There is a well-known klezmer tune that has been stalking me for most of my life. It’s a tune you probably have heard.
In case you’re wondering, I’m a klezmer fiddler. I also play Middle-Eastern music.
It’s the first tune In the Kammen International Dance Folio No. 1, titled “No. 1. FREILACH (Jewish Dance)” and the composer is long-forgotten. First published in New York City in 1924, the self-described Most Useful Book of It’s Kind Ever Published™ cost $1.50 when my father bought it around 1948. It had you covered in the New York melting pot with Jewish, American, Bulgarian, Greek, Italian, Russian, and more. A note reminded the reader that “All the Jewish Freilachs (dances) in this book can be played as Greek dances.”
Back in the States, I knew the tune as “Sher” which is the name of a traditional Yiddish couples dance. But it’s better known as Sherele, and it’s usually included in the handful of tunes that Israeli wedding bands of various stripes play when the occasion for “Jewish” music arises. Sometimes it’s THE klezmer tune they know.
I first encountered Sherele as an infant. My Bronx-born ophthalmologist father (who briefly had a gig playing piano in the Catskills) would put the Kammen book on the piano, and bang out Sherele and a few other tunes. My sisters and I would tear around our suburban Southern California house like vilde chayos, barely avoiding the eye-level corners of furniture jutting out in our paths. (I remember one particularly threatening low glass table) He would also throw in “Bumble Boogie” a jazzy version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee. It was pure fun.
It would be years later, post conservatory, and already a refugee from classical music, that I heard the Klezmorim (one of the first revivalist bands)live in concert in Berkeley, CA. The seed was planted. Lights and bells went off in my head, and I was soon obsessively digging for obscure cassettes of scratchy old recordings, trying to get as deep as I could into the style. I bought a reissue CD by the same band, and heard their version of Baym Rebns Sude, in a scrappy horn and drum arrangement with tuning issues, a loose, asymmetrical feel, and just the right level of chaos. I was hooked.
In my first klezmer bands in the late 1980s, we always played Sherele. It was, undeniably a good one, stuck in the first spot by the brothers Kammen for a reason. It got people up and dancing on a pretty reliable basis. With a satisfying arching melody in the freygish mode, the textbook major 6th below the tonic, a windup before the minor iv B section, and a lively, percussive C section. I played it at countless Jewish weddings, and people loved it.
Until I didn’t play it anymore, because how many times can a person play the same tune, no matter how great? It became something of a joke, and I was happy to leave it behind. I started playing more concerts than weddings and mixing with well-known klezmers from the East Coast, and it became clear that the performance of Sherele would invite the wrath of the punitive, reactionary, and yet elusive “Klezmer Police.” By the mid 1990s, I understood that this now felonious tune was essentially forbidden, as was possession of said Kammen books. I cultivated similar, rarified feelings towards this shlagger, this cliche of a cliche of a tune, and felt I was on moral high ground.
But this stubborn tune wouldn’t leave me alone. At klezmer jam sessions with musicians who may not have the same experience, Sherele was one of the handful of tunes that everyone knew. My refined and developed klezmer aesthetic gave way to the practical situations that confronted me, and found myself scratching out the tune in spite of myself.
While writing this article, I searched for a good recording of Sherele and it was rough going. I found countless recordings/videos on YouTube, but almost all by klezmer bands just starting out. Its a classic first tune for a klezmer band to record. So I decided on linking this tightly arranged recording by the Israel Radio Orchestra from the 1950s. They would have called it Hassidic music.
This tune, even though I had mostly stopped playing it entirely, had somehow worked its way into my calcified neural pathways. In 2002 I wrote the score for a new klezmer musical comedy called Moonwatcher, written and produced by Traveling Jewish Theater in San Francisco, and performed by my band, the Klez-X. In spite of all my ambivalence, I couldn’t help borrowing the first couple of bars from Sherele for the big song and dance number. I could recognize a winner. It was such an obvious quote, I was sure everyone would get the reference, but very few did.
Fifteen years later, as a befuddled new immigrant in Israel desperate for any kind of musical work, I occasionally played in religious wedding bands – that often played Sherele as part of a medley after the breaking of the glass. I was happy to play something I knew for a change. But the rest of the night had little to do with the Kammen books.
In Israel, the context of Sherele was radically different. The word klezmer has a different meaning than in the diaspora. It means something like, “religious Ashkenazi music,” and usually features Hasidic melodies sung in Hebrew or loshn koydesh.(Ashkenazi-Hebrew) Then add a rock band rhythm section straight out of Las Vegas in the 1970s with ear-splitting volumes, punishing backbeats, and frenetic tempos. The melodies were basic and unornamented, and it was essentially vocal music, even when played on instruments. It was simple enough that someone could sing the melody once, and soon everyone knew it.
There is a small diaspora-style klezmer scene in Israel with some fantastic bands, but the audience is small, considering there are some three and a half million Jews here with Ashkenazi background. Things have shifted a bit in the last 20 years or so, but for most secular Israelis, Yiddishkeit has a vaguely negative connotation, and music is no exception. People usually use the word galuti to describe it. This pejorative, essentially means “foreign” but in a negative way. It applies apparently only to Eastern European Jewish music, as you can see stadiums full of wildly enthusiastic fans at Israeli rock concerts singing along with Moroccan or Iraqi piyuttim. (liturgical songs) In the early days of the State of Israel, the performance of Yiddish plays was even briefly forbidden by law.
I took to avoiding the word klezmer to describe what I did when speaking in Hebrew. I tried calling it “Ashkenazi folk music,” or “secular Yiddish music.” I even tried to make a distinction between “klezmer” as I say it, and the Israeli pronunciation, “kleyzmer.” None of this made any difference. As I spoke, secular Israelis would imagine Yossi Green’s “Moshiach,” in their heads, a catchy and insufferable tune that beats out Sherele in the cliche department by a few light years. It fit well as the background music to my heavily accented Hebrew, confirming what they already knew: another naive, confused American with identity issues. And even worse, I was a suspected dos -mixing with the enemy on the other side of the religious-secular divide. I fit neatly into their proscribed box.
Things didn’t go so well on the other side of the hot religious-secular border either. I was usually the only secular guy in these religious bands, and a suspected Leftist Tel Avivi at that, destroying Judaism and Israel with my goyishe naches. Bitter political arguments ensued. I did a lot of subbing but didn’t stay with the same bands for too long.
But somehow, for better or worse, Sherele has been around for all of it.