.”

Klein finds the vaudeville-era tunes, a lot of them writtenby Jewish songwriters, “lively and clever and heartwarming.”

Parlor Boys’ ukulele and accordion player, Ian Whitcomb(whose “You Turn Me On” was a pop hit during the British Invasion), observedthat Tin Pan Alley was a natural outlet for the East European Jews passingthrough Ellis Island.

“The professions, such as banking, were closed to them,”said Whitcomb, who recently scored Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Cat’s Meow.” “Sothey entered rogue businesses, such as cinema and Tin Pan Alley.”

These Jews developed an ear for the genre’s urbanvernacular, he said. “Being outsiders, they could see American mass culturemuch more objectively….In a way we can thank the czars for the pogroms [thatchased from Russia] Al Jolson, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin and the like.”

Klein even tosses Jewish numbers into her sets, such as”Yiddish Hula Boy” and “Rebecca from Mecca.”

“Yiddish gives me a kick,” she said.

Kay said Klein excels at what she does because “she hasgreat respect for this music.”

“It’s not kitsch to any of us,” he continued. “It’s justmusic.”

Janet Klein will perform at McCabe’s on Feb. 7; at the Silent Movie Theatre on Feb. 14 ; and at the Argyle Hotel on March 3. For information, visit www.silentmovietheatre.com or www.janetklein.com . p>