Klezmer: Music and Community in Twentieth-Century Jewish Philadelphia. Hankus Netsky. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 2015.

Reviewed by Phil Alexander

Musician and educator Hankus Netsky’s long relationship to klezmer music began in 1974, when, as a New England Conservatory undergraduate student, he braved “an assortment of attitudes ranging from enthusiasm to disbelief” (2) to begin an investigation into his own family’s klezmer history. Returning to his research twenty years later, and now at the head of a resurgence in full swing, Netsky found that Philadelphia was one of the few places that still had enough veterans willing to share their experiences. This book, built around the lively and honest voices of around 60 musicians, caterers, and descendants of musical families, represents the fruits of that work.

Klezmer scholarship thus far has largely focused on historical Eastern Europe, (Walter Zev Feldman), on the cosmopolitan scene of early twentieth-century New York (Joel Rubin), or on the varied routes that the klezmer revival has spawned (Mark Slobin, Magdalena Waligórska, Phil Alexander). Therefore, this book fills an important gap, offering both a deep understanding of local musical practice and a filter through which to understand “the entire Jewish immigrant experience” (3). There is, of course, a paradox here: how far can geographical specificity be simultaneously representative of the processes and transformations of large-scale migration? As a result, the most enlightening parts of this excellent and very readable book are those that focus on the rich—and occasionally anachronistic—particularities of Philadelphian Jewish musical experience.

From klezmer as a marker of old world difference, through post-war ethnic “gloss,” to the contemporary transnational revival, Netsky grounds his analysis throughout in the tension between immigrant musical identity and the desire to become American. The music is thus inextricably tied to the changing meanings of being Jewish in America, articulating useable and dynamic symbols of both difference and acculturation. As the book makes clear, this is a process that has transformed over time, and risks becoming the victim of its own successful assimilation: while klezmer is now an established musical genre across many parts of the world, the music’s modern incarnation has little to do with klezmer as a living tradition of early twentieth-century America, or Eastern Europe before that. Instead, the author argues ruefully, it has become “a symbol, a tease, a keepsake that pays a small deference to a lost world and then takes its place in a contemporary musical culture that has no use for its historical context” (16).

In the early twentieth century, Philadelphia was the country’s third largest Jewish community behind New York and Chicago, and Jews made up the city’s largest immigrant group. Early affairs were often very informal, closely linked to old country regional ties, with no contract and the fee paid as tips thrown into an open fiddle case. Musicians crossed freely between Jewish, Ukrainian, Gypsy and Greek events, and youngsters would sit in as poorly-paid apprentices. Netsky has an attentive ear for the discourses that surrounded these larger-than-life figures—whose nicknames (“Old Man Finklestein”, “Grossman the Shiker”), on- and offstage exploits, and klezmerloshn (argot) fluency remind us that this was a musical world in transition, where klezmorim’s “otherness” (42) increasingly contrasted with upward musical mobility into symphony, radio and theatre orchestras, and big bands.

The post-war years saw the arrival of increasing numbers of “ringers” on the bandstand: younger musicians who would probably rather be playing bebop but found work in the Jewish bands because they could handle American swing and Latin styles unfamiliar to the older players. In a shift by no means unique to Philadelphia, Netsky chronicles the contracting of wider pre-war klezmer repertoire into little more than a small collection of freylekhs and bulgars, matched by the arrival of Palestinian (later Israeli) tunes, Irish reels, Latin dance hits and well-known Yiddish popular songs. It is also revealing that the “profound conservatism” (56) of Philadelphia’s scene meant that klezmer’s more experimental developments—and ubiquitous New York tunebooks—remained largely irrelevant.

Despite the diminishing status during this latter period of the kind of recognizably ‘ethnic’ material that often attracts ethnomusicologists, Netsky avoids any implicit appraisal of these developments as somehow inauthentic (a common revivalist dogma), and instead treats them as equally worthy of scholarly attention. At the same time, it is hard not to share the regret of community figures like caterer Bernie Uhr that musicians no longer know the bride’s grandfather’s favorite freylekhs, or be saddened by some of the older musicians’ self-perceptions as increasingly irrelevant to contemporary Jewish celebration. As if in response, the book brings us up to date with the klezmer revival in Philadelphia, where events such as the 6th Annual InterGalactic Jewish Music Festival show just how far things have moved on, but also fallen more in line with the internationalized, anything-goes, ethos of a certain part of revival ideology.

Chapter 5 follows the evolution of Philadelphia’s Russian sher medley as it travels from functional centrality to nostalgic periphery—but also ultimately revival. Netsky illustrates in close musical detail how this particularly local dance and music transformed across the course of its existence in twentieth-century Philadelphia, bridging the immigrant world that was its source while at the same time recalibrating and adapting its parameters to better reflect changing musical and cultural concerns. The argument that one can hear a “compressed soundscape” (135) spanning the entire process of immigration and acculturation through one complex and extended piece of ritual music, largely specific to a particular city, is a beguiling one and Netsky makes a compelling case, although perhaps fewer transcriptions would make it easier to navigate, with others included in an online Appendix designed specifically for the klezmer scholars and musicians who are likely to get most from this detail.

A short Epilogue recounts Netsky’s re-enactment of a 1940s Philadelphia wedding at the residential Yiddish musical culture festival Klezkamp in 2000. While the self-conscious kitsch of this mock ceremony makes some revivalists uncomfortable, the Epilogue also reveals the author’s true—and truly laudable—intent: to celebrate the American klezmer that took place away from stars such as Brandwein and Tarras, the Yiddish entertainment a little less glossy than the Barry Sisters, the musical material that would never match the hipness of cutting-edge revival and its flirtation with the NY downtown scene. To strip away all of this, Netsky suggests, leaves music that is “devoid of any marketing ploy or egocentric spin” (142). And while we might question whether any music operating within a socio-economic framework (as klezmer always has) can ever realistically claim such uncontaminated aspirations, the book eloquently demonstrates the value that a serious consideration of this part of Jewish American history brings to both ethnomusicology and Jewish Studies.

Phil Alexander, Reid School of Music, University of Edinburgh