JLife’s Elaine Bermitz reveals just how deep Jewish musical tradition runs through the veins of popular music with her review of Manchester Limmud’s online event, From Blues to Klezmer.
Now in its 40th year, Limmud has morphed from a small conference for Jewish educators sharing the fundamentals of Judaism with the wider community, to a global organisation with 40,000 participants, volunteers and presenters. Manchester Limmud punches well above its weight within the organisation, having held its own Day Limmud in February for many years, and in recent times building a reputation for high quality online events which attract global audiences.
In a recent online event, three musicians gave us an insight into the way the Jewish journey has influenced popular music and the lives of artists across the globe. Dave Cutler illustrated how when jazz musicians and Jewish immigrants lived in the slums of New York, their cantorial chants became woven into jazz tunes as the musicians and their cultures intertwined.
Who knew that Louis Armstrong wore a Star of David all his life because he was fed everyday by a Mrs Karnofsky, a Jewish immigrant baker? Or that his lyrics were influenced by the lullabies she sang him when his mother was out at work. Or that George Gershwin, that most American of Jewish composers, wrote Porgy and Bess originally for the Yiddish theatre. Theo Travis’s contribution was to tell the personal story of his journey from synagogue choirboy to professional musical performer and composer, having played with some of the UK’s greatest musicians – including Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour and King Crimson’s Robert Fripp – leading him to become a member of the progressive rock group Soft Machine Legacy.
His descriptions of the many of skills required to run a band, ranging from driving, banking, organising, printing, promoting, being a therapist, as well as performing, were a revelation to the uninitiated. It will make it impossible to listen to any band without wondering how much sheer graft has gone into putting on a concert. Having a family and being a regular attender of shul merely adds to the load.
The final presentation by Richard Fay and Daniel Mawson took one Yiddish tune, A Nacht in Gan Eden (A Night in the Garden of Eden) and showed how many ways and in how many places it was played by klezmer bands and those influenced by Jewish music throughout Eastern Europe to the US, where different instruments gave the same song a completely different inflection. Indeed they showed that the original composer was in no way interested in klezmer tunes while he lived in the Old World, but when he arrived in the US, the traditional sounds connected him to the home he had given up.
When the three of them answered questions put to them by Judy Trotter, head of adult learning at London Jewish culture venue JW3, their love of the subject really came alive, inspiring the audience with their enthusiasm. Manchester Limmud has put on five online events since March 2020, and Rebecca Lewis of the Manchester committee thinks it is high time the society returned to face-to-face occasions: “The speakers have been wonderful, and we have gained a lot from using Zoom and Facebook, but the social aspect is half of any event. People are telling me now that they are really ready to meet up again.”
That bodes very well for 2022, as we all look forward to greeting old faces in person once more at the annual Day Limmud festival.