Cantor Jeff Warschauer: Davening Through Music

I met Jeff Warschauer at in NYC in 2014. He was running the Columbia University klezmer band. I didn’t know at the time that I was talking to one of the most well-known mandolinists in the world of klezmer. I talked to him on Wednesday. Here’s our interview, edited and somewhat summarized. Some Yiddish terms have added definitions in [square brackets].

I: You’ve said to me you grew up in a secular family. What drew you to Yiddish culture and klezmer as a genre?

J: Growing up, I Iargely lacked an identification with the Jewish community. My mother was a refugee from Nazi Germany, whose native language was German. My father had an Eastern European background. We had a little Jewish culture – we celebrated some hoidays, we sang some songs. If I heard any Hebrew, it would be in a German Ashkenazi pronunciation. My grandmother was a Zionist, so we had books about Israel in the house. And as a child of a refugee, we had a lot of stories about the Khurban [the Yiddish term for the Shoah or the Holocaust].

I: Could you give an example?

J: My mom remembers that my grandfather was a store manager. My grandmother was blond with blue eyes. Some Nazis bothered her while she was coming into the store with my mother, saying, “What is an Aryan like you doing going into a Jew store?” She grinned and said, “Smile to the nice man.” My grandmother was a strong woman.

I: Sounds like it!

J: Yes. Also, my generation saw a lot of Holocaust stuff on TV. Anyway, I didn’t have a bar mitzvah ceremony when I was thirteen, but I read a lot. I was a voracious reader – I would read whatever I could get my hands on.

I: How did you break into klezmer as a genre?

J: I grew up playing guitar. I eventually fell in with a group of “Jewbillies,” playing what I call “American ethnic music” – country, bluegrass, rockabilly – in bars. I was a working musician, working as a frontman for the rockabilly performer Sleepy LaBeef. But I was feeling limited by the music scene I was in. So I went back to school at the New England Conservatory, in what was then called the “Third Stream Department” and now the “Contemporary Improvization Department.” I studied under the great Hankus Netzky and Alan Bern. It was a great environment for me to begin exploring my own ethnomusical roots.

I: What drew you to the mandolin?

J: The guitar is not a traditional klezmer instrument at all. While I was at NEC I spent time working on using the guitar as accompaniment or as a solo instrument, but for playing lead I needed something else. I wasn’t about to pick up the fiddle or clarinet, and electric guitar was frowned on at the time. But I had some experience with the mandolin. I was influenced by Andy Statman, as well.

I: You’re a founding member of the Ger Mandolin Orchestra, a mandolin supergroup. Could you explain the concept of a mandolin orchestra?  

J: A mandolin orchestra is a group of instruments in the mandolin family, often accompanied by an accordion or percussionist to fill out the sound. The original Ger mandolin orchestra was an amateur pre-war group from Góra Kalwaria (Yiddish: Ger), Poland. After the Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment) secular Jewish cultural and educational groups like this grew. The mandolin was at the time like a recorder today – a not-too-expensive starter instrument. So it was a good one for amateur groups. The current Ger Mandolin Orchestra is named in their honor.

I: Any stories in your career that strongly affected your life path?

J: In 1985, I was one of four klezmer musicians who went to (what was then) the Soviet Union to meet with refuseniks [Jews denied the right to leave the USSR] and non-Jewish civil rights activists. We played music with them, and I was struck by how they were using music to promote human rights! We were interrogated by the KGB and were eventually forced to leave. So we used that notoriety to help get some of the refuseniks out. We met with Ted Kennedy, Alan Dershowitz, and other important officials from both sides of the Iron Curtain, and we helped some people escape. It was extremely formative to my Jewish identity, showing me what the People Israel really can be.

I: After years as a major figure in the Jewish folk community, you decided to go back to school. I met you while you were studying to become a cantor. What inspired this decision?

J: First of all, Deborah Strauss, my wife and musical partner, and I would do musical residencies around the world. It was fulfilling, but I sometimes felt like a “new kid on the block,” dropping in and leaving without ever making a home. I had also become more observant, and was looking for a way to keep Jewish traditions like not traveling on Shabbos which were difficult for a touring musician. But really the key was that I felt I needed to know nusach and cantillation [traditional melodies for prayer or reading] for a fuller understanding of klezmer. For years, I’ve been playing different types of music, trying to daven [Yiddish for “pray” or “have a spiritual experience”] through it, so I decided, “Why not learn how to use music specifically designed for davening?”

I: Finally, any advice for people considering going into music?

J: Hankus Netzky told me his teacher Ruth Rubin told him, “Don’t expect anyone to be interested in what you do, and don’t expect to make a living in it.” Having a disposable income is helpful, too.

I: Thank you!

J: It was great to talk with you!