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!


Seattle with Missiles

Let’s play an association game. What do you think of when you think of the state of Israel? If you’re like many Americans, you’ve thought of an impoverished, dangerous war zone. But ask a person who’s been to Tel Aviv or to Jerusalem and they’re likely to say they feel safer in Israel than they do in America! So let’s narrow this down and play another round. I’ll describe an area, you tell me what you’d expect there.

Imagine, if you will, a small impoverished desert city, barely half a mile from the Gaza Strip border, the direct target so many Qassam rockets (over 4,200) that its unofficial nickname is the Bomb Shelter Capital of the World, where over 70% of children show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder,  where you can’t sell your house and leave because nobody would buy it, a city that  other cities’ mayors use as an example of what they will not turn into. What do you suppose would be this city’s greatest contribution to the world? War reporting? CNN coverage? Michael Bay movies? Well, how about a music scene so vibrant and revolutionary it’s called the Seattle of Israel? Ḥaverim, may I welcome you to Sderot, home of the most unlikely rock hotspot on the planet.

The story of Sderot’s rock all started with a man named Ḥaïm Uliel, born to a poor Moroccan Jewish family in a tin shack in Sderot, founded as a refugee camp in 1951. Israel had, and still has, a serious problem regarding relations between (largely wealthy and successful) Ashkenazi Jews from Europe and (often poorer and discriminated-against) Mizraḥi and Maghrebi Jews from Arab countries. Pronunciation and language differences and a music industry controlled by Askenazim meant that Israeli music was dominated by Ashkenazi artists, Western bands, or Ashkenazi artists covering Western bands. But, like a high-schooler in a Twisted Sister video, Ḥaïm wanted to rock. In 1988, he founded a local Sderot band called Sfatayim (“Lips,”) which mainly got work at local Moroccan weddings. Uliel recalled in 2007, “Beatles, Led Zeppelin. I dreamed of being Jimi Hendrix. But I also understood that to make a living, I had to play at weddings, and that meant playing… songs in Moroccan.” So he combined the songs of his Moroccan heritage with the rock he loved, adding his own inspiration to create something new and never before seen.

The Israeli mainstream couldn’t make head of tail of Sfatayim. Labels weren’t interested in Arabic music, and radio DJs wouldn’t play it. But it caught on, surprisingly enough, on world music stations, played along with Cuban dance music and West African guitarists. In the words of Matt Rees, “Most of the first Sfatayim fans outside the Moroccan Jewish community were unaware that the Arabic hits ‘Lalla Isha’ and ‘Ahlan waSahlan’ were recorded by five guys who grew up forty minutes outside of Tel Aviv.” But their notoriety grew as they released gold album after gold album, until they were welcomed into the Israeli mainstream. Looking back, Uliel reminisced,

“As we matured, we became more socially aware. We started to understand what we had achieved. That we had won. Until Sfatayim, North African music wasn’t played on the radio in Israel. I feel we managed to save the culture of our parents and bring it from the margins into the mainstream.”

Sfatayim’s keyboardist Kobi Oz founded Teapacks, a “bizarre mélange” of rock, Mizraḥi music, and Chasidic klezmer that became so popular as to record the disturbingly schizophrenic klezmer-French-folk-metal-rap ode to nuclear annihilation “Push the Button”, the official Israeli entrant for Eurovision in 2007.

Altogether, this poor dusty desert town of Sderot begat a new kind of rock – Rock Mizraḥi (note – link in Hebrew). Combining Arabic folk music, Western rock, and a unique Israeli ethos, it was born and raised here, but, like the Liverpudlian skiffle that inspired the Beatles or the Seattle garage rock responsible for the ‘90s alternative renaissance, a seed of something wholly new was planted. The Seattle of Israel may have more missiles raining down than water, but, more than the Ashkenazi establishment’s talking points ever could, the seed of Rock Mizraḥi “made the desert bloom.”

Piccolos on the Shoulders of Contrabasses

One of my favorite stories about any composer goes like this. According to Carl Czerny, the pupil of the great Ludwig van Beethoven, a young composer named Anton Halm once brought a sonata he had written to Beethoven. Beethoven pointed out Halm’s sonata had a few violations of standard music theory rules in the Classical era. Halm retorted that Beethoven had violated those rules himself. To which Beethoven answered, “I may do it, but not you.”

Why do I love this story so much? I once had the same argument with my own father. While working on a chorale harmonization (as so many music students are forced to do over and over again), my father spotted some parallel fifths. I pointed out that composers from Handel to Tchaikovsky used parallel fifths for effect. He responded that “you have to know the rules before you can break them.”

Throughout the history of music, it seems the greatest groundbreakers in every case familiarized themselves with earlier work before creating something new. One of the founders of the Classical era, with its emphasis on simplicity and elegance, was Johann Christian Bach, the son of the greatest and most complex composer of the Baroque period. He studied with his father, mastering the Baroque form before solidifying the style galant that would lead to the Classical era. His sonatas were elegant and approachable enough that it is no wonder he was a great influence on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Ludwig van Beethoven studied under the Classical master Joseph Haydn, and the music of his early period is still in a very symmetrical Classical styleIt wasn’t until people already considered him the undisputed heir to Haydn and Mozart that he began experimenting. His Symphony no. 3 “Eroica” vastly increased the size of the development and coda for the first movement and using a mournful funeral march form for the second. Upon beginning its composition, Beethoven said to a friend, “From this day on I shall forge a new path.” After mastering the old classical form, his new path led to such groundbreaking late-period works as his Piano Sonata no. 32, abandoning sonata form altogether, and the almost post-tonal Große Fuge.

Arnold Schoenberg began as a late Romantic composer, studying under the famed Gustav Mahler, said to be the heir of Brahms’ legacy. But Schoenberg wasn’t satisfied with the Romantic era tonality, and began expanding his tonal system into what he called “pantonality” – ignoring the old restrictions of seven-tone keys and extending his music into dodecaphonic, or “twelve-tone,” territory. But for all the rules he broke, Schoenberg insisted that his music was not abandoning, but merely expanding the realm of tonality, describing himself as “a natural continuer of properly-understood good old tradition!”

Although the previous examples were from the “Western art music” tradition, we can find similarities in all genres. Today we think of the Beatles as technically and musically groundbreaking, and laugh at quotes like “Groups of guitars are on the way out” from Decca Records executives in 1962. But in the early 1960s, many critics saw them as another bland example of rock and roll, music they considered to be “a bottomless chasm of vacuity” and “nothing more than noise.” And for the first few Beatles albums, many of their songs were covers, from successful (like “Twist and Shout“) to not so much (like “Mr. Moonlight”). They didn’t start stretching the bounds of popular music until 1965, around when they began recording Revolver. They had to master the popular music of the late 50s and early 60s before they broke new ground and created the psychedelic sound of Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road.

The physicist Isaac Newton once wrote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” This is just as applicable in music as it is in physics. Without Bach to stand on the Classical era wouldn’t have formed, upon which Beethoven stood. Schoenberg stood on Mahler, who himself stood on the shoulders of the entire Late Romantic era. The Beatles stood on the shoulders of 50s pop. Piccolos on the shoulders of contrabasses may look small, but their sound goes far.