To Play Jewish Again: Roots, Counterculture, and the Klezmer Revival

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Virginia Tech

Klezmer, a type of Eastern European Jewish secular music brought to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, originally functioned as accompaniment to Jewish wedding ritual celebrations. In the late 1970s, a group of primarily Jewish musicians sought inspiration for a renewal of this early 20th century American klezmer by mining 78 rpm records for influence, and also by seeking out living klezmer musicians as mentors.

Why did a group of Jewish musicians in the 1970s through 1990s want to connect with artists and recordings from the early 20th century in order to "revive" this music? What did the music "do" for them and how did it contribute to their senses of both individual and collective identity? How did these musicians perceive the relationship between klezmer, Jewish culture, and Jewish religion? Finally, how was the genesis for the klezmer revival related to the social and cultural climate of its time? I argue that Jewish folk musicians revived klezmer music in the 1970s as a manifestation of both an existential search for authenticity, carrying over from the 1960s counterculture, and a manifestation of a 1970s trend toward ethnic cultural revival. I implicitly argue that both waves of klezmer popularity in America are reflections of the long project of Jews negotiating identities as both American and Jewish—the attempt to fit in from the margins while maintaining or being ascribed certain ethnic differences—in the United States throughout the 20th century.

Identity, Klezmer, Jewish, 20th Century, Folk Revival