If you’re feeling nostalgic or simply want to tap into your roots, the East Valley JCC is holding a special event to celebrate the Jewish experience.

On Sunday, Jan. 13, the EVJCC will host its first Klezmer Music Festival, which will include  a “Yiddish Experience,” a“Kosher Jewish Food Experience,”children’s activities and, of course, musical performances.

“Yiddish has been a part of Jewish life for nearly 2,000 years and is still relevant today,” said Sandra Bernoff, coordinator of the Klezmer Music Festival’s Yiddish Experience. “The Yiddish Book Center in Massachusetts has done much to return Yiddish to its former prominence by translating many Yiddish masterpieces.”

Bernoff, who  runs a monthly Yiddish club at Temple Solel of Paradise Valley, said the Yiddish Book Center also offers classes for students interested in studying Yiddish. 

The Yiddish Experience will feature a variety of speakers discussing topics ranging from genealogical studies to poetry. Ancestry ProGenealogists Senior Research Manager Janette Silverman will lead two genealogy workshops. The author of “The Polski Trilogy” and “You Can’t Do Business (or Most Anything Else) Without Yiddish,” Leon Gildin, will lecture about the integration of Yiddish into contemporary English. 

“Attendees at our klezmer fest should expect to hear Yiddish phrases, enjoy various sessions on researching one’s Eastern European ancestry, listen to modern Yiddish poetry and classics, learn about Yiddish in America and absorb some Yiddish curses their bubbe may not have taught them,” Bernoff said.

But don’t forget about the music.

Klezmer is the traditional folk music of Eastern European Jewish communities. A klezmer band typically features instruments like the accordion, violin, clarinet, bass fiddle and mandolin.

Stu Seifer, a musician and past president of the Arizona Jewish Historical Society, said the unique musical genre evolved from Jewish wedding music in mid-19th-century Eastern Europe. As the popularity of klezmer grew, Seifer said, it intermingled with other local musical customs from Poland to Russia. Klezmer also migrated to the Middle East and Western Europe before eventually making its way to America. 

Sadly, much of the history of klezmer was lost during the Holocaust. But the late 1970s saw the beginnings of a klezmer revival. Even here in the Valley, the genre has a noticeable presence.

“Today, throughout Europe and the U.S., we are seeing a growing resurgence of interest by Jewish and non-Jewish audiences and performers for klezmer music,” Seifer said. “As a music that is both joyful and soulful, its appeal to a broad audience is understandable.”

The festival will feature performances by local klezmer bands such as the Rural Street Klezmer Band, Jerusafunk and  Chai Tones. Seifer, who coordinated the bands for the festival, performs on the saxophone with Rural Street. 

Seifer said that while most klezmer bands still play the classic, old-world tunes using traditional instruments, there has been a steady movement, especially since the 1990s, to modernize klezmer songs and instrumentation. 

“Now they’re bringing in elements of jazz, rock and funk and expanding the traditional instrumentation to include electric guitars, keyboards and saxophones,” Seifer said.

Jerusafunk, for example, mixes traditional klezmer music with American funk, jazz, salsa and samba. 

To get you into the klezmer mood before the festival, the EVJCC will screen the documentary “The Last Klezmer: Leopold Kozlowski, His Life and Music” on Jan. 10 at the Chandler Center for the Arts. 

Originally released in 1994, the film focuses on Holocaust survivor and klezmer music expert Kozlowski as he reminisces about his family and the survival of klezmer music. 

Interestingly, Kozlowski, now 100, made a cameo performance in the film “Schindler’s List.”

Yale Strom, who directed “The Last Klezmer,” is a leading expert on klezmer music. A violinist himself, Strom will perform in a special concert after the film’s screening. That same week, he will also perform for students in the Chandler Unified School District, as well as play with some music students from Chandler High School.

The Klezmer Music Festival is a kid-friendly family event that will have inflatables, face painting and a petting zoo. Kosher food will also be available for purchase. JN


For more information on “The Last Klezmer” and the Klezmer Music Festival or to purchase tickets, visit evjcc.org/klezmerfest.

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