The Arts

Ashkenazi is jazzy

ILONA BIRO September 1 1997
The Arts

Ashkenazi is jazzy

ILONA BIRO September 1 1997

Ashkenazi is jazzy

The Arts

In a small park in downtown Toronto, a traditional Jewish wedding is being celebrated by a high-spirited group of musicians, performers and members of the public. These are not real nuptials but rather a music-theatre piece called The Wedding Project, devised by Torontonian Allan Merovitz to rejoice in a culture that not long ago seemed fated to disappear. Merovitz’s show is part of a global revival of the traditions of Ashkenazi Jews—from Central and Eastern Europe—and their Yiddish language, a hybrid of Hebrew, German, and Slavic tongues. Yiddish choirs, theatre groups and classes, as well as klezmer bands, are springing up in every corner of the world, and festivals of Jewish culture have emerged throughout Europe. This week, Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre is hosting the second Ashkenaz festival, which runs until Sept 1. “There’s a sense of renewed pride and energy in the Ashkenazi community that is only just beginning to manifest itself,” says Merovitz, who is in his early 50s and has performed his Yiddish-inspired works from Yellowknife to Halifax.

Famed classical violinist Itzhak Perlman is perhaps the most prominent of the thousands of artists participating in the current revival. “If there’s any kind of music I can really call my own, it’s klezmer,” says New York-based Perlman of the folk style that

flourished in Eastern Europe during the 19th century. His 1995 klezmer recording for EMI, In the Fiddler’s House, has sold more than 200,000 copies in the United States and over 15,000 in Canada. Perlman will bring his klezmer show to the Ford Centre for the Performing Arts in North York, near Toronto, in October. But with the Ashkenaz festival, people in the Toronto area have dozens of music, dance and theatrical offerings currently at their doorstep. The world’s largest event dedicated to Yiddish culture, Ashkenaz features some 150 artists in 90 shows ranging from Borscht Belt-era klezmer kings the Epstein Brothers to a new dance work called Zummel, performed by the Swedish dance company NorrDans.

Ashkenaz artistic director David Buchbinder sees his festival as a way of revitalizing old traditions. A trumpet and flugelhorn player and leader of the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band, Buchbinder, 37, cites a theatre piece called The Memoirs of Gliickel of Hameln, in which the New York troupe Great Small Works applies “cutting-edge” stagecraft to the memoirs of a 17th-century German-Jewish woman. ‘The festival,” he says, “provides a context for new collaborations, for build-

ing on the raw material of the past.”

It is only in recent years that mainstream Jewish society has really paid attention to Ashkenazi culture. Montreal physician Hy Goldman recalls that in 1981, when he brought Boston’s Klezmer Conservatory Band to Montreal for a concert, “most Jews were totally unaware of what klezmer music was.” But this summer, Goldman ran the second annual Klez Canada, a four-day Yiddish cultural camp in the Laurentian Mountains, and was able to attract 300 participants. “Jews and non-Jews alike,” he says, “are coming around to this culture like never before.”

Yiddish, too, is gaining new currency. « Merovitz remembers the negative reac| tion he got for speaking it when he lived « in Israel 27 years ago. “Yiddish was g seen as the language of weakness, of g persecution and the Holocaust,” he reI calls. After stressing Hebrew for years I now, at least some Jewish schools and university Jewish studies departments are starting to add Yiddish courses. Says Ellie Keilman, a Yiddish lecturer at the University of Toronto: “Finally, students said to themselves, ‘Gee, I don’t know anything about my grandparents’ experience, and I can’t speak their language.’ ”

In Montreal’s Jewish community, however, Yiddish has always had a presence. The Yiddish Theatre at the Saidye Bronfman Centre for the Arts has thrived for its 40-year history under founder Dora Wasserman. Yiddish has been a constant for decades in the Jewish Public School System and at the Jewish Public Library. Raizel Candib, co-chair of the library’s Yiddish program, suggests that the new resurgence of Yiddish culture has come about because “it’s a way of identifying as a Jew culturally without having to deal with religious observance.”

Yiddish culture is on a global upswing

And for many, that sense of identity is a powerful awakening. “For months after the last Ashkenaz festival,” says Buchbinder, “people kept telling me that it was the most important, most unambivalently positive Jewish experience of their lives. What that tells me is that there seems no clear, obvious way of being Jewish that has meaning for them. It says to me that mainstream organizations have failed to provide something that grabs people.” Shalom Schächter, a Toronto lawyer and union activist, puts it this way: “There is a hunger for meaning in life, and part of the answer is going back into one’s traditions and trying to rediscover the positive elements that made life meaningful for Jews 100 or 200 years ago.”

ILONA BIRO